I went to bed early on Wednesday night, only to wake up to a full screen of notifications from the New York Times, and pictures of horned men storming the US Capitol.
On the edge of the world in Johannesburg, I’m struck by the fact that these events took place in the same week as the mass arrest of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong. On African Twitter, some are comparing the events in the U.S. and Hong Kong as different ‘models of governance.’ I’m struck by how different they are and exactly how impossible the ‘models’ conversation has become.
On the American side, the violence is only the latest reminder that Western democracy is facing a crisis of radical right-wing insurgency. This isn’t only true for the United States. The last decade has seen a rightwards creep across Europe, and in Australia. It’s not only the rise of right-wing parties at the polls. Rather it’s that institutions like the police have proven as vulnerable to infiltration and hijacking as party politics. The current spectacle of Republican officials like Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell calling for affirming the election results shouldn’t make us forget that they were supporting attempts to overturn those same results until a few days ago.
The issue here isn’t that there are a few bad apples spoiling the Western democratic barrel. It’s the fundamental fact that Western democracy evolved from the supremacy of white, land-owning men, and was only widened to include women, people of color, the working class, and LGBTQ+ folks through successive and ongoing struggles. In presenting Western democracy as a model to the global south, Western powers have never been able to resolve the reality that no matter how inclusive the system has become, its roots lie in white supremacy domestically and colonialism transnationally. The harder the system tries to repress that reality, the harder it pops back up.
One of the lasting effects of the Trump era has been that the rest of the world can’t trust the word of key Western governments because they have proven to be so infiltrated and so incoherent. At the same time, Western power is showing up around the world as self-interested (and relatively unregulated) players like social media corporations, Eurobond lenders, and so forth. The overall result is the diffusion of Western power across numerous actors, all speaking from both sides of their mouths. It’s easy to find Western leaders and institutions of all stripes pledging support to democracy, sustainability, inclusion. Finding Western spaces actually ruled by these values is more challenging because they have been proven to be always under siege from within.
In comparison, the mass arrests in Hong Kong, the Ant IPO crisis, and other indicators reveal the opposite trend on the Chinese side – a state only more centralized, more implacable, more dedicated to reversing the diffusion of Chinese power from multiple actors and perspectives to a central core. The message of (again) sustainability and inclusion doesn’t necessarily ring truer in the global south because it is sung in unison by a massive choir. Rather, the more unified this choir becomes, the more it raises the question of what it took to get it so.
The reason why I think the messy comparison between the events in Washington and Hong Kong is useful is exactly because it allows no easy choices. It presents a stark contrast between two ways of being a superpower, with no comforting conclusion for those in the global south looking for ‘models.’
The natural conclusion is that the rest of us in the world may want to rethink the very concept of superpowerdom. But that’s the point of both Western and Chinese power – the rest of us don’t get to choose.
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