The “It’sME” Process
The worldwide discontent among ordinary people has serious implications for countries and regimes that are authoritarian. Power is maintained partly by agreement of those over whom it is exercised. That agreement may be obtained by coercion or by the threat of punishment for disobeying. Democratic systems understand this, if not always brilliantly. Totalitarian systems on the whole do not, although in more recent years they have increasingly seen the consequences of ignoring the power of individuals en masse.
Good leadership is the ability to get people to follow without fear of punishment for not doing so.
When people riot they can overthrow even the best military regime. That is why totalitarian governments stamp on the first signs of insurrection – as in Tiananmen Square. If you are ‘boss by gun’ your power is dependent on the gunpowder store. Once that is exhausted you fail. For a despot, only iron control works. For a democrat, relationships are the source of control. Those relationships can be coercive, of course. They determine who obeys who, for how long and on what matters. Generally they debate.
Notice how the despots are getting more desperate? And so are the democrats. Both see ‘people power’ expanding relentlessly through the extraordinary rise of easy communications. Who would have thought that Facebook could become a WMD? Or that the internet and surveillance camera would start to take over the jobs of spooks? Unfortunately, the rise of these phenomena does not stop at social media. Those seeking a greater voice won’t cease until they are heard. We see this graphically in Hong Kong today because the forces of democracy and totalitarianism meet there – and clash.
The end of that stand-off seems already determined. Where there are less well-defined antagonists the process may be more peaceful and slower. That does not mean that it will not end as physical confrontation, quite the contrary. Clear-cut issues often bring swift and conclusive battles. Less well-defined disagreements usually take longer. The protracted independence of Ukraine may be an example. Due to American ineptitude that may be driving into the arms of Russia. The inconclusive indecision of Poland another. There are many other examples.
In western democratic countries the divide is seen as rich vs. poor. It is seldom as simple as that, which is not to say that raising the standards of the destitute is not a good idea. Doing so has been effective in both India and China, creating massive middle classes – figures that were laughed at when I suggested them in 1981. And yet, raising people’s standards of living seems to make them more demanding not more satisfied – and certainly not more docile. There is, perhaps, an exception to this.
The British cannot be said to be content but their attitude to Brexit suggests that economic prosperity is not top of mind. Identity is obviously a major factor in the vote to separate from the Continent. They want to be British. Or do they? Scotland wants a separate identity, so does Wales. Ireland has two identities and may, I suspect, want to make that a single one before too long. The problem is that everyone wants the best of both worlds.
And here’s the madness of the whole “It’sME” process. Every little hamlet, every urban street, every dark alley can have its own identity. Nobody is stopping them. The more colourfully they identify themselves the better. The greater the pride they take in their own peculiarities, the more visitors they will get and the longer will be their television time slots. If they produce the biggest onion or durian in the world, the world will acknowledge their achievement.
They will, of course, need to realise that their negotiating position with their neighbouring constituencies will be small – unless they cooperate, seek common objectives and combine their bargaining talents to make use of the best. So the small units will cooperate with the bigger units, the bigger units with the even bigger units and the giants with the WTO, even the EU.
Let’s hope it isn’t going to take a series of Hong Kong confrontations to make us realise the sense of working together.