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Algorithm, Argument and Promiscuity

Winter 2013 Features

Algorithm, Argument and Promiscuity

Algorithm, Argument and PromiscuityWhat East can teach West, and vice versa, as ‘voyeur’ states take notes

Who, as between Reagan and Gorbachev, won the Cold War? Answer: Deng Xiaoping. The various ‘pivots’ currently being effectuated by serious countries on all continents testify to this victory. All of these pivots are, to be sure, China-driven, even if some pivots are more Chinese than others.

Australia’s Asia pivot, articulated in the recent white paper of the Julia Gillard government, is arguably the most comprehensive and serious. Canberra at least says that it is going where no other more capacious federation – Canada, the US, Germany or Brazil – is constitutionally able or politically willing to go: deep into the bowels of the country’s educational systems – run by the states, not the national government – in order to prepare an ‘Asia-literate’ society, across the sectors, including through the study of priority Asian languages (a vision first advanced by future Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his 1994 report to the Council of Australian Governments). But then again, Australia’s game is Asia or bust: its strategic footprint is nugatory on every other continent. And, of course, whether Gillard and future prime ministers can really make the descendants of British ‘convict’ stock more ‘Asian,’ whatever the muscularity of the pivot, is very much in dispute.

North America’s and Europe’s geopolitical games are manifestly more global than those of Australia. Partly as a result, but also because Asia still figures little in the national imaginaries of North American and European states, their pro-Asian pivots have thus far been only partial and unenthusiastic. As for Africa and Latin America, their pivots are largely unrequited – that is, they are effectively ‘pre-empted,’ as it were, by general Asian strategic disinterest in, or ignorance about, these theatres. (Beijing is a notoriously notable exception.) In other words, imagined tyranny of distance oblige, strategists in key capitals in Asia will concede, sotto voce, that they still do not have a firm strategic impression of Africa and Latin America, and of what’s to be done with and to them.

The pivots of the post-Soviet space are highly eclectic. Countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan are all carefully studying Asian countries, starting with the likes of Singapore, for lessons in ‘governance’ – to wit, how to reconcile reasonably competent, quasi-authoritarian government with strong economic performance. Each of these states is struggling to recast its national ‘mental map’ such that Asia, for all intents and purposes, becomes a ‘third way’ between a moralizing Europe and an irredentist Russia (with both Europe and Russia also systemically suspect).

In the weak states of the Arab Spring, the pivot from West Asia to East Asia is highly embryonic and as yet indecisive. Like the post-Soviet states, they are in many cases still trying to ‘choose’ their alignment or intellectual affinities, with varying degrees of competence and clear-headedness from country to country.

Of course, the rise or, better still, return of China, and with it, some parts of Asia, may still end in tears. China is huge – territorially and demographically – and there is no one in the leadership classes in Beijing who could possibly have a ‘synoptic vision’ that captures the country’s myriad complexities and vulnerabilities. No surprise, then, that China’s communist cadres are today, in the context of the coming to power of Xi Jinping, required to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856). And so humility, not hagiography, is the order of the day in evaluating the undeniable lessons of the recent performance of the Middle Kingdom.

But what’s to learn, in effect? What does the rising East have to teach today’s West? What about vice versa? And which lessons from East and West should be applied by ‘voyeur’ states in the developing or transitional world, from Africa to the former Soviet Union and the post-Arab Spring Middle East? The rise of Deng’s China through to that of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore would seem to suggest that the East has at least to date done its homework on the West: its leaders have mastered the West’s languages, studied en masse in its best universities, and reverse-engineered its products and systems, in countless cases improving on them. But what about the reverse: has the West yet begun to take lessons from the East? Is today’s Western mind sufficiently open and strategically promiscuous to do so, or is it more dogmatic and dated than it may realize in presuming the superiority of its ways, if not the very incommensurability of its civilization with others? If the Western mind is open, might this lead to new sets of agreed wisdoms on how best to govern – ones befitting a more complex century? And will these new sets of agreed wisdoms play themselves out first and foremost in the aforementioned ‘voyeur’ space?

First, definitions. What is the East? In the only relevant sense, we speak here of that part of Asia that is ‘ramified’ by China’s boom, which is by far the single most important causal factor or driving force in Asia’s strategic rise (or return). In this sense, the elegant Tel Aviv to Tokyo paradigm favoured by Kishore Mahbubani is overinclusive. Even the inclusion of South Asia in the relevant ‘Asia,’ for purposes of policy pedagogy, should be contested. India, for instance, is not as tied to Chinese strategic and economic growth as some may fancy. Rather, it is New Delhi’s performance or non-performance – still very much an open question – that will overwhelmingly determine India’s future, and not the China factor. By contrast, Northeast Asia and, even more so, Southeast Asia, are far more ramified – strategically, economically, in governance terms, and even ‘spiritually’ – by the performance of the Middle Kingdom. This means that the character and quality of Chinese governance – and with it the fate of this century’s China – will in large measure dictate the fates of the various states of these sub-regions. If China rises, so will much, although not all, of these sub-regions. If China falls or, say, becomes unstable or destabilizing, then the vast majority of the states of these sub-regions will fail. It is difficult to foresee, on perhaps an extreme example, a city-state like Singapore, for all of its military preparations and investments, surviving strategically should it be embroiled in a serious war that pits its alliances against today’s or tomorrow’s China. And over the course of a century-long rise or return for China, such a major war, involving major countries, can evidently not be ruled out.

The composition of the ‘core’ West is far less controversial. It includes North America, the EU, Australia and New Zealand. (We may throw Israel into this category, for good measure – although a determination on its inclusion or exclusion is not imperative for purposes of our analysis here.) The primary lesson for today’s ‘core’ West from the new East pertains to political and strategic legitimacy. Evidently, the legitimacy of the governments and legislatures of the advanced states of the West comes from electoral competition (‘narrow’ democracy) and, perhaps more importantly, the ability of other constituencies and ‘estates’ in society, from political oppositions to media, lobbies, intellectuals and lay citizens alike to input into and, where necessary, resist and even outright protest governing regimes, laws and decisions on the strength of robust constitutional structures, democratic institutions and, to be sure, deep democratic norms, customs and values (‘thick democracy’).

However, if we agree that China is currently ‘winning’ the post-Cold War – that is, that China-driven performance, at least on the economic front, if not the broader strategic front, is excelling that of the West, which between the EU’s and the US’s considerable fiscal and monetary woes currently appears systemically non-vital – then we must allow that strong administrative performance and practical (real) social welfare outcomes, as in contemporary China, also provide a serious source of legitimacy for government, even if the democratic underpinnings of such government are manifestly deficient. In other words, it is not just the ‘process’ of government that matters for its legitimation, as per classical democratic models, but the very ‘outcomes’ of government as well. In this sense, the rise of China and China-dependent Asia puts paid to specifically North American and Anglospheric debates about whether ‘government matters.’ It shows ‘voyeur’ states, from Africa to the former Soviet Union, that government clearly does matter. And competent government – democratic or less democratic – matters even more. Generally ‘good’ (Eastern) government, as in Singapore or, yes, even China, matters to the outcomes of that state, just as mediocre (Eastern) government, as in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, matters to the less impressive socioeconomic outcomes of those states.

The results-based legitimacy or social contract underpinning ‘Asian’ government is today supplemented by several other related legitimating factors that also commend themselves as corresponding weaknesses, in virtue of their growing absence, in the core West. These legitimating factors include the national capacity and temperament to strategize and plan (and to iterate and see and wait out the results of such plans, accept partial wins, and not be overly exercised by the insolubility of certain problems), specialization and expertise (technical professionalism) at the highest levels of government (and compensation and high societal regard for such expertise), and, signally, a pioneering, building spirit; that is, at their best, many Asians today – old, but especially young – understand full well that their states, societies and individual and collective futures are actively being built and have yet to be built, and that the fact, quality and durability of the building project very much depends on their agency as Asians.

Of course, such ‘Eastern’ governance has its share of important vulnerabilities – vulnerabilities that also threaten its longer-term legitimacy, and therefore the stability of a number of Asian governments and states. First and foremost, the same administrative and decision-making structures – in many cases, algorithms – that allow for long-term planning and strong, results-based delivery of plans have notoriously poor feedback mechanisms that prevent key information from influencing such decision-making. This means that correctives to mistakes – mistakes of which, by implication, state planners and strategists may be variously cognizant – are often inadequate or altogether missing, and that, over the long-term, erroneous fundamental suppositions about what is ‘right’ in given policy situations may lead not just to sub-optimal or unacceptable outcomes, but indeed to the very collapse of the entire governing system.

The infamous Soviet ‘power vertical’ that, due to poor feedback mechanisms from the ground levels to the Kremlin, eventually led to Moscow (never run by foolish men) not being completely aware of the impending breakdown of the entire Soviet system of 15 republics and nearly 300 million citizens (from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok), is today still very much alive in unitary Asian states like China and Vietnam (not to mention North Korea or even a hyper-unitary, although quasi-democratic state like Singapore). Even if China is by far the most serious Asian country in strategic terms, with perhaps the most talented national administrative class, both it and Vietnam, much like the former USSR, undertake rolling five- and 10-year plans that are today largely foreign to the democratic systems of the West. The power verticals from, respectively, Beijing and Hanoi, allow each country to drive a large number of national goals – economic, educational, environmental and other – through their national administrative systems effectively by centralized diktat or promulgation. Strategy and plans are punctiliously developed at the executive centre and driven out and down from this centre, fastidiously, to become on-the-ground realities. To be sure, provincial and regional authorities do feed into the national plans made at the centre, and they clearly must and do adapt and tailor these plans when implementing them locally. But there is good reason to be skeptical about the efficacy of such ‘feed-in’ or feedback – structurally and culturally – into the central decision-making loci of these systems. That “the Emperor is far away,” as the Chinese are wont to say about Beijing, means that even the best central planners in large Asian countries cannot entirely assimilate the highly variegated and particular realities of their citizens in the context of a constitutional tradition that demands such extreme discipline and deference to the centre, and in which there is no sustained record of, and few institutional channels for, individual extroversion and expression that may ‘bend’ the best laid plans of the capital to the messy conditions of Asian ‘mice and men.’ As such, we might posit that to the extent that such feed-in and feedback is systemically compromised, there is every danger, over the long-run, that these systems of governance will destabilize because of poor or improper decision-making.

We might loosely call the technical efficacy and professionalism of governing in today’s China and China-dependent Asia ‘rule by algorithm.’ Serious technocrats or planners – in principle, the smartest men and women in the land – establish and iterate rules and frameworks – algorithms, as it were – to address a very large spectrum of state and societal problems through various combinations of state and societal instruments and capabilities. If an identified problem morphs or is not properly solved, then the algorithm is changed; indeed, the algorithm may be changed on an ongoing basis – if only to perfect it. And indeed, these algorithms set the rules of the game for state and society, and all social behaviour is essentially subsumed thereto – often unquestioningly, both by culture (including through self-deterrence) and because the rules themselves so demand.

In the West, the ‘rule of reason’ (or ‘rule of argument’) prevails. The inflexibility of the algorithmic approach in the East is mitigated not just by the reactivity of government and planners to electoral pressures, but by the existence, protection and even encouragement of ‘estates’ of argument and challenge in most layers and quarters of society. (An abiding culture of debate and contestation of ideas, and far greater parity of education between the governors and the governed, clearly abet the protection and promotion of these estates.) This ‘argument’ feeds contrary and, in many cases, corrective impulses into state decision-making structures – from the ground level and the peripheries to the centre – in ways that are essentially alien to Eastern algorithmic paradigms. These corrective impulses may be said to have a long-term stabilizing effect on the governance of Western states, causing them generally to avoid extreme or dramatic mistakes in governance – or to avoid allowing these mistakes to go undetected or unaddressed for too long – just as they may, to be fair, also lead to far greater stasis and internal incoherence in governance than one might find in the most competent of Asia’s algorithmic states. These corrective impulses also arguably immunize today’s Western states, to a large extent, from the need for continuous ‘excellent’ governance or leadership – just as they may make these states generally resistant to sweeping reforms, even in the service of great public problems.

Just as the Eastern rule by algorithm commends itself to numerous strengths or atouts that may be attractive to ‘voyeur’ states, so too, in other ways, does the West’s rule of reason or argument. For instance, federalism, a style of governance practiced and celebrated mostly in advanced Western states, from Canada and the US, to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium (dysfunctional though it may be), Austria and Australia, has, by design, a notorious blunting effect on centralized power – one that, at its best, allows putative local realities to be addressed by local levels of government, just as there is continuous, constitutionalized ‘argument’ between local and central governments about jurisdiction and policy responsibility. Only Malaysia has a federal system in the East, as we have defined it. And, of course, India (or even Pakistan or Nepal), not strictly in this same China-dependent East, also has a federal system. But the key insight – one posited by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, through to John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, and even Henry Parkes – is that the federal system of governance, as opposed to unitary governance, exists specifically in order to allow for more or less autonomous regional or local public authorities to determine their own specific plans and fates in relation to those realities that are ‘reasonably’ deemed regional or local. The planning capabilities or sweep of national authorities in the federal system is therefore naturally limited or mitigated, and is primary or exclusive only in ‘reasonably’ designated areas of national life and policy. The ‘feedback’ mechanism so absent in Eastern algorithmic systems comes from the inherent or built-in legal and policy intersections of the activities of national and regional authorities. And, of course, the highly protected courts in federal systems supplement this feedback-by-argument through a continuous and evolving jurisprudence that clarifies the constitutional division of powers between levels of government, as the world turns and changes.

Another manifestation of the ‘rule of reason’ in the West that is largely absent from today’s East is the existence of very robust – indeed, nearly absolute – constitutional and cultural bulwarks of protection for individual life – not just protection of rights, but life itself. In most countries of the East, individual life is, as a rule, in the public space, still treated as an instrumentality in the service of the preferred Asian freedom – not freedom from governmental repression, but rather freedom from chaos. (The Singaporeans and Malaysians might refer to the corresponding fear of chaos and death, in the Hokkien idiom, as kiasi, in response to which sometimes extreme or radical private or public measures may need to be taken.) An individual life, or short of that, what Westerners view as fundamental rights, may, on this logic, need to be compromised or traded in the service of the more important general protection and freedom from chaos. This may lead to swifter and less compunctious resort to peremptory punishment (like the death penalty) for what might, in the rule-of-reason countries of the West, be considered micro-torts (including some drug offences); or to draconian emergency laws and prerogatives in response to perceived threats of a political ilk (including terrorism).

True enough, states in the West do occasionally and readily resort to draconian measures – including through emergency laws or extreme uses of executive or political prerogatives – when threatened internally or externally. In such cases, the individual life may also, even if on a time-limited basis, be treated instrumentally – or have instrumental or contingent, rather than absolute, value – by Western governments. Nevertheless, the spirit of governing in today’s West, in which great war has not been seen in nearly 70 years – and where, contra today’s East, as Kishore Mahbubani has argued, there is also no obvious prospect of great war – and in which there is a sustained tradition of rights activism in all branches of government, still commends itself to the view that such cases and periods are exceptional rather than instinctual.

By extension, majority-minority relations in today’s ‘reasonable’ West are in many cases characterized by ethnic, linguistic or religious majorities that are culturally and, through legal strictures, more porous than Eastern majorities. This cultural-legal porousness of the majority is more apposite, for our purposes, than only legal protection of minorities, which has been in place for many decades now in the West, and is also extant in many Eastern states. A black man (or woman) may today become President of the US, a French-Canadian Prime Minister of Canada, a child of Hungarian immigrants President of France, and a Jew (potentially) Prime Minister of the UK (for the second time). In the more advanced cases, as in Canada or even New Zealand, this majority-group porousness has evolved from express political-constitutional resuscitation of minority groups that were, for all practical intents and purposes, the ‘losing’ parties in historical battles (in the event, French Canadians and, more controversially, the Maori), into effective co-equals in the governance of these countries. By contrast, the power balance – or ‘argument’ – between majorities and minorities in Eastern states is today still conditioned by an ‘iron cage’ in which the rules of the game and one’s vocation and telos are largely set – but for some heroic exceptions – by membership in a state’s majority or minority. We are therefore quite far removed from the prospect of an ethic Chinese or Indian head of government in Indonesia or in Bumiputra-majority Malaysia, even if the prospect of a Tamil or Malay prime minister in Chinese-majority Singapore is slightly more conceivable in our lifetime. Of course, in the ‘thick’ majority Eastern societies of China, Vietnam or Thailand, there is absolutely no prospect of minority penetration into executive political power. And, to be sure, the algorithmic logic of Eastern governance would view this state of affairs as perfectly natural and otherwise consistent with the preservation of a stable social order.

What lessons, in closing, for the so-called voyeur states and regions of our world? Will they be able to combine, promiscuity oblige, the best of East and West – that is, the best of algorithms and argument – in such a way as to engineer the new ‘sweet spots’ of governance for this century? Does the former Soviet space, for instance, need better algorithms or more argument? Answer: for now, both; over time, perhaps one more than the other. The same goes for the post-Arab Spring Middle East and much of Africa. Many of Latin America’s states may need more algorithm than argument – again, for now. And still, we generalize, of necessity. But we can say with some certainty that the increasing complexity of the world and the inherent instability of these voyeur regions and their respective states will not permit of a purely or paradigmatically Eastern or Western idiom in their governance. Their approaches will necessarily be hybridic, always seeking to stabilize and improve at the margins, just as today’s East and West may themselves before long be seeking to improve at the margins – more reason for the former, more algorithms for the latter – always in the general paranoia that these attempted improvements could destabilize the very edifices they purport to reform.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Harry Campbell)

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