Transatlantic relations

Why other people’s autocrat is still your problem

Why are people so worked up at the thought of democracy export – but oddly quiet about the Russian and Chinese autocracy export? Why are they hoping that the plague will not affect them personally?

China’s handling of the early phase of the pandemic – the obfuscation, the denial, attacking doctors who dared to raise the alarm – has just been the latest reminder that autocracies are a danger outside of their borders.

And it doesn’t take a central order to cover up the new virus. In an autocracy, it is not the exception but the rule that officials would be afraid to deliver bad news to their higher ups. And on every level of the bullying chain they would try to clamp down on reality by clamping down on people.

Making up shit that benefits the ruler and insisting on it with the force of the state behind him is the essence of oppression. And you may shrug off the victims within its borders, but an autocrats’ lies have ramifications to the outside world.

The same thing happened during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster when Moscow insisted that there was no radiation. It would never have alerted the world, had the world not alerted itself. To this day no one really knows the extent of the damage so the cover-up worked.

Autocracies are sick, habitual liars – domestically and internationally. If that was the only problem, it would be easy to solve: just don’t deal with them and you can avoid the worst of of it. (Apart from the radioactive cloud, the pandemic or the ballistic missiles which they can still fire at you to get your attention.)

Autocracies are parasitic entities that need to use others.

The problem is that autocracies want to play with you. They want to fuck with non-autocracies. And since they are fundamentally parasitical entities, they need non-autocracies to gain resources an autocracy cannot create.

Autocracies need to use non-autocracies, even if your pure, free land doesn’t wish to be used.

The argument to do something about the export of autocracy is not a moral one. 

In the purest sense of the world, we can only talk about moral with regards to individuals. ‘Moral’ means that both the choice and the consequence stays with the same individual. (It is not always possible, but that is not an excuse for not striving towards it. It is definitely not an excuse to start running into the immoral direction.)

The concept of morality may not even apply to collective entities – only in a forced, inaccurate, symbolic sense that only collectivists think they understand. Collective morality should have no place in practical thinking, alongside collective guilt, collective fault, collective sin and collective duty. Yet, we cant stop applying morality on collective entities, partly because were were conditioned to do so by our language, saying things like a country does things or the people think something. Collective entities don’t think and don’t act.

The argument that something must be done about other people’s autocrats is not a moral one, but that of a necessity.

It is inevitable. If you don’t do something about them, they don’t just blow pandemics and mushroom clouds in your direction – they will never leave you alone.

There is a fundamental asymmetry between the nature of autocracy and that of a free society.

It is not one kind of values versus another. It is values versus no values. Morality versus amorality.

You are expecting to play chess and the autocrat comes in and knocks you out with a punch. Who is to say that it was not meant to be a fist fight to begin with? The autocrat is the only one standing to tell the tale of how he won the fist fight. So it was a fist fight, after all. Just think of every single interaction between the EU and Orbán.

Trade is the underlying logic of a free society. It means the voluntary exchange of value for value. (And even if it is imperfect and trade cannot be 100% free all the time, it is no excuse to stop trying.)

Extortion is the logic of an autocracy. And when the two mix, free trade loses.

Voluntariness and choice are not allowed in an autocrat’s business. It is not even good enough if you choose to become his autocratic underdog – it will be enforced by blackmail as well. Just to be safe. No choice, no voluntariness, no trade. How do you wish to trade with a world that is infected by the logic of extortion?

If you want to trade with the world – offer value for value on a voluntary basis – the autocrat will beat you because he applies force. Coercion, bribes, blackmail, you name it.

So when you want to conduct trade with the rest of the world, you will try to come up with a mutually beneficial offer. But the autocrat is also making an offer to your potential trading partner and that is an offer that can not be refused.

An autocracy does “trade” by blackmailing its potential trading partner, forcing them to buy inferior products at an inflated price, and maybe also offers a juicy kickback to the target country’s political leaders: push your country into eternal Chinese debt, but buy yourself a yacht on the kickback. After all, autocrats don’t believe their own collectivist bullshit and they know perfectly well that it is individuals who make those buying decisions, not countries. And individuals can be bribed cheaper than making a fair offer to a country. And autocrats are broke.

You can insist on no corruption, but the autocrat will corrupt your partners, by offering a worse deal (for the country) but a juicy kickback (for its leader).

You can insist on institutions, but the autocrat will corrupt the individuals in positions, and bribes and blackmails them – or both.

The fundamental asymmetry of these dynamics is not unlike that between a stalker and his victim. The victim just wants to live her life – but the stalker forces her into hiding, to change her ways to avoid the stalker, making it impossible to live as if the stalker didn’t exist. The stalker can not lose.

The same asymmetry applies to the bully and his victim. The victim would live his life, but the bully wants to be in it. The bully needs lunch money and lacking the tools (or the intention) to earn it himself, he will take yours.

The only thing a bully defers to is an even bigger bully. But that he respects and follows. The dilemma is how to be the biggest bully out there – while also being a non-bully at home. How to project credible force to primitive idiots who only understand the logic of a fist fight – while playing chess.

For an individual it would be hard enough to be the big, strong guy who can’t be messed with – while also being fair and liberal-minded in his dealings with decent, free people. For a country, the task is both more and less daunting. Theoretically, there could be institutions that prepare for an attack – being authoritarian control groups themselves, like the military – and others that are based on the logic of free trade. In practice, it is more difficult and it is not the scope of this text to discuss ways to create this division.

Having to do something to beat the logic of extortion, the spread of autocracy, the reign of the bully is not the morally right thing, it is not a value – it is a necessity, to stop hemorrhaging values.

The cheapest way to deal with the spread of extortionary logic is prevention. To punch back when the bully takes his first, tentative steps. It will only get harder and more expensive later. And it never stops.

When an autocrat invades a country, it is not enough to hope that he will stop there. The urge to ignore it is strong because we want to keep focusing on recycling and animal rights. And those things are important, but they, too, will turn to ashes if the bully isn’t stopped. Sometimes, we can’t avoid confrontation, because the confrontation comes to us. An autocracies are, by definition, confrontations.

The lapse into uncivilized autocracy will never stop if the autocrat doesn’t meet backlash. And by backlash, I mean something that hurts the autocrat himself. Not grave condemnation, not outrage, not mere words, but action. If it doesn’t happen the first time he takes his first, tentative steps – it will only get harder and harder to start punishing him.

Giving second chances only applies to well-meaning entities – not ones that expressed their desire to fuck things up in the first place. And giving the benefit of the doubt for the hundredth time is called something else.

If the free world stops pushing back to bullies, a political system that disregards its citizens needs, demands and interests will soon arrive to you. But an autocrat can only be tamed by autocratic means, the only language it speaks – hence the dilemma.

Autocracy export always starts with consolidating power at home. So why not stop it there?

Putin restarted imperialistic Russian autocracy export the moment he eliminated the last internal checks on his power. Merkel’s dependable appeasement did not put a dent into the Russian autocracy export and the US was so keen to ignore it that it nearly lost the information cold war without even taking up arms.

The Chinese communist party had to solidify its grasp on power before the massive, imperialistic autocracy export could start – but then it most naturally did. Now the entire world is being targeted by their sickening logic of corrupting state elites to indebt states.

And on a much smaller plane, Orbán had to grab power and consolidate it before he could cause damage in the EU. And he used the EU’s money to do so, to make it even more obvious that appeasement doesn’t help to keep things as they are.

If an autocrat can do it, he will do it. 

The question one has to ponder is whether an autocrat would be hurt if he did a certain thing (like a veto or invading another country) – and if the answer is no, he will do it. And by ‘hurt’, autocrats don’t mean being unpopular or that it would be scandalous or that someone would be angry at them. They mean actual pushback, having their nose broken politically.

Orbán’s fight against Europe culminated in the infamous veto of the 2021-27 budget and the pandemic recovery fund, which was remarkable only because European leaders didn’t see it coming. Orbán had literally said that he would do it – and then he did.

It seems superfluous to remind European leaders of what else Orbán has openly and repeatedly said – but it must be because he meant it. One of those things is that he would always push “until hitting the wall”, which in authoritarian speak means that an autocrat will always push the boundaries until he meets pushback. And that pushback better be something that impacts him personally, like the money he distributed to loyalists or the impunity he relies on.

Trying to make him unpopular is first world, democratic logic, it presupposes that his reign is based on popularity, not the people’s learned helplessness. Orbán’s veto in Brussels illustrates beyond every effort of denial the incompatibility of autocratic and democratic logic, and that the democratic world cannot appease aspiring autocrats without losing more than money. The sooner an aspiring autocrat meets credible pushback (i.e. “the wall”), the cheaper the containment.

It is also telling how obsessed autocrats are with the simplistic logic of creating precedents, as they are projecting their own attitudes on others: If they would see a precedent of effective pushback against authoritarian aspirations, they would think twice before trying it again. They believe that others only learn from precedent is because they themselves only learn from precedents. (Read: a punch in their political face.)

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