Alpo Rusi: Democracy vs Totalitarianism

ALPO RUSI, PHD. OF POLITICAL HISTORY, FORMER AMBASSADOR OF FINLAND, MEMBER OF THE BOARD OF VILNIUS INSTITUTE FOR POLICY ANALYSIS
”The Wuhan virus” (COVID-19) pandemic has cast a shadow on the future of democracies. Inevitably, the state has now asserted more control over people’s lives and we are duly concerned about the curtailment of civil rights and liberties. It has been suggested that Chinese totalitarianism is the most effective political system in dealing with crises such as the current pandemic. Yet history shows us that totalitarian systems are dysfunctional during serious crises.
 Considering modern history, compared with more authoritarian systems of government, liberal democracies are more effective in dealing with serious crises. “Chernobyl has exposed the deep rot in our system,” noted Mikhail Gorbachev, a few weeks after the cover-up phase, during a politburo meeting in May 1986. At the beginning of World War II, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the enemy will be beaten by ‘the great arsenal of democracy’. And so it was.
 The origins of democracy reveal the reasons why democracies are better equipped to deal with serious crises than totalitarian systems. The rationale can be found in the history of political ideologies and their impact on political systems. According to the Israeli political scientist Jakob Talmon (1916-1980), the French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to two models of democracy: liberal and totalitarian. The main difference between them is by no means that one recognizes the value of freedom and the other denies it. It is predominantly in their attitude towards politics. Talmon justifies this view in his master work The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952).
 In the liberal model, politics is about trial and error: political systems are practical products of human ingenuity, empirical knowledge, and spontaneity. Yet there are many instances of personal and collective endeavour that must be excluded from politics. Therefore, liberal democracies rely on the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers to keep themselves in check. After the French Revolution, in 1793, the “Jacobins” came to power. They represented an extreme ideological interpretation of equality and freedom to which everything else was subordinate. This is how ”totalitarian democracy” was born. Only one truth was accepted. According to Talmon, the ideological origin of both Stalinism and fascism can be traced back to Jacobinism. Evidently, the risk of veering towards authoritarianism is present in democracies as well. During situations of great crises and instability, democracies are particularly susceptible to the strengthening of the state and the scope of its politics. During the Cold War, Finnish liberal democracy was threatened by the Finnish-Soviet ”friendship”.
 The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is increasingly reminiscent of former East Germany: it has become a state of Command and Control (a Controlcracy). This Chinese command system initially appeared to be a success story in the fight against COVID-19. However, instead of issuing any public warning, the Communist Party initially launched a cover-up operation designed to mislead the rest of the world. The esteemed professor Michael Mandelbaum notes: “People around the world are dying as victims of the communist system”. Historically, major disasters have had twofold consequences.
In the 15th century, the Black Death gave birth to critical science and modern Europe, but also caused The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 later on.
The French Revolution gave birth to democracy, but also its antithesis, totalitarianism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union liberated democracies, but also created a new command system.
The Wuhan virus has caused a global health war. The Chinese system appeared successful in containing the Wuhan virus but, more and more people are dying because of the failure of their system at the early critical days and weeks of the outbreak of the virus. In fact, the resulting death toll is rising outside of China, both in democracies and authoritarian states. As a consequence, the international system will be less dominated by China in the future.
Reposted with permission from Turun Sanomat, Finland.