Fifty-five minutes into the second night of the Democratic presidential debate, on June 27, 2019, candidate Pete Buttigieg positioned liberal democracy no longer as the hegemonic form of governance in the world, but rather, as a precarious alternative to what is developing in China:
“The China challenge really is a serious one …. They’re using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.”
“Their authoritarian model is being held up as an alternative model to ours because ours is so chaotic, because of our internal divisions.”
“If we want to hold ourselves up as an alternative …. “
An alternative to what? It should be clear to anyone that the system that prevails in China today is no longer communism, but what exactly has replaced it? Has a more (highly) evolved, more advanced, and therefore default, form of governance emerged there, to which liberal democracy now has to hold itself up as an alternative, the same way it did with regard to communism in decades past? If there is, then the term that best describes it is technoautocracy.
Francis Fukuyama, in his article declaring “The end of history” (1989), famously called liberal democracy the “final form of human government.” It appears he was right to proclaim the end of history, but not for the reasons most of us thought at the time. It is perhaps the end of human history that is upon us, giving way to posthuman history as foreshadowed in Fukuyama’s own Our Posthuman Future (2002). Technoautocracy is merely the form of governance that is naturally growing out of these changes.
As the world’s newest form of government, technoautocracy is more advanced and highly evolved than liberal democracy, but the question we should be asking is not whether this is a form of governance fit for posthumanity, but whether it is one fit for humanity, for human beings, to live under. The terms “more advanced” and “highly evolved” are utilized to describe the emerging technoautocracy because, in the 21st century, these phrases no longer mean “more civilized,” “more cultured,” or “more humane.” Today, to say that something is more advanced and highly evolved simply means that it is “more efficient” than whatever came before.
Technoautocracy has already been realized as a form of government in one country: China. Far from criticizing or condemning it, Western governments, starting with the United States, are rushing toward it, at least in the manner of their competition with it. To the extent they are competing with it, as in the present AI and 5G arms races, they are rushing toward trying to become more like it, not recognizing the presence of the alternate form of government the primacy of these algorithms gives rise to as comprising China’s primary threat to us.
To supplant liberal democracy in the United States and the West, to become, for entirely new reasons, the “final form of human government” [emphasis added], technoautocracy does not have to be controlled by a state or government, as it is in China. It could be controlled by a corporate-government fusion, or even by corporations alone; it doesn’t matter which. Furthermore, corporations do not have to make a profit in order to be in power.
Alternatively, a technoautocracy could be controlled by no one; it could appear as a systemic chain reaction run amok. Perhaps this would be technoautocracy in its pure form.
The name “autocracy,” in 20th century terms, means “authoritarian,” but seen through a 21st century lens, it suggests authoritarian governance by autopilot. The prefix “techno” suggests that the effective means of social control will be both technologically generated and technologically based, rather than being founded on human rules, values, priorities, or elections. In other words, the nature of the development of technology itself, not human agency of any kind, will determine the form of governance to which we will effectively be subject.
Even today, neither the most powerful billionaires nor the US president are able to have everything they want, and the yawning faces of the members of the US Congress suggest they’re not in control either. The graffiti that recently appeared in my hometown, “Nobody has control,” suggests a hypothesis that what exists is self-(auto)governance by whatever form power arbitrarily takes, something which must be seen as a 21st century opposite of human self-governance.
The only possible response to the specter of technoautocracy supplanting the Western liberal democracies – as Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg suggested has already begun – the only way to reopen the possibility for liberal democracy to survive the default trajectory of 21st century technology, and its crystallization as an effective form of governance in its own right, is a movement speaking up on behalf of human self-determination.