Donald Trump is flexing the United States’ economic muscle in East Asia by introducing a web of new-generation bilateral trade deals to contain China’s challenge. But Beijing is fighting back by political means.
Obama used trade deals, such as one with South Korea, to confront China on the regional status quo. But Trump is reshuffling the cards.
Under Trump, the US Trade Representative (USTR) office prioritises the strict enforcement of US trade laws to counter foreign government subsidies – even if that means undermining the World Trade Organisation and risking trade retaliations.
Previous US administrations have often sacrificed domestic industrial manufacturing to prop up international trade, using it as a bargaining tool to exert security influence over geopolitical partners and rivals. Before Trump, the US openly accepted trade deficits and the rorting of international trade laws as the price paid for advancing its defence policy agenda globally.
Imagine it as a strategic pyramid, with defence on top, trade in the middle and industry at the bottom.
Now with Trump we have a strategic triangle. Industry is the top point, with trade and defence interlinked, on the same level, at the bottom. This evolution is nowhere clearer than in the Asia Pacific region.
Strangely, Trump’s strategic triangle is making US policy look like China’s, after it opened to the global economy in the 1980s. Conversely, Xi Jinping’s more assertive regional politics is moving China where the US was before Trump – with defence on top of trade and industry.
A balanced US-India FTA would be a win-win solution for both countries in their quest to muscle out China commercially and politically, especially if it precluded finalising the RCEP.
Adding to this is a recent US trade report which urged allied economies to coordinate an anti-dumping action on China’s industries. This is designed to protect trade secrets and intellectual property rights.
The report pointed out that China systematically:
…imposes requirements that US firms develop their IP in China or transfer their IP to Chinese entities as a condition to accessing the Chinese market.
In exchange for all of this, the US offers maritime security for a close range of key partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This explains why the US administration is wooing India to join Japan and Australia in a revived trade-security alliance against China, the so called Quadrilateral Security Forum.
This recent Trump policy is a remake of Nicholas J Spykman’s “Rimland Theory” that framed the US understanding of Eurasian power politics during the Cold War years. Spykman memorably wrote:
Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.
For one thing, Trump’s restoration of bilateral trade shows a clear direction for the US strategy in Asia. Beyond that, the convergence of trade and security policies has the potential to effectively reshape the US as an indispensable Asian power.
Consider Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of state-sanctioned murder and Hungary’s drift towards a new authoritarianism.
“Democracy is dead,” say the disheartened. “It’s time to bury democracy,” pounds one Tunisian pro-Sharia party. “Democracy has fallen, we need a new game in town,” argue Vladimir Putin’s populist and Xi Jinping’s neo-authoritarian allies.
These mantras, circulated widely through social media, have ricocheted around the world and were felt perhaps most viscerally in 2017. It was a year full of political events that, in hindsight, look like a string of assaults against democratic ways of living.
Is democracy dying, or perhaps already dead? Is it really time to eulogise democracy, or are we rather on the cusp of a new phase in its long and varied life? – Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra
Anguish about democracy attests to its value
Alice el-Wakil, University of Zurich
It has become common that under half of the citizenry votes in most Western democracies, that anti-democratic politicians get elected, and that elected authorities are accused of failing to protect citizens’ interests.
Corruption and nepotism are making comebacks and inequalities of all sorts are on the rise. At this time it is legitimate to ask whether democracy is breaking apart.
However, this worrisome situation should not transform us into sceptics about democracy. The outcry against the problems mentioned above shows that the public notices and criticises political shortcomings to realise democratic ideals – that there is something about democracy worth mobilising for.
Hence, as certain existing democratic regimes risk being perverted, we should use this critical moment to reinvent and expand democracy.
In most parts of the world, democracy has so far only taken the form of a specific kind of institutional arrangement, namely electoral representative democracy. It relies on a valuable but limited set of institutions, which preserves an exclusionary bias and a fundamental suspicion of citizens’ capacity to make political decisions.
The current challenges to this specific set of institutions should encourage us to acknowledge alternative, emerging practices of democratic participation and to create and experiment with complementary institutions.
Referendum procedures, new forms of representation, or assemblies of citizens are examples of the innovations we should consider to revivify democratic systems. Be it only because democracy enables us to publicly, legitimately and continuously question its value and to peacefully propose new ways of realising it.
Don’t look to the powerful for answers
Anna Szolucha, University of Bergen
The democratic impulse rarely originates in the corridors of power. Certain political elites may have a knack for exploiting right-wing populist and nationalist narratives to rewrite history and give a semblance of democratic legitimacy to the “corporate state”, but they are hardly effective when it comes to promoting popular concerns about freedom, justice, equality and social dialogue.
During the wave of pro-democratic protests that recently swept through the world, protesters in the West were critical of the liberal representative model of democracy, growing inequalities, and the influence of business on politics.
It’s clear there is a need to rethink democracy. The solution, however, is not to revamp the old model but to defend and simultaneously revisit the idea of democracy. We need to do so in such a way that it fosters equality, freedom and a sense that ordinary citizens have a greater influence on politics – virtues that the liberal representative version has failed to deliver.
The task of rethinking democracy is pressing because we are witnessing arrogant and aggressive attempts by political elites to appropriate democratic language to expand their own powers.
Despite massive protests and opposition to their policies, they call on “The People” to offer more undemocratic solutions to real or imagined problems. They curtail freedom, centralise control, divide society, destroy the climate and institutionalise their privilege in the process.
The rethinking and remaking of democracy is going to take effort and perseverance, but the continuing resistance shows that now is definitely not the time to announce the death of democracy because it never belonged to those who seem to be killing it in the first place.
Three keys to democratic values
Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University
Authoritarian power grabs – those grim assaults on constitutional democracy – demand political and legal resistance. Illiberal populism – those episodic rejections of the terms of political representation – demand the rehabilitation of hollowed-out parties.
Authoritarianism is the business of predators: the cynical exploitation of the democratic weaknesses of the moment. Populism is expressive anger: a reaction against conditions of the moment felt to be threatening and out of control. Both are caused by democracy’s own political demons.
We don’t need to relitigate democracy, but we do need a full-throated affirmation of its value, which comes in three different keys.
The aspirational key: democracy is a system of political representation rooted in the moral ground of the equal value of all the governed. No constitutional arrangement is democratic without aspirational commitment to civil and political equality in the form of civil and political rights. No bad faith “illiberal democracy” makes that commitment.
The outcome key: over time and in the face of vicissitudes and ineptitude, democracy aims at general wellbeing more consistently and competently than other forms of government. Democracy is the only self-correcting system. Democracies have recessions, depressions and fumbling responses to crises. They do not have famines.
The defence against tyranny key: civil society is the bulwark against arbitrary and total power. Only democracy cultivates freedom of association and its product: the groups, associations, networks and political parties that fuel unendingly contested democratic politics and that make trouble.
Our best check on elite tyranny
David Teegarden, University at Buffalo – State University of New York
Democratic governance provides the best practical check on elite domination. The citizenry has numerical superiority in every state. Unfortunately, elites (wealth, military, religious) know how to atomise and render them effectively powerless: thus the persistence of narrow oligarchy and autocracy throughout recorded history.
However, democratic institutions such as elections, the law and the free press, along with their ideals of political equality and individual freedom, can facilitate citizens’ efforts to co-ordinate their actions, draw upon their collective strength and force their elite competitors to agree to some sort of co-operative relationship.
In a functioning democracy, everybody – even billionaires, generals and bishops – must obey laws made by and enforced by all citizens.
It is certainly true that democratic governance often breeds contentious public discourse. It can lead to terrible, even disastrous outcomes from time to time. But it is far better to endure those things than to endure the horror of being forced to bow down publicly to an oppressive tyrant with no realistic hope of betterment either for yourself or for your children.
Solutions start with a constructive critique
Peter Wilkin, Brunel University
Representative democracy has always been regarded as problematic by those who have sought to replace it with authoritarian rule. Today many of these authoritarian trends have gained new voice and increasingly anti-democratic forces can be found.
But we can’t conflate all challenges to representative democracy as being the same. We can distinguish between those social forces that draw inspiration from the radical right – such as ethnonationalism, neo-fascism, militarism – and those that can be seen as a novel continuation of the libertarian socialist tradition – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Rojava.
The radical right is intolerant, aggressive and wants to capture the state for authoritarian ends and to nationalise capitalism.
By contrast, the libertarian socialist tradition is an attempt to extend democracy into areas like the economy (for example the citizen’s wage, universal income, worker control of industry). Libertarian socialists also attempt to reconfigure centralised state power and restore decision-making to communities.
Both movements are responding to the same conditions: the polarising impact of capitalism on social life (inequality, insecurity, poverty) and the failure of representative democracy to offer solutions to these problems.
Such solutions are simpler for the radical right, which has no commitment to democracy or civil liberties. The radical right wants to impose order upon society by any means, including violence and intimidation.
For movements inspired by the libertarian socialist aspiration to deepen, enrich and extend democracy, finding solutions is much harder. The means to be used are seen as fundamental to the society that will emerge.
As a result, violence, fear, propaganda and other powerful anti-democratic tools are eschewed in favour of education and organising communities through dialogue and negotiation.
Overcome short-termism for democratic renewal
Graham Smith, University of Westminster
In privileging the present over long-term sustainability, contemporary democracies have failed to deal effectively with climate change. But this does not mean, as some suggest, that we require a more authoritarian solution. Rather, we need to understand the sources of short-termism and think more creatively about our democratic institutions and practices.
The sources of short-termism are multiple and mutually reinforcing. These include: short electoral cycles that incentivise limited party-political horizons; vested interests that benefit from current political and economic arrangements; our psychological preference for immediate gratification; an economic system that privileges carbon-based consumption; and unborn generations who are unable to defend their interests.
These examples could be seen as a litany of despair. Or they could be recognised as a new set of challenges on which to base democratic renewal.
The potential contours for a reinvigorated long-term democracy are beginning to emerge. Imaginative and practical democratic innovation already includes: institutional experimentation such as independent offices for future generations that scrutinise the decision-making of other public bodies; new rights and forms of public participation designed to orientate citizens towards consideration of future generations; and co-operatives and other forms of collective corporate governance that prioritise sustainability over immediate economic return.
Time to get serious about citizenship education
Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University
Civil society, voluntary associations, active citizenship, social capital – these were the rosy keywords often used in discussions of radical democracy at the end of the 20th century.
Now, nearly 20 years later, we are seeing that people’s active participation can be negative, driven by emotional populist movements. Social capital is not always strong enough to empower people who are alienated and excluded from decision-making. Civil society is often uncivil.
History tells us that the so-called democratic political system does not guarantee the improvement of democratic society. Karl Mannheim, for example, who analysed mass society in the age of fascism, worried about an irrational democracy of emotions.
Mannheim was an advocate of social education (a concept similar to citizenship education today), which is meant to make the attitudes and behaviours of both common people and elites more democratic.
Although some might doubt the efficacy of such an education for the democratisation of society, it hasn’t in any serious way been tried before. As the old saying goes: we won’t know if it’ll work until we try.
For Mannheim and some of his contemporaries like John Dewey, T.S. Eliot and A.D. Lindsay, democracy is not only a political system but also a way of life. Citizenship education is not only a matter of school education but also of people’s social practice in their everyday lives.
Far from saying “democracy is dying”, we need to say that “now is the time for democracy to be lived”.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Robert Malley, the newly appointed head of the International Crisis Group, makes a good point when discussing global challenges in 2018:
It is not all about Donald Trump.
To be sure, an erratic American presidency contributes to unsteadiness around the globe. American global leadership is now contested as never before since the Allies triumphed in the second world war.
Even in the depths of a Cold War marked by various crises – including the Berlin Blockade, an ill-starred military adventure in Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis – American leadership would still assert itself.
Let’s not forget American post-second-world-war diplomacy spawned international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United Nations and NATO. In Australia’s case, it also gave birth to the ANZUS Treaty, initialled in 1951.
There was hardly any component of post-war global architecture that did not involve Washington in a leading role.
ANZUS, and with it the American alliance, remains the cornerstone of Australia’s security arrangements – notwithstanding a frequent misinterpretation of the treaty as a security guarantee as opposed to an agreement to consult in the event of either party’s security being threatened.
In essence, America is godfather of post-war multilateralism. An American-led consensus on how best to manage its global responsibilities is now in danger of unravelling, buffeted by domestic “America First” disagreements at home and a contested security environment abroad.
Australia’s place in the world
From an Australian perspective, it is all about a shifting power balance in the Indo-Pacific.
This might be described as the pre-eminent challenge in the year(s) ahead, as Australia navigates between the idiosyncracies of a Trump White House and its successors. Then there is the relentless Chinese push to spread its power and influence.
Above all in the foreign policy sphere, Australian policymakers are faced with the task of expanding Canberra’s foreign and security policy room for manoeuvre between its security guarantor and principal trading partner, without endangering the alliance relationship itself.
This will require a sophistication that has not always been apparent among policymakers. Their instinct has been to cling to the alliance like a life raft and, on occasions, discreditably, use it as a wedge issue against political opponents.
China’s rise is encouraging a more realistic view of Australia’s geopolitical circumstances, and none too soon.
The following extracts from Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, released in November, provide a flavour of that greater realism:
Navigating the decade ahead will be hard because as China’s power grows our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.
Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests. The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-second-world-war history. Today, China is challenging America’s position.
The government recognises there is great debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of its leadership of the international system.
In the decades ahead we expect further contestation [between the US and China] over ideas and influence, directly affecting Australia. It is imperative that Australia prepare for the long term.
All of this exposes Australia’s biggest challenge in the next several decades. Simply put, this is to build its own self-reliance, including smart investments in defence capabilities, along with nurturing security relationships in its own region.
Most desirable in all of this would be to involve – not exclude – China in building a regional security architecture. This could possibly be along the lines of the Helsinki Accords, which helped stabilise Europe during a long stand-off with the former Soviet Union.
Australian officials might want to expand a quadrilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership – involving the US, Japan, Australia and India – envisaged as a hedge against China to others, including China itself.
This is the big global challenge for Australia in 2018 and beyond. Now to what might be described as “localised” challenges.
We’ll restrict that number to five, including:
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions;
the Middle East more generally, and potential conflict with Iran in particular;
the Rohingya crisis and pressures that is exerting on Myanmar and surrounding countries. Alongside this is the “identity politics” across Asia, in which minorities (like the Rohingya) are threatened;
Afghanistan, in which Australian forces are still involved in a training capacity; and
threats of cyber-terrorism: what Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group describe as a “global tech cold war”.
Top of this list is North Korea, where the risk of overreach and accident with terrible consequences is real. As Malley puts it in his Foreign Policy paper:
Without a viable diplomatic offramp, Washington risks cornering itself into military action. Even a precisely targeted attack would likely provoke a North Korean response.
From Australia’s perspective, and given that the bulk of its trade goes to the countries of North Asia (China, Japan and South Korea), conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be crippling.
Second on my list, as it is on Malley’s, involves the risks of open conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, egged on by the US and Israel. Such disruption could not be contained. It would spread, risking oil shipments from the region and wider conflict between Sunni and Shia.
As Malley puts it:
With so many flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, the risk of an escalatory cycle is great.
From an Australian perspective, an escalation would be alarming, given the deployment of our forces in a training capacity in Iraq.
Third is Afghanistan, where the tempo of US-led strikes against the Taliban is set to increase, along with pressure on Pakistan to desist in its covert support for the insurgency.
US allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the US strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation.
With troops in the field in a training capacity, the Australian government should be pushing for a regional settlement, involving Afghanistan’s neighbours and the insurgents.
Fourth on my list is the issue of identity policy in southern Asia, including the displacement of the Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.
As Bremmer and Kupchan put it:
Identity politics in southern Asia comes in several forms: Islamism, anti-China and anti-other minority sentiment, and intensifying nationalism in India.
From Australia’s perspective, displacement and persecution of minorities in its neighbourhood is a particularly worrying development, along with Islamic State-inspired eruptions in countries like the Philippines.
Finally, looms the issue of cyber conflict.
The biggest fight over economic power centres on the development of new information technologies. Competition for dominance in the areas of artificial intelligence and super-computing between the US and China has serious implications for Australia’s national security.
The cyber issue, which potentially includes the weaponisation of AI, is becoming the new contested space.
And that’s not all …
Now, to a less concerning issue, for the moment: the global economy.
In its latest overview, the World Bank expects global growth to edge up to 3.1% “after a much stronger-than-expected 2017, as the recovery in investment, manufacturing and trade continues, and as commodity-exporting developing economies benefit from firming commodity prices”.
As one of the world’s biggest commodity exporters, this is good news for Australia. The World Bank says:
2018 is on track to be the first year since the financial crisis that the global economy will be operating at or near full capacity.
However, it also warns of a slowdown in potential growth as stimulatory fiscal and monetary policies run their course.
Levels of armed conflict flux and wane. In 2017, levels of high fatality violence in Africa were significantly lower than during the immediate post-Cold War period. This trend has occurred in spite of the recent increases in terrorist associated fatalities in key countries such as Nigeria and Somalia. Even terrorist fatalities have declined since 2015.
But the continent is still witnessing an increase in social turbulence, unrest and protest. This is being driven by development, urbanisation and modernisation, all of which are inevitably disruptive. Development has been driven by the fact that, since 1994, Africa has experienced the longest sustained period of growth since decolonialisation in the sixties.
The other major factor driving unrest is the fact that democracy is expanding on the continent. Pressure is mounting on autocracies. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised by widespread violence in countries ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Burundi and Uganda. And in countries run by small elites or a family – such as Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
In the long term only rapid, inclusive economic growth combined with good governance can make Africa less volatile.
But how can it achieve this? What’s needed is a combination of sound economic policies, an attack on corruption and theft by ruling elites, a deepening of democracy and a rethink of the approach taken to the threat of terrorism.
At current population growth Africa needs average economic growth rates in excess of 7% per year for several decades if it’s to reduce poverty and increase average levels of income. This is unlikely. Current forecasts estimate average rates of growth of around half of that.
Perhaps more importantly, Africa needs to find ways of reaping its demographic dividend – that is decreasing the number of dependants, mostly children, compared to persons of working age (15 to 65 years of age). Traditionally this is best achieved through improvements in female education, but the provision of water, sanitation and access to contraceptives can play a huge role. This is reflected in a recent study we did on the future of Ethiopia that has seen more rapid reductions in fertility rates than other countries at similar levels of development.
Africa also needs to place employment in formal sector at the centre of government policy. This, in turn, requires diversification of African economies as well as much higher levels of foreign investment and engagement.
When it comes to investment and development aid the Institute for Security Studies found that middle income countries are making progress in attracting foreign direct investment, but poor countries remain aid dependent.
Although aid is going out of fashion in favour of measures to involve the private sector, it will remain important for low income countries. It allows governments to deliver services such as water, sanitation and education more than they would otherwise be able to do. These investments in human capital development will deliver large benefits and will have long term positive effects.
Another area of focus should be on supporting the rule of law and the delivery of effective taxation systems. Basics such as national identity systems, effective border control and a functioning criminal justice systems are often absent.
Democracy, extremism and security responses
Many people across a wide range of countries on the continent are stepping up their demands for more democracy. Despite many setbacks, democratisation continues to advance year on year.
Doing these two things simultaneously – building government capacity and responding to demands for democracy – is difficult. Marginalisation, a lack of voice, a lack of accountability often lies at the heart of instability in a continent that has experienced autocracy and bad governance for decades.
Regional organisations (such as the Southern African Development Community and the Central African Economic Monetary Community need to take accountable governance seriously.
Unless this happens, there’s a real danger that the draw of extremist groups will escalate.
Accountable governance should also extend to the security sector where reform is perhaps the single most important component in countering violent extremism. the continent’s military, policy, gendarme and intelligence systems are generally not held to account, they act with impunity and are often the source of many problems. Instead of protecting and serving they kill, loot and rape.
Both the ISS and the UNDP have concluded that action by security forces – such as the killing or arrest of a family member – often serves as the tipping point that triggers the final decision to join an extremist group.
In addition, Africa seems to have bought into the US war on terror approach which is to rely on the military. In fact, terrorism requires an intelligence, prosecution, and rule of law approach. African countries would be well advised to revert to an intelligence and policing response rather than a military response to terrorism.
Radicalisation is also fuelled by corruption, theft by ruling elites and tax havens. Africa needs to work with the rest of the world to end tax havens, tax avoidance and money laundering.
Fight for a rules-based world
African countries need to intensify their efforts towards a rules based world, including reform of the UN Security Council, which sits at the apex of global security governance.
But the continent needs to stop hiding behind the Ezulwini consensus – this is the common position taken by African countries on UN reform that advocates for two permanent seats with veto rights and five non-permanent seats for Africa – and start thinking outside the box.
Real reform is possible, but it would require a different approach, including ending the system of veto and permanent seats.
Jakkie Cilliers, Chair of the Board of Trustees and Head of African Futures & Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies. Extraordinary Professor in the Centre of Human Rights, University of Pretoria
The power of laughter is something of a theme in Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s humourless response to Barack Obama’s jibes at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011 allegedly steeled his reserve to run for president in the first place; the New York Times recently asked why Trump himself seemingly never laughs at all.
And in October, it was reported that a US woman would stand a second trial for simply laughing at Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, at a congressional hearing. Desiree Fairooz had already been tried for this “contempt” – or as Stephen Colbert termed it, “first-degree chuckling with intent to titter”.
The prosecuting attorney stated that Fairooz “wasn’t just merely responding, she was voicing an opinion”. The argument that laughter alone was enough to convict was thrown out by the first judge; Ms Fairooz’s “brief reflexive burst of noise” has just been dismissed by the Department of Justice.
In the US’s rough political climate, laughter is having a hard time, too. Many questions on its worth have been posed: is laughter muffling potentially more effective forms of criticism? Is satire defusing political commentary by humanising its targets? Alec Baldwin has expressed concern that his impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live has disarmed real incisive commentary, reducing the presidency and its incumbent to a crass approximation of the more troublesome reality.
Weapons of the weak
What these qualms reflect is that as a political gesture, laughter has a considerable range. It can be used to defuse a situation, or to inflame. It can serve as a conciliatory gesture, and equally as a means of defiance. It can single out a target while also uniting a crowd. Laughter is used by many politicians; when they laugh along they can diffuse tension, and relax the public gaze. They become relatable, approachable, and at least acknowledge that they are meant to be the their audience’s equal, not their better.
But laughter can also carry a potentially revolutionary force. It’s a way for a group to recognise their common view of a figure, an issue, or a political standpoint. To quote George Orwell: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
Laughter was for much of history considered the mark of a fool, an uncontrolled reaction of the body and mind that betrayed an absence of reason. Many, including Plato and Hobbes, viewed laughter as a base expression, an animalistic response, devoid of reason. But in the 20th century, many scholars, including Henri Bergson and Mikhail Bakhtin, came up with more nuanced analyses of laughter and its political clout.
It was true that in what Bakhtin called carnivalesque culture, laughter became synonymous with the grotesque and the obscene, but it still serves an important social purpose: a means for those who had no other recourse to protest to register their views of the status quo.
Rumour, gossip, and laughter have been termed weapons of the weak, opportunities to defy authority in unofficial and often indefinable ways. Traditionally, this has made them harder for oppressive regimes to clearly identify and possibly prosecute. To this day, laughter remains a means of political expression for those who are otherwise disenfranchised: it subjects the powerful to both ridicule and scrutiny.
In the early modern period, laughter played a significant role as a political language. The celebrations of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass allowed people of all levels of society to both display their places in the social order and to ridicule them. It was at once an assertion of authority and a challenge to it.
During the 18th century, political satire gained much ground. Enlightenment authors across Europe took aim at institutions of authority, often in underhand and opaque ways to circumvent censorship. Oftentimes “getting the joke” affirmed one’s membership of a political creed or club. Indeed, when political upheaval took hold in France, the need to laugh “appropriately” emerged as a measure of one’s loyalty to the revolution. The “rire sardonique”, the aristocratic snigger, was replaced with the good-natured belly-laugh of the “sansculotte” – the honest, genuine expression of mirth of the ordinary man, rather than the contrived, artificial ridicule of the polished courtier.
This idea of laughing the right laugh, of laughter as an indication of identity and mentality, is echoed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1935 essay, Bolsheviks Do Laugh. The laughter of the Bolshevik, Eisenstein wrote, was loaded with the weight of revolution, of striving for the proletarian order. Unlike the laughter of others, Bolshevik laughter was not idle, nor frivolous. It was invested with the irony of Chekhov, the bitterness of Gogol; it was not for mere amusement, it had a higher purpose. For Eisenstein, laughter represented ways of seeing and understanding the world.
Politicians and those in positions of authority who actively resist or deny the right of those who have elected them to deride, ridicule, and laugh at them are also denying the idea that they are their citizens’ equal, that they are subject to scrutiny and indeed that they are accountable. While standards of comedy and perceptions of laughter have changed over time, one thing has remained immutable: laughter has always provided a means of dialogue between those in power and those they rule.
When that dialogue is suspended – or rather, when the powerful lose their sense of humour – it’s time to worry.