Dubai vs. democracy

151300203I haven’t talked much about the refugee crisis because at this point I’m in a “wait & see” mode. It seems almost fantastical that relatively small northern European countries should allow themselves to be demographically overwhelmed in less than a generation, but that isn’t a totally crazy proposition. But we should be cautious about extrapolations. Cultural norms can change rather fast, because most people are conformists (e.g., Sweden combines a very politically correct mainstream culture with a robust verging-on-volkisch minority party which is far outside of the bounds of anything you would see in the United States)

But an article in The New York Times, Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Fight in Yemen, does put into stark relief the sort of choices we’re facing in the modern world. On the one hand technology is advancing apace, but our social structures seem to recycle the same forms. The Gulf petro-state system is in some ways straight out of Dystopian science fiction, combining a modern capitalist economy with the a sort of commoditized attitude toward human life with a neo-feudal tincture. But it also reminds me of another model, that of the ancient Greek city-states. Dubai, Qatar, etc., are basically societies where the majority of individuals engage in production for the capital class, which also subsidizes the citizenry (“liturgies”), which is a minority. Though they are not democracies like Athens, this relationship between a notionally co-equal minority and a majority whose economic productivity allows for the life of the society to flourish isn’t particularly novel.

One thing that set the ancient Roman system apart from the Greek polities was that it was expansive, assimilating local elites. It is well known that many of the emperors were not made in Rome, but some of the patrician clans, such as the Claudii, were themselves of Etruscan or Sabine origin. Roman cosmopolitanism fused with an acknowledgment of the primacy of a core culture was a robust system that persisted for nearly 1,000 years, allowing for political scale. Additionally, it is a notable trend in history that when you reduce other humans purely to commodities, basically units of economic production, they have no loyalty to their contracts beyond self-interest. They’ll often try and take over through violence.

Another system is the Western democratic liberal one. This system presupposes citizens who are co-equal, without large groups of disenfranchised people. Even in the American case with slavery in most of the territory non-free males were a small minority. There is also often a rough cultural homogeneity which is presumed for a nation-state. Ergo, the carving up of the Austro-Hungarian polity after World War I followed ethno-linguistic lines. But these sorts of implicit understandings seem to be falling by the wayside. Not to be conspiratorial, but I think part of what’s happening is that cosmopolitan Western economic elites, the top 0.1% or so, have no real loyalty to the nation-state, and find them impediments to the free flow of their labor and their capital. Though few would explicitly admit this, I think that the Dubai model is quite appealing because it dispenses with the non-economic niceties. The main caution I would offer to this is that the Dubai model is probably a “high reward/high risk” play.

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