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Abe shows totalitarian bent

by Takamitsu Sawa

The “old” Liberal Democratic Party that former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is supposed to have destroyed is making a strong resurgence as is the traditional “triangle” of the LDP, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren).

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe goes abroad, he is often accompanied by as many as 100 business leaders as he busies himself with exporting nuclear reactors and other infrastructural items through “top-level sales campaigns.”

Furthermore, defying the traditional practice of determining wage levels through labor-management negotiations, Abe has asked Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura to raise the wages of workers and this request has been handed down to Keidanren member corporations.

His intervention in wage negotiations clearly indicates that Japan is a nation of highly controlled state capitalism, transcending a free market economy. Moreover, should a constitutional revision come to restrict freedom of speech, Japan would become a de facto totalitarian state.

At least at this point, the results of “Abenomics” — economic policies pursued by Abe’s government — have fallen far short of being dramatic. Preliminary figures of the National Accounts Statistics show that the growth rate of private consumption, which is an engine of economic growth, has been on a downward trend — decreasing from 0.8 percent in the January-March period of 2013 to 0.6 percent in April-June and to 0.1 percent in July-September.

Meanwhile, thanks to an unprecedented easy-money policy adopted by the Bank of Japan, the value of yen against other currencies is falling and stock prices are going up, although there have been temporary slowdowns in the process.

But even with a cheap yen, exports in terms of volume are on a declining trend contrary to expectations. This has coupled with increased import of fossil fuels necessitated by the total suspension of the operation of nuclear power plants, causing imports to exceed exports. Thus Japan has become a trade deficit country.

I had expected Abe to undertake political reform including constitutional revisions after confirming that his Abenomics has worked well. But my expectations have turned out to be off the mark.

Apparently having gained self-confidence after his LDP won a resounding victory in the Upper House election in July, he submitted to the Diet two major legislative bills — a bill to protect specially designated state secrets and a bill to create the National Security Council, patterned after a U.S. body bearing the same name.

Although Abe has succeeded in having the Diet enact these two bills, it should be remembered that history offers numerous examples of impetuous and intemperate excess leading to self-destruction.

Koizumi’s structural reform plans were aimed at turning the market into a free and competitive one and thus creating an environment in which the market will give full play to its potential. In contrast, Abenomics follows the line of state capitalism with a high degree of control. This means that it will deprive individuals and corporations of freedoms in the economic sphere.

On the social front, the Abe administration also has a strong totalitarian tendency because of its move toward depriving individuals of freedoms. Such a tendency is exemplified by the enactment of the state secrets law and its call for a constitutional revision designed to restrict freedom of speech and basic human rights if they run counter to “public interest and public order.”

I would like to add, as a reminder, that conservatism emphasizes libertarianism in the economic sphere and order and traditions in the social and political sphere.

Former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Koizumi were pure-blooded conservatives as they advocated “small government” and regarded the market as omnipotent while visiting Yasukuni Shrine to pay their respects to the war dead.

In the United States, the Republican Party follows conservatism while the Democratic Party advocates liberalism. Liberalists insist that government intervention is indispensable because, if everything related to the economy is totally placed in the hands of the market, imbalances like unemployment and instability like the boom-bust cycle cannot be avoided. At the same time, liberalists seek to guarantee maximum freedoms in the social and political fronts.

The Abe administration is neither conservative nor liberal. In short, I cannot help calling it “totalitarian.” Yet, very seldom do I encounter opinions criticizing the Abe administration for endangering freedoms. Quite belatedly, on Nov. 28, a group of 31 scholars issued a statement expressing their opposition to the state secrets law.

Major newspapers are divided into two camps — one group supporting the law and the other opposing it. There once were heated debates in newspapers for and against Abenomics, but they seem to have subsided.

Since the Constitution has not yet been revised, freedom of speech is presumably still guaranteed. But journalistic bravery in expressing criticism appears to have been paralyzed either because mass media have been overwhelmed by the Abe administration’s high spirits or because they are under overt or covert pressure.

I cannot help thinking that the current Japan is drifting away from the modern Western European ideals based on liberalism, democracy and individualism.

In her recent book titled “NOT FOR PROFIT: Why Democracy Needs Humanities,” Martha C. Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, issued a warning against neglecting knowledge gained through humanities for the sake of pursuing short-term profits and economic growth.

With regard to both natural and social science, she wrote: “When practiced at their best, moreover, these other disciplines are infused by what we might call the spirit of humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in.”

She added: “Cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake.”

Under the Abe administration, there is a growing tendency to allocate larger budgets to university departments of natural science, engineering, medicine and pharmacology — sectors considered to contribute to economic growth. Thus the tendency to neglect humanities and social science is becoming stronger.

I would like to ask readers: Which country would you prefer not to live in — a country without economic growth or a country without democracy.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    There is nothing ‘defacto’ about the threat posed by politicians held to arbitrary, collectivist ‘social standards of value’, i.e. the common good; whatever that is. That threat has long been there. The fact is that Abe needs only a scientific rationalisation or national emergency to usurp opposition. The freedom to express of journalists is really a mute form of security, given that they are as bad (i.e. anti-intellectual) as the conservative threat. i.e. Their blanket assessment that any constitutional change is bad.
    This is a rather good article, but conservatism should not be conflated with libertarianism. It is by default that many libertarians are conservatives. It is not sufficient to be an advocate of small govt, if you betray the underlying principle in the realm of socio-political values.The Republican Party “conservatism” expanded govt spending; so that is contrary to your thesis. I say, don’t look for integrity in a political system based on extortion. As soon as libertarians, like ACT Party in NZ, LDP in Australia, LP in USA seek representation for ‘extortive influence’ in the legislature, they have ceased to be libertarian. Political rights are impossible without economic rights. Mind is implausible without body/material well-being; most particularly in a specialised ‘modern’ monetary economy. Capitalism gave it; collectivism shall take it away; often in the name of some incoherent notion of good.

  • Joachim

    Japanese culture tends toward hierarchical collectivism, but under the postwar order the lack of aggressive state coercion has contributed greatly to economic prosperity, bureaucratic heavy-handedness notwithstanding…The statist temptation grows when traditional behavioral patterns unravel, when the center no longer, when common sense no longer rules, and, instead, everything we do is, as in America, overseen by sixteen cops, nineteen lawyers, and six judges.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    Basically they are people who think that small or incidental problems ‘enactments’ or the ‘competitive’ political market place will result in a new way of leader who will make things better. This is true of conservatives & liberals. They will drive us to extremist governments whose policy proscriptions will be dictated by ‘national emergencies’. The first one being the evolving currency/debt crisis.

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      Meanwhile, they will characterize all deviation from their status quo as “extremist”.

      Heh.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    Don’t agree. Their moral righteousness does not rest on a ‘misunderstanding’ in politics. There are deep-seated unresolved issues. You think ‘capitalism’ is being vilified? Well, let’s go deeper? How do you think the reputation of unapologetic ‘self-interest’ is standing up? Looking a bit turgid after a stockmarket boom? Let’s go deeper still? Do you feel rationality is the foundation for political discourse, or do you think ‘numbers’ based extortion might be running the gambit?
    All else is good :)

    • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

      That depends how one defines self-interest, and rationality. Which means, it depends on how one defines the standard of the “good”.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        Yes it does.