Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Democracy and association

I've formed a habit of insisting on a narrow definition of democracy, particularly in relation to liberty - arguing that democracy concerns itself with how a government is legitimized, whereas liberty has to do with its scope.

But I've been thinking lately that this may be pretty pointless. Historically people have always associated democracy with other things that don't necessarily have anything to do with it, whether positive or negative, and I've been wondering if this isn't unavoidable, whether to insist otherwise is unrealistically purist of me. Moreover, it would seem to be salient to the question of whether and how democracy develops in any given country for reasons I'll try to articulate.

This was prompted by this article about the development of "illiberal capitalism" in Russia and China. It argues that Russians, for example, seem to largely put up with Putin's authoritarianism because in the Yeltsin years democratization was associated with economic collapse and internal chaos. Dave Osler has a good post about the 'elephant trap' this situation poses for the left but I've been thinking about a more general point: at uni while reading the sort of political scientists that like to make broad sweeping generalisations about the conditions under which democratic institutions 'take', I don't recall what people associate with democracy being mentioned much. (It would normally take a historian to mention Weimar.) Yet it would seem to have been highly relevant historically.

Given the scale of industrial death, it might be controversial to suggest that the events of the 20th century gave the development of democracy a benign association for people in Europe but if I could make a broad generalisation of my own, I'd say that roughly the rise of fascism in the interwar period was associated with protectionism and the Great Depression, whereas the later development of democracy was associated with the long postwar boom. I don't think anyone would doubt, for example, that those in Eastern Europe seeking to be free from Soviet domination associated democracy not only with liberty but with prosperity. Russians did too - hence the disappointment of the Yeltsin years. This example was not, of course, lost on the Communist Party in China who rejected political liberalisation but embraced economic reform. That this has seen to have been more successful and therefore a worrying counter-example to challenge liberal democracy forms part of the argument in the FT piece linked above.

Moreover, people can make positive associations with democracy, although not in ways we might expect. While we would assume sharia law is obviously incompatible with democracy, a significant proportion of Pakistanis (pdf) do not.

I'm not sure what the point of all this is - I just wanted to record the feeling of pessimism this has left me with. This is not some relativistic argument that democracy is unsuitable for certain countries. For one thing, those who are fond of making this sort of argument usually ignore the way in which even the most brutal dictatorships feel the need to manufacture consent in elections that are either uncompetitive, as in the case of Ba'athist Iraq; characterised by corruption, intimidation and violence, as in Zimbabwe; or are not electing the people who actually run the country, as in Iran. But it is to suggest that since what people associate with democracy has in the past been something that has retarded its development, there's no reason to assume that this won't be the case in the future. China and Russia are obviously a concern here but the other example I had in mind was Iraq. I'd reject any notion of inevitability but there's a risk that democracy in Iraq and in the wider region will come to be associated, perhaps for decades, with chaos and instability, a failure to provide basic order.

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