Friday, January 28, 2011

Democracy is a goal, not a starting point

Praveen Swami in the UK Telegraph expresses pessimism that the anti-authoritarian protest movements in the Middle East will result in a blossoming of democracy in the region:
I’d like to believe that the rising tide of popular protest will sweep aside the region’s authoritarian kleptocracies, bring about democratisation and address the problems of its peoples.

The first of these possibilities might just be realised. The second is less likely. The third, I fear, is fantasy.

Referring to the self-immolation of a Tunisian man that set off the revolt in that country, Swami points out that the demise of authoritarian regimes is a necessary but wholly insufficient condition to create freedom and democracy:
Even if the fire Mr Bouaziz lit razes authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, though, it is unlikely to make a huge amount of difference. That’s because the real problem isn’t authoritarian or Islamism or any other -ism, which are but symptoms of a far deeper malaise: the lack of a functional political culture.

Political life in the Middle East has been narcotised by two powerful drugs: oil money and western aid. The powerful patronage networks this cash has engendered, have undermined the integrity of the polity itself. Regimes have been able to defer badly needed reforms. More important, civil society itself has had little incentive to negotiate the condition we call modernity, which demands fundamental changes of attitudes on everything from gender to knowledge.

The one thing Tunisia does have in common with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa is what demographers call a “youth bulge”. Tunisians aged between 15 and 24 made up 21 percent of the population in 2005. Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, the figures are even higher.

Each year, millions of young people seeking to build a life meet with frustration –the root of the rage we’re seeing on the streets. Youth unemployment ranges, across the region, at between 20 and 40 percent.

If the end of authoritarianism is necessary but insufficient, democratization in and of itself is not enough to make up the insufficiency:
The received wisdom is democracy will somehow solve the problem. This sounds good, but isn’t true. Democracy is a process, not an outcome in itself. Processes don’t guarantee outcomes.

Like people everywhere, residents of the Middle East seek peace and prosperity. But dealing with the problems confronting the region calls for cultural, political and economic transformation of an order that will dwarf Eastern Europe’s transition to a market economy. There there’s nothing to show the protest movements in the Middle East have a leadership with the vision to bring them about.

The democratic successors of today’s authoritarian regimes will find themselves hard-pressed to deliver change, for much the same reasons their predecessors did: the changes needed are too large, and the solutions too painful.

It's certainly true that processes don't guarantee outcomes. But where Swami says "democracy is a process, not an outcome in itself," I would characterize it a little differently:

The building of democracy is a process that leads ideally to the outcome of a stable and robust democracy. The process uses democracy as a tool, but it is not the most important tool nor the first tool that should be brought to bear.

Autocracies that allow the development of a middle class, a functioning economy with adequate employment opportunities, and a culture that values individual freedom can transition successfully to democracy: Taiwan, South Korea and Chile are examples. Most autocracies are prone to corruption, nepotism and suppression of individual freedom, and when they fall, they do not transition to stable democracies: they tend to fall to anarchy or to a replacement autocrat.

So I fully agree that stable democracies will not flourish in former autocracies unless and until they undergo cultural and economic transformations to match their political transformations.

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