Democracy promotion and crisis of democracy in the West

The crises of the western model of democracy mean that more than ever ‘the field is open’ (Zizek) for paradigm shifts in thinking on the relationship between democracy and markets – in the west, and in the promulgation of the west’s agendas in third countries, through democracy support.
Milja Kurki
3 January 2012

The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society… are losing their traditional rationale and content. Freedom of thought, speech, and conscience were – just as free enterprise, which they served to promote and protect – essentially critical ideas, designed to replace an obsolescent material and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one. Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they had become an integral part… Independence of thought, autonomy and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function… (Herbert Marcuse, 1968)

These words of warning about the failing nature of liberal democracy in the context of capitalist industrial society by critical theorist Herbert Marcuse resonate powerfully in today’s crisis of western democracy. Although for many years critics have pointed out serious problems with the liberal capitalist model of democracy which western governments take for granted – and promote abroad –, the limitations of liberal democratic governance have not appeared clearly to us. Importantly, the limits to real democratic opposition and criticism in the context of capitalist accumulation strategies have gone un-noted. It is only today, in the context of the most severe economic crisis in decades, that the problems of this model and its variants become fully visible.

When in the 1990s critics of development and economic policy paradigms promoted by the IMF and the World Bank criticised the structural adjustment programmes implemented in Africa and Asia, and when these critics pointed to the lack of democratic legitimacy possessed by the governments which implemented the austerity measures there, who would have thought that in 2011 in Europe, too, technocratic governments are allowed, even encouraged, to push through deeply unpopular austerity programs, while the calls for ‘real democracy’ from the ‘European street’ are sidestepped for the benefit of long-term stability of global economic governance.

Such developments have important consequences for the democracy promotion efforts of Western states. What legitimacy does the EU’s democracy promotion policy have when the EU itself tolerates what seems like undemocratic practices within EU member states, such as the discouragement of democratic referenda, technocratic care-taker governments, and so on? Why should Egyptian, Kyrgyzstani, or Ukrainian elites, or populations, listen to Europeans lecturing them on democratic governance? Or anti-corruption? Or sustainable economic development? What authority do such lessons have today? Why should these countries place their trust in the models of democracy and economic governance promoted, as suggested by democracy promoters, ‘in their interests’, when the interests of democratic publics even in the EU member states can be pushed to one side for the benefit of a specific economic project?

These criticisms do not only apply to the EU at the heart of the debt storm today. We should also ask: why should states compete to fulfil the governance criteria of the American government’s Millennium Challenge Account or implement American NGO’s democracy aid projects, when the US itself is showing signs of governmental break down? Unable to break the deadlock on the debt crisis, but simultaneously more than able to accommodate various lobby organisation’s wishes on the most incredulous issues? The US model of democracy arguably looks hardly attractive to any aspirant democratic activist in the developing world today.

China, in the meanwhile, is making an attractive play for business and development projects in many third countries. Unconcerned with hubristic governance criteria, it encourages co-operation on what seem more ‘equal’ grounds and does not appear to impose ‘democratic’ conditionalities on its aid or investment decisions. Why should developing states not develop these contacts?

The crises of the Western models of the economy and politics mean that more than ever ‘the field is open’ (Zizek) for paradigm shifts in thinking on the relationship between democracy and markets – in the West, and in the promulgation of the West’s agendas in third countries through democracy support.

A politico-economic model of democracy support

Research shows that a rhetorically fuzzy, but at the same time operationally rather rigid, politico-economic model of democracy emerges from the democracy support practices of Western governments and international organisations. While seemingly attuned to ‘social justice’ and ‘development’ aims, many Western democracy promoters in operational terms reproduce a remarkably, if not always consistently, neoliberal economic and political agenda.

What this means is that despite acceptance of the need to move away from pure free markets and narrow proceduralist democracy, the politico-economic model which informs action is still, it would seem, embedded within a (variant of the) neoliberal discourse: minimally welfare providing pro-market, pro-competition, pro-entrepreneurial states is what is envisioned in the EU neighbourhood, in Africa and in the Middle East. This envisioned liberal state is democratic in that it functions in terms of elections and multi-party representation, as well as possessing a strong independent civil society sector, which has a certain capacity, if needed, to also provide key services within the state. This state is liberal-democratic and liberal-capitalist, even if it offers basic welfare rights, and social defences against poverty and instability.

The promotion of this model is conducted through market democratic means. With the hey-day of liberal internationalism past, less strategic or directly interventionist democracy support is implemented today. Instead of funding specific organisations, both the US and the EU now rather fund civil society organisations that are to apply for or submit a tender for development aid funds. These civil society actors should conceive of themselves as the correct type of self-managing, self-responsible entrepreneurial actors as to be able to take advantage of ‘democratic’ competitions for funds provided by the EU, the US and other donors. Thus, not only is market democracy promoted but the tools through which it is promoted implicitly conform to this model.

These practices are now at the crossroads - how long can democracy promoters promote market democracy through market democratic methods? If democracy promotion is indeed a ‘market’ as the US and the EU like to think of it today, how long are there customers for the kinds of democracy promotion goods that the US and the EU seek to supply?

Democracy promotion: need for new democratic dialogue

For a fair while yet, many would point out. While the models of democracy of the West may be problematic, the shifts in democracy support to less interventionist strategies would seem to imply that less ‘pushing’ will be involved in Western democracy aid in the future. Already the shift to a ‘local ownership’ discourse manifests this, while also ensuring that control over local projects is manageable through external project aid management methods. Also, the decline in aid funds, market analysts would contend, will create additional demand for the limited funds left in the pot. Further, many would remind us that democracy aid has always, at least in part, been about the target countries ‘playing the West’ for funds: democracy aid is an area of competition which will be used for actions providing employment but also suitable shifts in power relations for certain elites in target states. Thus, regardless of the declining fortunes of Western democracy aid, there will always be takers for Western money in the target countries.

This may well be the case: the Western democracy aid project may be weakened but not fundamentally undermined by the present crisis. Even so, it would seem that Western democracy support must take place in a significantly altered global political context. Far gone are the triumphalist days at the end of the Cold War, as are the hopeful days for a Europe of the many. BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and CIVETS (Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) now compete for power and provide, if not a uniform vision, an alternative set of avenues for development of economic and political governance. Democratic freedoms may continue to be universal, yet the specific democratic and economic visions of the West may not.

In this context the pluralism and the contested nature of the meaning of democracy and the importance of understanding this meaning in relation to its politico-economic context are finally at the brink of being recognised and debated. In Egypt there is interest in social democracy; in Latin America for participatory democracy. At the same time many new democrats – both in third countries and in Europe – point to the need for global democratic reform of the financial and economic systems for the structural injustices to be corrected. Others highlight the transnational nature of democratic activism today and what could be called the ‘radical democratic’ nature of democratic advocacy.

These are all openings, if not for more western democracy support along the usual lines (which may in fact be undermined by such debates), for more serious democratic debate globally. Indeed, if democratic debate about democracy’s meaning should be central to democratisation, it could be said that the democracy promotion agenda with its confidence in its promotion of (by and large liberal capitalist) democracy has in some respects stifled rather than encouraged democratic developments - in the West and the rest.

It is time to see that the ideological belief in the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ limits not only democracy’s meaning to a potentially meaningless technocratic ideal (as Marcuse warned) but the very democratisation processes themselves, which in the end, have to involve participation and contestation over politics and economics by democratic publics. Arguably, populations in many target countries of democracy support have for some time been aware of this limitation of liberal representational politics in the context of global capitalism. Finally, populations in the West, subject perhaps more heavily than those elsewhere to the ideological power of the belief in the superiority of Western democracy and capitalism, may also be seeing the light.

What might this mean for democracy support? Three key issues emerge. First, a new level of humility and willingness to listen needs to characterize democracy support. The West cannot continue telling the rest how to democratise in the context of its own failing economic and political performance. It needs to also admit its own hubristic policies in the Middle East and accept that perhaps a much less interventionist strategy is now what the locals want.

Second, it needs to acknowledge and accept more room for discussion over alternative politico-economic models of democracy. Democracy’s meaning is contested; always has been, always will be. Ignoring this and promoting under technical guises very particular ideological models will not help generate credibility of discredited Western democracy support agencies. Only open and contestation-generating debate on democracy’s meaning will suffice in enabling target populations to engage with the meaning, extent, scope and limitations of different models of democracy. This does not mean that the West has to accept the democratic legitimacy of non-democratic ideological pretenders, or withdraw from liberal democracy support, but it does mean that democracy promoters should at least openly consider the inherently ideological and contested nature of any democracy support activity and the existence of legitimate alternatives, or extensions, to the liberal democratic politico-economic model – be they social, participatory, or global democratic.

Third, in the current context any reform of democracy support has to go hand in hand with a revitalisation of the debate on democracy in the West. An internal debate on democracy’s meaning in the EU and the US is just as necessary as debate on democracy’s meaning in Egypt or Syria – as the Occupy movements across the West show. Very different tools and policy frameworks then are required: ones that are less about telling people what democracy looks like and more about generating reflective thought about what it can look like – in the West as well as the rest. Democratic realism based on the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra has failed and given way to the promise of democratic re-visioning and real dialogue and contestation of democracy’s meaning.

These challenges require a deep change of attitude within democracy promotion agencies, which will be difficult to achieve. Yet, it is by no means impossible if tools to debate democracy’s meaning (rather than mere measurement of its quality in relation to technical benchmarks – the current obsession) are now seriously developed in foreign policy and democracy aid circles. It is precisely such tools that we have been developing in the hope that someday the time is ripe for a critical democratic theory to make a return to debate on democracy and democracy promotion. To our surprise, it would seem that today the moment is as opportune as ever for such tools to be seriously considered, not only by civil society movements but also foreign policy and democracy aid practitioners.


The research leading to these results has been funded by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) ERC grant agreement 202 596. All views remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Community. The author is the Principal Investigator of the ERC funded project ‘Political Economies of Democratisation’ (2008-2012) based at Aberystwyth University.

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