Globalization and democracy

The Democracy Manifesto signals that the time has come to open ourselves to the many ways in which the demos, that is, the people, organize themselves around the world to take charge of their own destiny.
Jorge Heine
11 May 2011

When demonstrations against the government start to take place even in such sleepy places as Swaziland, you know there is something afoot. People are not ready to take it any more, and governments had better beware. Absolute monarchies, like the Swazi and the Saudi ones, are especially vulnerable. Arab autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and  Muhamar Gaddaffi are criticized for their alleged intention to perpetuate themselves in power through their offspring. Well, by definition, that is what monarchies do. And while constitutional monarchies have a place in today’s world, it has become more and more difficult to justify the existence of absolute ones. Yet, only rarely do we see such enlightened kings as that of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who purposefully dismantled his own absolute powers to move the Himalayan mountain kingdom toward constitutional rule, even abdicating the throne in so doing.

Much has been made of the alleged power of social media in fostering the 2011 uprisings across Africa and the Middle East.  There is something naïve in attributing only beneficial qualities to technical tools that can be used as much to foster popular uprisings as to facilitate repression, by accessing those very social networks to identify their users. The much more significant question raised in the course of 2011 so far is that of the relationship between globalization and democracy.

Globalization, that is, the steady rise in trans-border flows of goods, services, capital, symbols and cultural products that we have seen over the past three decades or so, has gone hand in hand with an equally steady expansion of democratic ideas around the world. The notion that people ought to rule  themselves and through their representatives - and not through some self-appointed masters - has percolated and stuck. Yet, while the central idea of democracy as self-rule, in its broad contours, is the same everywhere, the specific manifestations of it will vary from region to region and from country to country.

Democracy is spreading and it will be with us to stay. That is the good news. The bad news is that, through some sleight of hand, this powerful idea that has mobilized so many people and so much human energy around the world, has been turned by some into a highly parochial, procedural version of what self rule is all about. It is the specific political practices of a few (ironically) self-appointed countries around the world, mostly in the North Atlantic, that have come to be defined as setting the tone and the parameters for what democracy is and is not.

Globalization, by spreading the idea of democracy, has helped to liberate people from many a dictatorial yoke. But globalization also embodies the danger that a ‘one-size fits all’ model of democracy be imposed from abroad and from above. As Manuel Castells has so eloquently demonstrated, we do live in the information society. The information society, in turn, is based on networks, a new, less hierarchical way of structuring organizations, and one in which the new currency of the realm is knowledge and the ability to handle it. This has also meant an upsurge of efforts to categorize, classify and rank countries around the world according to a variety of ‘democracy indexes’, which purport to tell us how democratic any given country is. And this is not a mere academic exercise. Real-life consequences flow from it. Funds are disbursed, loans are approved or rejected and countries are suspended from international organizations as a result of these rankings.

One of the great paradoxes of all this is that movements and governments that empower people and bring large numbers of the formerly disenfranchised into the political realm are often the targets of these self-appointed ‘democracy policemen’.  A number of countries in Latin America, like Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and others have experienced this treatment. New leaders, new constitutions, new rights for the hitherto marginalized aboriginal peoples have brought about enormous changes in these countries in the course of the past decade. Bolivian President Evo Morales is the first Amerindian to be elected head of state in the Americas. Lula was the first trade union leader to become president of Brazil. Rafael Correa has brought political stability to Ecuador and a willingness to stand up against the oil majors to defend his country’s rights. Yet, far from being welcome as major architects of the deepening of democracy in South America, some of these leaders are often demonized as populists by this fake international consensus about what democracy is and is not.

Democracy is the only game in town, and those that ignore this, like former president Laurent  Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, who overstayed his welcome, do so at their peril. But this cannot mean that the participatory, popular dimension of democracy is slighted for the sake of a narrowly procedural vision of this form of government. Throughout the Global South we are witnessing the rise of newly emerging powers, that will set the tone for much of the twenty-first century. The fastest-growing and most dynamic economies today are not in the North, but in the South. Not all of them are democracies. But India is the largest democracy in the world. It is living proof that many of the standard verities about the so-called ‘prerequisites for democracy’ developed in the political science literature in the fifties and sixties, and largely inspired by the history of North Atlantic countries, have limited application elsewhere. Winston Churchill famously said that “India is no more a united nation that the Equator is”, and assumed it would never hold. Yet, sixty years after independence, India has proven to be much more resilient than many of its smaller, richer and more homogeneous neighbors, all of which were assumed to be more likely to develop strong and stable democratic institutions. A recent book by Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan and Yogendra Yadav, Crafting State Nations: India and other Multinational Democracies, elaborates on the fascinating reasons behind India’s democratic success.

The time has come to deparochialize our notion of democracy, to cease to believe that it has exclusively western roots and forms, and to open ourselves to the many ways in which the demos, that is, the people, organize themselves around the world to take charge of their own destiny.

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