Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Democracy and....Development?

There is an almost common sense assumption that democracy is good for post-colonial societies, and that it goes hand in hand with almost any understanding of development. According to everyone, democracy and development are positively correlated: one leads to the other, and both are obviously a 'good' thing. Democracy allows for participation, empowerment, and opportunities for the masses to achieve some level of social justice.

But is it really that simple? Of course not. There are a lot of problems with the simple equation of democracy = development. History has shown that development often precedes democracy, and examples of the past thirty years have shown that all rapidly developing countries (East Asia, China) had neither a clean bill of human rights nor a democratic structure of any kind; in fact, they were quite authoritarian. I would go so far as to argue that a certain level of stability is necessary to achieve economic growth-- a stability, rarely, if ever, found in democratic systems...particularly those that would evolve in a post-colonial state. But my focus is not on this...I would rather focus my discussion around this question: Are the current democracy-promotion strategies dominating development policy really a positive improvement in Third World societies? Or are they only masking the true intentions of democracy promoters? Many argue that any form of democracy is naturally a social democracy: assuming human rights are upheld, the majority will always vote in favour of policies that help alleviate poverty. Considering most of the Third World are poor, then logically it follows that those poor will vote-in electorates that would help lift them out of poverty. But if that's the case, then how come we have yet to see a country pull itself out of poverty through democracy?

I think the reasons for this have a lot to do with everyone's favourite uncle, Globalisation [insert Jaws theme song here]. Before we start throwing the G-word around like nobody's business, let's really examine this, simplistic-blog-stylez. Democracy relies on a strong state that maintains some level of autonomy and legitimacy. It needs to represent and uphold the wishes of its citizens, and it needs to command their respect. The past decade has seen as erosion of state autonomy and legitimacy: global forces have rendered the nation state unable to control the economic and political spheres of its society. When this happens, it doesn't matter who is elected into office at the state-level, because global capital is authoritarian in nature: it cannot be held accountable for the political and economic reprecussions it has on any state. Thus, for one, globalisation makes the state unable to control its economy, which in turn renders any democracy useless. What we find then is democratic structures at the national level, but authoritarianism at the global level. Ultimately, this low-intensity democracy is about as useful as Bob Geldof is in solving 'African' problems.

Secondly, the nation-state itself is a problematic concept, and in recent years has played less and less of a role in community-building. Gone are the days of the anti-colonial nationalism of the '50s and '60s; we are finding ourselves in a world that is slowly but surely creating transational linkages, of which state democracy plays a little part. Technology is producing a world where we are able to join groups, communities, and associations that are not limited by state borders. Is our current understanding of democracy relevant when we don't even think of ourselves as necessarily belonging to the state?

There are obviously a few more arguments that can be made, but perhaps those shall be left for another time. For now, there is one final question to address: why, then, do we see this huge rise in democracy promotion, led by Western donors and financial institutions? Firstly, democracy fits in beautifully with the neoliberal agenda: as a system that lowers rent-seeking, corruption, and transaction costs, it is perfectly compatible with free-market ideology. Throw in a few buzz words like 'freedom' and 'participation', and its a sexy image to present to a Third World population devastated by false hopes and empty bellies. Secondly, democracy legitimises exploitation: Arabs can't complain about their economic and social problems when they have the power to change their government and "make a difference"; in this sense democracy is what Gramsci would refer to as a 'passive revolution': while there is a change in the type of people in power, it does not translate into a change in the social structure/ structural conditions; the hegemony of global capital remains, and is legitimised by the inapplicable system of state democracy.

What do I suggest? I would say we need to re-examine the concept of democracy, as well as the concept of 'human rights', in order to make both more applicable to the current conditions of globalisation. This entails 'globalising' both concepts, and removing the 'state' from democracy (I really don't know if this is possible-- any ideas?). Of course theories of 'global governance' are not something I want to get into: theory and practice are highly disjointed. While the UN could theoretically provide a good avenue for transnational democracy to form, real politik makes it a highly unlikely solution. Global civil society/ transnational social movements? Perhaps, but again, theories on both are still in their early stages of formation, and I don't believe things such as the World Social Forum are anything more than a way for white hippies to clean their conscience and get a nice tan.
Sorry this was a long, boring postie. I promise more fun times in the next one. Actually, no I don't.

No comments: