Is There a Future for Democracy?

Tr@nsit Online

The world is changing faster than ever, and it is unclear whether modern democracy will be able to keep up with the changes. To quote A.J.P. Taylor, ‘nothing is inevitable, until it happens’, and predicting democracy’s future is no exception. In a world where the IT revolution is having profound effects on the economy, society and politics, positive and negative, where inequality in the developed world is on the rise, but where millions in the developing world are rising out of poverty, where Islamic fundamentalism appears on the rise in the Islamic world, but where in other regions there is also an increase in a non-ideological, secular approach, and where over half the world’s population is urban, it is hard to say what opportunities democracy will have, what threats there are to it, and whether its response will be effective. Will the connection between freedom and equality hold, or will it be broken – or will their relationship change under the pressure of new circumstance? Will democracy as we know it – a hybrid of government by elected officials, a free market economy and the rule of law – nevertheless survive in recognizable form?

Is There a Future for Democracy?

The Arab Spring

In some parts the prospects for democracy have never been brighter, but in others there have rarely been so many problems and doubts about its effectiveness, especially in dealing with inequality, economic distress, and global issues. The focus of democratic interest has recently been on the Arab Spring. The lessons for democracy are so far mixed, its prospects here ambivalent. On the one hand, the initial revolutions in North Africa benefited greatly from new communications technology, which made it almost impossible to stop information getting out and being shared, allowing for greater co-ordination by the revolutionaries. On the other hand, technology has done little to solve old problems of political organization and economic disorder. It has not enabled the initial revolutionaries, often young, quite secular professionals, to achieve political power, once more established, less progressive, elements in society came into play, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As in 1848, the idealistic optimism of the revolutions’ beginnings has had to face social and economic realities that militate against Western democratic values.

To some commentators, it must look as though the move to 1849, the year of reaction, has already repeated itself. The rule of a fairly pragmatic Islamist, President Morsi, in Egypt was not in itself cause for democratic despair, if he had followed the model, for instance, of the moderate Islamist government of Turkey. Instead, the army’s intervention in Egypt has been justified on the grounds that Morsi was pushing the Islamist agenda too far, in an anti-democratic manner. The fact that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also seems to be overstepping the bounds of the status quo with Turkey’s secular establishment also suggests the problems in keeping the tension between Islamist politics and modern democracy under control. The catastrophe in Syria should concentrate minds on the need for practical and moderate policies, but history is littered with examples of people not learning the obvious lessons. One of them appears to be Morsi; Erdoğan might be another. Certainly, the post-revolutionary governments of the Arab Spring seem so far, with the possible exception of Tunisia, incapable of producing effective governance. The potential extension of Iranian Islamic fundamentalism’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf and Palestine, through Hezbollah and Hamas, also should not be discounted as an anti-democratic factor. Having democracy’s supporters side with Saudi Arabia, an absolute theocratic monarchy, is frankly a peculiar outcome, but perhaps the most practical.

Prospects in South America and Africa

South America has been lately a success story for democracy. The right-wing dictatorships that so recently dominated the continent have gone. Chile, Brazil and Uruguay have confidently returned to the democratic community, and the recent Brazilian riots do not appear to change this trajectory. There are several countries, led by the late Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, which have promoted ‘Bolivarian’ democracy, putting the popular element in modern democracy ahead of its more liberal and market oriented aspects. Argentina has also pursued an independent course that veers from the modern democratic model, especially regarding financial rules. On the other hand, these countries maintain democratic forms and will probably come to resemble the other modern democracies on the continent. Then there is Cuba, a souvenir of the Cold War, still exerting a sentimental (anti-American) influence over many Central and South Americans. Yet it is likely that the Cuban regime will liberalize in the not-too-distant future and join most of the rest of the Caribbean and Central American states as functioning democracies; one hopes that includes Haiti at last. Mexico, once only formally a democratic republic, has made great advances in democratization and, despite its drug-cartel problems, is set to be a major player in pan-American politics. Assuming economic growth continues to be adequate, the prospects for democracy in Central and South America appear good.

Sub-Saharan Africa offers a better prospect for democratic progress than it has for some time, but it is still halting. Ghana, Benin, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia counted as ‘flawed democracies’ in the Democracy Index of 2011, and a more generous definition of modern democracy would include more states, such as Nigeria, Liberia, Tanzania and Senegal, perhaps Kenya, too, after the recent election there. Much of the continent is still struggling to achieve sustainable democratic norms along with general economic prosperity. For every Ghana, there is a Zimbabwe, or Democratic Republic of Congo – and even a state regarded as democratic in 2011, such as Mali, can quickly fall back to more discouraging forms of governance. Relatively prosperous countries such as South Africa are often the objects of Western investor scepticism, but South Africa continues to be democratic; Ghanaian success also suggests a democratic way forward. On the transnational level, the African Union has also proved quite active and responsible in its responses to the continent’s many crises. Post-colonial legacies are waning as an obstacle to co-operation and more free-market economic policies, so sub-Saharan Africa could become a more positive area for modern democracy.

Asia – the crux of democracy

The future of democracy will likely be decided in Asia. If India can continue to flourish as a democracy, this will be a vital support for the democratic cause. It might well spread its democratic influence further afield, to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and a newly receptive Burma, although nothing would be more helpful for India than peace with Pakistan, and for that country to solidify its democratic credentials and defuse the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Most south-east Asian states, even Malaysia, seem well on the way to being prosperous and influential democracies. Singapore has been so successful as to be a model for a sort of economically neoliberal authoritarianism, but it has shown democratizing tendencies of late and could without much difficulty join those other major democracies in the region: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.

The big question is what will happen in China, with its 1.4 billion people. It is, formally, a ‘people’s republic’ but this still means a state ruled absolutely by a dirigiste oligarchy, the Communist Party. China’s recent economic success has prompted many Chinese and others to see it as a superior, more efficient model for generating economic growth and hence wellbeing – at the expense of personal freedom. The actual net effect of China’s prosperity could well be that the new middle classes will demand more power for civil society outside the party apparatus, much as happened in nineteenth-century central Europe. Or perhaps the politics already practised within the party will simply externalize itself and form a competitive political party system out of the body of the party itself – as party leaders appeal increasingly to the interests and approval of the public at large. China will, I think, soon enough, within a generation, become a form of modern democracy, and at that point an already fairly pragmatic leadership will be more persuadable as a partner in global multilateral governance.

Russia seems to be going the other way, back to older soviet or even tsarist forms. If the West resumes economic growth, however, Russian geopolitical power and the prestige of its neo-authoritarian style should diminish and the other side of Russia – the wish to be part of the free West – will reassert itself, akin to Ukraine’s effort to strengthen contacts with the EU. Once Russia liberalizes, its remaining allies in eastern Europe and Eurasia will perforce do so also. It is a matter of when – if the West resumes growth and stays on its democratic course.

European democracy in the balance

That is a bigger ‘if’ than it should be. The current economic doldrums in Europe have been unnecessarily exacerbated by bad policy decisions, such as the insistence, led by Germany but echoed by Britain and others, on austerity, and the unwelcome return of narrow-minded interpretations of national interests. The economic travails have produced, among other things, the current Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán. Democratically elected by a massive landslide in 2010, his Fidesz party has used its absolute control of Hungary’s political system to compromise many of the liberal-democratic features of the Hungarian state. A democratically elected party is pursuing deeply antidemocratic measures in the heart of Europe. The crisis caused by Jörg Haider in Austria in 2000 is child’s play compared to Orbán’s policies in Hungary. If the European Union’s other members cannot counter Orbán’s power grab, then many of the assumptions of Europe being a community of democracies will be upended. Meanwhile, Germany’s government appears to think that outrageous levels of unemployment in southern European countries, which also have anti-democratic traditions, are quite acceptable in pursuit of economic virtue. No wonder Europe has lost the optimistic energy it possessed during the enlargement of 2004.

The current German-led policy of austerity being followed to solve Europe’s fiscal and economic crisis has the potential to break the Union in the longer term, because of the resentments it inevitably causes. It is unwise for future European solidarity, and even antidemocratic in its doctrinaire refusal to compromise, insisting on the necessity of such massive economic pain. A better policy would be to realize that economics is not a zero-sum game, and that combining greater mutual dependence with more generous financial help from the European Central Bank and deficit spending would produce greater economic growth and more financial confidence (as the American recovery has shown). Keynesian economics is much better suited to democracy than the current rigid neoliberal policies, not only because it avoids unnecessary hardship in the populace, but it also allows for more positive government action. The German, and even more inexcusably the British, governments’ rejection of Keynesianism is tragic.

Threats to democracy

The economic crisis has also undermined Europe’s pluralist embrace of diversity. It has exacerbated the very nationalism and xenophobia that partly caused it (through inadequately co-ordinated transnational responses to the financial collapse). Right-wing media corporations, their billionaire owners and their political allies have, moreover, stoked and then exploited fear of immigrants, especially Islamophobia against the many Muslim immigrants now in such countries as France, Germany and the Netherlands. This in turn was partly a reaction to another major threat to democracy, the Islamist terrorism of al-Qaeda and its affiliated jihadists, post-9/11. This growth in Islamophobia has also had a large impact in America. It might even be said that the threat of terrorism in the West is not as much of a potential long-term threat to democratic values as the Islamophobic paranoia that it has evoked as a response, especially in the rush to curtail civil liberties in favour of security and order.

There has been a justified counter-reaction to the curtailing of many individual rights when it comes to terrorism, and the expansion of the surveillance and control apparatus of the state. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp remains a dagger at the heart of civil liberties and the rule of law, and it is unnerving to think that the Internet is full of snoops. The ability of drones to ‘take out’ terrorist suspects from thousands of feet in the sky, controlled by someone thousands of miles away is also repugnant to our sense of fair play and personal freedom. Yet the libertarian paranoia created by the realization that one cannot evade the state any more is itself misguided. New technology has made the world smaller and increased the reach of the law and government, regardless of our ideological reluctance. There is no public space in Britain not under video surveillance; in the United States, the open frontier of the Wild West has effectively disappeared, as surveillance and communication technology has progressed and we are ever more dependent on the Internet – which, as the recent irresponsible revelations by Edward Snowden have shown (are we surprised?), is monitored, at varying degrees, by the intelligence services of our governments.

Physical freedom can no longer exist without democracy’s institutional defences of legal freedoms, and controls on government. It is often not even government that is the threat – it is private snooping, by the newspapers of News Corporation, for instance, that recently posed threats to privacy; the only defence against such intrusions is the state, even when they potentially come from the state itself. That, ironically, is the conclusion to be drawn from the Snowden affair – the surveillance that he revealed was not only hard to prevent in our current wired world; it was also justifiable, even, perhaps, necessary. The key point is that the government agencies are under a tight legal regimen, reinforced and expanded by the Obama administration, which has so far prevented – as far as we know – any major abuse by government agents and agencies. We have available legal and political measures by which we can control the new threats to our democratic liberties. As citizens of a democracy, we just need to be vigilant in demanding their enforcement, and make sure that the people we entrust with these powers understand and act on their responsibilities to that democracy.

Democracy and the new media

New technology is already having far-reaching effects on another vital aspect of democracy: freedom of speech and the free media. In many respects information technology and the Internet have enabled an explosion of free speech and have been instrumental in democratization. The liberating effect of citizens being able to participate in discussions and co-ordinate action not only on a national but also transnational and global level is incalculable. The Internet has been a boon for our ‘monitory democracy’, where NGOs and almost spontaneously formed pressure groups can keep a critical eye on power. Yet there is also a danger in this flood of information: the lack of gate-keepers means that we no longer have an institutional adjudication of what is true or just politicized slur. Before, ‘newspapersof- record’ or broadcast news could be relied on to tell us something close to objective truth. We could obtain well-founded opinion from the ‘op-ed’ pages of newspapers. The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph had their respective ideological preferences, but both were within the same, respectable political universe. In the chaotic, open world of today’s Web, there is not the same reliability, yet the dependable organs of public opinion, the major newspapers and broadcast stations, are being increasingly undermined by this same virtual world, when they are not being suborned by their corporate paymasters. If we lose these anchors of the public forum, as is quite possible given market trends, the danger is that ‘public opinion’ will be open to manipulation of rumour and hearsay because of too much information, rather than too little.

Yet it is also possible that the Internet will become more reliable and less open to abuse, either due to cannier consumers, self-regulation or regulation by democratically elected governments, domestically and transnationally. The Internet is not independent of private or public institutions – just as with the world financial system, it would not exist without innumerable technical conventions and rules, and there are already signs of how access can be controlled and supervised, if necessary. The trick is to make sure such control, domestic and global, is democratic and liberal, not that of an authoritarian power such as China, or – Edward Snowden and Julian Assange’s wish for asylum notwithstanding – enemies of the free media such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

A positive prognosis

The long-term prognosis for democracy is actually a positive one, if we, the people, have the political will and savvy to ensure that our elected representatives and civil servants continue to pursue the common good rather than that of special interests or themselves. The economic crisis has tested transnational and national governance in Europe, and many in the political class and even the electorate have failed (witness the bizarre Italian election in February 2013). Yet Europe is still standing, and despite the execrable levels of unemployment around the Mediterranean, violent resistance or protest against governments or Europe has been remarkably mild. Those affected appear to have decided that accepting the social bargain of democracy – on a national and European level – is still the one most likely to produce the most common (and individual) good, in the long run. That patience is not infinite, but so far it has held – it needs to be rewarded with jobs and prosperity. There has to be a remedy for Europe’s nationally articulated inequalities, as well as for the domestic increase in inequality that European states share with most other Western democracies, most notably the United States. In Europe, national special interests must not be put before the transnational solidarity that will benefit the common good.

On a domestic and global level, it bears repeating, democracies need to reassert control over money and capital, whether this means capping bankers’ bonuses, transaction taxes, or cracking down on tax havens and tax loopholes. Financial and fiscal discipline should be enforced for long-term economic benefit, but with consideration of social justice and equity. The public good ultimately comes before the rights of creditors. Bankers and the financial sector should be the servants of the public, not their masters – otherwise democracy succumbs to plutocracy.

Much of the story outside of Europe and the West is one of continuing improvement in the standard of living and the booming of the middle class, which means democracy will likely expand. In the West, economic recovery will most likely confirm or restore the faith of the voters in their democratic systems. The survival of democracy is, however, not a given. We cannot rely solely on objective protections to save our democracy from ourselves, especially in societies with vast economic and social inequalities. We need to ensure that there is a place for the democratic popular will – our will – to assert itself where appropriate, in defending the people, and their democracies, from the threats that they face in a rapidly changing world, both internationally and domestically. The answer to the threat to democracies from without, especially financial and economic forces beyond national control, would be the provision of some sort of international level of democratic control; and the answer to the threat from within, especially vast inequalities in income and hence in power, would be a greater assertion of each society’s control over its collective human and capital resources. Both, as we have seen, are possible. It just takes the political will of the people to make sure they occur.


Steven Beller is a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University, Washington DC, and a former Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

Is There a Future for Democracy?Excerpt from Steven Beller, Democracy: All That Matters, Hodder & Stoughton, London 2013, with kind permission by the author and the publisher.




This piece is a supplement to the most recent issue of Transit dedicated to the future of democracy. Further additional contributions:

Sławomir Sierakowski
Open Letter to the Parties: Time for the Neo-Dissidents

Charles Taylor
Wieviel Gemeinschaft braucht die Demokratie? (1992)