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Was the 20th Century the age of democracy?

In Foreign Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 12:22 am


This essay will start by outlining the reasons for thinking the 20th century was the age of democracy, namely the rapid increase in the number of democracies, due to the failure of alternatives to democracy and increased economic development.  However, this essay will argue that the 20th century was not in fact the age of democracy (on a proper account of what it means to be democratic) due to foreign intervention to crush democracy and, more significantly, a lack of real self-rule in apparently democratic countries.

The statistics suggest that the 20th century was the age of democracy, meaning the century in which democratic governance became predominant.  Professor John Keane points out that “ in the year 1900, when monarchies and empires predominated, there were no states that could be judged as representative democracies by the standard of universal suffrage for competitive multi-party elections. By 1950…. there were 22 democracies accounting for 31 per cent of the world’s population….by the end of the twentieth century…. out of 192 countries, 119 resembled representative democracies (58.2 per cent of the globe’s population), with 85 of these countries (38 per cent of the world’s inhabitants) enjoying forms of political democracy respectful of basic human rights, freedom of the press and the rule of law.”  However, the statistics alone do not establish that the 20th century was the age of democracy – that long-term, not easily reversible, historical processes had led to this development – for all the statistics tell us, these countries could have all reverted to being dictatorships by the beginning of the 21st century.  Two factors may suggest that the 20th century was the age of democracy.  Firstly, the 20th century saw the failure of alternatives to democracy.  Absolute monarchy was dealt a serious blow by the failure of the Tsars to govern Russia adequately, for example being humiliated in war against Japan, and being unable to supply sufficient food to urban dwellers during the (again disastrous) First World War.  Fascism and Communism were also (largely) discredited, not least by the mass starvation and repression evident in Communist China and the Soviet Union. Secondly, global economic development rapidly increased.  One estimate puts the increase in global GDP between 1900 and 2000 at 1800%.  Fukuyama argues that there is a correlation between the level of development as measured by per capita GDP and democracy”.  Countries with a per capita GDP of over $6000 are vastly more likely to be democratic: indeed “we’ve seen a number of countries that have industrialized, like South Korea and Taiwan, and right on schedule, when they hit around that $6,000 income level they develop democratic movements… It has something to do with the growth of the middle class – people that own private property have something to lose and therefore want to participate in the political system.”  Thus global economic development, a key feature of 20th century world history, has significantly contributed towards making the 20th century the age of democracy.

However, three arguments will now be levelled against this thesis.  Firstly, that the 20th century has seen significant opposition to the spread of democracy.  America, the self-proclaimed “land of the free”, was involved in the overthrowing of numerous democratically elected leaders.  The election of Salvador Allende was seen as a disaster by Nixon, who promptly authorised $10m to stop Allende coming to power or to unseat him.  Kissinger said of the eventual coup, after which the dictator General Pinochet came to power, that the US “didn’t do it,” but “we helped them…created the conditions as great as possible”.  The CIA also organised a coup to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in 1954; some human rights activists put the death toll for the resulting unrest at 250,000.

Secondly, there are still vast numbers of people living in powerful countries that are not democracies.  Take the example of China.  The advantages of its undemocratic nature have even been praised by Western commentators, especially as regards the financial crisis; a fiscal stimulus package was quickly passed, without political wrangling of the sort seen in America (at least in public).  Also, the fall of the Soviet Union did not spawn a new breed of democracies: Freedom House’s report on democracy and civil liberties judged that “of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven countries are rated ‘not free’, four are ‘partly free’, and one [Ukraine] is ‘free’ ”.  For example, the main opposition party is banned in Kazakhstan, resulting in President Nursultan Nazarbayev winning the 2006 election with 91% of the vote.  Russia itself is also substantially undemocratic; as Gary Kasparov said in an address to the New York Democracy Forum, there is a “lack of a free press, the persecution of political opposition, and the steady demolition of democratic institutions… Aristotle himself couldn’t find a better definition of “oligarchy” than what we have in the Kremlin today.”

Thirdly – and this is perhaps the most fundamental and important argument – those countries widely acknowledged to be “democratic” are only democratic to a very limited extent.  It seems (to me) that democracy’s great appeal lies in its promise of self-rule: that we can be citizens, not subjects, choosing for ourselves the laws under which we are to live.  The citizen in a democratic state is fully autonomous: “every person, while uniting himself with all…obey[s] only himself and remain[s] as free as before” (Rousseau).  As mentioned in a previous essay, Wolff argued – and I have not yet seen a successful refutation – that both representation and majority-rule ensured that what we call “democracy” does not, cannot, allow citizens to be autonomous.  True democracy – understood as the the political and social arrangement that fulfils that inspiring promise of self-rule – is impossible.  Thus the 20th century cannot be described as the age of democracy.

This definition of democracy does seem rather restrictive.  There is clearly some difference between dictatorship and what is normally described as “democracy”, even granting the constraints of majority-rule and representation.  Can a more inclusive definition, that does grant that a “democratic state” is possible, rescue the thesis that the 20th century is the age of democracy?  It seems not, because existing democracies fall short of even this more limited ideal of democracy.  In America, the poor, the black, the powerless are systematically disenfranchised.  13% of black American men are prohibited from voting because of a felony conviction, which can be as minor as timber larceny.  (Apparently Abraham Lincoln’s great democratic statement, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent”, only applies to those in the government’s favour.)  In Britain, under FPTP not all votes are worth the same, with political parties aiming at the 200,000 “swing voters” in the mythical “Middle England” whom strategists think are key to victory.  Only 22% of the electorate voted for Labour in 2005; is this not moving dangerously close towards oligopoly?  Furthermore, widening economic inequalities have resulted in an unequal distribution of political power.  For example, the majority of the population are effectively unable to choose the taxation rates it would prefer, due to the threat of capital flight and “brain drain”, as recent discussions over the wisdom of the 50% tax rates showed.

Overall the 20th century was not the age of democracy.  It was a century that saw significant obstacles to democracy, most importantly military intervention by America and widening economic inequality, undermining popular sovereignty.  A further factor not adequately explored in this essay is the impact of globalisation, which has shifted power away from nation-states (democratic or otherwise) to unaccountable supranational organisations to a great extent.  For example, the 1970s in particular saw the IMF and World Bank taking control of many developing countries’ economic and social policies, due to structural adjustment programmes.  Thus perhaps the 20th century is best described as the age of globalisation.

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