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Dhaka Tribune

Rethinking democracy: Scepticism is on the rise

The rise of China where the discussion of security and stability trump liberty and democracy is beginning to provide an alternative model for the countries outside the spectrum of democracy

Update : 30 Mar 2024, 01:03 AM

The optimism surrounding the global proliferation of democracy, often referred to as the globalization of democracy, was an idea that captured the attention of many scholars. This was especially prominent during the so-called "third wave" of democracy, which commenced in the 1970s with the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Southern European countries like Portugal, Greece, and Spain, making way for democratic systems. 

Soon, Latin America followed suit, witnessing democratic uprisings that liberated Argentina (1983), Brazil (1988), and Chile (1990) from military and bureaucratic authoritarian rule. The wave reached Asia with the popular overthrow of the Marcos family's rule in 1986. South Korea and Taiwan also experienced transitions from military regimes to democracies in 1987, and later in Indonesia in 1998 when a popular movement forced General Suharto out of office.

The optimism surrounding the globalization of democracy received a boost with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. The newly independent countries, previously under Soviet control, aspired to adopt democratic systems. However, the reality was different; countries like Belarus, Hungary, Poland, and many Central Asian nations remained firmly authoritarian.

Following the "third wave" of democracy, a wave of democratic retreat emerged as Eastern Bloc countries began reverting to authoritarian rule. Poland, Hungary, and others transitioned back to socialist-style authoritarian governance. A new paradigm emerged, where authoritarian systems coexisted with market-driven capitalist economies.

The connection between a bourgeois society and democracy, famously encapsulated in Barrington Moore's aphorism, "no bourgeoisie, no democracy," was strained. A market-based economy, a rising bourgeoisie, and all the necessary conditions seemed fulfilled, yet democracy remained elusive in China. 

A recent article in the Journal of Contemporary China (Sungmin Cho, 2023) questioned the applicability of modernization theory to explain China's stalled transition to democracy. A change of aspirations among the newly emerged middle class as revealed in various surveys provide hope but the constraints in the democratic transition remain strong. 

Modernization theory posits a link between capitalism and democracy, with its roots traceable to Karl Marx, who predicted the rise of democracy with capitalism's ascent. 

Building on this concept, American sociologist Barrington Moore wrote his influential work, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966), where he argued that successful democracies resulted from successful bourgeois revolutions, such as the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, the French Revolution of 1789, and the American Civil War in the 1860s. Failed bourgeois revolutions, Moore contended, led to dictatorship in Germany and Japan from above and in Russia and China from below.

Other American sociologists and political scientists, like Seymour M Lipset, established a set of prerequisites for democracy that emphasized the middle class as a key proponent. These prerequisites encompassed economic development, increasing literacy, a highly educated populace, the emergence of civil society, and growing support for democracy.

While the rising bourgeoisie or middle class has been credited with advocating for democracy, Marxist scholar Goran Therborn held a different view. He argued that a vocal and active labour movement was a prerequisite for democracy, as it helped address the demands of the working class. Building on this idea, other scholars linked social movements to democracy.

John Markoff, my teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, posited that social movements were the primary drivers of democracy. Markoff delved into the history of democracy and pointed out that ancient Athenian democracy excluded slaves and women, representing only a fraction of the population: Slave-owning males. 

We, as students, learned Abraham Lincoln's definition of democracy as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," which was part of his famous Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War in 1863. However, what we did not know at the time was that American democracy, often extolled, remained exclusive to men until 1920, when women were granted the right to vote, culminating a 70-year struggle that began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The Civil War ultimately abolished slavery, but African Americans had to wait another century to secure their full voting rights.

Drawing from Markoff's work, Waves of Democracy (1996), we learn that women first voted in New Zealand in 1893 and in Australia in 1902. Many democratic innovations originated outside the core European and North American countries.

While the United States was among 48 countries labeled as "flawed democracies," only 24 countries were recognized as "full democracies" in 2022, including Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark, according to the Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. 

Additionally, 36 countries were classified as "hybrid regimes," which regrettably included Bangladesh. A further 59 countries were designated as "authoritarian regimes." In this context, it seems more fitting for Norway and New Zealand to provide guidance on improving democracy to countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Scepticism about democracy is on the rise, even in the heart of America, where the emergence of figures like Trump, the events of January 6, and various other occurrences have cast shadows on the quality of democracy. 

The rise of China where the discussion of security and stability trump liberty and democracy is beginning to provide an alternative model for the countries outside the spectrum of democracy. 

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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