On Cultures of Democracy
The democratic project on a global scale that seemed so promising and was pursued with so much vigor in the final quarter of the twentieth century is now in serious disarray, if not in ruins. In that tumultuous period of seemingly unfettered capitalist globalization, numerous constitutions were written and ratified; elections, not always fair and free, were held all over the world, including most recently in the long suffering Congo; people marched and dictators were deposed; blueprints for institution/nation building were devised and circulated; scholars spoke and wrote excitedly about the public sphere and civil society; the human rights discourse became audible; the so-called new social movements, already in play since the 1960s, proliferated to encompass every conceivable project for social justice; the NGOs, the self-appointed tribunes of the weak and the dispossessed (including the mother earth), emerged as a tangible force. It seemed as if a new era of democracy, with “a million mutinies now,” as V. S. Naipaul said of India, was dawning.1 But that promise of democracy has been tattered and truncated. The newborn democracies are under duress everywhere. This is not unusual in itself. The coming of or transition to democracy is rarely peaceful, because it involves a significant, if not a radical, reconfiguration of political society and power. The predecessor regimes are unlikely to yield power to their democratic successors without a prolonged, often violent, resistance. Moreover, democracies tend to break down and revert back to nondemocratic modes of governance. These reversals are often violent and tear apart the social fabric in a manner not easy to mend. Hence, intimations of danger and fratricidal conflict invariably accompany the rise and fall of democracies. This is true not only of the great age of democratic revolutions in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the ensuing “springtime of the people” in the nineteenth century but also of the two distinct phases of democratization in the second half of the twentieth century.
In Samuel P. Huntington’s now famous three-wave schema/count, the first wave of democratization, a long, slow wave that endured almost a century from 1828 to 1926, witnessed transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes in thirty-three countries, all of them located in Europe, the Americas, and the overseas English dominions. Huntington defines a “wave of democratization” as “a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specific period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that time.”2 It was followed by the first reverse wave of democratic breakdowns between 1922 and 1942 leading to the reestablishment of some form of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes in twenty-two countries. The second wave covering the period between 1943 and 1962 witnessed the establishment or reestablishment of democratic regimes in forty countries, which included, among others, the newly independent postcolonial nation states. It was followed by the second reverse wave of democratic breakdowns between 1958 and 1975 resulting in the return of nondemocratic regimes in twenty-two countries.
Now we are said to be in the midst of the third wave, which began in 1974 with the retreat of authoritarian governments in southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, and Greece) and Latin America, was followed by the recuperation and restoration of democracies that had withered and broken down in the postcolony, and culminated in the democratization of Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This wave added thirty-three countries to the democratic column, bringing the grand total to sixty-two out of the seventyone countries on Huntington’s list. There was already some erosion as three countries had relapsed back into some form of authoritarian governance by 1991 when the book was published. But the third wave persists. It is a stronger and swifter wave than the previous two. Despite the recent military coup in Thailand that toppled a democratically elected prime minister, the eighteenth coup in the short history of Thai democracy, the third reversal does not appear to be imminent. We are in a holding pattern.
Aside from the magic of numbers (while the first and the third waves each placed thirty-three countries in the democratic column, the first and the second reverse waves subtracted twenty-two countries each; a numeric pattern, if it were to hold, would make the whole wide world almost democratic in a few more waves), Huntington’s schematic counting alerts us to the fragility and danger of democratic/republican life and the sagacity required to sustain it against the ravages of time, a subject that profoundly engaged the political imagination of the ancients and their most disciplined and astute student, Machiavelli.3
This special issue on the cultures of democracy focuses primarily on the second and third wave countries and issues, even though Charles Taylor’s essay begins with a contrastive discussion of the democratic legacies of the two great revolutions in the eighteenth century, the American and the French. Within the second wave, we are inclined to explore the experience of postcolonial democracies as exemplary because they are, as opposed to the countries in Europe and the Americas that have gone back and forth between democratic and nondemocratic regimes, seen as having had no prior experience with democracy before the colonial encounter and mediation. Since prior experience with democracy, however fleeting, is seen as a positive variable in predicting the democratic prospects in a given country, the postcolonial democracies are seen as hard cases, especially susceptible to breakdown.
The second wave followed in the wake of the cataclysmic events of World War II, which severely weakened the European colonial powers and gave rise to the so-called postcolonial democracies. The nationalist struggles for independence, often mass-based and confrontational, if not openly violent, provide the immediate conflict-ridden background for this phase. The early years of decolonization that beheld the institution of democratic governments were both euphoric and violent. However, that Arendtian moment of collective “public happiness” (a “tryst with destiny,” as India’s Nehru proclaimed) was fleeting as the internal tensions and contradictions — religious, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic, complicated, as always, by deep social inequality and week political institutions — temporarily held in check by the united front against the colonial authority resurfaced with virulence.
While trying to hold the nation together against such a formidable array of divisive internal forces, the postcolonial democracies were also confronted with a demanding international situation. The Cold War was unfolding, and the world stood divided into two hostile camps, led by the United States and the USSR respectively. The newborn democracies came under an enormous pressure to make ideological (sometimes military) commitments to one or the other camp. Even those countries that succeeded in remaining nonaligned had to contend with divisive conflicts precipitated by the proponents of the two camps within their own political society, sometimes within the government itself. This made consensus building among divergent groups and interests, so critical in the early years of new democracies, all the more difficult.
The United States, the leader of the Western capitalist democracies, strenuously pressed those newly independent democracies to take a firm stance against Communism. They were instructed to be vigilant about the Communist subversion from within and urged to join in a variety of military alliances designed to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism. Those who rejected the containment policy were characterized as naive and even immoral. However, key segments of the elites in the new democracies were favorably disposed toward socialist ideas and visions of economic development geared toward distributive justice, social welfare, and regulated markets. They were more concerned about poverty and illiteracy than about Communist subversion. Hence, they were inclined to take a neutral rather than a partisan stance in the ideological skirmish unleashed by the Cold War. In response, the U.S. policy came to be increasingly shaped by the proposition that authoritarian regimes were a far more effective bulwark against the Communist subversion than the economically struggling and ideologically diffident new democracies. How aggressively the United States would pursue such a policy became evident in 1953 when the CIA-sponsored coup (Operation Ajax) overthrew Iran’s popularly elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and installed Mohammed Reza Pahlvi as the shah of Iran.
Such an international formation during the Cold War was not conducive to nurturing the fledgling democracies. The political scientists of comparative ilk, who have devoted an enormous amount of scholarly energy to studying the volatile career of modern democracies, believe that democratic regimes break down largely due to internal conflicts and contradictions and due to the failure of the indigenous elites to forge a working consensus against the divisive issues. They do, however, acknowledge that international forces can play a critical, if not decisive, role in the making or unmaking of democracies, especially new and inexperienced ones. The atmosphere of the Cold War, especially the dismissive and belligerent stance of the United States toward the nonaligned block, adversely affected the prospect of new democracies by exacerbating the ideological divisions from within and by narrowing the choices from without. Under such formidable internal and external pressures, many of the newborn democracies retreated or collapsed and remained democratic only in name. The authoritarian regimes, both of left and of right persuasion, came to prevail till the onset of the third wave.
The third wave is not only stronger and swifter, it is also more varied. It is customary to group the countries undergoing the so-called transition to democracy roughly into four categories, two of them geographically marked (southern Europe and Latin America) and the other two marked by their historical past (the postcolonial and the post-Communist ).4 To be sure, there are more countries in Asia and in the Muslim Middle East that are also negotiating democratic modes of governance that don’t fit into these four groups. The scope of the current wave is truly astounding and it seems as if democracy is the only viable game in town with the nondemocratic regimes in retreat everywhere, even in the world of allegedly theocratic Islam.
Nevertheless, except in the case of the post-Communist democracies, there was not an extended moment of public euphoria about the coming of democracy. Even here the euphoria didn’t last very long as the post-Communist democracies became besieged with problems both internal and external. Every conceivable calamity appears to have hit these countries facing simultaneous political and economic changes. Aside from the unavoidable economic disruptions and hardships that awaited the countries making a sudden and unplanned transition from a faltering command economy to a rapacious market economy, there were other travails to endure: the genocidal ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; economic banditry and criminalization of culture in Russia; the separatist terror and insurgency in Chechnya; warlordism and civil war in Tajikistan; the cult of personality in Turkmenistan; the vexing question of the Russian minorities in Latvia and Maldova; and corruption everywhere. The list of calamities can be extended much further. Of course, there are successes: Slovenia has emerged relatively unscathed from the Yugoslavian inferno; east-central European countries like the Czech Republic, Hungry, and Poland are becoming consolidated democratically and integrated into the European Union. But even the successful ones have had a rather rough democratic ride. There have been exhilarating moments of people coming together to make their will known and to oust their oppressors, the moments canonized by the global media as revolutions, the Velvet (Czechoslovakia, 1989), the Rose (Georgia, 2003), and the Orange (Ukraine, 2004). But the binding memories of those moments of solidarity have faded quickly because of what has followed — the usual politics of scramble and divisiveness by the selfserving elites, many of them reared on cynicism that clings to those who make it through decades of totalitarian rule.
As for the Latin American transitions to democracy, fatigue rather than euphoria is the characteristic mood. For Spanish-speaking Latin America, democracy is an old and unreliable friend. Countries like Chile have known and experimented with the republican forms government since the early nineteenth century. Republics of various styles and substance have failed the people of Latin America far too frequently and mostly due to the quarreling elites and the subsequent erosion of legitimacy that pushed them to yield to authoritarian forms of governance. The succeeding authoritarian regimes, once again quite varied in ideology and modes of governance, have been even less effective in garnering legitimacy by effectively addressing the needs and aspirations of the people. Thus, having gone back and forth between democratic and nondemocratic modes of governance one too many times, the people of that region are unlikely to be ecstatic about the current return to democracy.
This pathos of democracy and its many returns is beautifully captured by Claudio Lomnitz’s short opinion piece in this volume. Commenting on the leftward ideological turn in the electoral politics of the last decade, Lomnitz notes how powerfully the ghosts of failed democratic projects from the past appear to be shaping the rhetoric, if not the reality, of the current policies. He is less than sanguine about the strategy of “grafting the hopes” of a bygone era violently erased, say by the dictatorships of 1970s or by the economic breakdowns of 1980s, upon a hybrid global present. A present that cannot be redeemed by recuperating the “lost moments” imagined exclusively in nationalist idioms, nor by longing and fashioning a virtuous citizen-presidential persona, vigilant and incorruptible, cast in the neorepublican idiom. According to Lomnitz, such nostalgia, by evacuating the present, breeds class hatred and disables imagining alternatives to the hegemonic neoliberal models of development.
The postcolonial democracies in Asia and Africa have also had a record, though of a shorter duration, of traversing back and forth between democratic and nondemocratic modes of governance. Even as democracy returns and is restored in their midst, many of these countries continue to be hobbled by the problems of ethnic and religious strife, mounting social inequality, severe unemployment, undiminished poverty, failing public health, weak political institutions, and corrupt leadership. The pressures generated by so much of society malfunctioning periodically flare up into sectarian and civil warfare, leave behind permanent pockets of insurgency, turn children into mercenary soldiers, and thus, everyday lives become “states of exception.” The scale and intensity of violence keeps accelerating, and it has also become gratuitous. In a telling irony, an academic subdiscipline specializing in “collapsing societies and failed states” has emerged even as sham elections are being held in certain fortified parts of such countries. So high is the charisma, so compelling the rhetoric of democracy.
Perhaps everything is not so very bleak. Here too we have instances of success. India, despite the brief bout with emergency rule under Indira Gandhi (1975 – 77) and innumerable other failings, remains a wondrously vibrant and functioning democracy, now almost sixty years old. Papua New Guinea, with an unbroken record of democratic government since its independence from Australia in 1975, appears to gamely meet Robert Dahl’s criteria for a legitimate and functioning democracy: tradition of fair elections, universal adult suffrage, inclusive participation, multiparty system, freely organized labor unions, unrestricted civil and political liberties (except for the two brief “state-of-emergency” periods in 1979 and 1985), uncensored media, and most important, peaceful transfer of governmental power through both parliamentary and electoral changes. Senegal, blessed with relative ethnic equilibrium and religious homogeneity, has moved steadily since 1974 toward a multiparty system from a single hegemonic party long dominated by the remarkable writer-president Leopold Senghor, whose international reputation as the father of negritude was sufficient to soften the arbitrary uses of power and eventually pave the way for greater democratization under his handpicked successor Abdou Diouf. On the whole, however, the troubled democracies in Asia and in Africa easily outnumber those that seem to be “consolidating.”
According to Juan Linz and Alfred Stephan, two renowned comparativists, the only group of countries in the third wave that might be regarded as having successfully completed the transition to democracy, and thus having become consolidated democracies, are located in Southern Europe. It is a small group: Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The successful transitions and consolidations in these countries were facilitated by a variety of factors, including the character of the prior authoritarian regimes, a sequence of transition wherein political democratization (and reconstructing the state) either preceded (as in Spain) or paralleled economic liberalization (as in Portugal), competent and committed agents of change, functioning state apparatus, vibrant civil society, and a relatively certain prospect of becoming integrated into the prestigious and economically beneficial European Union. Linz and Stephan particularly stress the importance of sequence: “The Southern European countries were structurally able and consciously chose to concentrate first on politics, second on social welfare policies, and only later on structural economic reforms. We consider this the optimal sequence if it is at all possible.”5 This sequence starkly contradicts the neoliberal wisdom of starting first with economic liberalization and assuming that democratization will follow in its wake.
Thus, except for the group in southern Europe, the record of the countries riding the third wave is not very inspiring. There has been so much slaughter, mayhem, and pillage in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the same period in which this wave of democratization has touched the shores of so many countries; yet it is eerie how, despite all the setbacks and calamities, this wave has aroused and continues to arouse so much raw energy, exhilaration, and optimism. In the midst of so much woe and betrayal (almost Shakespearean in proportion), the people of the global south, the poor and downtrodden, remain hopeful. This might be the supreme paradox of our time. Hope and despair are tightly braided together in the politics of the people, the poor that are governed. The second opinion piece in this issue, written by Arjun Appadurai, forcefully depicts this stance, this mood of the people and their democratic practices.
However, before we grasp this energetics of hope (the hope of the seething and pulsating bodies in the street), we must attend to and contend with the other gospel of hope busily disseminated in the popular media under the sign of globalization. This is the hope emanating from the global capital, the hope refracted from the white heat of its circulation.
The third wave democracies, like the ones under the previous wave, face challenges both internal and external. To a certain extent, the internal challenges remain similar when they are categorized broadly. Since nation-states, old and new, have not grown more homogeneous in terms of religion, ethnicity, language, geography, and class, the challenges stemming from those differences are a relatively permanent fact of modern political life. These differences are, as always, complicated by deep social inequality, especially among developing countries. A yet unresolved question is whether such differences and the political economy that sustains them are more productively (assuming diversity is a good in itself) and peacefully managed under democratic or nondemocratic modes of governance. The emerging consensus among both the comparative political scientists as well as the normative political theorists appears to be in favor of democracy.6
However, democratic politics is also affected by the external challenges stemming from of the state of the world. For the second wave countries, the Cold War, with the world divided into two ideologically hostile and heavily armed camps, was the ever present external reality, and that didn’t bode well for the developing democracies. Today the external horizon facing the third wave countries is commonly characterized as globalization, the neoliberal capitalist globalization to be precise. Just as the postcolonial democracies were drawn, often against their will, into the vicissitudes of cold war, today the newborn as well as newly restored democracies are being drawn into globalization. Once again, the United States is the key protagonist, this time relatively unchallenged, deeply invested in promoting globalization. The two rhetorics — the anti-Communist and the proglobalization — are not that different except for the ethos they project. One could not possibly regard the Cold War held in abeyance by the balance of terror as a good thing for anybody. Globalization, on the other hand, is being promoted as the unmitigated good for everybody.
Moreover, it is customary for the proponents of globalization to celebrate it as a powerful democratic force. The loudest voice here is that of Thomas Friedman. In two massive best sellers on globalization, Friedman argues that three democratizations (meaning mobility and accessibility) of technology, finance, and information are inexorably leading to democratization of political systems.7 His argument is quite simple: Globalization is the only game in town and the consequences of being left out of it are dire. The only way a country can effectively play the game is by empowering its people equally, irrespective of class, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, to take advantage of the three aforementioned democratizations. Such a capacity-building enterprise can be effectively carried out only in a society organized along democratic principles. For Friedman, the primary agents of globalization are two: information and communication technology (often referred to as the “technologies of freedom”) and freewheeling global capital. Together they can function magically to “bring all goods things to life” (to borrow a multinational corporate slogan) so long as the political system is open and committed to a liberal version of the rule of law and civil society. With so much in place, obviously installed to accommodate the logic of techno-capitalism, democracy is bound to follow. Such is the “flat world” of Friedman, free and equal, lying open before anyone who dares to aspire. There is no need to mount a critique of Friedman’s thesis; that has been done ably by many irate scholars of both left and right persuasions. It should suffice to note that living in the allegedly flattest country, the poor and racially marked people of New Orleans were able to show the world, through their week-long ordeal, how “unflat” their city actually is under the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
Benjamin Barber, in yet another best seller, has an exactly opposite take on globalization. In his account, globalization, as represented by its two opposed but mutually reinforcing visages, McWorld and Jihad, is either indifferent (McWorld) or hostile (Jihad) toward democracy. For Barber, globalization radically unsettles the political strategies carefully nurtured under the modern nation-state form for addressing issues concerning both economic redistribution and cultural recognition. It does so by weakening the nation-state as a form of solidarity and by discrediting democracy as a method for settling differences. He writes, “Unless we can offer an alternative to the struggle between Jihad and McWorld, the epoch on whose threshold we stand — postcommunist, postindustrial, postnational, yet sectarian, fearful, and bigoted — is likely also to be terminally postdemocratic.”8 Barber’s account is as hyperbolic as Friedman’s, although it is entirely accurate in insisting that all is not well in the world and that we are passing through extremely violent times. But Barber oversimplifies the political and cultural contradictions of global capitalism that beset and exercise us. The current phase of globalization didn’t so much originate as refigure, and in some cases exacerbate, those contradictions. By the same token, the “good” globalization à la Friedman cannot magically erase them, nor is the “bad” globalization à la Barber utterly unmanageable. Globalization, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is here, and every putative democratic polity must contend with and master it.
So what is to be done? The advice is plentiful. The comparative political scientists, whose privileged object of study for the last several decades has been the career of modern democracy — its perils and possibilities — have a whole host of recommendations. They have generated a rich body of scholarship — historically informed, culturally sensitive, empirically grounded, and pragmatically oriented toward the realities of power politics. These studies, often multivolume case studies, include why and how democratic regimes break down, the challenges facing democracies in developing countries, the dynamics of transitions from authoritarian rule, and the problems of democratic transition and consolidation.9 The recommendations originating in these case studies are predictable and they turn on key variables that facilitate or obstruct the democratic process and its institutionalization. Linz and Stephan, for instance, identify the five major democratic arenas and their organizing principles (in parentheses) — civil society (freedom of association and communication), political society (free and inclusive electoral contestation), rule of law (constitutionalism), state apparatus (rational-legal bureaucratic norms), and economic society (institutionalized market) — that must be secure, robust, and mutually reinforcing for democracy to become consolidated. There are other recommendations on how to manage and negotiate country-specific contingent factors that critically affect the prospect of democracy: preexisting political culture, economic performance, level of corruption, ethnic and religious differences, and the status of military. Most of this is eminently sensible and hardly counterintuitive.
However, these recommendations take their orientation from and work toward a particular conception of democracy. It is a Schumpeter/Dahl/Huntington “realistic” conception that privileges democracy as a method as opposed to the classical conception that privileges the source of authority (the will of the people) and/or the governing purpose (common good). The “democratic method,” according to Schumpeter, “is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”10 The electoral method, in turn, “implies the existence of those civil and political freedoms to speak, publish, assemble, and organize that are necessary to political debate and the conduct of electoral campaigns.”11 Thus, the electoral method is combined with the liberal theory of rights to generate a realistic conception of democracy. Dahl and Huntington reiterate the centrality of elections, with the latter emphatically claiming, “Elections, open, free, and fair are the essence of democracy, inescapable sine qua non. Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic.”12
Dahl privileges elections because they provide, among other things, a mechanism for controlling the “leaders by non-leaders,” enabling ordinary citizens to exert “a relatively high degree of control over leaders.”13 Accordingly, “political equality” here refers to universal suffrage and, “more importantly, to the fact of equality of opportunity of access to influence over decision makers through interelectoral process by which different groups in the electorate make their demands heard.”14 What is more, such a salutary control is exerted with a moderate or even minimal amount of active participation by the citizenry. That is deemed good. There is, running through this line of thinking, a palpable anxiety over mass democratic participation. Writing in the shadow of totalitarianism and impressed by the stability of Western democracies with low electoral participation, especially in the United States, these scholars look upon the increased participation by the lower economic groups with trepidation because those groups are seen as largely unschooled in democratic norms and more inclined to harbor “authoritarian” personalities.15
In recent years as the third wave has peaked, so has the anxiety. The comparativists, once so secure and certain of the electoral definition of democracy, are beginning to talk about the so-called fallacy of electoralism.16 This anxiety is best illustrated by the case of Iran. While discussing the elections for the Majlis in 1992 and in 1996, Huntington himself admits that while some political parties were banned and the Council of Guardians disapproved a significant number of aspiring candidates, there were candidates in both elections “affiliated with two semi-party political groupings representing more moderate and more fundamentalist views, respectively. . . . Women both voted and ran for office, and in 1997 they made up 5 percent of the Majlis. The Majlis, moreover, has significant power. It has refused to approve the President’s nomination for cabinet positions, and it has on occasion forced the resignation of cabinet ministers. It has hotly debated economic policies and other issues, and in 1994 and 1995 it effectively blocked many of the reforms that the then-President Rafsanjani was attempting to put through. The Majlis is arguably the liveliest parliament in the Middle East after the Israeli Knesset.”17
A real dilemma: “In the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, America’s closet ally, is the least democratic country, while Iran, America’s greatest antagonist, is the most democratic country.”18 So what might one do? A little bit of conceptual juggling and bringing culture back. Introduce a series of distinctions: liberal democracy and electoral democracy; liberal democracy and illiberal democracy; and finally, liberal democracy and pseudodemocracy. Lo and behold, Iran might be regarded as a pseudodemocracy.
In a now much discussed essay — “Is the Third Wave Over?” — Larry Diamond, one of the leading scholars in the comparative politics tradition, firmly distances himself from what he regards as the election-centered “minimalist” definition of democracy.19 He begins by proposing a distinction between liberal democracy and electoral democracy and goes on to characterize some species of the latter as pseudodemocracy depending on its deviation from the former. In the electoral democracy, the governments are formed on the basis of relatively open, free, and fair elections. But, aside from the electoral process, they lack what mature liberal democracy offers: constitutionally constrained executive power, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, basic civil rights and political freedoms (of belief, opinion, discussion, speech, publication, assembly, demonstration, and petition), limits on the incumbent party to preserve the integrity of the electoral process, recognition and protection of the rights of the minorities, guarantees against arbitrary arrest and police brutality, absence of censorship and minimal government control of media, and so on. These are the criteria used by Freedom House in its annual survey of freedom around the world. There is nothing wrong in making distinctions, refining one’s analytic categories. Diamond’s strategy, to be fair, is not exclusionary, nor his tone dismissive. In fact, his previous works, especially his introductory essays in the multivolume study Democracy in Developing Countries, are remarkably attentive to indigenous cultural and historical factors and not just to systemic and functional factors that might facilitate or retard the evolutionary consolidation of democracies. However, now there is a clear and present anxiety over the mass agitational politics that is seen as increasingly galvanizing and shaping the electoral politics in the developing countries of the global south. This mass politics, contrary to Benjamin Constant’s preference and the liberal tradition that has canonized that preference, appears to privilege the “liberties of the ancients” over the “liberties of the moderns.” Constant maintained that “while both sorts of freedom are deeply rooted in human aspirations, freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, freedom of the person and civil liberties, ought not be sacrificed to the political liberty, to the freedom to participate equally in political affairs.”20 This reversal, by no means total, afoot in some parts of the world, is seen as a fearful thing among those reared in the liberal tradition.
The essays in this volume, each in their own way, signal a significant departure from the so-called realist/minimalist now turning liberal conception of democracy. Nowhere is this departure more dramatically stated than in Appadurai’s opinion piece “Hope and Democracy.” For Appadurai, hope as a democratic sentiment commands attention today precisely for its links to what Huntington excludes from his concept of democracy — the source of authority (the mass politics of participation) and purpose (the elimination of poverty). The politics of hope is a product of a confluence of certain norms and facts in the aftermath of World War II. First, poverty has become a measurable social fact (partly produced by the disciplines of demography, development economics, and social statistics). Second, the inner meaning of equality has slowly evolved to include not only equal basic liberties for all (what might be called Rawls’s first principle) but also a commitment to reduce, if not eliminate, poverty.21 This conceptual expansion is mediated through the twin languages of development and modernization, already implicit in the Enlightenment imaginary. Third, a mass participatory politics has emerged that is not always violent and confrontational but increasingly prudent and patient. In Appadurai’s words, “The new currency of democratic politics, stimulated by the emergence of poverty as a primary and measurable social ill and by the worldwide growth in mass agitational politics, makes participation the path to capacity, rather than the reverse. By putting participation first, the road is opened for the mass electorate to define its own politics of equality, without the prior requirement of acquiring special capacities or qualifications. The engine of this ethical reversal, which puts a primary normative value on mass participation, is the idea that economic equality cannot be achieved without mass politics. This reversal places a new value on the politics of hope, since it promises that mass participation in democratic politics can provide a more direct route to economic equality than the path of gradually improved qualifications for citizenship.”
Perhaps Appadurai is too optimistic, but he is not alone. Partha Chatterjee, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Ernesto Laclau, James Scott, Etienne Balibar, and Jacques Ranciere, among others, while recovering the ethos of an earlier group of thinkers like Camus, Fanon, and Freire, are beginning to look hopefully, rather than fearfully, upon the newly emergent politics of the people.22 This special issue offers itself as a tentative articulation of such a politics of the people.
Essays in this issue, taken as a whole, offer culturally inflected accounts of people’s practices and the associational forms that sustain and mediate those practices in a variety of national/cultural sites. These accounts aspire, among other things, to contest, expand, and refigure our understanding of democratic politics today. Democracy as a mode of governance is partially based on people’s self-understandings, beliefs, and interpretations, and because these are not invariant across societies, different societies generate interestingly different clusters of practices of democracy. One of the assumptions guiding many of the essays is that our commitment to certain normative models of democracy (derived primarily from the Western experience) and conceptual strategies associated with those models prevent us from recognizing the democratic character and possibilities that inform the practices described and analyzed in those accounts.
People’s practices have variable possibilities, democratic as well as nondemocratic. They draw their energies and orientations from the social imaginaries and institutional arrangements within which they are embedded at a given historical juncture. One might, following Charles Taylor, define “cultures of democracy” as a regional subset of the larger social imaginary, the enabling but not fully explicable symbolic matrix within which a people imagine and act as world-making collective agents. This regional imaginary is further marked by the primacy of the “political” in a people’s engagement with the world. In our times, not abruptly but following an enduring historical trajectory, a people’s mode of being political is imagined and constituted primarily within a democratic idiom. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unshakable link forged since the onset of modernity between the idea of democracy and the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Therefore, the boundaries of the political, always under contestation but not always identical with the democratic, are expressed in and through the practices of the people. The stress on “practices” is deliberate because they are, aside from their pragmatic and phenomenological valence, inscribed with (as in a habitus) and articulate (as with symbolic forms) a people’s collective values, sentiments, and understandings (as with theories). In short, a people’s practices might be regarded as an indispensable hermeneutic key to deciphering their political imaginary.
In light of the essays included in this issue, it might be useful to distinguish between the three different types of culturally inflected “conjunctural” practices of a people that might strengthen or weaken democratic possibilities.23 First, there is the relatively uncomplicated conjuncture where democratic institutions exist or come into being and they are strengthened and sustained by a repertoire of culturally mediated forms and practices. Second, there are democratic polities where certain practices of the people are considered not democratic when they are, due to a restricted, often liberal, conception of democracy. Third, there are nondemocratic societies which host and harbor cultural forms and practices with pronounced democratic features that, if recognized and cultivated as such, might facilitate the transition toward democracy. The essays by Taylor and Carlos Forment can be easily placed in the first category; Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay uneasily straddles the edges of the second, as does Jean Comaroff’s; and Lisa Wedeen’s essay fits perfectly in the third, while Manar Shorbagy’s does so, at best, awkwardly. Craig Calhoun’s essay returns us to a more general meditation on the fate of the nation-state, the form of political solidarity within which the modern democratic project has been hitherto embedded.
Charles Taylor’s essay shows, among other things, how critically the preexisting cultural repertories and imaginaries can and do affect the reception of democratic institutions and practices, as in the two contrasting cases of the eighteenthcentury American and French revolutions. According to Taylor, the idea of “popular sovereignty” (“We, the people”) was rapidly incorporated into the democratic imaginary of the American people because they “already had within their repertory elected representative institutions, which were seen as legitimate expressions of popular will.” The French, on the other hand, with their long tradition of popular revolts and their propensity to view politics, especially revolutionary politics, as enactment of “common purpose” (something in the order of Rousseau’s idea of a “general will”) were unable, for a long time, to settle upon on an institutional mechanism and practices that might legitimately express the popular will.
Carlos Forment’s Buenos Aires of the last few decades represents another instance of a similar conjuncture, except that the city-centered democratic institutions are in disrepair and lack legitimacy. Forment explains how being confronted with a malfunctioning city/state apparatus, the Porteños shifted their affective investments from a social-rights based understanding of citizenship characteristic of political society (party system and the like) to one found in civil society based on notions of communal belonging and mutual recognition. Forment carefully tracks this shift via Porteños’ football club affiliations and fandom, one of the most dynamic and contested cultural spaces within civil society not only in Buenos Aires but in most of Argentina. At one level, a vibrant cultural space within civil society such as the one found in Buenos Aires further impoverishes political society in times of crisis, but it also temporarily relieves pressure on it. The question is what sorts of transactions/translations take place between the two during such a hiatus. What exactly is transported back, if anything, to political society as the Porteños migrate affectively to civil society? In this case, what is returned is a set of tropes that refigure political society as a multipurpose and multidimensional football club with the fan rather than the team as its affective/moral center. In a reading reminiscent of Geertz’s account of the Balinese cockfight, Forment describes the eventually unsuccessful electoral campaign of Mauricio Macri, the president of Boca Juniors football club, to become the mayor of Buenos Aires in 2003. In that campaign, the football tropes dominated the political rhetoric on both sides because the club/community is closely linked to neighborhood politics, and more important, it has increasingly become an alternative model of governance, perhaps a model of what city government could be, but is not. However, this metaphoric transposition occurs under a contradictory global conjuncture. Macri’s claim to office was based on the fact that he had successfully implemented administrative and economic reforms to rejuvenate the ailing Boca Juniors by recourse to the neoliberal market logic of monetizing resources and downsizing services. Thus the football tropes combine contradictory messages about communal belonging as well as market logic, populism as well as neoliberalism. What is notable is that this rhetoric is not an instance of manipulation from above but something that emanates from the people themselves, appropriated in turn by the candidates. The agency, at least the rhetorical agency, in this case appears to reside among the people/fans.
Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay is concerned with the evolving character of crowd action in Indian democratic politics. During the anticolonial struggle prior to independence, mass agitational politics, often involving violations of the rule of law, was viewed as just because the sovereignty of the colonial government was deemed illegitimate. Soon after independence the nationalist leaders, like Prime Minister Nehru, reared themselves in the anticolonial struggle and, confronted with the challenges of economic development, came to regard the mass politics of the street — demonstrations and strikes — as an improper form of politics in a democratic polity. Thus began a national debate about what is proper politics and what is not for the people in postcolonial democratic India, which Chakrabarty masterfully analyzes. For the participants in the debate during the 1950s and 1960s, including Nehru, the instances of mass agitational politics — the unhappy disruptions of public order — though numerous, were still “exceptional” and were seen as mobilized from above and motivated by a palpable objective. According to Chakrabarty, while the debate lingers on without much conviction or resolution, crowd action has become a routine feature of everyday politics. It happens all the time, erupting spontaneously and motivated seemingly by no other end than humiliating the corrupt and incompetent officialdom, often by extracting an apology, and thus making luminous, however temporarily, the sovereignty of the people. The question raised in Chakrabarty’s essay is not whether one could, on the basis of some general and guiding principle, settle the question as to what is and what is not “proper” politics in a democracy. Even the most hardened champion of public order would concede that the right to protest and demonstrate and to engage in the politics of the street is a basic feature of modern democracy. The critical issue pertains to temporality and ubiquity: how often and to what ends? It was from such a vantage point that Nehru regarded strikes and demonstrations as a form of hooliganism and not a form of politics. He was wrong, but that was a long time ago. Today, as Chakrabarty reminds us, we are still far from grasping the logic of crowd action in a polity such as India, its democratic possibilities and its nondemocratic consequences; and that logic will continue to elude us as long as we remain bound to a liberal criteria for ascertaining the “democratic.”
While Chakrabarty’s essay alerts us to how one might be led to misrecognize palpably democratic practices as undemocratic due to an over-restrictive conception of democracy, Jean Comaroff’s essay draws one’s attention to a whole series of undemocratic values, attitudes, and institutional practices, both cultural and governmental, that have systematically overwhelmed and undermined AIDS treatment in a functioning democracy such as South Africa. Comaroff dwells on how various AIDS action groups are fighting back against those undemocratic values and practices and how in doing so they are deepening the moral content of a democratic project held hostage by the sinister rhetoric of “bare life and the states of exception” that is too readily mobilized, when convenient, by a liberal polity to cast off the victims of a pandemic.24 To be sure, even as Comaroff recounts the creativity and efficacy of these counter-hegemonic practices directed at the negligent government, avaricious pharmaceutical companies, and opportunistic NGOs, she reminds the reader to reckon with the pitfalls and contradictions that accompany such a struggle waged under the darkening horizon of global capital.
Lisa Wedeen’s essay on the qa¯t chews in Yemen directly addresses many of the issues raised in this introduction. She is critical of both the Schumpeterian minimalist definition of democracy and the Habermasian normatively charged notion of the bourgeois public sphere because they deflect “attention from important forms of democratic practice that take place in authoritarian circumstances.” This critique of two venerable traditions is backed by an intriguing case study. Qa¯t is a leafy stimulant drug that is “chewed in Yemen in the context of structured conversations occurring daily in public or semipublic places.” These events bring together friends, acquaintances, and strangers to discuss and debate a variety of topics ranging from literary to political. Like Habermas’s salons and coffeehouses, so critical to the making the bourgeois public sphere, the qa¯t chew gatherings “vary in the size and composition of their publics, the mode of their proceedings, and the topics open to debate.” Although these gatherings display some hierarchical features, such as seating arrangement, the overall ethos is egalitarian, and deliberation is relatively free. Wedeen makes a strong case for treating qa¯t chews as mini – public spheres on two counts. First, they assist in producing democratic subjectivity performatively rather than ideationally, a subjectivity disclosed in what one does rather than in what one believes. Second, qa¯t chews are not simply isolated and perishable face-to-face encounters. They gesture beyond themselves, they are reflexively linked to other minipublics, and together they give rise to an impersonal, audience-oriented broader public of anonymous citizens.
Manar Shorbagy writes from the cramped political space of Mubarak’s Egypt. After decades of authoritarian rule, the ruling party has a virtual monopoly over government power. Traditional opposition parties, both secular and Islamist, are weak and divided. The Muslim Brothers, the powerful oppositional force, is outlawed. Elections, held periodically, are a sham. The economy is in trouble. Egypt no longer commands the respect it once had as the leading and progressive country among its peers in the Middle East. Out of such a conjuncture, according to Shorbagy, a new political movement started in 2004, the Egyptian Movement for Change, popularly known as Kefaya (Enough), is beginning to open up the political space. It is a cross-ideological alliance between secularists, leftists (Nasserists and Marxists), and Islamists led by the so-called generation of the seventies, the student leaders and young activists who had come of age in those relatively hopeful times. The coordination and trust across the ideological divide among the Kefaya members is remarkably high and it is the result of a series of disciplined political practices. They have stayed out of directly participating in elections, refused financial support from foreign sources, kept their distance from international NGOs, and carefully crafted a unifying anti-imperialist, anti-U.S., and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Such a cross-ideological alliance is not unique to Egypt, but it seems to be particularly suited for the moment. Kefaya practices a species of the politics of mobilization and agitation. But it combines confrontation with prudence, mass-base with reformist agenda, and situationist strategies with a politics of patience to fashion a long-term democratic alternative to the authoritarian ruling party and to the exclusionary Muslim Brothers.
Craig Calhoun’s essay provides a rationale for the seemingly obvious feature common to the five case studies in this issue, namely that they are enframed within a national form. According to Calhoun, nationalism/nation-state is a distinctive form of solidarity, at once modern and political. Modernity produces both similarity and difference, but of a different order than the one it obtains in traditional societies. Modernity’s differences are consequential; they come in a variety of registers — religious, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic — and they are intensified by literacy, mobility, urbanization, and social inequality. If modernity’s differences are not adequately managed through processes of sociocultural integration, they present formidable problems. In his previous work, Calhoun has forcefully argued that nationalism/nation-state as a form of solidarity (functioning simultaneously as an ideology and as a political community) has been the most effective and successful response to the challenges of integration posed by modernity.25 In his essay in this issue, Calhoun develops that argument further by showing how democracy (as an idea, as an institutional form, as a cultural orientation) plays an important role in nationalism/nation-state’s integrative work. Further, just as there are varieties of nationalisms, emerging out of distinctive histories and cultures, there are varieties of democratic projects spawned by or associated with them. Thus, there are not only multiple modernities, multiple nationalisms, but also multiple cultures of democracy.
After nearly a century of incessant experimentation, democracy remains on trial in a variety of national/cultural sites. It has good days, and it has bad days. Through its many travails and failings, democracy has endured. For us, the moderns, it is the inescapable horizon of our political lives and imaginings. Its presence, as well as its absence, can no longer be measured narrowly in terms of how we elect those who would govern us. It is more than a method. It is a way of being in the world politically as a people. Democracy is one among many ways of being a people, perhaps the most vexing way due to the sheer plurality of its constituents and their claims to difference. That difference, now globally mobile, cannot be mastered nor recognized by electoral politics alone. Hence, the future of democracy and its flourishing will depend decisively on our capacity to imagine a more capacious rather than a constricted view of its possibilities and also of its fragilities. Of democracy, one might say what E. M. Forster once said of India, arguably the most vibrant of democracies in our time, “it is an appeal, not a promise.”
- V. S. Naipaul, India: A Million Mutinies Now (New York: Viking, 1991).
- Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 15.
- To be fair, Huntington cautions against too optimistic a reading of numbers. See The Third Wave, 25 – 26. For the ancient views on the fragility of the republican forms of government, see J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).
- The post-Communist countries also have a distinct geographic location in Eastern Europe.
- Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation:Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 139.
- For discussion among the normative political theorists, see Seyla Behabib, ed., Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996). For the studies by the comparative political scientists, see footnote 9.
- Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999); The World is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005/2006).
- Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 20.
- Juan A. Linz and Alfred Stephan, eds., The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries, 4 vols. (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1988 – 89); Richard Gunther, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, and Han Jurgen Puhle, eds., The Politics of Democratic Consolidation in Southern Europe (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Adam Przeworski, Sustainable Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation.
- Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 2nd. ed. (New York: Harper, 1947), 269; cited in Huntington, The Third Wave, 6.
- Huntington, The Third Wave, 7.
- Huntington, The Third Wave, 9 – 10.
- Robert A. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 3.
- Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 9.
- Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory, 10.
- Terry Lynn Karl, “Imposing Consent? Electoralism versus Democratization in El Salvador,” in Elections and Democratization in Latin America, 1980 – 1985, ed. Paul Drake and Eduardo Silva (San Diego: Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies and Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California at San Diego, 1986). Also see Leslie H. Gelb, “The Free Elections Trap,” New York Times, May 29, 1991.
- Samuel P. Huntington, “After Twenty Years: The Future of the Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 8 (1997): 9.
- Huntington, “After Twenty Years,” 9.
- Larry Diamond, “Is the Third Wave Over,” Journal of Democracy 7 (1996): 20 – 37.
- Benjamin Constant, Ancient and Modern Liberty (1819); paraphrased by John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 176 – 77.
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 52 – 57.
- Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2004); Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (New York: Verso, 2005); James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985); Etienne Balibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx, trans. James Swenson (New York: Routledge, 1994); Jacques Ranciere, Disagreement, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage, 1991); Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963); Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra B. Ramos (New York: Penguin, 1972).
- I am indebted to Sudipta Kaviraj for making explicit these distinctions in a private note.
- Here Comaroff is referring to Giorgio Agamben’s formulations in his State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
- Craig Calhoun, Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).