Low intensity democracy

Unravelling Global Apartheid - Promoting Polyarchy
October 4, 1996

George Kennan's spectre hovers over the opening passage of both these volumes. Both Titus Alexander and William I. Robinson quote Kennan's observation that in 1948, America possessed "about 50 per cent of the world's wealth, but only 6.5 per cent of its population", in which situation - as "the object of envy and resentment" - America must "devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity". Given the concern of both authors with global economic disparities, with the mechanisms which perpetuate them, and with their potential supercession by a more just socioeconomic order, this coincidence is not wholly surprising.

More ambitious in scope, at least superficially, is Unravelling Global Apartheid. It is, the preface enthuses, "written in a clear, accessible style suitable for undergraduates and general readers who want a comprehensive introduction to global history, economics, environment, international relations, law, media, politics, security and society." A brief history of everything in ten chapters! It takes a particular kind of daring to embark on such an exercise, and perhaps too many academics allow themselves to be constrained by traditional disciplinary boundaries. But where academics fear to tread, Alexander, "independent educator" and consultant in "developing personal and political effectiveness", rushes in.

The result is a rather curious volume, which not only attempts to explain how and why economic and political power is concentrated in western hands at the expense of the "majority world", but also proclaims itself a "manual of hope, presenting recommendations for reform and strategies for change at local, national and global levels". The book suffers from two, interrelated, weaknesses, though its aim, in an age of popular disillusionment with conventional electoral politics, of reinvigorating grassroots social movements is laudable. First, Alexander seems to have confused "clear and accessible" writing with the avoidance of "difficult" words and theoretical concepts. He also has a tendency towards sweeping generalisations, perhaps unavoidable in this kind of "overview", which cry out for nuance. His heavy-handed critiques of western-dominated international organisations and institutions almost beg the reader to contradict the author's propositions, which, put more subtly, would carry considerable force.

To characterise inequalities between the West (or the North) and the rest as "global apartheid" is not a new formulation. Certain international relations scholars seized upon it in the 1970s and 1980s for its metaphorical potency. Alexander, however, is attracted to the formulation partly because inequality between the West and the majority world "is just as immoral and illegitimate [and] deserves the same condemnation". But Alexander also sees in apartheid, and its ending, an explanatory (possibly even a predictive) model for international relations as a whole, and determines to find precise parallels in North-South relations for every aspect of South African apartheid. This literalism begins to grate, leading to a rather crude analysis of international politics, whereby nation-states equals independent homelands, immigration laws equals pass laws, national sovereignty equals separate development, western superiority equals white superiority, and so on - and one which unintentionally diminishes the awful knowingness with which the racial state was constructed in South Africa.

The centrality of the apartheid motif in Alexander's analysis has other ramifications. It leads him to highlight inequality almost exclusively along racial lines - begging the question of how and whether Japan forms part of "the West". Alexander's metaphor also fails to do sufficient justice to global divisions of wealth and power along gendered lines, or what Robinson refers to as the "feminisation of poverty". Nor can it do justice to one of the central features of globalisation which Robinson's volume highlights, the "third-worldisation" of the developed world: namely the way in which transnationalised international capital is cutting across the territorial boundaries of states in such a way as to produce global socioeconomic classes.

Apartheid, if we wish to call it that, is thus being reproduced within the states of the North, as globalisation produces a global class of "have-nots" (who are not spatially separated from the "haves" along state lines), alongside sharp increases in North-South inequalities. Although Robinson also hopes for the emergence of a "counter-hegemonic bloc", he eschews Alexander's simplistic formulation that ultimately "people make things change". Thus Alexander explains the end of apartheid without reference to structural factors, or the interests of national or internationalised capital, but rather as a result of the National Party "gradually discover[ing] the intrinsic value of justice and integrity as a negotiating position". His model gives him the optimism that one would expect of an educator in "personal effectiveness", that people can simply group together to challenge global inequality, though quite who or what is to "make all states answerable to a permanent commission of the UN General Assembly" (for example) is unclear. "Alas," Robinson cautions, in words which could be addressed to Alexander, "we cannot simply demand that historical processes be halted to conform to our wishes."

Robinson's volume has much theoretical light to shed on many of the processes with which Alexander is concerned. Robinson's insights into globalisation (particularly its relationship with democracy) emerge as part of the broader framework surrounding his more specific project - an analysis of a fundamental shift he perceives in the methods of American foreign policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Whereas America previously intervened to support authoritarian regimes, in the interests of creating a stable environment for American capitalism (but often under the cloak of anti-communism), in the 1980s and 1990s, a more subtle policy for promoting the interests of US and transnationalised capital has emerged under the rubric of "promoting democracy". This policy shift has been accomplished by a panoply of new methods for sustaining the hegemony of the dominant fraction of transnationalised capital (spearheaded by, but not synonymous with the US) along consenual lines within the penetrated states. In fostering a new "transnationalised" elite in strategically important developing states, America now places less reliance on military intervention and on covert CIA operations which were ever less "plausibly deniable" in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair, and more on "political operations". These operations include propaganda, "psyops", and overt assistance to various political groups and social movements (trade unions, youth and women's groups).

But if the methods of US foreign policy have become more subtle and flexible, the essential objective - maintaining the social stability conducive to the penetration of "targeted" states by international capital - remains broadly unchanged. What America promotes is in effect democracy almost by name alone, hence America's overarching concern with instituting its outward procedures, in such a way that "free and fair elections" become virtually a byword for democracy.

Thus Robinson prefers the term "polyarchy", or "low intensity democracy", revealing the oxymoronic quality of what America promotes. "Low intensity democracy", like alcohol-free lager, gives the appearance of the real thing but without its damaging side effects: after all, from the perspective of the transnationalised elite, "there are potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy", as Robinson quotes Samuel Huntington.

In short, polyarchy is promoted by the US as a means of harnessing and co-opting popular anti-autocratic and grassroots movements. By providing the institutional semblance of democracy, while leaving economic inequities unchallenged, polyarchy serves to suppress "popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life in the 21st-century international order".

But paradoxically, concludes Robinson, in the very denial of these popular aspirations for political participation and a more just socioeconomic order, "polyarchy" appears unlikely to produce that long-term stability it seeks. "Popular democracy", as it were, reaches the parts that "polyarchy" cannot.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Unravelling Global Apartheid: An Overview of World Politics

Author - Titus Alexander
ISBN - 0 7456 1353 7 and 1353 5
Publisher - Polity
Price - £39.50 and £12.95
Pages - 302

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments