Open and shut case for democracy

The Transformation of Democracy? - Democratization
October 10, 1997

There can hardly be a concept more important in contemporary political development than democracy. It comes as a particular surprise, as such, to find that Democratization is the first comprehensive textbook to address this central political phenomenon. While many books have examined democratisation in certain regions or countries, or have tackled the transitions to democracy from a theoretical perspective, none is as coherent, wide-ranging and instructive as Democratisation. Similarly, many volumes have tackled the question of globalisation, but few approach the topic explicitly in relation to the present and future shape of democracy, particularly in a manner which is accessible to undergraduate students. The Transformation of Democracy? does just that, presenting with clarity the incisive arguments and complex paradoxes associated with this most pertinent of issues in international relations.

Both volumes form part of the Open University curriculum and are intended to complement one another; while the first focuses on domestic politics through comparative analysis, the second examines the implications of globalisation on democracy as a theoretical ideal and mechanism of practical politics. In both cases the chapters are written by leading specialists in their field.

Democratisation opens with a theoretical chapter which sets out the main approaches and explanatory factors relating to the process of democratisation and also discusses the comparative method. Part two charts the development of democracy in Europe and the United States, part three examines the obstacles to democratisation and transitions to democracy in Latin America and Asia, part four discusses the dynamics of and prospects for democracy in Africa and the Middle East and part five analyses democratisation in communist and postcommunist countries. In any such book, the theoretical chapter must provide a sound grounding in the central issues to be addressed. Here, the introduction is a little disappointing, providing no real "handles" with which students might grasp the dimensions and dilemmas of democracy. Partly this is because it tries to do too much, and as such it might seem churlish to point to a substantial omission. While most of the country-based or regional chapters do discuss the specific nature of the former regimes, the initial analytical framework fails to examine the authoritarianism that impedes and precedes democratisation, and thus the reader (whom we must assume to be a student) is not familiar with the general context from which democratisation emerged and is inadequately prepared to understand the constraints upon democratisation and democratic consolidation. On a more positive note, the range of areas and countries discussed is very wide and the book is unusual in that it includes the experiences of established democracies in its analysis, which is to be applauded. Less laudable is the in-built assumption that these democracies are somehow beyond reproach. While the chapter on the US is an exception to this, the notion that western democracies are near perfect seriously undermines the critical character of the book and seriously underestimates both the ability of democracy to go further and the levels of discontent with "actually existing" democracy in those countries.

The Transformation of Democracy?, in contrast, sets out its stall more blatantly. It starts from the proposition that globalisation can be identified in all aspects, political, economic, social and cultural, and calls for the democratisation of these "new" sources of power below and above the nation state. After concisely introducing the development of globalisation and the debates surrounding it, the book goes on in part one to discuss crucial elements of global transformation. Part two analyses recent developments in four areas, human rights, multinational corporations, the European Union and the United Nations, discussing the current and potential ways in which each might enhance or undermine global democracy.

The central theme within these chapters is the growing redundancy of the nation state as an entity capable of articulating democratic demands; they argue that national governments have negligible leverage over powerful international agencies which implies that these governments cannot adequately represent the views of their constituents and, moreover, those who control decisions of global import are unaccountable to the world's citizens. By virtue, perhaps, of being a shorter volume and also by starting from a strong theoretical (and political) position, this book carries a weightier punch than Democratization and is, as an academic project, packed with more analytical meat. However, as a textbook for students it might have benefited from the inclusion of more sceptical voices; although the introduction does discuss the views of those who reject the globalisation thesis and the conclusion raises their objections to global democracy, elsewhere the doubters are largely disregarded.

Notwithstanding such criticisms, both volumes are excellent and much-needed additions to the range of texts available. Their intelligence, clarity and analytical rigour is to be praised. It is gratifying, moreover, to see books which break the traditional teaching mould. For example, in Democratisation we have a comparative politics text which, instead of looking at a particular region or attempting to explain all (domestic) political phenomena, takes a thematic approach to understanding contemporary political developments. Moreover, the deliberate combining of politics and international relations which these twin volumes implies is a trend all too absent in politics and international relations departments. Should we wish to expose students to contemporary political issues, these two volumes will certainly assist us in our efforts.

Lucy Taylor is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The Transformation of Democracy?

Editor - Anthony McGrew
ISBN - 0 7456 1816 2 and 1817 0
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 9

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