The least worst of political evils

Rich Democracies - Democratization
January 31, 2003

Most of the richest societies in the world now call themselves democracies.

Many distinctly less wealthy societies have recently come to do the same and have installed a range of institutions of government and practices of political participation recognisably modelled on their wealthier counterparts. In contrast to 50 years ago, it is widely agreed (at least in the wealthier parts of the world) that the societies that have opted for representative democracy and a capitalist economy have done so because there is no remotely eligible alternative. You can see this pattern of choice as convergence on a uniquely salient solution, and the solution itself as in part by now a cause of this convergence: the riddle of history solved and knowing itself to be the solution.

This provides an optimistic vision of the human future.

Democracy and capitalism form natural allies, at least in the longer run.

Capitalism, for all its endless variety, offers the sole format thus far discovered in which human powers can expand dynamically into an indefinite future. Once they have discovered this, and provided that they are given the chance, humans will choose for their powers to expand. If the chance is withheld, they may just seize it for themselves. Democracy gives them that chance. This is how the future can be, should be and assuredly will be, perhaps even how it must be: the sole vector for human hope. All else is terror.

In this medley of habit, greed, confidence and panic, democracy is much the oddest element. It has metamorphosed, within a few centuries, from political nightmare to a cosmopolitan axiom of political decency. It has spread in meaning from the disagreeably concrete to the ever more ethereal.

It has also condensed into a culture of intense ambivalence, wavering between the verdict that democracy is itself the good society in operation and the chillier judgement that it is simply the rule of the politician. Political scientists now know an enormous amount about the politics of democracies, in particular the politics of the US. What they do not know, however, is quite why the term for these systems of government should have come to be this particular long-execrated Greek noun, or why the politics of even the US should now be quite as they are. They also do not know how to set about answering either question at all reliably.

Harold Wilensky's Rich Democracies is the fruit of 30 years' industrious and level-headed inquiry into what is happening to the richest societies in the world. More than 50 years of teaching lie behind it. The entire book, along with Wilensky's library, notes and files, went up in smoke in the Berkeley firestorm in California a decade before it reached final publication. For all its downbeat tone, this is a work of great courage, with a message of defiance.

It places a great many aspects of US society within a matrix of 18 other wealthy democracies, often to its clear disadvantage. Domain by domain, it asks how far wealthy capitalist societies are compelled to converge, and it denies that there is any general reason why they should converge on the practices at present prevailing in the US. It blames some of the most tenacious of US social idiosyncrasies on gratuitous and often reprehensible political choices. If America stands out among rich democracies as the "champion of deep poverty", for the overwhelming expense and the inferior provision for a large proportion of the population of its health sector, for the insecurity and educational deprivation that it visits on the same groups, for its lethal violence and vast penal colony - this is a consequence of governmental policies that most of its counterparts have avoided and it, too, could still avoid.

In its aims, attitudes and message, this is a classic work of Enlightenment social science, fuelled by quiet anger and relentless in its will to show just how and why the US could become less exceptional, to the benefit of most of its citizens, and without ceasing to be itself. Its political vision is strongest on institutional mechanisms and weakest, perhaps, in its feeling for the imaginative vulnerability of the American demos , its endless capacity to choose firmly against its own longer-term interests.

Laurence Whitehead's Democratization looks not at democratic societies that have already arrived at wealth but at the motley array that seeks to reach it through establishing or developing democratic institutions. Like Wilensky, Whitehead has his eye on two different sorts of question: how far human societies are now compelled to converge and just why particular societies develop as they do. Unlike Wilensky, Whitehead seems more drawn to the second question. His taste for interpretation and feeling for context show to better effect as his comparisons narrow and focus in. But he is as concerned as Wilensky to defend the clarity of his approach. It would be reasonable to infer from his book that he shares many political tastes and quite a few social and political judgements with Wilensky, for all the choice of a less orderly subject matter and a more informal style of analysis.

Democratization lacks the mass or insistent political momentum of Rich Democracies . It does not carry a comparable weight of political instruction and is more uneven in the quality of its thought and writing. Where it does excel is in the vitality and alertness of its engagement with the longer-term implications of the Greek noun, which provides the mandatory rubric for fathoming contemporary politics.

We see democracy today as both a form of government and a political value.

These twin guises are not merely in some tension, they are in permanent danger of contradiction. The form of government generates regular authoritative decisions and even succeeds in implementing some of these.

The value places in question the standing of any possible decision. It permanently interrogates the play of power within and between each human being, and refuses to consecrate the outcome of that power on any given occasion, merely on grounds that some clearly institutionalised procedure of choice has been followed. (Always it asks: "What chose the procedure, and what determined the circumstances to which it was applied?") Wilensky's rich democracies may vary in social as well as economic felicity; but none, for his purposes, can reasonably be seen as simply a misnomer. All rich societies may now be fated eventually to become democracies in this sense. But it cannot possibly be true that any type of society was predestined to be christened a democracy; and it is clear by now that the term's dual meaning is no product of simple confusion or cognitive error. In choosing this term, we have chosen, however unwittingly, to place the legitimacy of all our social and political arrangements (perhaps even all our economic arrangements) permanently in doubt. That is not how it feels at present to America's beleaguered social democrats. But in the edgier, poorer areas of the world whose fate Whitehead considers, the point remains obtrusive.

Democratisation, as he brings out well, is a name for both the impetus to adopt the model of a modern representative democratic capitalist state and the ideological discomfort ineliminable from that state form - its commitment to the Sisyphean task of realising its pretensions throughout the texture of collective social, political and indeed economic life. In practice, naturally, even rich democracies handle this task pretty impatiently and abruptly. What no democracy can do, however, is slough off the task and settle down instead to the unimpeded accumulation of capital for its own sake.

Whitehead writes in a thoughtful and often illuminating way, very much as a student of comparative politics. He shows why an approach such as Wilensky's, for all its steady sobriety, cannot be applied successfully to explaining the complex flow towards and away from democratic forms and practices across human societies today. More strikingly for a political scientist, he also suggests quite effectively how deep the connection is between the analytic refractoriness of this vast inchoate seething subject matter and the enigmatic term under whose spell it has fallen.

Each of these books is an exercise in the careful comparison of the political trajectories of a considerable number of societies over the past few decades, aimed at explaining their growing resemblances in many respects and still sharply divergent consequences in equally many others.

Each is as concerned with the intellectual challenge of explaining convergence and divergence as it is with the political significance of these disparate outcomes. Neither is prisoner to a rigid analytical method, which necessarily addresses some important questions to the firm exclusion of others. Both acknowledge the merit (perhaps even the necessity) of a vigilant eclecticism. But despite these far from trivial similarities in their approach, the disparity between them is striking. It clearly reflects more than personal taste or prowess and the rhetorical differences between British and American social science. Its main source lies in the very different political rhythms and sensibilities of the societies whose politics they set themselves to understand.

One group, Wilensky's well-specified and enumerated universe, has acquired a political form that it simply assumes will extend into an indefinite future (unless recalcitrant nature strikes back or whimsically armed irrationality - terror - in its malignity intervenes). It sees politics in this frame, confident that the frame will hold, and no longer anticipates a significant political future. The other group cannot but recognise that it is fated for some decades to go on living in interesting times. It is far from confident that its present frame will hold, is often quite hostile to that frame (consider Venezuela), and quite appropriately indecisive over how seriously to take politics. You could see one group as the clear triumph of Enlightenment and the other as a distressing continuation of old troubles and follies. But you could also see the Enlightenment's heritage (such as it ever was) as split uncomfortably between the two, and the significance of politics as wide open as ever. More interestingly, you could defend either judgement on the strength of both books. The stakes in comparative politics, intellectual as much as political, remain huge.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Rich Democracies: Political Economy, Public Policy, and Performance

Author - Harold L. Wilensky
ISBN - 0 520 23176 7 and 239 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £59.00 and £29.95
Pages - 891

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