Democracy Studies: Comparative Politics As Culturally Imperialist

Reviewed Literature:

Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” in Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 1, (January 2002), pp. 5-21.

Valerie Bunce, “Comparative Democratization: Big and Bounded Generalizations,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 33, No. 6/7 (Aug/Sept. 2000), pp. 703-735.

The third wave of democratization has seen democratic, or semi-democratic, forms of governance emerge as a global trend. As democracy has gained international status it has been joined by an array of expert disciplines – governmental, quasi-governmental, and nongovernmental organizations – devoted to democracy promotion outside of the West (Carothers 2002; 6). This has included a vast field of political scholarship in comparative studies. While democracy has been widely discussed in international politics, what bodies of knowledge have been constructed on the subject within political scholarship? What has been learnt within academic literature and what may remain left out? The writings of Valerie Bunce (2000) and Thomas Carothers (2002) aid towards answering these questions. Writing at the onset of the twenty-first century, Bunce has brought together a summary of what political studies has learnt since the third wave. Carothers further draws on this body of knowledge to critique the transition paradigm, which stands as the prevailing framework for democracy promotion within international politics.

Through an analysis of these works we can highlight understandings of democratization within comparative studies and further show what comparative politics may have missed out or methodological problems with its approach. In this endeavour I draw on postcolonial theory to take issue with comparative studies for its ahistorical and non-relational framings of democratization. I argue that firstly, comparative politics has not apprehended hierarchal global power-relations which create barriers to the democratic advancement of developing countries. Secondly, I argue that the naturalizing of global inequalities has led Western academics astray in understandings the anti-democratic features of international politics. As a response I highlight the historical and relational dynamics whereby inequalities are produced and sustained to begin formulating a democratic form of politics able to contest hegemonic power-relations and the forms of inequality which they uphold.

Drawing on the work of comparative studies and real-world events since the third wave, Carothers problematizes the transition paradigm, arguing against five assumptions it holds. Firstly, the paradigm assumes a process of liberalization occurring, where regimes of the world are gradually moving in a linear progression from authoritarian to democratic (2002; 6-7, 14, 15). Secondly, the paradigm assumes democratization happens through a well-defined and observable sequence of events (2002; 7, 15). Thirdly, the establishment of electoral politics has been assumed to create the societal structures where governments are accountable to citizens and greater freedoms are continuously voted in (2002; 7-8, 15). A fourth assumption has been that no preconditions necessary for democratization. A final assumption is that “transitioning” regimes are coherent and functioning states, with state-building challenges being overlooked (2002; 8, 16).

If the scholarly community has largely come to agree that the transition paradigm is flawed, what has been learnt about democratization? Though disputes are common within this field of scholarship Valerie Bunce argues that five generalizations can be made concerning what has been collectively agreed upon. Firstly, economic development and prosperity have significant impact on the existence and sustainability of democracy (2000; 706). Secondly the interests, values and actions of political elites play a central role in democratization and whether it is sustained or undermined (2000; 707-10). Thirdly, existing institutional designs create certain dynamics which may hinder or allow democratization and conflict resolution (2000; 710-711). Fourth, that democracy requires clearly established borders and a strong stable nation-state (2000; 711-713). Finally, formal democratic institutions do not necessarily entail formal democratic practices being carried forth, they may instead be circumvented by interests of prevailing powers (2000; 713-715).

Considering the finding of comparative study, it is of interest that postcolonial theory has little influence within this field even on the ethical dispositions of these thinkers. The potential contributions of postcolonial theory are relevant not only because many of the regimes being compared are formerly colonized societies or ones which struggle against imperialism in one form or another. But also, because this comparison occurs through the former colonizers being used as a referent point through which third wave democracies compared. A discourse, and science, of degrading the ‘Other’ has long been a discourse of colonialism, past and present. The Other is subhuman and to gain their humanity they must reflect the colonizers who stands as the model of the human. These colonial dispositions are evident in comparative studies. What is being compared in many cases is how well the postcolonial world has come reflect the colonizer, the very model of what civilized humanity is thought to look like. Carothers critique of the transition paradigm is not a critique of the need for a transition paradigm, but a critique of certain assumptions which have been made within international political bodies about transition. Even if how democratizing the global south happens isn’t agreed upon, or how to aid it, what form of transition is this that scholars and political bodies desire to see? Bunce’s summary of comparative studies hints that it is a transition towards reflecting the political structures of the West. A transition to democracy is the construction of a nation-state (711-713), a transition to a capitalist economy (714) and the creation of judicial structures based on the rule of law (713-714). I highlight two issues with comparative politics and its understanding of the democratic and its analysis.

Firstly, there is an uneven playing field rarely registered by comparative studies. The undeveloped world faces barriers to development which the West never faced, barriers which in various ways have been the result and legacies of colonialism. As the West benefited from unleashing mass violence, genocide, destruction and disposition in the Global South it gained political and economic leverage within the international political realm to construct the game and define its rule, with these leaning to its favour as much as was possible. One example of this is the debt undeveloped countries holds, a situation which sustains poverty and hinders economic progress. The global south has been burdened with debt yet the legitimacy of much of this debt is highly questionable; from authoritarian rulers being given loans by UN institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank, or given loans by colonial powers such as the US, Britain or France, to anti-colonial Independence movements resulting in newly independent countries being saddled with debt because of gaining independence. As a result, many new states and third wave democracies were saddled with largescale debt before they had any opportunity to organize their economies. Unable to repay the debt, these nations have fallen into a cycle of borrowing more to repay their debt, ending up in greater debt in the process.

As an ostensible solution the IMF and World Bank have continued to provide loans under conditions that the receiving regime implement Structural Adjustment Programmes such as economic austerity and liberalisation measures to cut crucially necessary public funding and transfer such revenues to the Western lenders. As it stands the developing world has paid far greater in interest than they have received in loans. This situation is particularly unjust as the people of the Global South never agreed to these loans nor benefited from them yet nonetheless must repay them. Is this situation democratic? What does democratization have to say about contemporary colonial relations and distributions of power? How may we imagine global forms of democratic politics? Should current debts not be better analysed to cancel or repay debts that were accumulated by dictators to fund their power-politics as opposed to build the nation? Such a subversion of the situation has not been considered by the imperial institutions and their Western supporters as doing so would grant further power to the underdeveloped world and strike at hierarchal global power-structures and neo-colonial economic domination.

While this first questions highlights the inequality of conditions within the international realm we must further ask a second question, whether development in the sense of modernization is indeed desirable. One reason to ask this question is the environmental situation of our present era. Development is a pollution driven process and as it stands no alternatives visions of developing low-carbon societies exists. Yet the scientific community has issued a warning to political leaders that industrial processes of development, such as energy production, transport and agriculture have impacted the earth’s climate and will intensify natural disasters with significant human costs. However, business as usual continues and the threats of climate change to human security have not been adequately addressed. It is in this context that we must problematize the status quo as a model to follow and look for alternative ways of creating societies which are able to apprehend modern forms of violence and respond to global challenges. The forms of democratization which comparative studies has come to support far from being deeply ethical are imbued in deeply violent and destructive processes which further entrench global insecurity. Is this democratic? What reconceptualization of the democratic opens room for a form of politics which can bypass this violence. As people of the undeveloped world are in greater danger of the adverse impacts of climate change and lacking the ability to access the market, there is a deep paradox is arguing for peoples of the Global South to follow the path to capitalist democratic development laid out by the Global North.

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