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THE GLOBAL CRISIS OF ILLIBERAL DEMOCRACY

A predominant concern for current global politics is the prevalence of illiberal democracies. The proliferation of democracies internationally has not produced the liberal democratic “end of history” so confidently and optimistically expected. Rather the world is now composed of a range of regimes that combine authoritarianism and illiberalism with certain democratic features such as elections. Put differently, whether or not a country is formally a democracy, they are increasingly marked by elite rule and internal repression. Tellingly, this authoritarian trend has strong linkages with the implementation and perpetuation of marketiz- ation internationally. Significantly, this neoliberal crisis of illiberal democracy is truly global, affecting developed and developing democratic (and non-democratic) states alike.

In order to account for this illiberalism, it is no longer assumed prima facie that the existence of democracy implies a concurrent liberalism, or even an evolution in that direction. Rather, there is the understanding that any democratic regime must be judged on this scale according to the power relations it affords, or encourages, as well as the governing practices that it permits and promotes. Accordingly, Larry Diamond (2002), rather famously, distinguishes between “electoral democracy” and “liberal democracy,” the former denoting a regime that while democratically elected lacks a number of elements usually ascribed, at least ideally, to a liberal state - notably pluralism and an array of assured individual rights. Instead of theorizing a strict separation between these democratic typologies of rule, Diamond, and those inspired by him have introduced the notion of “hybrid regimes.” In this spirit, there is a further distinction made between “defective democracies” and “electoral authoritarianism,” recognizing that otherwise liberal states can have dramatic democratic defects while functioning democracies can perpetuate quite stable forms of authoritarian government (Bogaards, 2009).

Just as significantly, historical understandings of “modernization” related to nations and democracy have undergone a substantial and necessary rethinking. Huntington (1991) very early into the post-Cold War period theorized the existence of “reverse waves” of democracy, signifying the receding of democratization after initial periods of expansion (also see Kurzman, 1998). He contended, moreover, that a democratic victory leads in fact to the triumph of quite illiberal socio-political forces (Huntington, 1991). Recently, this “wave” history of liberal democracy has been put under serious question, as the presence of this illiberalism cannot be so easily charted or attributed, if at all, to regularized ebbs and flows (Doorenspleet, 2000). Regardless of its empirical validity or conceptual soundness, its appeal reflects the growing attempts to understand the crisis of democracy and fundamentally the challenges to the previously accepted modernization narrative of the global triumph of liberal democracy.

In an even more direct fashion, some commentators have argued that in this era of globalization, democracy and liberalism are not only not inherently allied but in fact often explicitly antagonistic. Specifically, the growth of democracy is a precursor for illiberal governance. Fareed Zakaria, the main proponent of this idea, thusly contends:

Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life - illiberal democracy. (Zakaria, 1997: 22)

This phenomenon has been observed empirically in a range of international contexts, including throughout Pacific Asia (Bell et al., 1995). To this effect, capitalist development, as discussed in the previous chapter, has strong affinities with a politics of illiberal democracy. “The developmental state seems indeed to be closely connected to illiberal practice (by design)” note Engberg and Ersson (1999: 19), “and this would suggest that the ideological pretensions of those who advocate illiberal democracy for the sake of economic growth and social achievements - perhaps have some argumentative leverage.”

Key, in this regard, is the intimate connection of liberal authoritarianism ideologically and illiberalism in practice with contemporary processes of globalization. Similar to forms of “competitive authoritarianism,” liberal authoritarianism appear to be on the rise. In particular, it is the acceptance of single-party regimes that, nonetheless, permit and even champion, despite their monopoly on power, for a wide range of traditional liberal freedoms. This trend can be witnessed from as far afield as the Middle East (Dodge, 2002) to Botswana (Good, 1996). Notwithstanding these liberal pretensions, this reflects, in conjunction with illiberal democracies, the political authoritarianism and economic inequality central to strategies of neoliberal development. Consequently, “the deepening of market capitalism and global integration has, in many instances, appeared to consolidate authoritarian politics and predatory economic relationships. Even in the wake of the economic crisis and dramatic political change, these basic frameworks of power remain largely intact” (Hadiz and Robison, 2005: 220).

Such illiberalism and inequality extend beyond the sphere of political democracy. They also negatively affect the vibrancy, and in many cases the very existence of democratic power-sharing and decision-making in the economic and social realm. Industrial democracy and unions have thus been strategically marginalized or co-opted by ruling parties, commonly in the service of financial elites, within hybrid regimes (Robertson, 2007). Globalization has also witnessed a reduction in industrial action and collective bargaining across the world (Piazza, 2005). Additionally, corporate globalization has resulted in a steep decline of civil democracy, once vibrant within established liberal democracies (Skocpol, 2013). Such market-led internationalization has, further, lessened the influence of unions within official democratic politics, which helps to explain, at least in part, the recent turn toward conservatism of a number of socially democratic political parties (Rudra, 2002).

This overall dampening of democracy and liberal ideals challenges the optimism of many who hoped that globalization would produce greater “participatory government institutions” (Avritzer, 2006) and “empowered participatory governments” (Fung et al., 2003) like those found in burgeoning participatory budgeting initiatives (Sintomer et al., 2008). These “new democratic spaces” would aim to expand the scope of democracy, making it more substantive than in liberal regimes while also renegotiating entrenched power relationships (Cornwall and Coelho, 2007). Instead, globalization has ushered in an enhanced ideological commitment to neoliberalism, and with it political authoritarianism and economic oligarchy. Reflecting specifically on the present-day Latin American context, but with clear international connotations, Boetsch (2005: 17) observes:

In effect, neoliberalism - coupled with its strange brand of ballot box democracy - has managed to strangle the full array of political forces antagonistic to and resisting its project. Economic power has tended to concentrate in the hands of those social groups that share objectives of accelerated capital accumulation; benefiting themselves, their families, and their elite classes. Evidence of the undemocratic methods utilized by Latin American rulers of neoliberal democracies abound: the excessive use of presidential decrees in Menem’s Argentina, the exclusion of popular leaders from consultative bodies in Salinas de Gortari’s Mexico, or the application of strong arm tactics in Fujimori’s Peru, could start a long list.

Along similar lines, MacEwan (2005) situates neoliberalism as the enemy of democracy, in particular pitting “market power versus democratic power.” Neoliberalism not only entrenches political illiberalism and economic elitism, in this regard, but erodes the necessary culture and values for fostering an engaged democratic citizenship (Giroux, 2004). More recently, Duggan (2012) has referred to this hyper marketization as the “downsizing of democracy” while Wendy Brown (2015) warns of, as previously noted, its dangerous “undoing of the demos.”

 
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