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The Long road to democracy

Recognized existence of a society not subject to absolute state power and as little segmented and hierarchically arranged as possible; the recognition of rationalization as a key factor in social conflicts which should combine opposition of interests or ideas with the notion of the general interest; and acceptance of the ethical principle of the absolute right of individuals to the widest possible freedom of belief and action – c'est dans ces termes que le sociologue français Alain Touraine définit la démocratie, dans ce texte publié au lendemain de l'ouverture du mur de Berlin. 

by Alain Touraine

The twentieth century has not been kind to democracy. For seventy-five years from the beginning of the First World War in 1914, to the opening up of the Berlin wall in 1989 it seemed set to be a century of revolution, liberation and development. However, these objectives, on which so many hopes were pinned and which were the rallying points of so many powerful popular movements, are in their very essence anti-democratic, since they demand unity against a common enemy or a specific obstacle, whereas democracy is by nature pluralist.

This paradox is very hard for us to accept, especially if we live in what has been called the Third World. It is equally difficult, especially if we come from the Western world, to abandon the dream we nurtured for the twentieth centurythat of seeing the spirit of democracy, born first in Britain, in the United States of America and in France, extending first to such neighbouring countries as Germany, Italy and Spain, then to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, to Latin America and, finally, to the rest of the world.

In the twentieth century, ideologists from the richer countries have declared that economic growth, political democracy and personal happiness go hand in hand, but this saccharine optimism has been brutally dispelled by historical reality. Weimar Germany, the country which perhaps more than any other was the standardbearer of modernity, foundered and sank into nazism. At the same time, voices of protest in the colonized countries were a forceful reminder to the great Western nations that the methods with which they held sway over a large part of the globe were far from democratic.

On the other hand, the revolutionary anticapitalist, anti-imperialist movements, created in the name of oppressed peoples and classes, were soon seen to have been imposed on half the countries of Europe by a foreign army and scarcely merited their self-assumed titles of "people's democracies". For their part, many of the regimes that emerged after decolonization also became dictatorships, often dependent upon foreign protectors. The poor countries followed not the road to liberty but that which led to authoritarian, totalitarian regimes. Again, some of the most developed countries swung over to the various forms of fascism which engulfed the world in the Second World War; they also imposed colonial regimes and encouraged social inequalities over large areas of the planet.

Today, this picture of the situation during the first half of the century certainly appears to be too bleak. Democracy has survived, it has taken root and spread in the West and has even regained much lost ground, particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America. But serious reflection on the state of democracy must go further than such blandly euphoric observations. Democracy and development do not always go hand in hand; they may even advance in diametrically opposed directions. This must be the starting point for a proper examination of the dramatic history of the twentieth century.

Defining democracy

Democracy is in no way associated with wealth or poverty; if we seek the elements that favour its advancement, we discover that it is very closely related to a country's capacity for endogenous development, that is to say, to the formation of active members of society who are motivated by the modern values of rationalism and individualism and who discuss among themselves questions about the allocation and use of the community's resources.

Democracy cannot be defined solely in terms of institutions, or, in a more limited way, of safe guards. There can certainly be no democracy without the free election of those who govern or without the right of the majority to remove from power those whom it has not invested with power or those from whom it has withdrawn its confidence. This is purely a matter of definition and there is no point in discussing democracy if by that word is meant anything other than the free choice of leaders by the people. What can be done is to identify and explain the reasons for the presence of this kind of political system. Here a distinction must be made between endogenous (democratic) and exogenous (voluntarist, antidemocratic) development.

When a society comes up against insurmountable internal obstacles to its modernization, it has to mobilize, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word, behind leaders who plead the higher interest of the state or the nation and who seek to justify their actions in the name of science, history, a god, or the people. Development cannot be democratic in such a society if the old resists the new, for in this situation a vanguard or élite has to escape the pressure of the old order and lead it forcibly towards the future. Usually this involves the energetic mobilization of the community against enemies who are always portrayed as external enemies, whether they be a colonial power, great land-owners, traditional beliefs or forms of family organization. Defined in this way, voluntarist, exogenous development calls for national unity, whereas democracy requires plurality of opinion combined with a dual check on social conflict through appeals to rationality and freedom.

In what circumstances do development and democracy overlap? When can endogenous development be said to exist? As many authors have said since the eighteenth century and particularly since the time of the German economist and sociologist Max Weber, endogenous modernization presupposes a secular approach which detaches social life from a naturalistic or religious view of the universe, is based on practical reason, and makes respect for the individual the keystone of its ethic. It also presupposes the autonomy of civil society vis-à-vis the state; and this in turnas many analysts, starting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have pointed out implies a certain equality of conditions and thus the existence of an egalitarian principle, which may be religious or republican. Finally, it presupposes a structured civil society, whose members can be represented and therefore organized in such a way that political forces can be "representative"; this is the most visible and concrete expression of democracy.

Such a condensed analysis may seem too abstract, but, being confined to essentials, it clearly situates the problem of democracy and gives a precise meaning to the seemingly surprising proposition with which I began that democracy and development may find themselves in mutual opposition.

Two worlds

The history of recent centuries has been that of a gradually widening division between a world capable of endogenous development, and therefore of democracy, and another world (dominated, moreover, by the first), engaged in exogenous development, along a traditionalist, populist or even national-revolutionary line traced out in authoritarian fashion by a ruling national or foreign élite.

In the first of these two worlds are to be found not only the central core of modern, democratic countries, but also a number of' peripheral countries where development, and democracy, are fragile. Many countries generally considered to be in an intermediate position, such as India and some Latin American countries, in fact belong to this category.

The second of the two worlds consists of two distinct groups. On the one hand there are the modernizing, authoritarian states which proclaim the concepts of rationalization and secularization borrowed from the first world (for example, the communist countries). On the other hand there are states in which the ruling élite calls for unity and talks of the destiny of a people, a community, a nation (for example, the Third World countries). Thus we have four categories of countries grouped in two pairs: a central core of countries of endogenous development (group 1); modernizing, voluntarist, authoritarian countries (group 2); peripheral countries with limited endogenous development (group 3); the "new-community" countries (group 4).

This century has seen, first, an accelerating shift of initiative from the countries of group 1 to those of group 2 (beginning with the Soviet Revolution), then to the group 3 countries (with the accelerated modernization of the intermediate countries) and, finally, to the countries of group 4 (the real Third World countries, aroused by nationalistic, community, and even sometimes theocratic movements). Then, in a second phase, 21 came the almost simultaneous collapse of all the models of voluntarist, exogenous development, the triumph of the democracies, and the increasing attraction of the democratic model for the countries of groups 2 and 3 and even, in some cases, of group 4.

Once the opposition between democratic, endogenous development and authoritarian, exogenous development is recognized, it is easy to see that the most difficult task is to transform an exogenous impulse into an endogenous development mechanism. These terms may seem far from the historical realities, as we perceive them; but they are not. Bismarck's Germany, the Italy built by Cavour, the Japan of the Meiji era and even, for a time, the Turkey of Kemal Ataturk, succeeded, following action initiated by the state, in creating a class of independent actors on the social scene businessmen, trade unionists, administrators and scientists thus combining the dynamism of modernization with an autonomous civil society and setting in motion what economists term "self-sustaining growth".

However, this process has only succeeded in societies in which major factors conducive to endogenous development already existed, as well as the preliminaries of modernizationa developing education system, freedom of thought, freedom of trade, and concentration of capital. The longer the path to be followed the greater the risk that the authoritarian mobilization of a society will become an end in itself and will be diverted into despotism with the creation of new inflexible structures and new privileges. In place of rationalism, planning and education comes the installation of a powerful nomenklatura, a rigid bureaucracy and the rejection of innovative ideas. The turnaround is even more marked where affirmation of nationhood becomes virtually the sole objective. Where an abundance of natural resources enables a country to survive severe economic disarray such nationalistic tendencies can take extreme forms.

The last third of this century, and in particular the period which began with the 1980s, has been dominated by these powerful regressive processes, which are finally leading on the one hand to the destruction of communist regimes and on the other to the deterioration of national liberation movements into corrupt, authoritarian regimes serving the interests of privileged clienteles.

Meanwhile, temporarily thrown off balance by the oil crises and by the rapid rise of real incomes and social benefits to the detriment of investment, the central core of democratic countries are again calling on their capacity for endogenous development. A wave of new technologies is appearing; education, research and, it must be admitted, armaments programmes are being strengthened.

Ways out of crisis

This turnaround is giving rise to a rebirth of the democratic theme and to the decline of the idea of revolution. In 1989, France celebrated the bicentenary of a Revolution which it saw as the forerunner of democracy, not as the harbinger of the Soviet Revolution.

In Latin America, the further south one looks the more the revolutionary ideal is giving way to aspirations for democracy. In Chile, the general desire to avoid a total rupture has led to the triumph of the more moderate elements of the opposition.

It is in the East European countries, however, that the most spectacular turnaround is taking place. In the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, the democratic "repertoire" to use Charles Tilly's apt expression is supplanting the revolutionary menu. Violence in the streets, the storming of official buildings, the use of arms, is giving way to appeals for free elections and an absence of killing and vengeance. A society is rebuilding itself, while inflammatory appeals to the people, to the earthy forces of the proletariat, are heard no more. In the autumn of 1989, mankind lived through some of its finest hours and the destruction of the Berlin wall put an end to the era of revolutions which had begun two centuries earlier with the taking of the Bastille.

These were moving, inspiring sights for all those who believe that man creates his own history rather than being subject to the laws of fate, whether they be the laws of tradition or of what we call "progress". We must not, however, naively interpret this as a "happy ending" which will see all the nations which had lost their way return to the strait and narrow path of democratic modernization. It is true that these nations are emerging from a dictatorship which was supposed to be the dictatorship of the proletariat but which became that of a party and of an ideological machine and a police state. Yet this does not give them automatic entry into a democratic system. Other ways out are possible, and the deeper the political and economic crisis the more open they are.

The first way, other than that leading to democracy, will lead to chaos, if the decomposition of the old order prevents the formation of a new system. There would be a certain terrible logic in such an outcome for regimes that have prevented the formation of active members of society and thus leave behind them a social vacuum often destined to be filled with political infighting.

After the fall of its dictator, Romania, where a diversified, autonomous society has never existed and where power has been held by a succession of dictatorships and hereditary rulers, appeared to be on the brink of chaos.

The second way leads to an extreme form of economic liberalism. If there are no social actors, if the old regime has stifled the forces of liberation, if those responsible for running the economy are incapable of adapting to the demands of the market, many voices will be raised in favour of market forces as society's sole guide and for a massive injection of foreign capital, goods and methods. In 1990, when Poland adopted a policy of raw liberalization, prices soared and the standard of living of ordinary people collapsed yet the government became more popular than ever. It seemed as if the entire country was aware that the old conception of man must disappear so that a new kind of man could be born of the constraints and opportunities of the market.

In Latin America, this appears to be the most tempting policy. There is a call for a return to outward-looking development, for increasing the gap between a modern sector which can become integrated into the world market and an informal, marginal, poor sector. The most extreme example of this exaggerated duality is the trade in drugs, which is Latin America's biggest transnational undertaking and which, even if the farmers who earn more for growing coca are included, concentrates resources in the hands of a few, while the rest of the population is entrapped in crisis, violence and corruption resulting from the outflow of capital.

At the same time, the economies of the central core of democratic countries are experiencing a growing imbalance between capital movements and trade in goods and services, the former having become between twenty and fifty times more important than the latter.

A third way is that taken by societies whose active members are defined not by their productive role but by their defence of a collective identity. Nationalist movements are arising on the ruins of voluntarist, modernizing, authoritarian policies. In the Soviet Union, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have become embroiled in a civil war which could be duplicated in other Soviet republics as well as outside the Soviet Union. Those who thought that nationalism was a spent force that would be replaced by class struggles within a modern economy were sadly mistaken.

The Austrian Marxists of the late nineteenth century and the Leninists themselves failed in their attempts to associate social with national struggles. Leninism-Maoism was the most powerful political movement of the mid-twentieth century, but the union of the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles that it hoped to create under the leadership of a communist party was soon seen to be an artificial one. Revolutionary groups became bogged down in terrorist activities which were a feature of the break-up of Leninism in Uruguay and Argentina, as they were in Turkey and Iran.

In addition to these non-democratic paths there is also the possibility of a militaristic reaction on the part of threatened regimes which, maintain themselves in power solely by repressive measures, thus ensuring their own eventual self-asphyxiation.

None of these possible solutions can be considered democratic, since, in each case, political choice disappears and the absolute power of the dictator is replaced by another form of absolute power, that of the centres of decision that govern the market, that of extreme nationalist groups or that of violence.

Enemies of democracy

While it may be true that democracy is not a form of society but a political regime, a government cannot be called democratic simply because it raises the standard of living, increases the level of school enrolment or the life expectancy of the population. There is no democracy if there is no choice between the representative groups within a local or national community. What are the rules of the game if there are neither players nor playing field?

Most of the world today is firmly attached to the democratic ideal, as is shown by the fall of military regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile, the end of the monopoly of communist parties in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and, to some extent also, in the Soviet Union and Romania, as well as the disappearance of leftist tendencies opposed to the principle of parliamentary elections in the Western countries.

All these developments are in conformity with the general principles on the basis of which I have attempted to define democracy the recognized existence of a society not subject to absolute state power and as little segmented and hierarchically arranged as possible; the recognition of rationalization as a key factor in social conflicts which should combine opposition of interests or ideas with the notion of the general interest; and acceptance of the ethical principle of the absolute right of individuals to the widest possible freedom of belief and action.

Political philosophers have long sought a sufficient basis for democracy in institutional arrangements free elections, the separation of powers, the absence of personal privilege but these are descriptions of democratic institutions rather than an analysis of the fundamentals of democracy. What I am showing here is that the existence of democracy depends first of all upon a double limitation of political and social power by acknowledgement of rationality and its constraints and by reference to some form of natural law. Democracy also requires the greatest possible social integration and, at the same time, the existence of groups of ideas and interests which can be represented.

In other words, social and cultural segmentation are just as much enemies of democracy as are an overriding appeal to a unifying principle or the subordination of society to a voluntarist state which itself takes the place of the active members of that society.

The need for active participation in public life

All the prerequisites for the existence of democracy that have just been mentioned are of a similar nature. Democracy is possible in so far as the population of a country constitutes a politically active whole. It is weakened or disappears where political choices are determined by a non-social logic loyalty to a national spirit, the integration of a community, the will of a ruler, even modernization itself. Those who equate democracy with a market economy are just as mistaken as those who qualify as democratic a regime that emerges from a revolution or a national liberation movement supported by the majority of the population. Where there is much abstention from political life, where national unity is undermined by strongly marked ethnic, regional, language, religious or life-style differences, or where there is great social inequality, it is difficult to form a politically active system, a forum for debate and free political institutions.

Of course, we must not confuse countries that are less than perfect democracies with those that are dragged down into chaos and disarray or with those that overtly sanction forms of discrimination or segregation. The fall of a dictatorship does not automatically entail the installation of a democracy; this depends primarily on the democratic spirit, on the ability and the desire to participate, through free and representative institutions, in the creation and application of the law by citizens and under their control.

How far we are from those anti-social theories of democracy which explain democracy in the wealth of a nation, in its beliefs or even in its size. How urgent it is to seek every possible means to increase political activity and the ability to debate and make choices and to combine diversity of interests with social integration.

We have learned in the last few years, and even more clearly in the last few months, that democracy is more opposed to than associated with revolution, that it requires a great capacity for endogenous modernization and that, if it is to be strong, it must reduce social and cultural gaps, but we are still not sufficiently convinced that it requires above all a strong participation in public life.

Some are even tempted to support the notion that political passion is a threat to democracy and that a degree of apathy contributes to the smooth running of institutions. This idea is as unacceptable as the opposing viewpoint which confuses democracy with mass demonstrations, for it has the effect of reducing democracy to freedom for those who play an active role in economic life. There is, in fact, no democracy where political life is subject to any logic other than its own. Democracy is based on the most active possible participation by the greatest possible number of people in the making and application of political decisions.

Read also:

Alain Touraine in the UNESCO Courier 

Alain Touraine

French sociologist, Alain Touraine is director of studies and director of the Centre for Sociological Analysis and Intervention (CADIS) at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Paris. Among his works published in English are Return of the Actor (1985) and The Voice and the Eye: The Analysis of Social Movements (1981).