Is each “illiberal” democracy illiberal in its own way?

28 Nov

Most of the world’s population lives in electoral democracies today. Yet in many respects, the successful spread of formal democracy has turned into a crisis of democracy. Trust in the political institutions of representative democracy – political parties, elections, parliaments – is in free fall in many of the established democracies, while many of the newly democratised societies are experiencing a so-called democratic recession, writes Shalini Randeria (IWM).

The triumphal diffusion of democracy worldwide should lead us to question some of the major assumptions of democratic theory that are rooted in the experience of a few Euro-American societies. There is an urgent need to focus research on the comparative study of varieties of democratic experience. This differs from the more conventional research agendas that have focused on the conditions of emergence, transfer, performance and decaying of specific democratic institutions. For one, the differences between democratic and nondemocratic regimes are not as sharp and distinctive today as they used to be. Think for instance of the current discussions following Viktor Orbán’s self-description of Hungary as an “illiberal democracy”, which points to the fuzziness of the distinction between soft authoritarian regimes and failing democracies. Tensions between the principles of democratic majoritarianism and those of liberal constitutionalism have sharpened as in more and more countries democratic institutions and rule of law principles are systematically hollowed out from within by democratically elected governments. For another, it is important to study democracy as “the politics of the governed”, to use Partha Chatterjee’s expression, namely as the study of choices made by social collectivities and individuals in everyday life often under circumstances of political turmoil and upheaval in different institutional, social and cultural contexts in order to articulate demands, promote claims and mobilise for their views of various visions of social justice and a good society.

The spread of soft authoritarian regimes (e.g. in the USA, Hungary, Poland, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela) defies the traditional vocabulary and conceptual frameworks for an understanding of democracy. Many of these countries are now characterised by populist democracies of rejection and resentment that evince increasing state surveillance of citizens. But we also see a trend of ever more surveillance of the state by citizens and NGOs using courts and grievance redress mechanisms, national and transnational, to render states and corporations accountable. Are all liberal democracies alike, while each “illiberal” democracy is illiberal in its own way?

It is important to reflect on the dilemmas and anxieties of citizens in established democracies under neoliberal austerity politics as well as on the disappointment with post-colonial and post-socialist liberal democracies: Why do citizens in democracies with free and fair elections try to bring about social and political change through street protests? Why do semi-authoritarian regimes continue to hold regular elections? Under what conditions do competitive elections not empower citizens enough or fulfill their democratic aspirations? Why do citizens increasingly use courts and other semi-judicial forums instead of elections to render governments accountable? What does this tell us about the horizontal shift of power within states from the legislative to the administrative? Are we witnessing a crisis of political parties rather than one of democracy? Or is the problem that the link between Western European democracy and the post-1945 welfare state has unraveled?

Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

The exit-voice opposition (Albert Hirschman) captures the changing nature of democratic politics today. When does the exercise of voice in different fora (streets, courts and tribunals, ballot boxes), complement each other and when do they subvert each other? When are courts the last resort for aggrieved citizens and when are they chosen as the first port of call? “Exit” as a response to the failures of the political system is the choice of hundreds of thousands of young, well-educated eastern Europeans, who have left for western Europe, thus changing the composition of the polities of their home countries, where aging, conservative citizens are left behind. “Voice” represents a type of activism different from exit, one where people cannot, or do not want to leave because they deeply value the organisation or the institution that finds itself in a crisis. Instead, they are interested to improve its performance by active participation in bringing about change, offering ideas for reform, but also by taking the risk to oppose those who wield the power of making decisions. But should one assume that such voice-led activism is constructive by its very nature? Are protesters ready to shoulder responsibility for what they stand for? Those protesting state actions and policies can often have a rather paradoxical attitude towards the state, whom they deeply distrust at the same time as they expect it to provide more services. Voice cannot thus simply be a matter of contestation of power. It must also mean the acceptance of one’s responsibility to share power.

Any socially effective use of law, as Upendra Baxi argues, is always marked by a necessary ambivalence: legislative and adjudicative law needs to be strengthened against illiberal forces in uncivil society, while at the same time civil society must constrain the sinister tendencies and forces inherent in the exercise of state power. Thus law in whatever form always moves in the direction of centralised power, whereas the task of social activism is to decenter, and (re)direct the powers of governance successfully claimed by the dominant.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. “The future of European democracy” series is part of an on-going collaboration between the Visions of Europe project at the London School of Economics and the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. 

Shalini Randeria is the Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, Professor of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, as well as the Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the IHEID.

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