Growth without democracyNationalistic triumphalism is more likely to make only a chosen few well off at the cost of others’ interests
Democracy remained a sort of metanarrative throughout the 20th century. Universal adult suffrage, pluralism of ideology, an array of human freedoms and periodic elections constituted the political pillars of democracy. Although a direct correlation between democracy and economic prosperity has never been established, the dichotomy between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ worlds was generally understood as the dichotomy between the ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ worlds. Thus, democracy was construed to be an automatic development imperative.
So much so that the contemporary political economist Francis Fukuyama, after the demolition of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, declared ‘the end of history as such: the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’
But it was not to be—thanks particularly to the exponential rise of both global strategic influence and economic might of communist China. Also, the emergence of confederations like the European Union accelerated globalisation and, recently, ultra-nationalistic triumphalism have heavily infringed upon the very sanctity of democracy in its classical sense.
During the last one and half decades, China has risen as the second greatest economic power in the world and the single largest culturally homogenous consumer market. This phenomenon not only questions the idea of the indispensability of democracy as a modern-day dispensation, but also introduces an alternative political discourse: can the wrath of pure mercantilism so easily crowd out a multitude of subtleties embodied in the idea of democracy and its historical legacy?
There is no definitive answer to it as yet, but Fukuyama’s ‘finality of democracy’ argument has been unquestionably shattered. Chinese investment in the entire African continent has surpassed the financial assistance by any other single agency, including the Breton Woods institutions. China has not only expressed its willingness to support several ‘democratic’ economies of Europe dilapidated by prolonged financial crisis, but many of these countries are highly hopeful that China will rescue them from tightening budgetary constraints. Paradoxically, idols of Hindu deities produced in China have made their way into prayer rooms in India, a country that considers itself a natural rival of China, both at global and regional levels. American citadels in Asia are falling into Chinese hands as countries like the Philippines are opting to change political patronage. The buzzword of global eco-political debate is now OBOR (One Belt One Road), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship trade route forays connecting east and west Asia, Africa and Europe. The USA’s largest trading partner is China, and the scenario is unlikely to alter soon despite the fact that trade is entirely in China’s favour by $400 billion a year.
No country in the world appears hesitant to deal with China economically just because it is a single-party, sworn communist regime and no iota of democracy in the Western definition is present in its dispensation. Or they simply cannot afford to ignore China because of its sheer size and the growing might of its economy. The interesting story here is not just what China is today, but its eco-political structure that made this dramatic rise and prominence possible within a matter of decades. The cardinal question is: should countries now choose to emulate the Chinese-style communist polity over the long-cherished values of democracy in order to accelerate economic growth that precedes prosperity? Or, would China, with its growing global clout, try to export these alternative political values? In either case, the scope and meaning of democracy are sure to be drastically altered, sooner rather than later. In fact, it is only contingent upon the success of the OBOR as a functional integrator of market as planned, and the extent of economic benefit that China can extract from it.
The perils of democracy have not only emanated from professed ideological adversaries like communism, but also from the countries said to have already institutionalised democracy. For example, with the ascendency of the EU as a single market, individual countries’ economic decision-making power got substantially curtailed. When people’s economic hardship, like in contemporary Greece, exacerbated, they found that their elected governments have virtually no power to decide their own fate. It raised the question on the very rationale of electing a government that cannot take care of the plight of its own electorate. The trust on the inherent strengths of democracy has, thus, come under severe scrutiny.
Recent phenomena like the inward-looking nationalist euphoria, seen in the Brexit vote this year, the rise of Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the US and possibly with French and Dutch elections next year, are clearly detrimental to the core democratic values of liberalism and universalism. It is somehow akin to colonial era chauvinism where democracy was meant merely for internal political management. Both Magna Carta and French Revolution never gave thought to extend democratic rights to the colonial subjects, similar to the ones enjoyed by their ‘citizens’. The recent nationalistic fervour in some powerful countries and leaders is also in clear contrast to the idea of ‘global citizenry’ and unbiased access, at least hypothetically, to the ‘global cake’ of prosperity.
Not business as usual
Nepal itself has been an interesting test case scrambling to find a palatable definition of democracy. The reinstatement of democracy in 1990 was in line with the Westminster-style multi-party parliamentary system. But when efforts were made to accommodate communist forces in the political mainstream—the CPN-UML in 1990, the insurgent Maoists in 2005 and regional Madhesi parties in 2007—this democratic space, by definition, was alleged to have been inadequate. An inclusive, representative and proportionate democracy, among others, was advocated. This essentially meant that elections through popular vote are not an absolute prerequisite to rule. And, we are yet to find an acceptable method not prone to cronyism and favouritism in implementing these otherwise supposedly benign concepts of representative democracy. Not only in Nepal, similar calls for inclusion are growing louder among the aboriginals and minority ethnic groups in many parts of the globe, from Australia to Canada.
A straightforward summation is that democracy is not business as usual now. But the problem is: unlike in democracy, political literature has so far failed to define universally accepted norms, rules and practices with regard to these fairly new forms of representation. For a moment, even if it is agreed that aggressive mercantilism could bring economic growth and prosperity to the national economy, it is not clear how fairly the achieved prosperity would be distributed without transparency and accountability, which are integral to any democratic government. The risk is that nationalistic triumphalism is more likely to make only a chosen “in group” better off at the cost of the well-being and freedom of the “out group”.
Finally, can we and shall we protect democracy? Or, are we on the verge of redefining democracy itself in the context of expanding mercantilism, which is impervious, if not detrimental, to democracy’s basic tenets?
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst