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Klaus Müller (Free University Berlin)

The Globalisation of Democracy – Progress and Paradoxes


My paper has an ambitions title. Globalisation itself is an ambitious concept. So is democracy. In fact, both terms have much in common. Both are used to characterize secular processes, which have been unfolding over long periods of time – perhaps several centuries, and are understood as the conditions of an historical era. Today it is often said that we live in an age of democracy. No doubt, there is some remarkable progress compared to the so called “age of extremes”, which was overshadowed by two types of dictatorship: nazism and communism. Even the remaining types of authoritarian regimes present themselves at least as “peoples republic” (of China) or as special forms of Islamic democracy. And also today, according a widely held impression we live under the conditions of globalisation, the impact of which, in one or another form, can be felt almost everywhere. Certainly in economic affairs, where globalisation is associated with liberalized capital markets, which where introduced in the late 1970s.  But also in every-day live, from world music to tourism and fashion, globalisation is present. So, in the last few decades, both processes, democracy and globalisation became intertwined and nearly coextensive.

Since globalisation and democracy are omnipresent in the media, in politics and in the social science disourse, we may have to got the impression to more or less know the meaning and the implications of both processes, esp. how globalisation will work out: how a - somewhere in the future truly globalised world may look like.

Unfortunately this is not the case. Especially - and this explains the subtitle of my paper -  the relation between globalisation and democracy remains ambivalent and is essentially contested. Broadly speaking, there are two opposed camps. The liberalist camp makes the flourishing of democracy dependent on economic growth and general prosperitiy. If globalisation is “spreading the wealth”, as David Dollar & Aart Kraay, two world bank economist, maintained recently in Foreign Affairs, the flag-ship journal on US foreign policy, then globalisation promotes democracy and democratic institutions.When, on the other hand, Branko Milanovitch, amazingly another world bank economist, has it right, then globalisation aggravates inequality on the national, regional and global level. Under these conditions, as most critiques infer, globalisation may lead to political instability, a backlash against free trade, rising tariffs, slowed economic growth, right wing populism and, therefore, to decreasing rates of democratic consolidation. Thus, the future of liberalist capitalist ideology may not be as radiant as it seems (Milanovitch 1999, p.14).

If democracy is in fact, as can be seen from these diverging views, a critical dimension or reference point to find a stance towards globalisation, than we should have a proper understanding how globalisation works and of the tensions involved. So I will take the just mentioned controversy as my point of departure and proceed in three steps. In the first part I will outline the common understanding of globalisation and make a few comments on the standard view. My second point, then, gives a short overview over the evolution of democracy - for the following reason: Analytical approaches to democracy make us forget, that democracy – like globalisation – has been sprea­ding in historical waves. Only Huntington’s famous ‘Third Wave of Democracy’ since the late 1980s coincided with the rise of economic liberalisation – or ‘(neo-)liberalisation’. So one may assume an electoral affinity (Wahlverwandtschaft) between economic and political liberalisation at least. Against this background my third and last point will revisit the debate on the future of democracy under global conditions – which can mean different things to different persons. Has democracy actually spread around the globe? Will democracy be reduced to a very elementary form of market-like decision-making? Are there chances to widen its scope: to a post-national space, to a global civil society or even to a global democracy? In addressing these questions more important than Huntington’s phrase of the Third Wave seems to me Robert Dahl’s earlier observation, namely that democracy in the course of its long history underwent several transforma­tions. So if we live in a time were globalisation and democracy interfere we could expect, that democracy will be change its meaning agains – the question remains, into which direction.


I. Globalisation – Concepts and Illusions

Coming to globalisation, the standard concepts prominent in the literature, e.g. in the writings of Giddens or Beck, usually refer to vanishing borders, the shrinking of time and space, the free flow of capital, ideas and people. What we live through according to this view is a de-territorialisation of politics, the economy and also of society. Globalisation is defined in the word of David Held as “a process (or set of processes) which embodies a transformation in the spacial organisation of social relations and transactions” (Held 1999, 16). These are quite abstract terms – and abstract they have to be, since conventional social science concepts, it is said, have lost their referents. National economies were dissolved into globalised markets, nations states are loosing their capacity to rise taxes and to provide social security at the same levels as in earlier times. National cultures give way to multicultural encounters and hybrid identities. In this sense, many globalists think that we are living already in a new age, characterized by post-sovereign states operating under post-national conditions. Thus, the formal jargon of many globalisation theories may be interpreted as an act of saying farewell to good old modernity – or again in the words of David Held: “As with the idea of modernization, which acquired intellectual primacy within the social sciences during the 1960s, so today the notion of globalisation has become the leitmotiv of our age” (Held & Mc Grew 2000, 1).

            The first trend commonly associated with globalisation is communication. News satellites, the Internet, and the media are said to have fostered exponential growth in the exchange of ideas, information and life stiles. This has brought life to a whole new infrastructure of communication, making interaction at distance possible in real time. Also the second driving force of globalisation depends on communication – the free flowing of capital around the globe. Today the amount of money on “short-term financial round-trip excursions” (Tobin) surpasses the combined reserves of all central banks by far. This comes together with a third trend – the rising of new powerful actors, namely transnational cooperations in command of more resources then medium sized states.

In all of these contexts communication, a central concept of social science theory since a few decades, became the key metaphor of the global age. And from here there is a direct link to democra­tisation. Not only according to Anthony Giddens television played a decisive role in the fall of the Berlin Wall and, more generally, in the fall communism. It also spread the power of antiauthoritarian movement to South Africa and to other parts of the world (Giddens 1999, Lecture I). From this account the impression arises, that globalisation is not only something new, but comes as a revolution. Since communication in times of the world wide web is borderless, since global capital markets are beyond the control of any single state, since it is carried by the most advanced technologies, seems also irreversible. Most important in our context, it subscribes to the questionable assertion celebrated by Giovanni Sartori and many others after the breakdown of communism that “liberal democracy is the only game in town” (Sartori 1991). This was perhaps well-meaning but also dangerously naïve in that it suggested that we live under the conditions of democratic peace, where states have no enemies anymore and authoritarian regimes are televised away. So it is important to see why this is misleading – in terms of globalisation as well as in terms of democracy.

As regards globalisation, despite all the talk of the communications revolutions and global capital markets both trend are not unknown. According to a now widely held view, there have been earlier waves of globalisation. From an historical points of view, liberalized capital markets, free flows of investment, and, to a certain degree, people, are not unique. If there were earlier periods of expanding markets and worldwide political activities: Colonialism, the “golden age of liberalism” or, more precise, imperialism, and the Cold War era, when the globe was in a perverse sense united by the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The title of a very important book by Eric Helleiner – The Reemergence of Global Finance – indicates that in earlier times there already had been liberal capital markets. And there had been considerable movements of people. European Societies, which now try to come to terms with being immigration societies were in the past characterized by emigration. So if we take three common indicators of globalisation, namely trade, capital flows and migration together we get the following picture of three waves of globalisation. 


Fig. 1 (World Bank 2002, 23)


From this graph two conclusions can be drawn: First, earlier globalisations were reversible, though by a price. The ‘golden age of liberalism’ was wrecked by trade warfare, the Great Depression, and the rise of economic nationalism. In Germany the great depression paved the way for nazism and WW II. Second, technological trends alone did not play a decisive role: Costs of sea freight, air transport and telecommunication actually fell from 1920 to 1940 without marking a difference in the volume of trade or FDI. In the mid of last century world export had fallen back to the level of 1870; the retreat to nationalism came along with rising inequality between countries and world regions. If there have been earlier reversals, then, a future backlash against globalisation is possible, too. Some economist fear that the failure of Cancun may lead to trade-bilateralism, perhaps preferred by the United States. A trade war between the US and China also seems possible. Nobody exactly knows what the implications of steep fall of the Dollar would be.

To recognize that there had been earlier episodes of globalisation does not imply that there is nothing new under the sun. Quite on the contrary, the historical background of previous waves of globalisation gives the background to see more clearly the new qualities of the current time. And these new qualities are to be found in the political arena: the rise of International Organisations with a global mandate; and the fact, that the current wave of globalisation happens under the conditions of democracy. This second new quality of the current globalisation brings me to my second point – the globalisation of democracy itself.


II. The Globalisation of Democracy: Widening – Deepening - Upgrading

Compared to the concept of globalisation, the concept of democracy seems to be less controversial. There is a long tradition of theories of democracy, and there are some well established definitions. And, in normative terms, democracy as such seems not to be contested. We all, I think, would agree to Robert Dahl’s dictum, that “free markets are not enough”. But, as I already indicated, democracy, too, came in historical waves, went through several breakdowns and reversals; and the meaning of democracy thereby experienced several transformations, changing its content and also its scope. Presently, I think we are living through a time, in which democracy in challenged from three different directions, all related somehow to globalisation, but having quite different implications. In this sense, the globalisation of democracy can mean very different things: namely the widening – the deepening – or the upgrading of democracy. Taking these dimensions together, not only progress but also some paradoxes come into view.

Widening seems to be the least controversial aspect. In fact, most of the literature since the 1990, certainly the bulk of quantitative research on democracy, working with different scales and correlations, but also Huntington’s study is devoted to the diffusion of democracy across more and more countries. Put in this perspective, democracy since it early days has been part of a broader spectrum of processes of worldwide significance. Already the first wave of Huntington’s scheme started in two continents, with the Revolutions in France and America, and then progressed over some West European countries, the European settler colonies in Australia, Canada and Chile up to the newly proclaimed democracies in Central Europe after Word War I. A second, shorter wave reached Western Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea under allied occupation after 1945; along with this second the worldwide process of decolonisation set in, leading to democracy in India and the Philippines. The famous Third Wave then rolled over Southern Europe in the second part of the 1970s, taking Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa in the 1980 to culminate in the Eastern European Revolutions.

            From an empirical point of view, the impression of a progressing globalisation of democratic rule can hardly be denied. And it is no accident that the concept of globalisation was first used in a book by Reiser, O. L. & B. Davies titled Planetary Democracy. An Introduction to Scientific Humanism and Applied Semantics, printed in 1944. The facts seem self-evident. In the beginning of the last century only 25 of the then 55 states (next to another 55 imperial or colonial entities and 20 protectorates) could be called democracies of some sorts. In 1950 the governments of 24 countries in a world of now 80 states were elected democratically. Since the start of Huntington’s Third Wave the set grew continuously: from 39 countries in 1974 to 117 in 1995. Today 121 of the 194 states of the world are governed by elected leaderships – or are at least formally democratic.


Fig. 2: Freedom House 2002 + Map: Geography of Democracy


A significant progress indeed. Adherents of this approach, at least in retrospect, are celebrating a century of democracy. “Today everyone is a democrat”, writes Anthony Giddens. As a general explanation for this amazing outcome he cites globalisation – in his eyes “the emergence of more reflexive populations across the world”, illuminated by an “emerging globalised information order”, relying on satellite communication and the internet (Giddens 1999, Runaway World, ch. 5, Reith Lectures, V). The main causes Huntington is referring to are the economic growth to the last decades and “snowballing”, that is demonstrations effects televised from one country to another. An eminent political scientist like Martin Lipset – one of the authors of the World Development Report of 1997 - even suggests, that the IMF and the World Bank may have played a positive role – or more generally that “international agencies and foreign governments are more likely to endorse pluralistic regimes” (Lipset 1994, 16). Like in classical political sociology again, well prospering and well informed global middle classes are the agents of democratisation. By the way, I guess that this is also the political background and explanation why the overoptimistic paper by Dollar & Kraay on the welfare benefits of globalisation appeared in Foreign Policy. “Spreading the wealth” by globalised trade, thereby creating a global middle class as a standard bearer of democracy is the declared principle of the US-Administration.

Skeptics, on the other hand, point the fact that globally stretched concepts of democracy may sacrifice some its qualities. Therefore the deepening of democracy not the widening should be of primary concern for the next decades (Nohlen 2002). The reason for this sceptical view, shared by Rustow, Nohlen and many others is that quite a few of the “New Democracies” are at best ‘democracies with adjectives’, some are thinly disguised ‘electoral dictatorships’. Thus, during the 1990s some events and development brought to mind, that like globalisation democratisation may very well be reversible. Quite contrary to the end of the history-school, there have been some alarming reversals - and a general feeling expressed by Larry Diamond question “Is the Third Wave Of Democratization Over?” May even a third “reverse wave” like those dated from 1922 to 1942 and 1958 to 1975 be a real danger?

In fact, most of the literature dedicated to hybrid regimes, is addressed to the “New Democracies” of the last fifteen years. And there are many different classifications of various subtypes of imperfect democracies around. There are dubious cases like the Russia’s ‚illiberal democracy: a democratic constitution is in place and more than hundred election on all levels of the state let to numerous chances of leadership. On the other hand, there is no integrative party-system, the media are back under state control; recent elections in Chechnya where obviously rigged. In Eastern Europe we have at least two countries, for which the phrase of a transition to democracy makes no sense at all: Ukraine and Belarus. Some countries, which had elections, are on the brink of civil war: Albania and Macedonia. The post-communist countries in Central Europe and the Baltic seem to fare better than thought in the early 1990s. In this case Lipset’s allusion to an international actor surely was right: the EU functioned as an external anchor which prevented most of the post-communist countries not drift off into authoritarian waters. But even in this region civil societies are weak, party systems no well connected to social interest, governments not really representative. Corruption is well above west European levels. In other world region foreign governments or international agencies, contrary to Lipset, were not of great help to establish political pluralism at all. The geographical neighbourhood to the USA did not prevent Honduras or Nicaragua from being downgraded in the Freedom House Index; Pakistan, named as the biggest setback in 1999 (Karatnycky 2000), as well as the newly consolidated autocracies in Central Asia are now closed allies of the United States.

Taken these heterogeneous cases together, it is difficult to come to a general conclusions. But a few things seem clear. First: liberal democracy “has not become the only game in town”. Second: a minimal definition of democracy risks what Linz & Stepan (1997, 4) call “electoralist fallacy”, i.e. to take elections, a necessary condition for a sufficient one. Even if there is no third wave of breakdown, then the substance of democracy has been hollowed out in many countries. There are, as Larry Diamond put it recently “Elections without democracy” (Diamond 2002). So this is the paradox expressed also by Huntington himself in 1996 with the following words: “Threats to third-wave democracies are likely to come not from generals and revolutionaries, who have nothing but contempt for democracy, but rather from participants in the democratic process. These are political leaders and groups who win elections, take power and then manipulate the mechanism of democracy to curtail or destroy democracy”(Huntington 1996, 8). 

But if the cases are as heterogeneous as those just cited, does it make sense to look for a common causality called “globalisation”? Surely, globalisation is a too complex and ambivalent process to be praised – or bla­med for all and every thing. Nevertheless, there are some channels, which make globali­sation more a part of the problem than of the solution. Many of the new democracies of the 1990s tried to modernise their societies according to a globalised dogma: the well known “Washington Consensus”. Radical marketization was a condition of loans from the IMF and the World Bank. State desertion was part of an ideological climate which entrusted markets not only to restructure the economy, but also to reorganise the fabric of society. Politically this led to a “stateness problem” in some cases - a lack of governability and rule of law. Economically it made the liberalized markets vulnerable to a new type of financial crises, running around the globe by “contagion” – demonstrated by the Russian and Asian Crisis in the late 1990s. Sociologically, rising inequalities often go hand in hand with a bias against political participation on side of socially deprived groups and with distrust in political institutions (Nohlen 2002, 15f) – or with open rebellion as seen in late 2003 in Ecuador.

But, how relevant are these observations globally? If the democracies of the third wave are in danger to be ‘hollowed out’ by internal weakness and external pressures – do the old democracies of  fare better? This is are very important question, since in nearly all accounts of the globalisation of democracy the 28 Western Democracies are taken as benchmarks, not as problem cases. This seem inappropriate for two reasons. First: a better criterion to evaluate new democracies may be the respective status quo ante. Seen this way, e.g. Russia is politically better off than two decades earlier; better also than China, where no democratic reforms have been tried at all. Second: there is another branch of sceptical literature on the erosive effects of globalisation on the democracy in its old core countries as well.

And this may be the real challenge to democracy directed at the very core of the concept. There are some disturbing signs of a reverse transformation, in a direction opposite of the third transformation envisaged by Robert Dahl in his “Sketches for an Advanced Democratic Society” (Dahl 1989, Ch 23): a reverse transformation to a minimalist democracy which rolls back the historical expansion of democratics rights, which the T.H.-Marshallian concept of citizenship took for granted.

            The conceptual background of this development was laid a few decades ago, when a “New Political Economy” generalized the liberalist conception of individual choice to the political sphere. If, according to this view, politicians were ‘political entrepreneurs’ maximising votes and voters were making their choices in the ‘political market place’, then in fact the whole procedures of democracy could be treated and streamlined like a business firm. What started as a sectarian branch of political theory, mimicking the more prestigious economic discipline, became mainstream. More important, the “economic theory of democracy” entered the self-interpretation of acting politicians. While leaders in the New Democracies justify austerity measures by the assertion, that “the IMF made us to do”, governments in our countries “explain” tax cuts and welfare reductions by referring to the forces of globalisation.

The consequences are well known. Economic policy is subordinated to monetary stability irrespective of its consequences for growth and employment. Politically, decision-making on more and more matters is “outsourced” from parliaments to so called expert commissions.  Socially, in nearly all old democracies we see a big U-turn of rising income inequality, which started in the early globalisers, Britain and the United States, and now also arrived in France and Germany (Alderson & Nielson 2002; Atkinson 2003). Conformity to market sentiments is elevated to a criterion for political measures of all kind. And from here a feedback loop leads back to the quality of democracy – a feed back which is well described by Craig Murphy in the following words: „Increasingly unequal incomes mean increasingly unequal market power. In a world in which we let the market do much of our collective business, increasingly unequal market power means increasingly less democracy”(Murphy 2002, 350).

            If this statement captures the trend in mature democracies, how could this trend be countered by a deepening of democracy? In the first place, I think by making clear the  difference between real forces of globalisation and a generalized myth of a powerless politics. There is a lot of empirical evidence, that there are alternative strategies to respond to the challenges of global integration. Comparative research on the dynamics of welfare reform suggest, that the level of social protection as well as the level of inequalities and taxation depends more on country-specific political constellations than on the level of economic liberalisation (Korpi & Palme 2003) As Dani Rodrik has outlined in several papers, successful strategies of globalisation requires strong integrative institutions to avoid damaging social conflicts and political instabilities.

            Nevertheless, there are also clearly new challenges, which can not simply broken down by traditional political means, since they surpass the power of single states. But many of the imperatives of globalisation which allegedly overcharge politics per se, are in fact collective action problems that require cooperation. Regional integration is one of the approaches to come to terms with this type of problem. In fact, regional integration agreements are the most significant trend in global politics, the EU being the most advanced venture of this kind.

            And this the place, where I think an upgrading of democracy comes into play – or in the language of Dahl’s approach “a change in the scale of political life, (which) once again alter the limits and possibilities of the democratic process” (Dahl 1989, 312).  In the most general terms this would mean to lift democratic procedures to a higher level of decision making. There are many ways to upgrade democracy beyond the scope of the nation state and many different associated aspirations. Some approaches seem utopian – others quite real. A more pragmatic approach is being debated in recent years under the headline of a Global Public Policy. In this case states pool their sovereignty to solve specific problems, and may invite, case by case, the private sector or civil society groups for consultations. Another approach is trying to “demo­cratise” the multilateral Institutions, which in practice means to improve transparency and to co-opt NGOs of several types. Even the IMF and the World Bank have been receptive to this idea by installing civil society forums. The most ambitions approach aims at a global democracy in the full sense of the term, resting on transnational institutions. The UN-General assembly would, in the long run, develop into a system similar to the European Parliament. In this sense, David Held and Tony Giddens think, a cosmopolitical democracy would be a pre-condition to re-regulate the globalised world economy, to reduce ecological risks and economic inequalities – and also to give new life to democracy on the lower levels.



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