Learning modernization the hard way

DEMOCRACY AND MODERNIZATION:A DISCUSSION OF 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES.Moscow, Evropa Publishers, 2010, 318 pp. (In Russian)

DEMOCRACY AND MODERNIZATION:A DISCUSSION OF 21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES.Moscow, Evropa Publishers, 2010, 318 pp. (In Russian)

This symposium of articles by Russian and foreign contributors focuses on certain aspects of how democracy and modernization correlate. Is democracy the most effective institutional “model” for carrying out modernization? Can political democracy be an effective tool in building a modern (i.e. industrial and, sci-tech) economy? What are the prospects for Russia’s modernization given the universal crisis of the neoliberal economic model? Attempts to provide conclusive answers to these and other important questions have a direct bearing on Russia’s future and its position in the emerging multipolar world, which is replacing the “unipolar” predecessor.

Democracy, notes John Dunn, is an ideal, a typical socio-political system that is simultaneously an arena for an ideological battle between the “historical” West and most of the rest of the world, where “illiberal democracy” has taken hold or is in the process of doing so. As if on cue, Zygmunt Bauman writes that for the majority of citizens, the liberal principle of freedom of choice remains a ghost and a dream, unless the inevitable “blows of fortune” are mitigated by safeguards offered by the community/state that are bounded by mutual dependence, solidarity and trust among its members.

Dominique Moisi reflects on the “errors and omissions” of the United States-led western world after the end of the Second World War. The unique opportunity to remake the world in one’s image and likeness after the collapse of the bipolar system of relations, however, has not been “missed” because the United States and its allies were timid, lacked common sense and even firmness. It was a mission impossible from the start, because the West had mistakenly interpreted the demise of the USSR as “the end of history”, while in reality this coveted process was paralleled by an equally significant process, i.e. the emergence (ever since the first half of the 1980s) of genuine multipolarity as “the others” asserted themselves economically and politically in what is now called the “post-American world” (F. Zakaria). Yu Keping of China details the complexities of the polycentric world’s coming together from the Chinese perspective.

Using clichés of economic thought, we can claim that modernization is a process of accelerated emergence of the industrial-capitalist mode of production. This process, notes Ronald Inglehart, sees increased complexity (diversification) of inter-personal interaction which liberates people from “ascriptive” social roles and links enabling them to determine their role in society themselves, and expands the space for a person’s self-expression.

Democratization, according to Andrei Ryabov, is not to be confused with modernization: “As the experience of the former socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe shows, ‘society rapid assimilation of the West’s high standards of consumption’ did not so much contribute to the establishment of democratic values throughout society as trigger a ‘surge of aggressive nationalism and conservative populism,’ especially in the face of the crisis of their chosen economic model and obvious reluctance of the ‘pioneers’ of European integration to share the hardships of the prolonged crisis with ‘the new Europe.’” Here political evolution may proceed according to several scenarios, including the possibility of part of the ruling stratum, motivated by self-preservation, embracing “ideas that objectively tend to change the system” by appealing to the masses.

Looking at the correlation between authoritarianism and democracy in the process of modernization, Viktor Krasilshchikov notes that the political representation regime so far has ensured the “preservation of the old socio-economic structures and the power of the oligarchy as a whole.” If one follows the author’s argument to its logical conclusion, genuine modernization, which inevitably complicates the relationships among different social forces and makes them less predictable, threatens oligarchs’ vital interests in societies in transition.

Adrian Pabst believes that the evolution of capitalism since the second half of the 1980s led to the formation of “post-democracy,” a new authoritarian “market state” in which the main social institutions have been “privatized” and the administrative apparatus has become the “supreme protector of the uncontrolled free market.” In the West, democracy oscillates between citizens’ constitutionally declared sovereignty and constitutionally guaranteed absolute sovereign power exercised by the executive branch. Civil society, the author elaborates, is either absorbed by the state or is increasingly subordinated to the market. These socially dangerous trends can only be reversed through “full-scale political and economic decentralization.”

Such are the main conclusions of the book edited by Vladislav Inozemtsev. One cannot help comparing it with books on modernization being published in India, and the thoughtful reader may draw the following conclusions.

1. The boundary between academic and journalistic activities is being erased as witnessed, among other things, by the desire to generalize the laws that regulate life in developed and transition societies. Far from “washing away” these differences, globalization aggravates the old contradictions which are compounded by new contradictions engendered by the scientific and technological era and “reactive” transition to the free market. All the more so since transition societies are perpetually in a high state of social tensions that are objectively aggravated by the world economic crisis.

2. Regrettably, national models of modernization get scant attention; the Russian reader could benefit from better insight into the experience of reform in Spain, Brazil, the Far East, etc., because the Russian concept of reform is a mixture of calls for action and general declarations that is inherently doomed.

3. The narrative is often sketchy enough so that the Russian reader is left wondering whether modernization is essentially “westernization”, i.e. copying western historical experience in fundamentally different domestic and external conditions, or a painful and critical appraisal of the “foreign” way with a view to parlaying the new knowledge into a strategy for transforming a society that has not lived through the Reformation and the Enlightenment, but is eager to be “modern.”

4. The question that remains unclear is one that is arguably the chief one for Russia: how to combine rapid modernization (which usually calls for political authoritarianism) with democracy as a form of the evolutionary development of society? My subjective view is that at the end of the day the effectiveness of our reform hinges on the ability of the Russian authorities to bring together a marriage between economic authoritarianism (above all harnessing the social elite which has grown rich in the course of “liberal reforms” to development imperatives) and political democracy, i.e. the readiness of the authorities to act in the interests of the increasingly impatient populace. Ultimately, the trust of the masses in the elite and their readiness to endure further hardship caused by modernization depend on this.

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