Democracy and Industrialization: What One Has to Do With the Other

industrialization Obama is in Turkey this week. From the “live-no-comment” moments on BBC, it looks as though most of the historic sights of Istanbul had been closed off for his visit. I saw footage of him in Hagia Sofia and Sultan Ahmet mosques, surrounded by clergies, politicians, translators and lots and lots of press.

Today, he’s continuing his friends-winning tour by addressing the Turkish parliament in Ankara. Just days ago, his confession to the G20 that “the [financial] crisis began in the US”, and that he “take[s] responsibility” had shocked and impressed America’s long-time skeptics. Now in his first state visit in Turkey – a moderate Muslim, pro-American Eurasian state, he’s humming the same conciliatory tune.

In the speech, he declared that the United States “is not and will never be at war with Islam.” Furthermore, he stressed “America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot and will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism,” and he seeks “broader engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”

This is a 360 degree reversal from the Bush approach. During Bush’s years in office, every international address usually gave away to him spreading the news that is “democracy”, however ill-timed or antagonistic it might have been. Do events from the past week signal this current administration’s comprehensive denial of its predecessor’s strategy of external, forced, and militarily-installed democracy; and have wholesomely embraced the European path of economic and social engagement instead?

End of the day, both the US and Europe want to see a broadened practice of democracy, preferably in a manner similar to its own. Europe knows this is unlikely, American insists it’s inevitable. The means to achieve that end – however hallucinatory it may be, are also subject to much dispute. One question that is crucial, and needs to be asked more often is this: how does a society come to democracy? How does democracy take root?

One school of thought that I studied linked the coming of age of democracy with the rise of industrialization. I dug out something that I wrote a while ago that explains the general gist of the idea. It also goes on to explain how the lack of industrialization directly attributed to the failure of externally-imposed democratization in agrarian societies of central Asia and the Middle East. Below is an edited version, please pardon the academia-speak.

mass mobilization + private sector + civil society – collusion = industrialization + democracy?

Democratization requires the creation and separation of a private sector at arm’s length from the government. The emergence of civil society and its related institutions in the form of civil society organizations are instrumental to the process of democratization.

Historically, democratization takes place as both a necessary component of, and result of industrialization and economic development. Industrialization breaks down the previous agrarian social structure and the tribal mindset, and paves the way for mass mobilization through the process of nation-building.

The process of centralized industrialization– the most common variety for countries playing catch-up requires authoritarianism. This coincides with the increasing desire of civil participation by the civil society organizations (CSOs). Therefore, democratization is a slow and gradual process, and is delicately negotiated between the initially united government and private elites, to the eventual separation of the two.

While initial development requires a somewhat undemocratic collusion between the two groups, the continual success of economic growth and societal stability requires the government to relinquish rights to the latter.

Central Asia: more pressing concerns at hand

In central Asia, industrialization commenced upon the dissolution of the USSR. During its time as part of the USSR, the region was utilized mainly as a provider of raw materials. Therefore, industrialization is a recent phenomenon.

Central Asia faces a plethora of impediments in its attempt to industrialize. Its relative abundance of raw materials means the elite relied less on its mass to jump-start the economy, and this detachment from the mass makes it less reliant on public cooperation and opinion.

Civil wars and unrests continually plague the region and interrupt the industrialization process. The existence of terrorist threats, drug trafficking, and the states’ mutual suspicious of each other means that much of the national psyche is devoted to the “high” politics of security first, and the “low” politics of economic and social issues next.

Under such an environment, civil society is either directly dependent on the patronage of the government, or is non-existent. The stunt in the growth of CSOs makes the environment extremely challenging for democracy to take root.

Middle East: failed industrialization

In the Middle East, history varied in its narrative to explain the inability for tangible democracy to take hold. The failure of industrialization, and the subsequent social fall out has resulted in the current political landscape gridlocked by military strongmen and authoritarian regimes. The lack of elite cohesion, an over-reliance on rentier economies, and the relatively lower levels of globalization have all contributed to the impediments to democratization.

But there’s still hope

However, possibilities still exist for democratization in central Asia and the Middle East. Internal dialogue by scholars such as Sorush is revolutionizing the role of religion and government. Economic interests by global powers have again come knocking at the doors of those regions, this time in the forms of up and coming powers such as China, Russia, and India.

With modernization decoupled from westernization, those large regional powers are hoping to engage the Middle East and central Asia with their respective economic systems. Europe treads along a similar line in hopes of promoting political dialogue and gradual reforms through economic engagement. The trend pushing for increasing economic integration in the two regions is perhaps the most promising path towards democratization yet.

picture source: ~riot~designer

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