Multiculturalism and Social Justice in the Modern Nation-State A Myanmar Commentary


An ethnocratic state produces a form of fascism in which the state supports the rights and welfare of the dominant ethnic group, but not others. By contrast, a tolerant multicultural state or plural society permits all people, regardless of ethnicity, to be recognised as equal members and thus achieves social justice. This comparison suggests that narrow nationalism is a chief source of the failure of Myanmar to become a modern and successful nation-state.

Framed in the Myanmar context, does the ruling elite maintain the mind-set of those during the ancient Alaungpaya empire? From this perspective, non-Bamar nationalities served as their subordinates. This period in politics dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when the nation-state first emerged in Europe as a system of centralized rule that succeeded in subordinating all other institutions and groups, both temporal and spiritual. Since this time, the continuing practice of the ethnocratic state in terms of social justice has led at times to the absolute neglect of minority peoples and cultures, feeding resentment and rejection of the central government on the part of marginalized ethnic groups and fuelling conflict that has, in turn, produced grave human rights’ abuses and furthered alienation.

Domination in culture and politics by one nationality group, however, is not an inevitable consequence of modern nation-state formation. The emergence of the nation-state is often connected to the terms of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which weakened the theocratic rule of the Holy Roman Empire, guaranteed a large measure of religious tolerance and gave local princes, particularly in Germany, more sovereignty over their territories. The provisions for religious tolerance included allowing private worship, liberty of conscience and the right of emigration to all religious minorities and dissidents within their domains.

In Myanmar today, within the general picture of ethnic marginalization, the case of Rohingyas is admittedly especially complicated and relates to a legacy of British colonialism. However, an important point is that the current discourse in national politics is characterised by a glaring lack of compassion. In addressing this omission, social justice has a vital role to play. Social justice is a concept of structural compassion that can address the marginalized of society or underdogs by creating a safety net. It is also importantly different from legal justice. The latter concerns fairness in terms of the behaviour of a group or individual from a legal perspective. By contrast, social justice perspectives are broader and look at the arrangement of social structures which ensure that wealth, power and recognition are fairly distributed in society.

The enjoyment of social justice is essential in Myanmar today. Social justice informs perspectives on fairness that address questions about the implications of the types of markets in society, such as whether they are free markets, social markets or a state-controlled market. What are the implications of approaches to taxation and governance on people’s social welfare? Such issues, in turn, raise questions about the level of concentration of power at the state centre and its decentralization. For instance, how much decision-making authority should be shared by regional and local level bodies? These issues also move beyond core issues of governance to look at the media from the perspective of whether it should be private or public. Who controls the education system? Is it private, public, free for all and what are the costs? What kinds of healthcare system are there – for example, public, private or mixed? And how large a gap is acceptable between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in society?

In daily life, social justice frequently concerns issues that go beyond the government. When the trust of citizens in their legal justice system is eroded, one response is to take the law into their own hands and claim it to be social justice. The “Pat Jasan” movement in Kachin State is a recent case in point. It reflects a popular concern among many Kachins about the lack of trust in the Myanmar government to address the social issues associated with drug abuse. Familiarity with the situation in Myitkyina and Putao, for example, would produce a better understanding of community concerns about the illicit cultivation of opium poppy and the growing epidemic of drug use among young people – as well as increased addiction to heroin and the related spread of HIV and Hepatitis B and C.

Ultimately, in a representative democracy, resolution of these challenges should be the responsibility of a national government in ensuring social justice for all. In the interim, local civil society – including faith-based organisations – can and should draw on appropriate traditional practices, working to attain justice for all members of society. This is particularly important in view of the fact that, in the modern world, social mobility is spreading and villages, towns and cities increasingly include people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

In some ways, the Pat Jasan movement in Myanmar is a community response arising out of a frustration with a very difficult drug addiction problem that does not appear to have immediate or straightforward solutions. However, violence towards opium producers and drug addicts is not an appropriate response and only creates more social problems. In a compassionate society, the concept of social justice also needs to be applied to all in a scourge that has complex social roots.

Pat Jasan leaders therefore have to act with fairness, adhering to proper legal procedures. They should consider setting up their own courts and appoint judges who are respectable and accepted by the public, for example. In fact, this practice is nothing new to us as it is in keeping with the Kachin tradition of socially-accepted justice, outside of formal court systems, that has been used for many decades to solve disputes. In addition, building upon experience, community leaders should learn how to resolve conflicts through civil mediators so that people have less need to go to the police and to court. This is part of recreating a just society and earning legitimacy as a governing body. We need to take advantage of every avenue to strengthen the justice system in our society today.

Another important issue is the utter, and continued, lack of social and health outreach by the central state to the remote borderlands and ethnic states by successive governments since independence in 1948. Only a year ago, in August 2016, sixty children experienced an untimely death in the Naga area of north Myanmar. Throughout the developing world, children die because they are born in the wrong place – not because of exotic or incurable diseases. Instead, this suffering comes from commonplace childhood illnesses for which treatments have been available for over a century. In the continued absence of a government capable of delivering routine maternal and child health care to all peoples, children will continue to die in our country.

As a result of experiences like these, many of us feel that the Myanmar state in general – regardless of the ruling party – has long lacked concern for the broader population and considers many people insignificant. If, however, we had equal power, rights and resources, then our people would get better education, health and other skills to improve the quality of our lives as human beings.

All of these issues draw attention to the critical importance of good governance in our country. Such reform is vital as discussions continue about how to end the long-standing divisions and conflicts in our country. Much of the political focus is about the interests and authority of powerful institutions and stakeholders, but an essential – and very under-examined – issue is the role of “we the people”. Presently, there is little social justice. In Myanmar society, most people have lived their lives until now as citizens who have the “right” to pay arbitrary taxes, the “right” to have their labour conscripted into the projects of military governments, the “right” to struggle to provide for their family’s education and health, and the “right” to be silenced.

Equally concerning, many headlines in Myanmar these days are about “Return”. It has to be asked: return for what? Return under what conditions and for whom? It is the same for Kachin, Karen, Shan and other peoples as much as the displaced communities in Rakhine State. The key need confronting us all is return to “our homeland” where everyone can live with dignity and peace. The challenge remains to make the Union of Myanmar the home of all its citizens and peoples. Isn’t dignified return at the very heart of social justice? Certainly, dignified return is not just an internationally-defined norm.

Against this challenging backdrop, enjoying or learning a different set of rights does not happen overnight. But, if peace and reform are to come to Myanmar, progress in political rights and social justice has long been vital. Societal momentum is increasing. Here we are already talking about asking the government to allocate more in national health budgets. The next step is to ask for the different states and regions to have their own budgets to allocate and manage. By this “cultural” shift, we are transitioning from passive to active citizenship, which is an absolute prerequisite for democratization and peace. In such a multicultural and conflict-divided country as Myanmar, the long-standing “top-down” approaches by narrow elites have long failed. The challenge now is the spread of social justice in building peace and national reform, with community and “bottom-up” practices that truly include all peoples.


Lahpai Seng Raw is a 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati. She was also a delegate at the 21st Century Panglong Conferences in 2016 and 2017.


By            :               Lahpai Seng Raw

Date         :               February 5, 2018

Source     :     

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

North Korean charm sure beats the alternative


BERLIN – The South Korean use of the Pyeongchang Olympics to improve relations with the North has left the U.S. media torn between a natural curiosity about the first North Koreans they have seen up close and a compunction against “normalizing” the Kim regime.

U.S. audiences are treated, on the one hand, to takes marveling at the exotic cheering squad and the no-frills personal style of Kim Yo Jong, and on the other hand, to strong expressions of disgust at the “fawning” represented by those takes. Some cheered the starry-eyed optimism of Angela Ruggiero, the former U.S. hockey player and member of the International Olympic Committee, who has suggested the joint Korean hockey team for the Nobel Peace Prize; others found the idea offensive.

Both the curiosity and the tendency to hew to the U.S. government’s foreign policy line are instinctive and sincere, and they clash in any country that enjoys media freedom. But commentators, politicians and the broader public must avoid the false dichotomy. Such contacts are perhaps the only way to lure North Korea onto a path that leads to the regime’s defanging, if not yet its fall.

Here’s an anecdote to explain why what looks to some like craven hypocrisy can be smart diplomacy. In 1967, a Korean intelligence service snatched renowned composer Isang Yun from West Berlin, where he was living at the time. In his home country, he was tortured, forced to confess to espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment. Only the intervention of colleagues — such as Igor Stravinsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gyorgy Ligeti, all admirers of Yun’s work — lead to his release in 1969. So which Korea did this?

The answer will surprise many of those who are used to seeing South Korea as a democracy. It wasn’t so long ago that the country, run by a regime that could sometimes match the Kims’ brutality, did things like the Yun kidnapping. Through it all, it was a staunch U.S. ally. Was hypocrisy required to keep the alliance going? Definitely. Did the alliance help South Korea to democratize eventually? The answer is also yes.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s “normalization” steps mean he’s not ignoring that lesson. He and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un agreed that the two Koreas’ teams would walk as one at the opening ceremony and that a joint women’s hockey team would be fielded. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence managed to ignore Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, while seated next to her in the stands; but Moon shook her hand. He was duly invited to Pyongyang to meet with Kim, something he has wanted to do for years and which is now possibly only thanks to the Olympic truce. But the fact that he couldn’t accept immediately reflects the raging debate — whether to engage or shun — being played out in Washington and in U.S. media circles.

There’s a good reason why the curiosity side of the debate should prevail. U.S. foreign policy experts worry that the Kim regime is getting recognition and legitimacy without giving up anything, especially its nuclear weapons, which it proudly displayed at a big military parade before the games.

Instead, it should be hopeful that the Kim’s regime feels good about the recognition and gets hungry for more of it: That would be a step down a slippery slope.

Most totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in history have fallen due to the dictators’ own mistakes. Daniel Treisman, a UCLA political scientist, has catalogued the most frequent ones: Hubris (think Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, calmly making a speech as a riot that will topple him begins), failing to manipulate vote results enough to hold on to power (think the 1988 referendum that led to the end of Augusto Pinochet’s rule in Chile), trusting a traitor to be a successor (think Francisco Franco in Spain grooming future King Juan Carlos for power), counterproductive violence (think Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014). The Kims have studiously avoided all of these mistakes with a family-line succession and extreme repression that works well enough for dissent to be way too risky.

There is still a mistake on the Treisman list, though, that Kim can make. It’s the one that brought down Mikhail Gorchachev: Starting a liberalization trend that creates an appetite for regime change. Kim Jong Un can step into this trap because, apart from Gobachev’s scary example, there are also the Chinese and Vietnamese stories of economic liberalization that allowed the Communist parties to stay on top.

Kim has already taken some stumbling steps down the liberalization path. They have been well-documented in a series of columns titled “North Korea: Witness to Transformation” on the website of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The series has been discontinued, but some of the recent entries give an idea of what’s been going on lately just as the rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. got all fiery and furious. Kim’s new year’s address, while betraying no sign of self-doubt, hinted at a creeping “marketization” of North Korea’s all-powerful state sector. There’s a thriving shadow economy in the country that should propel the halting official effort to introduce economic incentives forward, as it did in the Soviet Union and its European and Asian satellites.

The U.S. and its allies can do little to stimulate these processes inside North Korea. But it can look naively welcoming to North Korea’s efforts to project soft power, get the regime to send more people to the outside world, intensify contacts in whatever form they’re possible. Some of the North Koreans who participate in the exchanges will just do their job for the regime; others will start having vague doubts. I saw it happen in the Soviet Union, which was, admittedly, a much softer regime than the North Korean one — but which also sought to isolate its citizens from corrosive Western influences.

Welcoming the cheerleaders with smiles and applauding Kim Yo Jong’s fashion sense should get her brother thinking about the benefits of international charm offensives, which in fact do regimes like his more harm than good because they break down the isolation on a basic human level.

Even if helping North Korea open up little by little doesn’t eventually topple the Kims, a China or Vietnam scenario is still better than today’s explosive atmosphere of mutual fear. The South Korean leadership appears to realize this — unlike, it seems, the Trump administration, which sulks because it’s being denied a leadership moment but is forced to go along because no other strategy is feasible.


Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website


By            :               Leonid Bershidsky

Date         :               February 13, 2018

Source     :               The Japan Times

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

The State of Human Security in Cambodia


Questioning the success of the UN’s peacebuilding blueprint

Violence in Cambodia has escalated in recent months with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempts to quash competition ahead of the upcoming elections on July 29, 2018. Security and surveillance measures have been strengthened, media outlets have been closed down, protests have been met with violence and mass arrests, and human rights and environmental activists have been victim to violent persecution and at times, murder. In response, former leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy on February 29 launched the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, aimed at generating international solidarity around opposing Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party and encouraging members to defect from his three-decade long dictatorship.

In the Human Rights Watch 2018 Country Report on Cambodia, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams emphasized the need for the international community to take action in order to restore “the democratic promise of 1991,” noting the failure of that year’s Paris Agreement to succeed in its mission to internalize democracy and human rights into Cambodian political, social, and economic practice.

Cambodia has witnessed a horrific amount of violence and injustice throughout history — Cambodian space has been polarized, marginalized, and militarized by exogenous forces beginning with the French colonial occupation and lasting through the period of extreme nationalization that followed the country’s independence in 1953, including the estimated half a million tons of U.S. bombs that were dropped on the country during the Vietnam War. In 1970, another coup took place aimed at abolishing the monarchy, and for the next five years, the Khmer Rouge terrorized the population, resulting in hundreds of thousands of direct executions and a nearly two million subsequent deaths related to poverty, disease, forced labor, and torture. After the Khmer Rouge was defeated by the Vietnamese in 1978, the next decade was characterized by civil war.

The Cambodian government implemented economic reforms in 1989, including changes in land tenure, tax, and marketing policies, a new law to promote foreign capital investment, deregulation of markets, a reduction of subsidies, and the privatization of state-owned businesses, land, and natural resources. This coincided with the development of a new interest in Cambodia in the West, manifesting in the form of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

The Paris Agreement of 1991 was facilitated by UNTAC and aimed to move the country from civil war to civil peace through a mandate that laid down a legal framework for a transition to liberal democracy. A constitution was adopted in 1993 that emphasized periodic and genuine elections to provide participatory opportunities and recognition of human rights. Policy evaluations were overseen by international aid donors, aligning with the notion that democracy, development, and peace were inextricably linked. This “triple transition” was wrapped in generalized rhetoric about the intersection of the three pillars, with the idea that liberal democracy could be universally implemented and mechanically transmitted to any context. International organizations and NGOs flooded into Cambodia to provide development assistance. The ruling CPP adopted a strategy that would assure its ascendance in postconflict Cambodia despite a new pluralist regime, employing slush funds to fund highly politicized and publicized school, road, and hospital building programs that were all named after Hun Sen. In this way, the CPP portrayed itself as an “economic party” dedicated to helping the rural poor.

Today, indicators for human security are positive, as they are based on economic growth indicators. Cambodia’s nominal economic growth over recent years – in 2016 it graduated from Least Developed Country status — has further helped to legitimize the CPP’s power in the eyes of international donors, evidenced by large amounts of foreign assistance. Yet the CPP rampantly misuses the justice system to persecute political opponents and violently suppress peaceful protests. Institutions are weak and unaccountable, governance is elitist and highly corrupt, the media is not free, the rule of law is abused, and human rights violations are commonplace. The achievement of progress toward peace and development has been further complicated by a huge deficiency in human capital that has resulted from decades of war and genocide.

Ironically, the ruling CPP derives its power base from the rural population, who see the least benefits from its rule. Poverty is extremely widespread in rural areas — the benefits of growth have not been evenly distributed, disparity between rich and poor has grown, and malnutrition is widespread in rural and urban areas. Basic needs such as clean water, decent housing, healthcare, and education are undercut by the liberalization of the economy aimed at increasing GDP and deregulating social services.

Widespread privatization is embodied in violent and forceful asset-stripping of rural land and public resources, with nearly half of the country’s total land owned by foreign investors. Forests and common lands are disappearing at the highest rate in the world according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, propelled by the government’s long-running practice of forced land dispossession for agroindustrial business interests — selling off the land which local communities rely on to foreign investors linked with political elites. Most cases are pre-emptive seizures by the state, which only subsequently seeks investors to sell or lease to. Illegal logging activities and strip mining are resulting in habitat loss and declining biodiversity, as well as soil erosion, limiting access to potable water, and illegal fishing is leading to rapidly declining fish stocks and food security. A poorly managed pursuit of economic development has deteriorated Cambodia’s natural resource sovereignty. Those affected by the entrenchment of these structures are in a continuous struggle to have their voices heard.

If we imagine democracy as a tool for social justice, the traditional “rule of the people, by the people, for the people” ideal, the Cambodian experience of democratization has not been successful. The current state of Cambodia can be described as a hollow peace, where the deep political, social, and economic issues present in the postconflict society have not been addressed and benefits have been mostly reaped by domestic elites and international investors.

Around 3,000 NGOs currently operate in Cambodia, with approximately half of the country’s national budget coming from humanitarian aid. These international actors are important players in the trajectory of Cambodian governance and policy, with the ability to exert significant leverage, as the domestic attainment of liberal governance benchmarks are rewarded with increased donor aid. This has allowed for the legitimate coexistence of democracy and corrupt autocracy, and the maintenance of unaccountable economic and political paradigms that do little for the ordinary Cambodian. Unchecked economic development and monopolized political power have come at the cost of rapid environmental degradation, limited civil liberties, and growing inequality of wealth distribution.

The UN peacebuilding framework for Cambodia, built on the premise that democratic institutions and free markets are necessary to enable a stable environment for peace to prosper, has come at the expense of genuine democratic institutions, equal distribution of power and wealth, the integrity of the country’s natural resource sovereignty, and meaningful progress toward peace with justice. It is worth considering whether, rather than restoring the original promise of 1991, a new approach to peacebuilding is required that elevates local struggles for self-determination and provides support for those fighting for real change in Cambodia.

Pascale Hunt is a freelance writer and multimedia content producer with a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Sydney.


By            :               Pascale Hunt

Date         :               February 8, 2018

Source     :               The Diplomat

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Transformation of Arab identity in light of the Arab Spring


Social movements many times can drastically change national identities and perception of life. Even upheavals and social turmoil can accelerate this kind of identity transformation and waving. The movements in the Middle East are obvious examples of this. These movements, which appeared against dictatorships and anti-democratic governments, are important since they derived from peoples’ own initiatives without any leader’s will or manipulation. For this reason, we call it collectively the Arab Spring, like the Prague Spring of 1968.

Besides, such definitions draw attention, it is significant to analyze the main socio-political parameters behind these movements and their effect on the transformation of Arab identity toward modernization and Westernization issues and human rights demands.

Revolt against what?

The uprisings, upheavals, riots, rebellions, protests, challenging, resistances, revolutions and transformations in the Arab world since December 2010 are called social movements in general, i.e., in the global media. In this sense, a social movement can be defined as collective, organized, sustained and non-institutional challenge to authorities, power holders, or cultural beliefs and practices. These movements are conscious, concerted and sustained efforts by ordinary people to change some aspect of their society by using extra-institutional means. Some of these movements have looked for opportunities to claim new rights while others have responded to threats or violence. Movements have regularly had to choose between violent and non-violent activities, illegal and legal ones, disruption and education, extremism and moderation; sometimes they’ve used more spontaneous actions such as riots. On the other hand, a revolutionary movement is a social movement that seeks, at minimum, to overthrow the government or state.

The term Arab Spring was chosen over “Maghreb Crisis,” since it does not as ideal for ideological indoctrination. However words such as crisis or conflict are commonly used by media and many politicians, they are easily perceived as being biased. In this context, “crisis” conveys the impression of a purely geopolitical point of view and is most likely perceived as very cynical by people that are directly affected by oppressive regimes. While the term “protest” may not reflect the full scale of the political transformation process, the term “revolution” implies that overthrowing an authority is the target. In the light of the smoldering civil war in Libya, it can be an overhasty conclusion. Albeit the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was successful, political struggles continue in Tunisia. In Libya, protests turned into a bloody civil war, where the heinous crimes of Muammar Gadhafi triggered a NATO military intervention.

In December 2010, protests in Tunisia set the stage for what would become a conflagration of the whole Maghreb. An unprecedented event had the power to transform the political structure all over the Arab world. For people living under constant repression, the reaction from Western countries is of the utmost importance, since their effort can help overcome the suffocating diktat of despotic regimes.

As a matter of fact, the wave of political activism that started in southern Tunisia in December 2010 has now reached all parts of the Arab world, from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east. The future of these popular uprisings remains in the balance, but it is already clear that they have produced the most dramatic changes in the region since the end of the colonial era in the middle of the 20th century.

Dynamics of the wave of protests

Populations in the Middle East demanded a structural change in autocratic regimes and implementation of economic and political reforms that ignited a transformation in the Arab world. The scale of this transformation, however, cannot be understood without considering the turbulent history, religious and ethnic mosaic, almost fanatical allegiance to identities and a variety of other political and economic differences that created latent fault lines. These fault lines combined with rampant corruption, political strife, a growing middle class and the liberating effect of the internet to start the Arab Spring. Despite the comparative differences among the content and context of transformation in individual countries, the resounding message for a democratic Middle East is shared across the region. It will not be an easy journey. Yet, we have every reason to be optimistic that the new era of democratic, secular and effective governance in the Middle East will reverse the fates of a region long characterized by conflict and bring peace, stability and prosperity to the Middle East.

From a theoretical perspective, effective governance and permanent peace is requisite for security, stability and prosperity. In this context, the Arab Spring presents a historic opportunity, but the challenges ahead require reforms, reconciliation and resolve. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the potent role social media can play in the mobilization and empowerment of traditionally disenfranchised populations. The extreme lengths authoritarian states go to suppress civil society is no coincidence. A robust civil society is a democratic check and balance on state authority and one of the most efficient ways of promoting effective governance, which is vital for a free and democratic future. Despite considerable reforms and achievements in the past decade, there seems to be a critical divergence between the textual and actual rights civilians have as actors in the Middle East, and sweeping reforms will be needed in all ranks of societies to form this bedrock of a democratic future.

In this context, there are three levels of analysis. The first is economic and social factors including the rising food prices and the emergence of a better educated but socially frustrated young population. Secondly, the demise of traditional sources of legitimacy for Arab regimes is one of the main reasons for the Arab Spring. Pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism and political Islam do not have the purchase they once did in the Arab world. Thirdly, the decline of Western influence, particularly of the U.S., in the region led to the emergence of Arab revolutions. Both the economic and international factors point to the potential for greater instability. On the other hand, the weakening of the legitimacy of Arab regimes is a more ambiguous trend. Although the opposition threatens to destabilize the regimes with its limited goals, it could, paradoxically, put a self-imposed brake on political change.

Under these circumstances, the region became ungovernable and subjected to interference from different actors –the U.S.’s foolish moves have especially had a huge impact on it.

* Dean of Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, head of Political Science and International Relations at Dumlupinar University


By            :               Husamettin Inac*

Date         :               February 7, 2018

Source     :               Daily Sabah

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy


Illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political menace confronting Western countries. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.”

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the electoral rise of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by “illiberal democracy” – a kind of authoritarian politics featuring popular elections but little respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities.

But fewer analysts have noted that illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” In this kind of politics, rulers are insulated from democratic accountability by a panoply of restraints that limit the range of policies they can deliver. Bureaucratic bodies, autonomous regulators, and independent courts set policies, or they are imposed from outside by the rules of the global economy.

In his new and important book The People vs. Democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk calls this type of regime– in apt symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long stopped functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like undemocratic liberalism.

The European Union perhaps represents the apogee of this tendency. The establishment of a single market and monetary unification in the absence of political integration has required delegation of policy to technocratic bodies such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Justice. Decision-making increasingly takes place at considerable distance from the public. Even though Britain is not a member of the eurozone, the Brexiteers’ call to “take back control” captured the frustration many European voters feel.1

The United States has experienced nothing quite like this, but similar trends have made many people feel disenfranchised. As Mounk notes, policymaking is the province of an alphabet soup of regulatory bodies – from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Independent courts’ use of their prerogative of judicial review to promote civil rights, expand reproductive freedom, and introduce many other social reforms have encountered hostility among considerable segments of the population. And the rules of the global economy, administered through international arrangements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are widely perceived as being rigged against ordinary workers.

The value of Mounk’s book is to highlight the importance of both of liberal democracy’s constitutive terms. We need restraints on the exercise of political power to prevent majorities (or those in power) from riding roughshod over the rights of minorities (or those not in power). But we also need public policy to be responsive and accountable to the preferences of the electorate.

Liberal democracy is inherently fragile because reconciling its terms does not produce a natural political equilibrium. When elites have sufficient power, they have little interest in reflecting the preferences of the public at large. When the masses mobilize and demand power, the resulting compromise with the elites rarely produces sustainable safeguards to protect the rights of those not represented at the bargaining table. Thus, liberal democracy has a tendency to deteriorate into one or the other of its perversions – illiberal democracy or undemocratic liberalism.

In our paper “The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy,” Sharun Mukand and I discuss the underpinnings of liberal democracy in terms similar to those Mounk uses. We emphasize that societies are divided by two potential cleavages: an identity split that separates a minority from the ethnic, religious, or ideological majority, and a wealth gap that pits the rich against the rest of society.

The depth and alignment of these divisions determine the likelihood of various political regimes. The possibility of liberal democracy is always undercut by illiberal democracy at one end and what we call “liberal autocracy” at the other, depending on whether the majority or the elite retain the upper hand.

Our framework helps to highlight the fortuitous circumstances under which liberal democracy emerges. In the West, liberalism preceded democracy: separation of powers, freedom of expression, and the rule of law were already in place before elites agreed to expand the franchise and submit to popular rule. The “tyranny of the majority” remained a major concern for elites, and was countered in the US, for example, with an elaborate system of checks and balances, effectively paralyzing the executive for a long time.

Elsewhere, in the developing world, popular mobilization occurred in the absence of a liberal tradition or liberal practices. Liberal democracy was rarely a sustainable outcome. The only exceptions seem to be relatively egalitarian and highly homogeneous nation-states such as South Korea, where there are no obvious social, ideological, ethnic, or linguistic divisions for autocrats of either kind – illiberal or undemocratic – to exploit.

Today’s developments in Europe and the US suggest the vexing possibility that liberal democracy may have been a passing phase there as well. As we rue liberal’s democracy’s crisis, let us not forget that illiberalism is not the only threat that confronts it. We must find a way around the pitfalls of insufficient democracy as well.


Dani Rodrik is Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy, Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, and, most recently, Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.


By            :               Dani Rodrik

Date         :               February 13, 2018

Source     :               Project Syndicate

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment
  • Youtube Channel