The Origins of Democracy in the Modern Era

Origins of DemocracyBarrington Moore, Jr.’s classic work Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy continues to influence scholarship. Its publication in 1966 revolutionized how scholars thought about the relationship between economic, political, and social dynamics in the process of modernization. The reflection below is the work of Justin Kempf.

The Origins of Democracy

There is no single moment when democracy emerged. Every incarnation is replete with imperfections. Athens denied participation to so many it resembles something closer to an aristocracy. The United States enslaved Africans and pursued a genocidal war against American Indians. Even today, the voices and opinions of some carry greater weight and importance than others. Democracy remains an unfinished project.

Nonetheless, something did change as the feudal system evolved into capitalist economies. The English Civil War is the first glimpse of the transformative power of modernization. Changes in the economic structure brought about a change in the legitimization of the political and social order. But modernization did not just introduce democracy. It also changed authoritarian governance as well. The old Ancien Régimes erected a wall of separation between the population and those in power. The rights of those in power were independent of the people they governed.

Today’s dictators described themselves as though they are the embodiment of democracy. Dictators consider themselves as the representative of the will of the people. Indeed, totalitarian governments framed their regimes in democratic language. Of course, there are fundamental differences between dictatorship and democracy, but there is a common effort to overcome the alienation of governance and establish a connection to the people directly.

Modernization Theory

Karl Marx casts a long shadow on sociological studies because he interpreted social change as a consequence of economic transformation. Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and other early sociologists systematized this insight into an academic discipline. Barrington Moore published his consequential study on the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy in the 1960s. He follows in the tradition of the early sociologists who blurred the line between sociology and political science.

The theory of political modernization became tied to the theory of economic modernization around this time. Seymour Martin Lipset made this explicit in a famous paper from 1959. But Durkheim, Weber, and Marx had already made this argument much earlier. Samuel Huntington’s thoughts on political modernization were consequential because they were an effort to reverse the link between economic and political modernization.

More recent scholarship has relied on Tocqueville rather than Marx. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued political environments influence socialization. Putnam, Fukuyama, and even Lipset elevated this earlier tradition. It can be argued that it is through Tocqueville where political science becomes independent of sociology. The Tocquevillian worldview places an emphasis on politics as an independent cause rather than a consequence of economic or social transformations.

Some History about Political Science

Barrington Moore wrote his masterpiece two years before Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies. The behavioral revolution had already begun to shift the humanities away from historical to statistical analysis. Moore, of course, was part of a generation deeply ingrained in the historical accounts of the West. His inclusion of Eastern cultures reflected his deep understanding of the Western historical accounts because he strived to grasp this new subject matter with the same level of clarity as more traditional subjects.

Contemporary scholars have to learn about so many more cultures, languages, and methods that it is no surprise some content has been lost from their education. There is a difference in the generation of scholars like Moore, Lipset, and Huntington in their understanding of history. They have a stronger sense of how history intersects with political theory. Scholars like Sheri Berman and David Stasavage have worked to reintroduce broad historical accounts back into the discipline, but it does not feel as though it is possible to put the genie back into the bottle. So, for all that has been gained in the social sciences it is difficult to not feel as though something has been lost.

But the reality is most scholars in this generation did not contribute much for posterity. Their work covered many of the same topics several times over. The greats are remembered because they stood apart from their peers. Barrington Moore was unique in his effort to place the same emphasis on Eastern cultures as those from the West. His ability to draw from China, Japan, and India allowed him to find broad insights that remained hidden to those who remained focused on Europe and the United States.

The Significance of Barrington Moore

Perhaps, it is important to take a moment and recognize the breadth of study necessary for a work like Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. It takes enormous commitment to put together a work of this breadth and depth. It covers so much ground it is difficult to imagine the degree of commitment necessary to bring a project like this to completion. Many monographs are published where scholars struggle to move beyond the content for a concise journal article. Barrington Moore wrote five hundred pages where every page is packed with insights and brilliance. Even now, it continues to influence scholars more than fifty years after its publication.

Moore is most well-known for a line in one of the final chapters. He famously writes, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” This insight is critical to understand his notion of modernization. Moore argues there are three paths to modernization. The emergence of a bourgeoisie can facilitate an organic modernization. This path leads to liberal democracy. The second route is state led. This path leads to fascism and totalitarianism. Finally, peasant revolutions have brought about political transformations. These bring about communism.

A Short Critique

He oversimplifies modernization in his reduction of politics to just three paths. Recent political history has shown how democracy has emerged from a variety of directions. Many of the most successful third wave democracies emerged out of military dictatorships. South Korea, Taiwan, and Spain democratized almost as a natural consequence of social and economic modernization. Japan and Germany had democracy imposed after World War II but have become stable and successful democracies.

But it is somewhat unfair to make this critique of Barrington Moore. He is less interested in the emergence of democracy after modernization. His focus is on the ways political modernization intersects with economic and social modernization to complete the transformation. India becomes an outlier in his analysis because he does not believe it has found a path toward modernization, while Japan was already modernized, and China was committed to a clear path.

Democracy in India

India remains a riddle for democracy scholars. There is an assumption where democratic stability depends on the emergence of a middle class. Scholars like Lipset and Przeworski and offered income thresholds where democracy becomes sustainable. But India was nowhere near this level of development when it introduced democracy. In 1975 democracy was disrupted when Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency. It was an executive takeover. This development made sense to scholars who never believed India was ready for democracy. But elections took place in 1977 and the Indian National Congress was voted out of office.

During the third wave of democratization, scholars began to believe democracy was possible anywhere. India was no longer viewed as an outlier as democracy emerged around the globe including many unexpected places. Nonetheless, India has remained a fragile democracy. Its federal system has meant liberal rights are unevenly protected. Indeed, its caste system has many similarities to the challenges for the United States to govern a multiracial nation. Isabel Wilkerson has compared the Indian caste system to race in America. She argues caste is a better paradigm to consider the treatment of minorities in America than racism. Nonetheless, India formally grants many protections for what they call the scheduled castes. The problem is the formal law does not always reflect social realities. This is similar to challenges in the United States to reconcile formal political equality and equality of economic opportunity with structural inequalities exacerbated by racial prejudice and discrimination.

Origins of Democracy Beyond Wealth

The origins of democracy must depend on more than wealth. Indeed, authoritarianism is not absent in wealthy nations. Germany was among the most advanced nations when it introduced fascism. Pockets of the United States are sympathetic to authoritarianism. Indeed, Nazism had more support among the self-employed than the working class. Lipset even described fascism as the radicalization of the political center. This insight is disturbing because democracy relies on the center to moderate political extremes. Regardless, a strong middle class is no guarantee of democratic stability.

Africa has caught my attention recently. The scholarship from this corner of the globe indicates strong support for democracy among its people. Modernization theory assumes economic development must precede democratization, but scholars have begun to challenge this assumption. Francis Fukuyama argues state capacity is necessary for the development of a modernized economy. Unfortunately, his argument is not faithful to democracy. Dictatorship can create state capacity and often has established it before the emergence of democracy. And yet authoritarianism is not friendly to good governance. It frequently uses corruption as a tool to establish political support and legitimacy. Democratic government has the potential to reduce corruption when it is accompanied with a strong commitment to the rule of law.

But there is a counterintuitive reason for Africans to gravitate toward democracy. Multiple ethnic groups comprise most African states and there are no clear boundaries between them. Democracy offers a path toward the resolution of conflict through a political process. Authoritarianism is based on political exclusion where one group or tribe is always in power. Democracy offers a promise that power will be shared among multiple groups. The challenge for democracy is this promise is not always kept. Factions use the democratic process to consolidate power and exclude others rather than to foster inclusion and cooperation.

The Promise of Democracy

The United States has struggled to fulfill the promise of self-governance. Throughout its history it has worked to exclude groups from political power. The promise of democracy is not about taking turns in the execution of power. Its promise is the opportunity to share power so different concerns can surface and are granted consideration. The crisis of democracy has emerged because elections have placed a focus on political competition rather than the cooperation and compromise necessary to govern.

Barrington Moore recognizes liberal democracy evolves out of the emergence of the bourgeoisie, but his explanation is insufficient. Liberal democracy does not depend on the rise of a middle class. Rather the emergence of the middle class brought about conditions conducive to democracy. Durkheim notes how urbanization shifted social solidarity from a mechanical form to an organic one. Urbanization brought a proliferation of differences in the community.

Democracy depends on distinctions and differences which require political resolutions. Commonalities and similarities make politics unnecessary because individual interests are largely tied to the communal interest. The general will of Rousseau is a counternarrative to the process of modernization. He wants society to fall back onto its similarities rather than its differences and he repudiates the division of labor and urbanization. Populism strives to focus on the commonalities of people as an alternative to the pluralism of liberal democracy. Populist leaders sound democratic. Their language is derived from a common tradition, but populism is never the fulfillment of democracy. Rather it is a reaction against the complexities and challenges of democratic governance.

Democracy in India Revisited

This interpretation redefines the challenges for democracy in India as the very environment which made democracy possible. The diversity in religion, caste, and location creates multiple interests and concerns among the people in India. The solution is not to eradicate these differences, but to eradicate injustice. A nation without differences has no need for democracy. They gravitate toward a single leader as their representative. Nationalism works to eradicate differences and establish a common identity. German nationalism made the rise of Hitler possible. Hindu nationalism has similar concerns as Narendra Modi consolidates power.

Nationalism strives to artificially erase political differences. It is a dishonest form of patriotism. Democracy, of course, relies on a patriotic people to remain committed to a political process with duties and expectations of its citizens. But nationalism denies differences among the people. Those who remain different become enemies. There is no room for democratic governance in this paradigm. It is simpler to trust in a single representative to speak for the community.

Origins of Democracy Revisited

The bourgeoisie or the middle class are not the source of the social origins of democracy. They arise out of genuine differences, but because urbanization relies on social differences, the same forces which bring about economic modernization often contribute to democratization. Yet democracy does not depend on economic modernization. It depends on the commitment of citizens to resolve differences through deliberation rather than violence or force and relies on the recognition of differences. It requires acceptance and reconciliation. Democracy is hard. The same forces which make it possible are also the same tensions which tear at its foundations.

Related Content to the Origins of Democracy

George Lawson on Revolution

Yael Tamir on Nationalism

Thoughts on Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe

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