Democratic Modernization Theory

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Michael Colebrook:

"Fukuyama argues that the ideal of liberal democracy cannot be improved upon.

His argument is based upon two fundamental premises: the first is that the foundations of the modern scientific method, once adopted by a society, cannot simply be put aside when its consequences become hard to swallow. This is a good starting point, according to Fukuyama, because modern science is the only important social activity that by “common consensus” is both cumulative and directional, even if its ultimate impact on human happiness is ambiguous.[iii] No matter what one’s religious, ethnic, or national background, everyone can agree on scientific results and methodologies. Modern natural science has therefore had a uniform effect on all societies that have experienced it. One can be Russian, Chinese, Muslim, Catholic, or Atheist; the conclusions of this science will be universal, and the technologies to which it gives rise, which gradually submit nature to the will of humans, provide for the satisfaction of universal wants and desires. This same technology confers decisive military advantages on those countries that possess it. Given the continuing possibility of war in the international system of states, no state that values its independence can ignore the need for defensive modernization. Technology also makes possible a “limitless” accumulation of wealth and the ongoing satisfaction of an ever-expanding set of human desires. Fukuyama continues:

This process guarantees an increasing homogenization of all human societies, regardless of their historical origins or cultural inheritances. All countries undergoing economic modernization must increasingly resemble one another: they must unify nationally on the basis of a centralized state, urbanize, replace traditional forms of social organization like tribe, sect, and family with economically rational forms of social organization based on function and efficiency, and provide for the universal education of their citizens. Such societies have become increasingly linked with one another through global markets and the spread of a universal consumer culture. Moreover, the logic of modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism.[iv]

These insights are the basis for what has come to be known as Democratic Modernization Theory, which has powerful adherents in the policy world.[v] Nonetheless, as Fukuyama admits, this purely economic interpretation of a “universal history” only goes so far. While it is true that, for him, an analysis of the mechanisms of globalization shows us a remarkable trend toward societies becoming increasingly technology/consumer-oriented and capitalistic, this trend alone does not prove his thesis that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. One only has to point to the numerous “successful” authoritarian capitalist regimes, such as present-day China, Singapore, and Thailand, to demonstrate that a link may not exist between consumer-oriented capitalism and democratic regimes.

This gap brings Fukuyama to the second major premise of his work: that only what he calls “universal recognition” can satisfy human nature. Furthermore, this “universal recognition” can only come in the form of a legitimate liberal democracy.[vi] Drawing on insights from Kojève’s lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, he asserts that there is something in human nature—Plato called it Thymos, Hobbes called it pride, Rousseau called it amour-propre—that is not satisfied with mere biological subsistence or even being a “consumer” whose every appetite could be satiated. Human beings value themselves; they have a certain amount of dignity or self-esteem, which they crave for others to recognize. The purely “economic” understanding of historical development overlooks this aspect of human nature. If human beings could be fully satisfied with the bare necessities of life—and these even in surplus—then it might be true that there is no direct causal link between capitalism and democracy. Societies would simply develop toward whatever particular political regime, given its concrete circumstances, could most efficiently produce economic prosperity. As we see in present-day China, State-run forms of capitalism are just as, if not more, efficient at creating wealth than their more liberal counterparts.

Importantly, if Fukuyama wanted to make the case that there is a necessary historical movement toward both capitalism and liberal democracy, he would have to make his arguments in light of a coherent philosophical anthropology that makes this development necessary. As he comments,

Any attempt to portray the basic human impulse driving the liberal democratic revolutions of the late twentieth century, or indeed of any liberal revolution since those of America and France in the eighteenth century, as merely an economic one, would be radically incomplete. The Mechanism created by modern natural science remains a partial and ultimately unsatisfying account of the historical process. Free government exercises a positive pull of its own: When the President of the United States or the President of France praises liberty and democracy, they are praised as good things in themselves, and this praise seems to have resonance for people around the world.[vii]

In sum, the most fundamental reason why liberal democratic governments are more legitimate and will always have an undeniable appeal is that they alone can “recognize” each particular citizen—that is, of endowing each of them with inherent rights and of treating them equally before the law. Whereas fascist or communist dictatorships must repress civil society—the realm of individual ambition, self-expression, and self-assertion—in favor of some national or “moral” cause, liberal democracy allows its citizens to determine themselves according to their unique personalities and life-style choices. In the long term, their oversight of this fundamental desire in human nature all but guarantees the fall of undemocratic governments.

As already mentioned, this theory is not without its critics. In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek has harshly denounced the liberal democratic triumphalism implicit in the thesis of the End of History, criticizing its supporters as blatant ideological dreamers who are all the worse for seeing themselves as being post-ideological. In this view, the idea that there is a “global consensus” that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that the foreign policy of these supposedly enlightened and peaceful governments should be aimed at “modernizing” the globe is an illusion, a mask concealing its own particularity which it imposes on others as universal. This amounts to no less than a liberal democratic imperialism, which masks its true horrors from domestic populations by manipulating linguistic symbols used in marketing schemes and political propaganda. “Today,” as Zizek argues, “this fundamental level of constitutive ideology assumes the guise of its very opposite: non-ideology.”[viii] What makes the hegemony of western liberal democratic societies so dangerous is their intransigent self-perception as societies beyond all of the ideological warfare of previous generations. Not only is this self-designation empirically hypocritical—something which can be seen in the horrible conditions in the nations of the developing/undeveloped world, which western governments and multi-national corporations have exploited and prevented from self-determination—but it also functions as an ideological blinding mechanism that succeeds in covering over the violent real-world consequences of this ideological imperialism.

For Zizek, the liberal democratic critique of old-world ideologies—that they impose some sort of “tyranny of the good”—is incredibly deceptive: the more this program begins to permeate society, the more it begins to turn into what it originally criticized. Even worse, it now has a good conscience on its side. The claim by these same liberal democratic societies to want nothing but the lesser evil—in Churchill’s famous words, “the worst form of government, except for all the rest”—gradually replicates the features of the enemy. In other words, the apparent post-ideological anti-utopianism of liberal democratic societies has gradually morphed into a new brand of ideology and utopianism. For Zizek, the global liberal order clearly presents itself as the best of all possible worlds; its modest rejection of utopias ends with the imposition of its own market-liberal utopia that will supposedly become reality when we subject ourselves entirely to the mechanisms of the market and universal human rights, leaving behind all of the “irrationalities” of more traditional societies. Further, these societies naively believe they can perpetuate themselves ad infinitum with unlimited prosperity and an endless progress toward an increasingly high standard of living. This, for Zizek, is a myth and the ultimate tragedy of the Capitalist/Liberal Democratic order. Behind this dream of the end of History “lurks the ultimate Totalitarian nightmare.”[ix]

Despite the pathos, incisiveness, and energy of Zizek’s critiques, they do not really touch the more subtle argument made throughout Fukuyama’s book. Fukuyama’s argument is not that the current hegemonic liberal democratic regimes are completely free from ideology, oppression, and poverty, or that their foreign policies have not at certain points led to anti-democratic or exploitative results. Rather, as I emphasized earlier, it is that the ideal of liberal democracy, as well as its concomitant focus on liberty and equality, cannot be surpassed. Fukuyama is talking about a consensus of the ideal, not the real. The failures of concrete societies to actualize or promote these goals do not at all call into question the desirability of the goals themselves. We can see this desirability clearly in the disingenuous appeal to democratic principles even among the most ruthless dictators. The cases in which supposedly liberal democratic regimes have taken measures to promote their own interests at the expense of the oppressed and marginalized of their own domestic populations or of those abroad are simply examples of concretely existent democratic governments failing to live up to the standards to which they pay lip service. One could even say that Zizek, in his justified indignation at the actions of western governments and multi-national corporations, is voicing his opposition in the name of the same ideals that these societies sometimes hypocritically praise. His assertion that the self-perceived post-ideological mindset is in reality the worst form of ideology, therefore, does not touch Fukuyama himself, but only his disowned intellectual progeny, the neo-conservatives, of whom he has now washed his hands.

My defense of Fukuyama should not be misunderstood. His book on the End of History is genuinely an unsurpassed attempt to make sense of international relations in the 1990s and beyond. "