Global Trend #4. Small ‘D’ Democratization
V.S. Naipaul wrote A Million Mutinies Now to describe India some years ago. A book about the 2010s could be titled Seven Billion Mutinies Now. The world population — larger, more urban, better informed than ever before, but also experiencing extraordinary levels of personal and economic insecurity — will be more restless and less patient than ever. Traditional structures of authority will everywhere be stressed; without embracing (and indeed while rejecting) the ideals of western democratic liberalism, people around the world will be ‘small d’ democrats who insist on a greater say in what matters to them.
This does not mean that the world’s population will be clamoring for western style democracy — although some of it will. Often the individualism and small ‘d’ democratic sentiment of newly-urbanized populations expresses itself in the creation of new non-traditional elites. Think of the urban political machines that organized American immigrant communities in the nineteenth century. In one sense, nothing could be less democratic than autocratic and corrupt machines like Tammany Hall; on the other hand, this was a force that arose from within the immigrant community and represented it (however imperfectly) in its battles with traditional power structures.
Outside the US, the rise of the industrial age cities of Europe saw the emergence of socialist, communist and fascist mass movements; the popularity of Islamist movements in great cities like Cairo and Istanbul (and smaller ones like Gaza) has something in common with these earlier products of mass urbanization. The popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand is another example; many ordinary (non-middle class) Thais both in the city and in the country now want to express themselves by choosing a powerful ruler of their own, rather than simply accepting the rule of traditional elites and those they coopt. The ‘illiberal democracy’ that Fareed Zakaria has written about often emerges in historical moments like this; authoritarian populism, sometimes associated with religious zealotry, will be a force in many urbanizing societies.
But even if it occasionally results in populist authoritarianism, the quest for individual expression will continue to inspire people everywhere. A characteristic feature of the twenty-first century is going to be the increasing emancipation of women throughout the world. Greater access to education and, even in very traditional societies, greater access to outside information through the internet will inspire more and more women with the desire to shape their own lives even as the economics of urban life propel them into the labor force and put them on the road to economic independence. Between urbanization and the education of women, family structures will be changing and traditional paradigms of religious and social authority will be on the defensive.
The internet, access to which will continue to become cheaper and more common at a very rapid rate, is a far more potent force for social change than we appreciate even now. Women who could never visit a madrasah or access Islamic theological texts on their own can now get a sophisticated theological education on the net and they can discuss these issues with others around the world without leaving their homes; this will make them much less deferential to local clerics. Young people can find communities on the net who share interests and values that place them at odds with their families and surroundings; the internet accelerates the global trend toward individualism and autonomy that urbanization fosters. All this will further erode traditional and local authority structures and make it harder for governments and elites to control public opinion.
There won’t just be mutinies in the developing world. Throughout the advanced countries, we will see continued and growing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties and institutions — and a greater demand for self-governance. As the proportion of the population with college education continues to increase, the ‘lay’ public will be much less in awe of professionals and elites than they used to be. Religious congregations will be less deferential to the clergy; patients will second-guess doctors; scientists, economists, foreign policy intellectuals and many other categories of ‘experts’ will be pained and disappointed by the widespread public skepticism that greets their pronouncements — even more than is already the case.
The widespread desire for greater autonomy and control is going to make for some frustrating and angry politics in both the advanced and the developing world. The reality is that in a world of seven billion pushy, aggressive, demanding and self-centered people, all of us will discover sharp limits on our individual freedom and power. If the world as a whole was run on totally democratic lines, each of us would have one of seven billion votes. This is to say that as individuals we would have no real power at all.
We have come to understand freedom and democracy as the right to control our own lives and the institutions and decisions that affect us. Unfortunately in mass democratic societies, it often doesn’t turn out that way. In the United States, the ‘culture wars’ are one of the main forces driving out politics. People with sharply different ideas about what the state is for and what standards of right and wrong should be upheld are frustrated and angry when the government falls under the control of the other side. Those who believe in traditional ideas of marriage are infuriated and alienated when homosexual marriage is recognized by law; those who favor gay marriage are increasingly impatient when voters and legislators withhold what they see as important human rights. As consumers, we are used to having greater and greater choices; as citizens, we must live with checks and restraints.
Generally speaking, the smaller a political unit, the less vexing democracy turns out to be. In smaller countries, voters are often more homogenous in their culture and preferences. Denmark and Sweden are more cohesive than India and Nigeria. The trouble is that the world is both very large and very diverse. Any system of global governance, democratic or not, is going to strike many people as remote, alien and unfair.
The increased need for global governance and global agreement to address issues ranging from trade to the environment will intensify the feelings of anger and frustration with which many people around the world regard their domestic political processes — as well as the international order. It is bad enough when citizens of mass democracies learn that their cultural and political preferences can be so easily checked and overridden by the votes of fellow citizens. It is much worse to realize that international realities and the global economic system limit the ability of their own national governments to do what voters wish they would or could do. In the United States, the world’s most powerful country with unparalleled ability to influence the outcome of global political decisions, many people on both the left and the right worry about global institutions (the WTO, the IMF, the Trilateral Commission, the UN) or the use of international law in US courts. In other countries that have much less power to affect global decisions the suspicion and the resistance is even greater.
As a growing desire for autonomy and a growing suspicion of authority become stronger forces in many cultures and countries around the world, the politics of resentment will be with us in many countries during the new decade.
The art of governing–nationally, locally, internationally–is going to be harder and trickier than ever in the 2010s; unfortunately this comes as the world’s problems require good government more than ever before.