Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Machiavelli, Democratic Transitions, and The Great Recession

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Polity IV Regime Types

Global Democracy, 1946-2008

(Disclaimer: This blog is based on generalizations, specific democratic movements deviate by varying degrees from theoretical democratic transitions explored here)

By happenstance, years ago I ended up in an undergraduate elective class at SUNY Binghamton– “Machiavelli and the Renaissance”. Although it was a random elective course from what seems like a lifetime ago, the analyses of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” have stuck with me (particularly, the concepts of virtú and l’occasione).

(I suppose Machiavelli would have said there is no happenstance, and that fortuna dictates the future of men. Furthermore, Machiavelli is regarded by many as a father of modern political science, so these concepts sticking with me is not so coincidental either. But I digress…)

it would appear if they owed anything to fortune except opportunity (l’occasione), which gave them matter into which introduce whatever form they thought good; without the opportunity, their virtú would have been wasted, and without virtú the opportunity would have been in vain…The more the innovator is though of as subverting and replacing a previously existing structure of custom and legitimacy, the more he will have to cope with the contingencies of suddenly disoriented behavior and the greater will be his exposure to fortuna.”

Scholars debate exactly the meaning of Machiavellian virtúbut most agree it has something to do with strength, cunning, and an element of ruthlessness; the characteristics needed to maintain rule in a principality. L’occasione refers to the opportunity for these characteristics to shine through. Fortuna refers to chance, or things outside individual control.

Machiavelli was referring to ideal characteristics of a Prince; during the time he lived, the predominant governmental structure was the principality. I believe these lessons are still appropriate today, in the context of democratic transitions.

In the context of modern political theory and democratic transitions, virtú takes on a different meaning. In the following analysis, virtú refers to the popular sentiment for human rights that underlies attempted democratic transitions. L’occasione refers to the opportunity for virtú to crystallize into a concerted democratic movement.

The virtú of democracy–the human rights based approach to development–is not going away; it is a central foreign policy tool of “Western” powers, and is championed at the highest level of global governance (the U.N.). Furthermore, due to their empowering nature, human rights and liberal democracy are concepts that will continue to be championed by the masses. L‘occasione, however, is fleeting.

I recently wrote how time is an enemy of legitimate democratic grievances. Over time, legitimate grievances are overrun by opportunistic forces seeking wealth / power. However, other forces also oppose democratic transitions.

One of these forces is those seeking to maintain the status-quo; vested interests invoke the specter of chaos and insecurity–the fear of the unknown–to undermine the legitimacy of their opposition.

Another opposing force in the current context–financial constraints due to The Great Recession–has lead to lackluster support for budding democracy movements. It is due to the very nature of democratic governance that The Great Recession has hindered support for democratic movements more-so than it has hindered support from those supporting authoritarian rule.

Financial aid for democratic movements, whether it comes from individual governments or IEOs such as the I.M.F, tends to come with constraining preconditions. These movements need to be able to prove they are legitimate and in control of different factions present in the oppositions. They have to prove they are committed to human rights and liberal democracy. They also have to agree to unpopular fiscal decisions, in order to prove they will be able to pay back loans in the future.

Democracies are accountable to their people (indirectly through freedoms of press / expression / assembly, as well as directly through elections). In the context of The Great Recession, it is difficult to “sell” sending aid abroad with pressing social problems at home and austerity proponents calling for budget cuts. In order to garner support, democratic governments impose conditions on loans to prove they are not throwing money away.

Authoritarian governments are naturally more insulated from domestic concerns. They are also more sensitive to currently authoritarian states transitioning to democracies; they see democratic transitions in the context of the global democratization movement and an existential threat to their survival. Therefore, they are generally willing to provide support under the condition that it will help the incumbent regime stay in power. Furthermore, authoritarian regimes tend to be high organized and built on a system of loyalty; the issues of organization and unity are not present (unlike in the opposing democratic movement).

Democracies tend to be the countries with the highest levels of wealth and standard of living. Therefore, one would expect that democracies would be better equipped to financially support democratic transitions than authoritarian regimes would be to support their allies.

However, there are many contextual realities (addressed earlier in this blog) that buck this expectation. Authoritarian regimes are more insulated from domestic pressures, and believe they have more at risk from losing an ally than democracies believe they have from gaining a new ally.

Democratic transitions need to be supported, or else they will be overrun by opportunistic factions /vested interests who wish to remain in power. Countries do not stay in political limbo for long, either democratic aspirations are realized or a pivot back towards authoritarianism is cemented. Once an opportunity for democratic transition is gone, there is know telling when it will present itself again.

Those supporting authoritarianism do not hold back in their support. A mechanism for supporting budding democratic movements must be established and adequately funded–perhaps alongside the UN Democratic Governance Trust Fund. Failure to do so sends the wrong messages, that the international community does not care about people with legitimate democratic aspirations, and/or that democracy cannot work in certain contexts.

Neither of these messages are true, but the international community must put its money is; as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”. Perhaps instead of extending loans, we should consider supporting democratic transitions as part of development aid, money which will be paid back in the future through increased trade opportunities and greater regional / global security

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One thought on “Conflict Watch: Machiavelli, Democratic Transitions, and The Great Recession

  1. Pingback: AFTER 500 YEARS MACHIAVELLI’S ‘The prince’ is MORE RELEVANT THAN EVER | mawazo_mawazo

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