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Bai-Bai Liberal Democracy? The Real Crisis of Democracy

The Economist magazine recently published an article entitled, “Democracy’s Decline, Crying for freedom” ( The article, informed by Freedom House’s latest report card on the spread of liberal-democracy suggests that for the past half-decade the ‘exonerable’ push towards liberal-democracy has not only stalled, but also has been marked by significant set-backs, i.e., Thailand, Honduras, Russia, etc. The rise of China’s form of authoritarian capitalism, informed by the Singaporean-model, is beginning to undermine the ‘ethical-intellectual’ leadership of Anglo-American hegemony that has been deeply entrenched since 1989.
Russia is a case in point, after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Russian government sought to implement neoliberal reforms. It was during this era that the promise of massive aid and investment from the West, along with the ideological fervor of the magic of the ‘free market’ to correct all the ills from the Soviet era were strong—albeit, I would not suggest they were hegemonic, arguably most citizens of the USSR wanted a more democratic-socialism and not free-market capitalism. Boris Yeltsin put it best:

We rule out any subordination of foreign policy to ideological doctrines or a self-sufficient policy. Our principles are simple...the supremacy of democracy, human rights and liberties, legality and morality (qtd. in Donaldson 230).

I think Althusser’s ingenious argument applies here like at no other time, “those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology”(131). Critically, this is the mentality that many liberals hold: that they are not immersed deeply in ideology, that they hold some ‘enlightment’, abstract truth that no one else has; however, the effect has been to delegitimize liberalism as its abstract theories have not panned out as they planned. As Badiou warns, “Without a generalized application there is no testing ground, no verification, no truth. In that case ‘theory’ can only give birth to idealist absurdities” (2005). One such absurdity is the abstract notion that we can organize society in some liberal-utopia, based on human’s being rational, utility-maximizing robots. Therefore, the denegation of ideology by liberals is one the major reasons we have such a huge backlash against liberal-democracy and market-economies today. Not only is it arrogant and wrong, its prescriptions are doomed to failure because it ignores and inverts the core lesson of materialism: “The movement of knowledge is the practice-knowledge- practice trajectory” (Ibid).

Back to Russia, the majority of the parliament, which was freely elected during the Soviet era, understandably, opposed these abstract, neoliberal reforms. Yeltsin, in order to pass the reforms, basically scrapped the Russian constitution and bombed the Duma (parliament) to pass the IMF-US Treasury sponsored reforms; indeed, for all the posturing the United States may make about its defence of democracy, it was clear that “the United States had expressed its willingness to condone the Yeltsin administration's decision to take ‘resolute’ steps against the Duma so long as the Kremlin accelerated economic reforms” (Simes 2007). It should be remembered, this was the apex of neoliberal hegemony, where the very notion of ‘freedom and democracy’ was explicitedly defined as being a ‘market economy’ and that those institutions that prevented the flourishing of the ‘free market’ were anti-democratic and atavistic, according to the logic of the ‘end of history’. As The Economist argues in the aforementioned article, “Another caveat is that democracy has never endured in countries with mainly non-market economies”. Paradoxically, it seems that the market cannot emerge from a democratic society that has not first been ‘liberalized’—the essential lesson learned from C.B. Macperhson in his work on the subject of democracy.

It was this critical juncture in 1993 that set the path for the rise of the oligarchs and illiberal-democracy in Russia, personified by Vladimir Putin. It should be remembered that Putin did not change a letter of the Russian constitution; the ‘original sin’ of Russian democracy was based in the liberal-totalitarian zeal of the 1990s. Unlike in pervious eras, where authoritarian had some redeeming social qualities, i.e., socialism, equality, material security, etc. Today, the market-reforms in Russia has created a new oligarchic class whose interest is to reinforce the capitalist aspects of the 1990s, not necessarily the ‘free-market’ aspects. As The Economist points out:

Today, the idea that politicians in ex-communist countries would take humble lessons from Western counterparts seems laughable. There is more evidence of authoritarians swapping tips. In October, for example, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party held its latest closed-door meeting with the Chinese Communist party. Despite big contrasts between the two countries—not many people in Russia think there is a Chinese model they could easily apply—the Russians were interested by the Chinese “experience in building a political system dominated by one political party,” according to one report of the meeting.

Now this may be, and probably is, liberal propagandizing, since it is based on ONE report of the meeting, but the fact that the two did meet suggests something. It suggests that the core arguments of liberalism no longer bear fruit, the myth has been demystified. The rise of China has undermined just about every-core liberal concept and it shows with the inability of The Economist to defend of liberal-democracy from the onslaught of what Slavoj Zizek calls ‘capitalism with Asian values’, which he describes as follows:

The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as the model that all of China should follow. Until now, capitalism has always seemed to be inextricably linked with democracy; it’s true there were, from time to time, episodes of direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (in South Korea, for example, or Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.

One telling example of this inability lies in the belief that only in a liberal-democratic society, one can have technological capitalism, however, China is disproving that premise and The Economist cannot easily deny this:

Believers in democracy as an engine of progress often make the point that a climate of freedom is most needed in a knowledge-based economy, where independent thinking and innovation are vital. It is surely no accident that every economy in the top 25 of the Global Innovation Index is a democracy, except semi-democratic Singapore and Hong Kong... China, which comes 27th in this table, is often cited as a vast exception to this rule. Chinese brainpower has made big strides in fields like computing, green technology and space flight...And no country should imagine that by becoming as autocratic as China, it will automatically become as dynamic as China is.

Why not? This is not explained, and this is where the ideology comes in. However, now the ideology cannot explain away China, so what is left, this contradiction; indeed, one can, and I will turn the last quote on its head for the liberals: ‘And no country should imagine that by becoming as liberal-democratic as the United States, it will automatically become as dynamic as the United States is”.

Ergo, why is liberal-democracy in the state it is in? Because it doesn’t feel the need to defend itself adequately, it denies its essentially ideological and political character and assumes it is inherently superior devoid of any real, not ‘idealist absurdities’, as a justification.

Well, the world moves on.


  1. great thoughts! I very much enjoyed the inherent truths retained in bits about Russia

  2. Doesn't the fact that China is implementing local-level elections show that it does need some democracy to make politicians accountable to citizens rather than money?

  3. Even in singapore, there are elections, that in Lee Kuang Yew's words, to keep the politicians on their toes.

  4. The "elections", so-called, in these countries are not what we would consider liberal-democratic or "free" elections. However, I should make this clear, my case being made in this article is about "liberal-democracy" not democracy, they are not the same thing. So if I may be so bold, I will assume both of you are implying a liberal-democratic definition of democracy. Firstly, in the case of China, the election of local officials is a way to keep the monopoly of the CCP in place, by re-arraigning the chairs at the local level and keeping people's eyes and ears off the federal level of government--if you could provide a link on this it would greatly appreciated. The party still holds monopoly control over the decisions, thus this is not what I would characterize as "democracy" in the sense that I am using. In the case of Singapore, yes it has formal elections but the outcome is already decided. The election there is merely a snap-shot, a large poll to determine how well the president of Singapore is doing, I do not think if someone really started to rock the boat, he will sit back lightly. The point moreso is that Singapore provided an ideal model for China, and its ersatz democracy now could be the future democracy of China as well...its still not what I would characterize as a liberal-democracy.

  5. According to news reports, local elections are mainly developed to tame corruption. When you inject a lot of capital into a developing nation, there will inevitably be corruptions, and local level democracy is an obvious way to keep politicians honest.

    People like noam Chomsky has often called United States a one-party state in which Republicans and Democrats are just two-factions within the same party; thus if china develops a one-party democracy in which different factions within the same party compete for votes, wouldn't the result look not very different from the liberal democracy in western nations? However the top level of the government will not become democratic in order to ensure the dominance of the party ideology.

  6. @ anonymous

    The link is not working, parts of it is missing, is there some way you could resend it to me, or even better, just quote the headline and I can look for it on google?

    Chomsky is right in the sense that the parties in many lib-dems are not offering any substantive differences in policies in what is now called 'consensual politics'--I think the healthcare debate in the US proves that without a shadow of a doubt, the only real difference is how to win more seats in the next election, mere 'partisanship'. This is a result of the end of the Cold War in many countries, which threw out for many any systemic alternatives to capitalism, i.e., the 'Third Way'. However, that is not an inherent trait within the lib-dem system. We have seen examples of lib-dem system having radical parties allowed to run and even govern, i.e. Weimer Germany (KPD, Nazi's, etc.); Chile with Allende in 1970. What is the inherent trait within the lib-dem system is that those parties and figures that challenge the hegemony of dominant capital in those countries that the time, i.e., Mosaddeq, Arbenz, Goulart, Allende, Chavez, etc., were all overthrown by a coalition of capital--particularly comprador capital and transnational capital--, the CIA, the military, etc. I will quote Perry Anderson here on the limits of liberal democracy:

    The logic of Marxist theory indicates that it is in the nature of the bourgeois State that, in any final contest, the armed apparatus of repression inexorably displaces the ideological apparatuses of parliamentary representation, to re-occupy the dominant position in the structure of capitalist class power.

    Much like liberalism, it says anything is possible, but only when it can secure its own ultimate existence. Neat isn't it. The difference with China for instance is that the mask is ripped off and exposed for what it is, pure and utter capitalist power.

  7. Fascinating article, I'll definitely be back.

  8. You can search for the headline ""China's Communist Party to Allow More Local Elections"

  9. Very interesting ideas, which prompt me to ask if anyone can trace the extremes of greed currently manifest in gloabl financial markets back to individuals who were influential in the period when Russia was given to the oligarchs? Did the bankers who went to "help" Russia end up learning how to be greedy and irresponsible from the Russians they went to instruct?


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