The mid­dle class and democ­racy

Nairobi Law Monthly - - Opening Statement -

For the past sev­eral years many ob­servers have pointed out that democrati­sa­tion in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa has ar­rived at a plateau with ac­tual re­treats in some places. Most of the ma­jor democ­racy mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems have por­trayed this new re­al­ity in stark quan­ti­ta­tive terms. At the same time, there has been much less sus­tained dis­cus­sion about what to do about this prob­lem, ei­ther to re­verse demo­cratic back-slid­ing or, how to restart democrati­sa­tion mo­men­tum, even how much sus­tained in­ter­est there is in find­ing ways to ad­dress th­ese chal­lenges.

Hav­ing had a foot in both worlds, I find this lack of en­ergy and will to un­der­stand the causes of at best demo­cratic sta­sis and find so­lu­tions both on the ground in the pol­icy world and within the academy. On the one hand, the di­men­sion of democ­racy that has cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of cit­i­zen­ries in African coun­tries more than any other has been lim­i­ta­tion of pres­i­dents to two terms. On the ground in other re­spects, true be­liev­ers in democrati­sa­tion have seemed to be on the de­fen­sive. Afro­barom­e­ter sur­veys con­tin­u­ally at­test to the fact that by con­vinc­ing ma­jori­ties, African citizens pre­fer democ­racy to the main al­ter­na­tives, mil­i­tary or other ver­sions of au­to­cratic rule and one party sys­tems which of­ten amount to the same thing. Ded­i­cated hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions con­tinue to protest the most fla­grant abuses of con­sti­tu­tional rights and lib­er­ties, of­ten at con­sid­er­able per­sonal as well as or­gan­i­sa­tional risk. But sus­tained pres­sure to re­verse demo­cratic re­treats, no­tably in the ar­eas of civil so­ci­ety and the me­dia has seemed in short sup­ply. Ex­ter­nal sup­port for democrati­sa­tion has clearly been bal­anced, if not com­pro­mised, by com­pet­ing im­per­a­tives like coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ism.

Re­think con­cepts

On the other hand, I con­tinue to think that an im­por­tant source of demo­cratic re­treats and de­clin­ing democrati­sa­tion mo­men­tum may lie in fail­ure to re­think the mean­ing of democ­racy in the cir­cum­stances of the de­vel­op­ing world, es­pe­cially sub-sa­ha­ran Africa. In other es­says, I have ar­gued that even the con­cep­tion of what the state it­self means must be at is­sue. The idea of the state ac­cord­ing to the great early 20th Cen­tury Ger­man so­cial sci­en­tist, Max We­ber, a com­pul­sory ter­ri­to­rial based com­mu­nity pos­sessed of a mo­nop­oly of the le­git­i­mate use of co­er­cion, clearly seems in­com­plete in African cir­cum­stances be­cause it fails to make citizens con­stituent com­po­nents of the state as well as of its rules, not just pas­sive re­cip­i­ents of co­er­cion-sus­tained rule. Be­cause use of the term state in or­di­nary par­lance seem­ingly uni­ver­sally equates the state with the ex­ec­u­tive branch of govern­ment, tac­itly chan­nelling We­ber, it sets democ­racy in op­po­si­tion to the state when the goal has to be make the state syn­ony­mous with democ­racy and fun­da­men­tal rules of the po­lit­i­cal game that citizens le­git­i­mate within so­ci­ety as well as govern­ment. As fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant to democ­racy as are elec­tions, they do not in them­selves a democ­racy make, Elec­tions al­low par­ties to cap­ture the bu­reau­cratic beast but don’t in and of them­selves demo­crat­i­cally trans­form bu­reau­cratic power, as dis­tinct from al­low­ing elected lead­ers to colonise that bu­reau­cratic power for their own pur­poses. In­suf­fi­cient em­pha­sis on as­pects of democrati­sa­tion other than elec­tions, e.g., the rule of law, is one likely rea­son for lost demo­cratic mo­men­tum and demo­cratic re­treats.

An­other broad di­men­sion of the prob­lem of stalled democrati­sa­tion in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa seems to have to do with democ­racy’s re­la­tion­ship to the com­plex­i­ties of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. The idea that the mid­dle class sup­plies the foun­da­tion and the mo­men­tum for the emer­gence of the demo­cratic state has philo­soph­i­cal roots go­ing back at least as far as 4th Cen­tury B.C. foun­da­tional po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Aris­to­tle. Un­ques­tion­ably, mid­dle classes have been in­sti­ga­tors of democ­racy in the world’s con­tem­po­rary ma­ture democ­ra­cies, no­tably Bri­tain and the United States. Within the last five years, the strong GDP growth rates around the African con­ti­nent have prompted com­ment about the emer­gence of mid­dle classes. But this ob­ser­va­tion begs some very ba­sic ques­tions, start­ing with who ex­actly is the mid­dle class in African coun­tries, what are th­ese classes sup­posed to do about democ­racy, and how are they sup­posed to do it?

In the cur­rent is­sue of the in­flu­en­tial For­eign Af­fairs, a dis­tin­guished econ­o­mist af­fil­i­ated with a Wash­ing­ton think-tank has writ­ten an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “Mid­dle Class Heroes: The Best Guar­an­tee of Good Gov­er­nance.” The ar­ti­cle de­fines to in­clude those “en­joy­ing suf­fi­cient ma­te­rial se­cu­rity to be able to cred­i­bly plan for the fu­ture” and, in the de­vel­op­ing world, a “house­hold with


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