Asserting the New Leviathan: What Awaits Democracy in the 21st Century

The word “democracy” is part of the modern political vocabulary. Of course, far from all countries are democratic, but the term is present, at least formally, in numerous constitutions, which was not the case even quite recently, when democratic principles were revived after centuries of oblivion. Today, however, supporters of democracy are ready to impose it as a universal norm on the whole of mankind.

According to Democracy Index or Freedom in the World, truly democratic and free countries are few and far between. And yet democracy as a principle and a coveted aim won long ago and faces no threats. A political regime can be criticized as seemingly democratic and you can’t expect a sham democracy to be replaced by the rule of “a genuine aristocracy” or a monarchy.

The same political vocabulary relates “democracy” to other terms that collectively serve to describe a specific political state. As Charles Tilly wrote in Democracy (2007, p. 6), two centuries of experience teaches us that democracies behave differently from all other regimes in how they undertake commitments or renege on them, wage wars or respond to interventions, save their populations from chaos and tyranny or provide higher living standards, including in education, healthcare and legal protection. Understood in this way, democracy is a political expression of good modernity, both nationally and internationally. The latter is particularly important because democratization and globalization were merged in the social thought of the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.

Democracy as the only legitimate political form meant approximately the same as democracy without borders (see: Democracy Without Borders: Transnationalisation and Conditionality in New Democracies, ed. J. Grugel, Routledge, 2002). But globalization, or more precisely the ideology of globalization that was just another form of modernization, is in crisis, being undermined by what should be regarded as a uniform process, although its uniformity is paradoxical. At the same time, global inderdependencies, far from disappearing, continue to snowball.

Destruction is threatening the modern world of progress, where West-developed cultural, social, educational and – last but not least – political models were projected onto the rest of the world, modifying and even unifying behavior patterns and motivations. This was increasingly opposed by trends towards preserving cultural identity and national sovereignty. Since both were regarded globally as a reaction to progress, it was easy to brand these as reactionary and automatically lacking of a future.

But their time has come. The global world of trade, tourism, unification, hybrid lifestyles and (not to be forgotten) democracy has been fundamentally indifferent to sovereignty. In the final analysis, even the verdict on a country’s democratic or undemocratic status was pronounced, in the globalized world, by an outside actor, which was contrary to the concept of democracy as a process of people deciding their own fate, including the writing of a constitution and government appointments. Readiness to assume responsibility for the resources that the people intended to manage with the help of their democratic state was the reverse side of a classical democracy. The postwar welfare state fused citizens’ rights and obligations with democratic legitimacy of rule, solidarity and social support.

By writing in their constitutions that support should be provided to citizens and all persecuted people alike (that is, separating solidarity from protection), the progressive countries not so much overestimated their resources as miscalculated the dominant global trend. Neither the democratic constitutions approved before the disintegration of the colonial world, nor the constitution of a global society with its emphasis on the triumph of the modern world of progress did not leave room for wars or other calamities leading to mass migrations. The same was true of the idea of global democracy that was in no way related to the original idea of sovereignty.

A people conscious of its territorial identity (and citizens’ joint responsibility) and ready for democratic decision-making that runs counter to the aspirations and values of other nations could be seen as quite archaic were it not for the growing need to interpret the state as a unique political entity. It is this entity alone that can merge the motive of solidarity with financial, military and raw material resources that the world community is lacking.

In other words, the objective course of events is putting on the agenda the recognition of the state as a democratic entity in the strict – that is, old – meaning of the word. The state is sovereign, which means being capable of decision-making on the basis of state interest, while enjoying the full solidarity of its citizens. Possessing full democratic legitimacy (See: P. Rosanvallon, Democratic Legitimacy: Impartiality, Reflexivity, Proximity, Princeton University Press, 2011), the state inevitably comes face to face with a system of international agreements and organizations that lack this kind of legitimacy but create the entire context of action in the still globally interconnected world.

But this is not all. The principle of territorial identity of a people opting for self-determination through a constitutional vote could threaten the existing system of states. After all, deciding what group of individuals can be recognized as a people, what political entity a state, and what regime democratic may very soon drop from the international frame of reference for good. This issue will revert to the purview of people resolute and strong enough to assert a new local Leviathan on a territory won from some old state. This new entity, as Thomas Hobbes once said, will secure the indissoluble connection between protection and obedience.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.