The Geology of Democratization

For the past 25 years, when we’ve talked about democratization, we’ve used the lexicon of transitions. As the prevailing narrative would have it, the breakdown of authoritarian rule launches a process of institution-building that leads eventually to democracy. Political democratization is the conjoined twin of social and economic modernization, and any country moving away from an authoritarian regime can usefully be described as “in transition” to a democratic one.

In geological terms, the transitions approach likens democratization to the production of igneous rock. Over time, pressures build under the crust of an existing authoritarian order. When that pressure becomes too intense, an eruption occurs. The old order is shattered, and fresh material pours onto the surface. That fresh material gradually but inexorably cools and hardens into a new, more modern order. The process might take a while, and parts of the new formation might crack and crumble while young, but the basic process is one of unidirectional transformation through disruption, replacement, and consolidation.

I don’t think the transitions metaphor works very well, and I’m not alone in that view. Ten years ago, Thomas Carothers wrote an essay called “The End of the Transitions Paradigm” that nicely showed how the transitions metaphor misrepresented the messier reality of modern regime change, and how that mismatch had often led Western foreign policy and aid astray.

Carothers’ essay was read widely in professional circles, but it doesn’t seem to have produced the gestalt shift to which its title aspired. Twenty years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, we still talk about the states born of that collapse being “lost in transition.” One of the first things the U.S. Department of State did after the Arab Spring hit was to open a Middle East Transitions Office that could coordinate and oversee U.S. policy toward the three “transition countries” of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) still maintains an Office of Transition Initiatives that motivates its existence with a narrative of disruption, opportunity, and consolidation.

I think the biggest problem with the transitions metaphor is that it misrepresents the nature of the underlying change process. Returning to the language of geology, I think democratization is more like the production of sedimentary rock than igneous. Institutions aren’t destroyed, replaced, and consolidated; as Francis Fukuyama masterfully describes in The Origins of Political Order, they are laid down in layers. New and old abut and sometimes comingle at the edges, but the one does not supplant the other. Instead, many layers coexist, and over time the process of layering interacts with other forces, like gravity and erosion, to produce something different from the sum of its parts. The heart of the process is not disruption but accretion. Change does not occur in a sequence; instead, it occurs through the interaction of multiple processes occurring on different time scales.

We can see this kind of accretive process occurring in “transitional” countries like Egypt, where the dramatic changes that have followed Mubarak’s ouster–the establishment of a new ruling council, the emergence of new political parties, and the convocation of a freshly elected parliament–have been poured atop a political economy that does yet not seem to have cracked or shifted.

We can see the interaction between layering and other forces in “consolidating” countries like Turkey, where the military’s role as political overseer wasn’t ended abruptly but instead shifted gradually as military elites became sandwiched between strengthening Islamist forces and the hardening expectations of its NATO allies.

We can even see these complex and cumulative effects at work in authoritarian regimes like China’s, where traditional kinship groups are the organizational form through which some of the most powerful demands for democratization are being expressed. Those demands, in turn, are arising in response to land grabs driven by the interplay of newer forces of globalization and long-standing forms of elite privilege.

Carothers’ 2002 essay might not have transformed the way we talk about democratization, but it’s not because he was wrong. Where the prevailing metaphor sees disruption and displacement, a closer look at the world suggests a more complex process of accumulation and gradual transformation. Maybe intellectual orders work like political ones, and the shift away from teleological metaphors of transition and consolidation will happen gradually and subtly. However it happens, it would be nice to see it happen soon.

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