Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Antisystem Movements

Anyone who is at all interested in democratic development ought to find a bookstore that stocks the Journal of Democracy. I have yet to pick up a copy that didn't have numerous articles worth reading. The latest issue has an excellent piece by Sheri Berman (I can't link to the full text; as an aside, I really hope this open model of academic publishing catches on) titled "Taming Extremist Parties: Lessons from Europe" in which she chronicles the political history of Western European communist parties from the end of World War I through the fall of the Soviet Union. She contrasts the generally radical, "antisystem" behavior of these parties during the interwar years (behavior which, paradoxically, contributed to the collapse of democracy and the rise of fascism in much of Western Europe) with the more democratically engaged communist movements of the postwar era.

She attempts to find some common ground between "optimists" who believe that democratic participation has a tendency, through a variety of mechanisms, to de-radicalize and "tame" extremist parties, rendering them less threatening to the democratic system as a whole, and "pessimists" who believe that extremist parties merely use elections as a means to an end without ever truly subordinating their agendas to democratic processes, pursuing a policy of "one man, one vote, one time." Obviously, this issue is germane to today's Middle East, where the question of how Islamist parties ought to be treated by local governments and the international community as a whole remains hotly contested. It is also relevant to places like India, which continues to experience challenges from radical movements that operate both within and without democratic institutions.

In a nutshell (and this is but the roughest sketch of her argument), Berman believes that when democratic institutions are reasonably strong, the mechanisms that the optimists believe will moderate extremist parties do just that (briefly, they identify a "Downsian" phenomenon whereby radical movements must moderate their positions in order to garner a reasonable plurality of votes, a "Michelsian" phenomenon which posits a moderating influence of bureaucratic structures that are necessary in order to compete in elections, and a "pothole theory" of democracy whereby radical programs are sidetracked by the more mundane necessities of day-to-day governance). When state and democratic institutions are weak and have shallow roots in the populace at large, however, extremist parties face fewer pressures to moderate their tactics and goals, and may use elections and an open civil society to foment discord and promote more radical agendas.

Berman notes that the dark days that followed the First World War, when Western Europe was facing unprecedented economic and political crises and Russian Bolshevism actively supported worldwide revolution through the Comintern, were ripe environments for extremist movements. Support for communist movements at the time "varied... in inverse proportion to the health of a country's democratic regime." In Germany, France and Italy, communist movements garnered significant support (though nowhere near a majority of the populace), and had few real incentives to accept the ultimate legitimacy of democracy. They ran slates in elections, but also engaged in violent, destabilizing activity that the weak governments and state institutions at the time could not tamp down. They followed accepted Leninist tactics, expelling moderates from their parties and undermining the governments in which they sometimes half-heartedly participated. In short, they remained radical in their aims as well as in their tactics. It was in part their unwillingness to moderate and ally with the centrist coalitions that held Western European democracies together that fomented fascist transformations leading up to the Second World War.

At first glance, one might have expected a similar radicalization of communist politics in the period after World War II, when the economic and political foundations of Europe lay in ruins. Despite this environment, though, postwar European communist parties slowly but surely integrated themselves into a truly democratic framework, distancing themselves from Soviet patronage, rejecting violence and other destabilizing activity, and eventually accepting the legitimacy of the European postwar social democratic framework (though they obviously continued to promote a very left-wing agenda). Berman argues that the relative strength of democratic and state institutions during this period made destabilizing activity more difficult and less effective, and that with time communist parties saw no choice but to accept the ultimate primacy of the democratic process.

Berman herself, though, alludes to the fact that her analysis is somewhat incomplete when applied to contemporary antisystem movements, acknowledging that "to say that the pessimists' worries are likely to be borne out only when democratic regimes are weak and ineffective is hardly comforting, since it is chiefly such regimes that are grappling with these problems today." The question is why Western Europe developed strong states and democracies after World War II, particularly in places like Germany and Italy that had so spectacularly failed to do so during the interwar period. Berman doesn't provide any real answers, noting only that the pessimists' argument risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and, citing the experience of the European social democrats, warning against seeing extremism where accommodation might be possible.

Her reluctance to tackle the critical issue - why democracy succeeded after the War where it had failed before it - is understandable. Full answers to such questions are the stuff of doctoral dissertations (one day perhaps), but they are critical to an ability to apply the European cases to contemporary regimes, so I'll at least offer a few thoughts. First, in the immediate aftermath of War, when democratic regimes were at their weakest, the presence of several million Allied troops on the European continent certainly helped stabilize things. The prospect of prolonged military occupation, for example, persuaded the French Communists (who had what amounted to an army and were the most coherent organization in postwar France) to use the ballot box, rather than the streets, as their route to power. These troops, in effect, permitted state building on steroids, giving reconstructed democratic governments the ability to quickly achieve Weber's "monopoly of violence" over their territories without too much struggle.

Second, Allied (and especially American) aid to Europe in the years after the war was crucial. William Hitchcock, in his recent history of postwar Europe, argues that, while aid from the Marshall plan was not necessarily vital to European economic recovery (for all of the plan's scale, it contributed but a fraction of Europe's postwar GDP), but did provide governments with critical budgetary breathing space, allowing them to construct social service regimes in addition to investing in economic recovery. American money allowed the shaky centrist governments of the postwar period to make tangible differences in the lives of their citizens, easing economic and psychological social pressures and dampening the appeal of antisystem activities.

More complex internal dynamics were certainly at work in the states of Western Europe as well, but I highlight the effect of external forces because they relate most closely to what the democratic powers of our own time can do to encourage nascent democracies and stave off the destabilizing influence of antisystem organizations. The events of recent years have shown that invasion and occupation are (to be charitable) less-than-optimal ways of shoring up democracy. It worked in Western Europe after the continent had been pounded into dust by the greatest calamity in human history. Not the kind of thing to repeat if we can help it. Still, aid, if intelligently structured, can be effective in shoring up weak transitions to democracy. Senator Biden's recent remarks on U.S. policy in Pakistan present a decent blueprint for what such constructive aid might look like. Berman's example of the ill-conceived ostracization of the pre-war Social Democrats also points to the wisdom of distinguishing antisystem movements from movements whose programs we simply don't like. Many Islamist parties in the Middle East have shown a practical willingness to participate in democratic institutions. As long as they aren't running armed militias at the same time, we ought to be open to them.

Given the complexities of the modern global system, coming up with coherent, flexible ways of responding to movements that eat at that system's foundation can only become more important in the coming years. Kudos to Dr. Berman for her contribution.

1 comment:

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