Friday, February 24, 2006

Democratization: Squaring States with People

Squaring the State with its People: Middle East Social Policy is Western Security Policy

We tend to approach the debate on democratization in the Middle East with a focus on constitutional or technical requirements of democratic regimes (free elections, rule of law), and the policies supporting these challenges (civil society projects, security sector reform). The ultimate hope, because of the role of Islam, is that secular politics will take precedence over religion. This approach is full of good intentions. But it is unlikely to be sufficient, even in the long run, because effective democratic state- and nation-building comes only through involvement of mass movements in a continuously negotiated settlement of the social question. The approach is willfully blind to the fact that secularization in the West itself is skin-deep because the fundamental societal compromises between growth and state provisions mirror widely shared religious ethics.

The upshot of this is that policies in support of Middle East democratization cannot expect to directly produce secular regimes. Western policy-makers should aim to support processes which will fuse state institutions with ethical conceptualizations of the good society that are representative of the populations. This also means embracing those Islamic movements that provide social services – because they hold the key to producing legitimate state projects in the region.

Behind the present initiatives for democratic reform in the Middle East lies a reduced Weberian understanding of what the state is: a monopoly on the legitimate use of power. But this negative definition is a very limited conception of what a state does. What is lacking is a positive definition of a state’s function. As shown by Max Weber’s own analysis, the positive agenda of the modern state is the production of legitimacy. Effectively, the modern state is an amalgam of what the institutions do and the institutionalization of this activity in the minds of the population: administrative capacity and the population’s accept of the state’s legitimacy. Democracy, more than merely a technical, constitutional question, then equals a high level of legitimacy – a project that citizens wish to participate in. The basic question regarding democratization becomes: how to produce legitimacy?

This is where the historical sociology of the Western welfare states comes in. The feature that most differentiates the Western states from one another, apart from absolute size and relative power, is also the most ‘state defining’ activity: namely the aggregate set of policies concerning redistribution and state provisioned or indirectly guaranteed services which together form what is known as a the “welfare state”. According to Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s classic analysis, it is possible to discern three ideal-types of the modern European welfare states – Liberal, Social democrat and Christian democrat. Each of these has a set of preferred technical solutions to redistribution and services that correspond to certain traits in the states’ constitutive political culture. In short, the ‘welfare state’ is largely culturally dependent.

These traits are again a result of democratic ideological battles for political power and over what the state ‘means’ during the 19th and 20th centuries. The outcome of these battles has been relatively stable bargains leading to the organization of each country’s national welfare state setup. Moreover, it was exactly these bargains over the meaning of the state which gave birth to democratic politics in the modern sense. The central element here was not foreign policy and not domestic high politics, but social policy: the century-long discussion of “the social problem” was continuously reheated by the many small revolutions, general social unrest and workers’ self-organization.

Entrenched and proper democracies emerged in Western Europe over the last two centuries when mass movements with a broad popular base gained access to power and shaped the state in their image, in a balanced representation of a large majority’s expectations of equity. Legitimacy stems from solving the social question through pay-offs between elites and populace in a way that mirrors the broadly shared cultural conceptions of social ethics. Institutional stability, representative democracy and economic growth go hand in hand with mass movement involvement through state provision (or guarantee) of services.

Finally, what Westerners tend to neglect, as they gaze nervously upon the religious character of Middle Eastern politics, is the very limited development of “secularized” politics in the West. The process of secularization of the founding stakeholders of European welfare states has been slow and uneven: even nominally secular Social-democratic egalitarianism is beset with post-Christian ethics. Basically, modern welfare states have taken responsibility for functions that used belong to the Church: many of the stakeholders in the early debates and implementations very often were Church-related, and logically so, as the historical charity function of the churches is the predecessor of social policy.

All this is not to say that the Middle Eastern states should become Social-democrat welfare-states or akin to any other of the Western models. Instead, these states must in the long term be shaped by mass movements that carry a representative vision of equity in order to construct the legitimacy that comes from the citizens’ opting-in, thus squaring the idea of the state with its people. If Western security policy is Middle Eastern democratic state-building – then Western security policy must engage those organizations that deliver Middle Eastern social policy – Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. – to facilitate their worldly, civilian policies.

Later UPDATE (to post only): an interesting opinion piece from the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka corresponds nicely, if less aggressively, to pieces of the above analysis. See "Needed: Holistic Support of Middle Eastern Democracy" in the Washington Post.

[This column was published in Young Europeans for Security's spring 2006 issue of YES Communique]

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