Recently in Bangkok, I found myself wandering through the strange but distinctive arena for one of Asia’s latest conflicts: CentralWorld, supposedly the biggest shopping mall in Southeast Asia.
Protesters supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s populist ex-prime minister, had set up base camp in the mall’s plaza in May 2010. During a widely covered clash with security forces, they had set the building on fire, destroying much of it.
The newly renovated mall -- and the traffic outside, restored to Bangkok gridlock -- can project again an image of prosperity and consumption. However, Thailand itself -- governed by his sister, who is now prime minister, and remote-controlled by Thaksin from Dubai -- looks no more stable, or closer to being a functional democracy, than at any other time since the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
From the late 1950s onward, most Western commentators reflecting on the fate of democracy in the developing and mostly nondemocratic world shared a broad assumption: that middle and other aspiring classes created by industrial capitalism would bring about accountable and democratic governments.
This was an axiom of “modernization theory.” First proposed during the Cold War as a gradualist and peaceful alternative to communist-style revolution, it was revived in the 1990s to explain events in South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, where educated and politicized populations emerged to demand elected governments from their authoritarian-minded rulers.
The theory always had some strong critics, most notably Samuel Huntington, whose “Political Order in Changing Societies” (1968) questioned whether social and economic transformation in developing societies is always benign, or leads to democracy. The theory also naively assumed that the rising middle class would form a progressive avant-garde, and it failed to consider the profound isolation and insecurity of the middle class in largely poor and extremely unequal countries.
Modernization theorists, inhabiting a simple world defined by the ideological binaries of communism and capitalism, could hardly anticipate the vast, complex and unpredictable forces of economic globalization: how they would weaken national sovereignty and turn electoral democracy itself into another source of the seemingly permanent political conflict and instability in much of the world.
This is true of Thailand, among many other nation-states. Much like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Thaksin, a self-made, extremely rich businessman, emerged after a devastating economic crisis in the late 1990s, promising to restore the pride of a country that felt itself scorned and humiliated by foreigners.
But after initially attracting the support of the urban middle class, Thaksin and his social-welfarist schemes and aggressive rhetoric soon alienated its members and -- an important constituency in Thailand -- the royalist elites in the military and bureaucracy. Like many successful populists, Thaksin had sighted an electorally underrepresented majority among Thailand’s rural and urban poor. As it turned out, securing their votes was as far as he was willing to go in the direction of democracy.
Even as he instituted universal health care, and consolidated his base among a large population left behind by economic growth, Thaksin cracked down on press freedoms, undermined the judiciary, and started a bloody assault on the Malay Muslim population of south Thailand. Projecting, like Putin in Chechnya, an image of brute machismo, Thaksin became East Asia’s leading exemplar of crony capitalism, installing his friends and relatives in strategic positions in the state and the private sectors.
Finally, Thailand’s older, paternalistic elites revolted against Thaksin’s attempt to create a one-man democracy. Confronted with an invincibly popular politician, they were forced to resort in 2006 to an old-fashioned military coup, endowing Thaksin with the aura of a martyred democrat. Successive elections, most recently in 2011, have proved that a majority of Thais still back Thaksin, despite his contempt for civil liberties.
But then again, the middle class that ultimately turned against Thaksin has even weaker democratic credentials. Certainly, the Cold War prejudice that middle-class beneficiaries of capitalism are programmed for democracy looks ready for the trash-heap of history. In Russia, the small middle class created during Putin’s long reign co-existed happily, until very recently, with an oligarchic dictatorship that impoverished the majority of Russians.
The lack of progressive political choices is evident even in India, routinely described as the world’s largest democracy, where a middle-class campaign against corruption last year was led by a man with a Taliban-like faith in the virtues of hanging, flogging and amputation. Last month a survey in India Today revealed Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist implicated in a pogrom that killed 2,000 Muslims in 2002, as the middle class’s top choice as prime minister.
Middle classes in Singapore and Malaysia complained little about the strictures imposed by their governments. The conservative nationalism of China’s middle-class beneficiaries of post-Mao economic growth is well-documented. Until the Asian financial crisis, the Suharto regime in Indonesia enjoyed broad and eager support among the country’s middle class.
In some countries, the elections that are usually the means to the end of democracy have become ends in themselves. Thailand has had its nak leuaktang, or “electocrats,” professional politicians primarily devoted to self-enrichment. India’s leading public intellectual, Ashis Nandy, believes that his country’s much-battered democracy, too, is dwindling into “psephocracy.”
So what, you might wonder, is the fate of democracy in large parts of the world? But that is not the question we should be asking now, even if it was piously and frequently raised during the heyday of modernization theory. Today, a political inquiry about any country should start with this question: Which figure or political formation looks likely to manage the social, political and economic conflicts unleashed by uneven globalization, and on whose behalf?
Certainly, as the cases of China, India, Russia and Thailand reveal, authoritarian figures offering quick technocratic solutions to political and economic problems are here to stay. They will seek support among the beneficiaries of globalization even as they try to keep the masses passively committed to, or distracted by, the larger project of national greatness.
Of course, once the masses have been awakened, they will demand a larger share of the political and economic goods, bringing them inevitably into conflict with already privileged classes.
It would be absurd to predict a repeat of the 1930s, when freshly politicized mass societies, angered by internal chaos and humiliations abroad, and frustrated with the weaknesses of bourgeois democracy, eagerly embraced authoritarian rulers. No pivotal event like the burning of the Reichstag has so far occurred. Yet, walking through Southeast Asia’s biggest mall, I couldn’t help wondering if its immolation in 2010 might one day possess the same iconic significance.
(Pankaj Mishra, whose new book, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” will be published in August, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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