The middle class and democracy

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For the past several years many observers have pointed out that democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa has arrived at a plateau with actual retreats in some places. Most of the major democracy monitoring systems have portrayed this new reality in stark quantitative terms. At the same time, there has been much less sustained discussion about what to do about this problem, either to reverse democratic back-sliding or, how to restart democratisation momentum, even how much sustained interest there is in finding ways to address these challenges.

Having had a foot in both worlds, I find this lack of energy and will to understand the causes of at best democratic stasis and find solutions both on the ground in the policy world and within the academy. On the one hand, the dimension of democracy that has captured the imagination of citizenries in African countries more than any other has been limitation of presidents to two terms. On the ground in other respects, true believers in democratisation have seemed to be on the defensive. Afrobarometer surveys continually attest to the fact that by convincing majorities, African citizens prefer democracy to the main alternatives, military or other versions of autocratic rule and one party systems which often amount to the same thing. Dedicated human rights organisations continue to protest the most flagrant abuses of constitutional rights and liberties, often at considerable personal as well as organisational risk. But sustained pressure to reverse democratic retreats, notably in the areas of civil society and the media has seemed in short supply.

External support for democratisation has clearly been balanced, if not compromised, by competing imperatives like countering terrorism.

Rethink concepts
On the other hand, I continue to think that an important source of democratic retreats and declining democratisation momentum may lie in failure to rethink the meaning of democracy in the circumstances of the developing world, especially sub-Saharan Africa.   In other essays, I have argued that even the conception of what the state itself means must be at issue. The idea of the state according to the great early 20th Century German social scientist, Max Weber, a compulsory territorial based community possessed of a monopoly of the legitimate use of coercion, clearly seems incomplete in African circumstances because it fails to make citizens constituent components of the state as well as of its rules, not just passive recipients of coercion-sustained rule. Because use of the term state in ordinary parlance seemingly universally equates the state with the executive branch of government, tacitly channelling Weber, it sets democracy in opposition to the state when the goal has to be make the state synonymous with democracy and fundamental rules of the political game that citizens legitimate within society as well as government.

As fundamentally important to democracy as are elections, they do not in themselves a democracy make, Elections allow parties to capture the bureaucratic beast but don’t in and of themselves democratically transform bureaucratic power, as distinct from allowing elected leaders to colonise that bureaucratic power for their own purposes. Insufficient emphasis on aspects of democratisation other than elections, e.g., the rule of law, is one likely reason for lost democratic momentum and democratic retreats.

Another broad dimension of the problem of stalled democratisation in sub-Saharan Africa seems to have to do with democracy’s relationship to the complexities of economic development. The idea that the middle class supplies the foundation and the momentum for the emergence of the democratic state has philosophical roots going back at least as far as 4th Century B.C. foundational political theorist Aristotle.  Unquestionably, middle classes have been instigators of democracy in the world’s contemporary mature democracies, notably Britain and the United States. Within the last five years, the strong GDP growth rates around the African continent have prompted comment about the emergence of middle classes. But this observation begs some very basic questions, starting with who exactly is the middle class in African countries, what are these classes supposed to do about democracy, and how are they supposed to do it?

In the current issue of the influential Foreign Affairs, a distinguished economist affiliated with a Washington think-tank has written an article entitled “Middle Class Heroes: The Best Guarantee of Good Governance.” The article defines to include those “enjoying sufficient material security to be able to credibly plan for the future” and, in the developing world, a “household with enough income to survive such shocks as a spell of unemployment, a healthy emergency, or even the bankruptcy of a small business. The writer suggests, based on Latin American evidence, that a daily income of $10 (say Sh1000 in Kenya today) is a rough estimate of what would be required, acknowledging that in some countries, specifically citing Kenya, a very small proportion of households would currently meet that standard.  Rather, the article suggests that perhaps 30 percent of the population would need to be middle class for the class to make a difference. That would be when, the article suggests, “its members can start to identify with one another and to use their collective power to demand that the state spend their tax dollars to finance public services, security, and other critical public goods”.  They are also, the article asserts “unlikely to be drawn into the kinds of ethnic and religious rivalries that spur political instability”.

Not to be depended on
What’s notable about this approach is that implicitly it pretty much surrenders the theory of the middle class as the societal engine of democracy, limiting its influence to better governance, including accountability as important as those objectives are. It predicts even these roles for the middle class in places like Kenya only when those meeting this income level are more numerous than at present. In the early stages of Kenya’s, and sub-Saharan Africa’s, democratic era, many took notice that even poor countries could become democratic, received theory notwithstanding. Now, with this article, there is the suggestion that middle class-dominated economies, even when they come into existence, cannot be counted on to sustain democracy. At the same, the suggestion is that political stability, essential services, and moderated cultural conflict do await the emergence of middle class-led economies, just not democracy.

If middle classes cannot be counted on to demand democracy, once they emerge, we will have lost another reason to expect demands for more democracy in future as well as a hypothesis concerning the causes of contemporary stagnating democratisation.
In a larger sense, this essay may open the way to a larger and stronger vision of what it takes to sustain and advance democratisation of the state. Why should the defence and advance of democracy be the task of one economic class, however large and important? Is this theory not a relic of bygone era predating not only the information revolution of today but the industrial revolution of earlier centuries?  Does not the middle class theory of democracy also sell most citizens short just as does the Weberian theory of the state? Perhaps there is no path to the truly democratic state in sub-Saharan Africa, and also elsewhere, other than by mobilisation by civil society to this end of coalitions bridging socioeconomic as well as cultural and religious divisions, a steep, difficult, but inescapable path.

Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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