Democracy in retreat

Mugabe Ratshikuni writes on the rising global tide of “autocratic capitalism”

According to a 2019 Freedom House report, there is a rising global tide of “autocratic capitalism”, with it being suggested that countries where autocracy reigns will surpass democratic countries in terms of economic size within the next decade.

In a CNBC article by author Frederick Kempe, political scientists Stefan Foa and Yascha Monk are cited as claiming that, “within five years at current trends autocratic countries will account for more than half of global income for the first time in more than a century” in their analysis of an IMF report.

Prominent BRICS countries Russia and China are put forward as model examples of the rise in “autocratic capitalism” (in the African example, Rwanda is the quintessential example of this phenomenon) with the combination of autocratic rule and market friendly policies as well as posture producing healthy economic growth.

Whilst digesting all of this, a few simple questions came to mind: if this retreat of democracy within a developmental context is going to characterise global politics within the next decade, then does democracy really represent the highest levels of political development within a society? When looking at the health of a society, is stability even at the expense of democracy, more important in terms of enhancing economic growth prospects than building an open, rights based society especially in the short to medium term?

Is democracy and a rights-based culture a by-product of economic development and better living standards or is it a pre-requisite? These are all fascinating questions in the South African context with all our developmental aspirations within a constitutional democracy framework that values and upholds “consultativeness” to the point of at times slowing down decisive decision-making that is critical in driving and implementing developmental programmes.

Does autocratic capitalism enable a faster, more efficient developmental process and if so, what does that mean for the prospects of democracy within the developing world with all our developmental aspirations within the next decade or so? Given the choice between democratic processes that take longer and autocratic decision-making that is faster and could lead to more rapid advances in quality and standard of living within a society, what would be the preferable option?

These are all fascinating questions when one looks at examples such as Rwanda and Egypt, where the choice between stability and democracy in pursuit of a better life seems to have been resolved in favour of the former, with high economic growth rates being used as a measure to justify the choice. This is about as utilitarian as one can get when considering developmental issues, independent of any normative judgements.

Whilst reflecting on all this, I was reminded of the words of popular Russian novelist and Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his essay Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals, outlining his thoughts on the political and economic choices facing post-Communist Russia, “Human rights are a fine thing, but how can we make ourselves sure that our rights do not expand at the expense of the rights of others. A society with unlimited rights is incapable of standing to adversity. If we do not wish to be ruled by a coercive authority, then each of us must rein himself in...A stable society is achieved not by balancing opposing forces but by conscious self-limitation: by the principle that we are always duty-bound to defer to the sense of moral justice.”

All of these thoughts led one to conclude that in terms of the democracy/developmental conundrum, there are no clear cut answers, as diverse examples and case studies could be put forward to advance a particular view, based on one’s pre-determined inclinations. In the South African context, with the governing party pursuing what is termed a National Democratic Revolution, one wonders whether the National Democratic Revolution would be more speedily advanced if there were not so many democratic loopholes to jump over in the quest towards building a national democratic society.

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government; He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.