Sustainable Democracy after 25 years. Conversation with Adam Przeworski

By Laszlo Bruszt

Sustainable Democracy , published in 1995, was a joint report of twenty one social scientists, from eleven countries and four academic disciplines.  Coordinated by Adam Przeworski, the report identified the principal political and economic choices confronting new democracies in Southern and Eastern Europe and South America. It explored the social, political and economic conditions under which democracy was likely to last and generate politically desired outcomes. The report called attention to the dangers of ‘modernization by internationalization’, and the imitation of policies and institutions from the more developed countries. Stressing the perils of technocratic policy style, the report argued for the importance of extended citizenship rights and the full use of the opportunities of democratic politics. At a time when mainstream political science either saw democracy smoothly parading towards a happy end state, detached from the problems of economic transformation, or as part of the problem in managing the requirements of economic development, the report called for using all the opportunities of democratic politics and combining the goals of achieving economic growth and strengthening democratic institutions. Revisiting the key arguments of the report, Laszlo Bruszt asks Adam Przeworski about the contemporary relevance of the report.

LB: My first question is about the origins of Sustainable democracy: where did the idea for this book come from?

AP: As you remember, this was the time in which many countries have transited from various kinds of authoritarian regimes to democracy; first Southern Europe, then several countries of Latin America and then 1989 our countries, Poland and Hungary. We were all worried about the sustainability of democracies which either emerged after long hiatus or countries which didn’t really have consolidated democracies in the past. This was also the time of economic crisis; we were worried whether the new democracies would survive as the economic conditions were very adverse to their survival. The idea came from Guillermo O’Donnel, He was at the time President of the International Political Science Association, and he was worried about democracy in Argentina (1983) and several Latin American countries.

LB: Why sustainability? Why did this become the key concept? What would you say the sustainable democracy is? 

AP: Sustainability was just a fancy word for our worrying about whether it’s going to last. We had lots of questions in mind: Was there an alternative way to organize political and economic life than the pattern of North, West and particular the US. Is this strategy viable economically? Will it be supported by local political forces? What kind of cultural, nationalistic or religious forces may be unleashed as form of resistance to this imposition from the outside? We were also wondering what kind of international order would emerge. These were all open questions; we were afraid that this particular experiment would fail. So, first sustainability meant – will democracy survive in these countries? It was not a very theoretical concept. It’s important to remember that political reforms, building democratic representative institutions and economic reforms imposed from the outside – privatization and deregulation – were experiments.

LB: The question of sustainability of democracy is now coming back after 25 years. How would you define it now? Does it differ from your initial definition? 

AP: In the past the collapses of democracy very were discrete events, you could date them. The Weimar democracy fell in March 1933. You could actually see coup d’état occurring in March 1964 in Brazil. When I was working on effects of political regimes on economic development and we were classifying countries as democracies and non-democracies and it was a very easy enterprise, the only problem that we faced were something that we called Botswana cases. 

Why Botswana? 

In Botswana the elections were held, all the appearances of democracy were maintained, and the same party won the elections every time. We couldn’t quite classify it as there were only a few cases. What we’re having now is that all kinds of dictators and authoritarian governments learned to preserve all the appearances of democracy and maintain themselves in power, stay in power independently of what people may prefer. Putin is the master in this. Stalin had to kill people, 50 years ago dictators were killing people in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Poland. This Putinisation of democracies occurred, dictators learned that they don’t have to shoot mass demonstrators in order to stay in power and a lot of governments learned the same, that they can do whatever they want in power while preserving all the appearances of democracy – holding elections, having parliaments, even sometimes courts – this is a new phenomenon. The deconsolidation, regression, backsliding, whatever you want to call it, that’s really phenomenon of the last 10, 15 years. I tried to reconstruct the classification of regimes and now cases like Botswana are about one third of annual country observations.

LB: Let’s go back to the book. The two key background concepts of the book are imitation and modernization by internationalization. The later refers to the voluntary acceptance of giving up a large part of national sovereignty in political, economic and cultural matters, economic in the first place, lesser political and cultural. The question is why was that so important?  How did you come to this central concept of the book? Just to stress the importance of that concept, let me add that in the last years we had governments in Washington and London, not really part of the global South or the East, that promised policies to defend their societies against the negative consequences of modernization by internationalization. 

AP: It wasn’t just imitation, it was imposed imitation, coercive imitation. The Polish Parliament in December 1989 passed ten crucial pieces of economic legislation in two days, because this was condition imposed by the IMF, if Poland didn’t pass those pieces of legislation by 31 of December, it would not get money. It was a blueprint which was 1) identical for all countries, 2) imposed from the outside. I remember having a debate in Poland with one of the American advisors to the Polish government who previously advised the government of Bolivia and I asked him: “What proportion of the population in Poland is employed in agriculture in Poland?” He was really the architect of the Polish reforms. He hesitated and gave me the Bolivian answer – 9%, in Poland it was 28%. Making agriculture “efficient” in a country when the proportion of people employed in agriculture is 9% and a country where it is 28% is different because the consequences for unemployment were totally different, and unemployment in Poland skyrocketed as a result. Short time effects of this policy in several countries were terrible, the worst in Russia, which is still paying the price as the Russians are still licking the wounds from 1990-1991. I want to advertise here the book by Holmes and Krastev on effects of imitation which I think captures some of the cultural, psychological and political effects of that imposition. 

LB: The unique feature of this book is that it says that the basis for judging the economic reforms is a question of to what extent, and in what way, they contribute to growth and strengthening of democratic institutions. That was also very different from the mainstream approach. Can you talk about that a little?

AP: This was what we were concerned about, this was what we thought the people wanted in different countries: political freedom, they wanted elections. In Brazil the slogan was “Diretas Já!” meaning direct elections now, no manipulation by the military. In Poland “freedom and independence”, so there was very strong political aspect of it, we wanted to be free from political repression, we wanted to be free to choose the governments we want. But at the same time, people expected economic welfare and equality, not only democracy. The attraction of the West for us was economic welfare, Eastern Europe versus Western Europe. You must have felt that in Hungary, that’s what I felt in Poland. This was what people wanted. Moreover, your own surveys which influenced me, I remember that your own surveys of several countries, I think Slovakia and Poland, the first answer that people gave to question “what you mean by democracy” was equality in the economic and social realm. So, this is what we thought people wanted and expected and we were worried that these expectations were not fulfilled. 

LS: That was the time when many economists and political scientists, like Jon Elster claimed that there is problem with simultaneous democratization and economic transformations, and the solution might be, a lot of economists claimed, shock therapy, getting politics out, neutralizing society. It was very brave at the time to say – No , actually, the criteria of success is achieving simultaneous growth and strengthening of democratic institutions. 

AP: Yes, we were very concerned about the economic effects, everybody knew that these reforms were going to produce massive unemployment, and you remember, the language of the time was that we have to swallow this hard pill, we have to go through this period of deterioration, but the future is radiant. The problem was that the crisis lasted for a long time and produced massive social and economic dislocations, there were lots of losers. Some losers were temporary but with increasing inequality some have lost for a very long time. “The People” were seen as an obstacle to economic reforms. I had several conversations with ministers of economy of different countries which always went the same way – If they only allowed us to do what we want, everything would be fine. We economists know what to do, it’s only that the people get in the way, they want something we don’t. Populism was resistance to this technocratic blueprint imposed from the outside. I remember I had a furious debate with Grzegorz Kołodko who was minister of economy of Poland at that time. I think that our fear was justified. I think what is happening now, not even in Russia, but also in Poland and Hungary, is an effect of that. 

LB: Let’s turn to the question of citizenship; in the analytical part of the book citizenship plays a very important role from the perspective of sustainability. How do you see it, what were and are the challenges of maintaining citizenship, and why is that so important?

AP: I think that the generic issue, this is why it is theoretically important, is that democracy is a system of equal political rights. When people are citizens, they lose all of their qualities, as there is no such thing as flat citizens and thick citizens, male and female, rich and poor, educated and uneducated citizens, citizenship is an anonymous term because everybody has equal political rights. But to exercise those rights, you have to have certain conditions. I mean, it goes back to John Stuart Mill who says that without decent wages and universal reading, no government of public opinion is possible.  You need certain conditions to exercise rights. In the 19th century, the solution to this problem was to give citizenship only to people who have these conditions. Restricted suffrage meant that those people who have material and educational conditions to exercise those rights will have them, others will not. But then came universal suffrage, democratization and what does it produce? Something that O’Donnell called the monster, namely democracy without effective citizenship. We thought that the role of the state is to actively assure material conditions for everybody to be able to effectively exercise their citizenship and assure political conditions for that. And that problem existed then and exists today. In almost all countries there is very strong correlation between income and political participation. Poor people participate less. 

LB: The book seems to me to be very cautious when it comes to political institutions and it actually puts the emphasis on policy styles. Were you much more cautious when suggesting specific political institutions and instead you focused more on policy style?

AP:   Yes, we didn’t know much about the effect of institutions at that time, now we know more. But I think the point of departure was maybe Rousseau and his ‘Considerations on the Government of Poland’, written in 1771, which questions how the different institutions may be successful under different conditions. It’s not true that one institutional framework is effective under different conditions. We have an enormous variety of institutions, presidential systems, parliamentary systems, different electoral rules, different relations between politicians and courts so we thought these institutions have to emerge from local conditions through local political processes. 

Our co-author, Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira, at one time wrote something which I found very persuasive, namely that institutions cannot be exported, they can only be imported.  You cannot just take institution from country and say – imitate us. This is what Americans did in Russia. First thing that US advisors said to Russia was – imitate us and everything is going to be fine.  And we thought – no, each country, each society, has to ask itself a question, given its economic situation, given the structure of cleavages, what are the institutions that are going to be effective in our countries? Our attempt was very much to outline the possible choices, but not to provide recipes. To quote Joseph Stiglitz, when Americans were saying – do as we say, but not do as we do. It was not quite an honest recipe, because we know that the institutions that America was trying to impose on the rest of the world, were not really working in States.

LB: Your book is making a very strong statement for inclusive policymaking and against the technocratic policy style. What are the visible, tangible advantages of this kind of approach and institutions that can allow for that kind of policy style? 

AP: Well, let me put it a bit abstractly, democracy is a system of processing whatever conflicts that may emerge in a particular society, in liberty and peace. And it works if it absorbs all the politically relevant groups into the institutional framework and if it regulates conflicts according to some rules. It has to provide incentives for various interests that form the society, to channel the demands through the institutional system, and it has to create incentives for losers in the institutional conflicts. The interests of the losers have to be taken into account, the winner cannot take it all, and the temporary winners of elections are willing to be subjected to the possibility of losing them. And that means that there are different institutional forms of implementing – some are more corporativist, some negotiative, more consociational, they involve active participation of organs and groups in negotiations of particular policies at all times.

The institutional forms under which democracy is successful in  processing conflict varies from country to country. Germany is not the US. But there are essential elements. If you basically have the government who says – we know everything you do and want, but we are not willing to be subjected to the will of the people, then democracy starts dying. 

LB: The policy-making style in the last decades after Sustainable Democracy was published, was going more into the direction of this technocratic policy style. Why did it occur? 

AP: Well, it’s a difficult question.

I think political parties have basically stopped being mechanisms for organizing and transmitting interests. They function sporadically, mainly during times of elections but that was not the case before.

They had regular meetings, people formulated demands, demands were being aggregated, parties represented some interests and could actually control and impose discipline on the members. Unions have been almost destroyed under the neoliberal effects. Union membership has plummeted in most countries and the mechanisms of collective bargaining, particularly in Scandinavian countries, have been very seriously weakened. What we got in return, was the emergence of NGOs, but NGOs are not the same kind of participants in political negotiations as were unions and parties, and maybe to some extent churches. Because, NGOs, yes, they consist of people who say they represent some interests or some idea or some value, but not necessarily the people who howled this interest or value, they are not authorized by these people. The working class parties were “authorized” by workers, unions were authorized by workers, and while NGOs may promote the interests of the people, they don’t have the same organizational capacity.

I think civil societies have been gravely weakened. I don’t think it’s the result of the success of technocratic prescriptions, I think those results were dismal in the past thirty years, I think it’s the weakening of the civil society. 

LB: Modernization by internationalization has been the dominant strategy, not only in the newly democratizing countries but also in the old democracies. How do you see, from this perspective, the relevance of the book? 

AP: Essentially, there were bewildering happenings in the last 5 or 4 years, namely, the resistance to globalization was always from the left. It was the left that was reacting to what we call now globalization. All the riots in Seattle, all the time that the World Trade Organization met anywhere, massive demonstrations from the left, the whole ideology of the left was anti-globalization because it brings inequality, that was their argument. And then what happened? When Trump was elected, it has completely fled. All these free marketers who were pushing open borders, no trade barriers and what-not, on us, on Poland and Hungary, suddenly, they turned against it. How can they turn against free trade? This is bewildering to me, how can a Republican Party in the States turn against free trade? So, this is a flip that I just can’t understand. 

LB: Wasn’t that a low hanging fruit, left over by the left? That was a package of problems that the right could politicize. 

AP: Yes, perhaps Stephen Holmes and Krastev, maybe they sort of caught something, namely- yes, the US and the West was telling everybody – imitate us, but then when the imitation became too successful, maybe they suddenly felt threatened by it. Maybe there’s something too, maybe they suddenly realized- free trade is not that good for us. 

And finally, a selfish question from the East, as you are originally from Poland and I am from Hungary, how do you see the chances of re-democratization in these countries? 

We have now a phenomenon in which several countries, governments that basically reduce the possibility of being removed by electoral means and which reduce obstacles to their policymaking, increase the discretion in the policymaking. In several countries, such governments are quite successful in mobilizing political support for their blueprints. I think some of the appeals are economic, data shows that these countries have done pretty well economically, but a lot of it, and that’s perhaps surprising and new, is purely ideological.

Moreover, I think masses of people are knowingly willing to see that their chances to remove governments by elections are being reduced and they still support those governments because they like their appeal, whether economic or, I think, mainly ideological. So, I am not optimistic. 

I’ve been working on this topic in several papers, when you see the experience of these governments, they are not so easily classified, if you take some standard variations I think only two of these governments have lost elections, one was in Sri Lanka, but that’s only because the ruling party has split, so someone who was a minister of economy removed someone who was a Prime Minister.  And the second case is the United States, where the defeat of the backsliding government was extraordinarily painful, difficult and fragile, this democracy was really hanging on the hair. So, somehow, I think that these governments have learned the political technology: they repress the NGOs, they control the media, they fight with the courts, they reduce personal freedoms and somehow they still manage to get enough support that with so many violations of rules, they stay in power. In all, either they are all going to produce disaster, and pandemic might be one of them, or they will split. These are kind of the only sources of optimism I see. I think Trump lost mainly because of the virus, I think PiS in Poland may split, but these are the only possibilities. 

Collaboration: Karen Culver, Teodora Miljojkovic, Michał Matlak

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