Democracy and Globalisation
Robert Skidelsky
Moscow School for Political Studies | Tuesday, July 29, 2003

1. In Russia there is no tradition of democracy. The rule of the tsars was autocratic.This was followed by seventy years of communism. Democracy, as we understand it, only started with Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yeltsin was the first freely elected ruler of Russia. This was less than 10 years ago. In no other European country has democracy come so late.
2. Today it seems almost inconceivable that the clock will be turned back all the way. At the same time, there has not been enough time for democracy to strike deep roots. According to opinion surveys produced by Richard Pipes at the seminar last week, 50% of Russians thought multiparty elections were a waste of time. Only 8% said they would actively fight a Bolshevik coup, and 50% said they would either support a Communist regime or collaborate with it. Civil society remains weak. Acts of civic courage are exceptional.The police do almost what they want with little protest even from the victims. There is no independent television or judiciary.People do what they are told, and accept what they do not like.
3. So the best thing I thought I could do this morning is to open a discussion about the value of democracy, and the connection between democracy and what is happening in the world today -in economics and in international relations.
4. I want to explain,first of all, what I mean by democracy. Democracy is above all a device for holding rulers regularly and peacefully to account for their actions.Presidents and Prime Ministers govern in the shadow of being dismissed by the voters, and replaced by rivals. I emphasise the words 'regularly' and 'peacefully'. All systems of rule are accountable in the end. Imperial rule in ancient Rome has been described as 'depotism qualified by assassination'.Autocrats are frequently removed by coups and popular uprisings. But these mechanisms are erratic and usually bloody. Democracy is simply a better way.
5.For democracy to do its job, three things are required. First, there have to be political parties able to offer attractive alternatives and mobilise voters behind them. That is why our system of democracy is called 'multiparty' democracy. In Russia, there is no real multiparty democracy -only the President's Party and an unelectable Communist party.The so-called democratic parties are weak, badly led, and divided.They have difficulty in passing the 5% threshold necessary to get them into the Duma.
6. Secondly, democracy cannot work without a free press, radio, and television. Information is the lifeblood of democracy.It is what makes possible the disclosure of alternatives to the existing state of affairs, and publicises the abuse of power. It was Karl Marx, I think, who said 'Knowledge is power'.Despots always try to control the flow of information. Russia always had censorship, and today lacks a free media as we understand it in the West.
7. Leadership is also important, though many democracies manage to do well enough without outstanding leaders for long periods of time. What are the qualities of democratic leadership?
8. I don't want to leave the subject without pointing to two other vital constituents of the Western tradition of democracy. The first is constitutionalism. By constitutionalism, I mean two things: first that power is not all concentrated in one place; secondly, that rulers, are subject to the law, which is enforced by an independent judiciary. We believe that government activity should be subject to continual scrutiny. In England, when governments seem to be acting improperly, we do not leave it till the next election to get rid of them. We demand an independent public enquiry -a quasi-judicial investigation, usually headed by a judge. We must always remember that in Western democracies it is not the will of the people which is supreme: it is the constitution. Let me give you an example from England. The Queen does not rule, it is the Prime Minister and the Government. But if the Prime Minister and Government decide to do something unconstitutional -like, for example, rule without Parliament, the Queen can,and I think, would dismiss them from office.
9. The other constituent element of Western democracy is civil society. This is a modern phrase for an old idea, which is simply that democracy is a form of activity,and not just a passive choice between different sets of rulers. Political parties are elements of civil society, but all voluntary organisations which exist to promote some public purpose or other are part of civil society.A democracy which lacks strong civic organisations is a weak thing, easily deceived and manipulable by skilful rulers.
10. Let me sum up. I am a democrat not because I believe the people have all the wisdom.They are frequently foolish,and almost always ignorant. I am a democrat because I believe that democracy -the kind of democracy I have described -offers the only long run defence of liberty and protection of private property. None of the other mechanisms I have described for checking arbotrary rule would survive long without the right to remove rulers from power if they abuse that power.Liberty can never be taken for granted. Most rulers hate any check on their discretionary power. But without democracy liberty would have vanished long ago.
11. The case for democracy is so strong, that I want to consider two arguments for it which, are often used, but which I do not think are valid. The first is that democracy is good for economic growth. We can consider this both empirically and theoretically. Empirically, the evidence is far from conclusive. Which have been the fastest growing countries in the last 20 years? Undoubtedly, those of East Asia, including China. None of them were democracies for most of that time-China is not a democracy today. This does not mean that dictatorship is good for economic development: only that there is no strong correlation either way. A few years ago, some people in Russia were advocating a Pinochet type government to stimulate economic growth here. This was always rubbish, though I have heard it advocated at this School.
12. From the theoretical point of view, the argument can go either way.A constitutional system, based on popular consent, is best at raising taxes, and so securing for itself a reliable revenue stream, which is the basis of a government's ability to borrow to finance its expenditure.This follows the old British maxim: 'No taxation without representation'. More generally, the less arbitrary the system of rule, the better it is for investment, both domestic and foreign, and therefore for economic growth. On the other hand, democracy encourages redistributionary politics, since most societies, even developed ones, have large inequalities of wealth and income.Carried beyond a certain point such policies are bad for economic growth. So a balance has to be struck between economic growth and legitimacy, even though up to a point they support each other.
13. The second argument for democracy, much in favour, these days is that democracy is the peaceful form of the state, dictatorship the warlike form.'Democracies' we are told 'never go to war with each other'. Therefore a world of democracies will be a much more peaceful world than a world of dictatorships, or a world in which there are both dictatorships and democracy. Indeed, for the Bush Administration in America, dictatorships are 'rogue' states which pose an inherent threat to world peace.Since a peaceful world is also the condition of economic integration between countries, dictatorships are a threat to globalisation. Therefore they should be liquidated as soon as possible, by force if necessary, and democracies put in their place. Obviously this kind of reasoning justified the pre-emptive war against Iraq.
14. The underlying argument, which has a long history, is that the people are naturally peaceful,and rulers, unless controlled by the people, naturally warlike, because inherently illegitimate. They therefore seek domestic popularity by stirring up hatred against foreigners. Therefore the stronger the influence of voters on rulers, the more peaceful state policy will be.
15. This proposition, as you can see, is based on the argument that people are naturally peaceful. I would suggest that a great deal of history suggests otherwise. On the other side, dictators may be warlike or they may be peaceful. Franco was a peaceful dictator. Tito was a dictator who held his country together: it was the beginning of democracy which led to its bloody civil wars. People when inflamed by nationalism or religious passion can be far more bloodthirsty than their rulers.
16. The truth seems to be that democracies are neither more nor less aggressive than dictatorships. There are types of democracies which rarely go to war, and I suspect there are types of dictatorships which never do so. It would be interesting to classify types of regimes on a scale of 'warlikeness'. I'm not at all sure we would find democracies at the zero end of the scale.
17. The main point I want to make about democracy and globalisation is that the mentality and policies associated with ridding the world of dictators or the 'war against terrorism' are opposite to those associated with globalisation . When security issues dominate, open frontiers become a threat not an opportunity. We already see the tightening up of controls over the movement of people and money, in the new emphasis on controlling strategic supplies like oil, in risinfg defence budgets.
18. Paradoxically, the more intent the international community on fighting terrorism the weaker the chances of democracy in Russia. In the past, the logic of the power state has always been strong enough to stifle weak liberalising forces. Globalisation provides the best contexst for the democratisation of Russia. A serious check to globalisation is the best context for the reassertion of autocracy.