Limits of democratisation. Two roots of the current political misery

By Ralf Wetzel, Professor of Organisation and Management at Vlerick Business School

Rwanda. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan. Libya. Egypt. And Syria. And Iraq again. The number of failed modern political interventions is legion. Successful examples are the rare exceptions. There are few worth mentioning, except certainly post-war Germany or post-Apartheid South Africa. How come? People trying to understand malfunctioning or even ‘failing’ states tend to make two fundamental mistakes, mostly by ignoring the conditions of societal intervention in the modern world.

The three forms of societal evolution

It would be moot to state that societal conditions and the level of development around the globe differ considerably. The fundamental difference, beyond differences in commercial wealth, political participation, or educational inclusion, is the state of societal evolution. This term is understood here in the way the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann developed it in the second half of the 20th century. According to his extensive work on societal evolution and differentiation, we know three distinct forms of societal differentiation: a.) a peripheral society which distinguishes between a centre and its periphery, b.) between above and below, forming a stratified order, and c.) between different functional domains, like the economy, politics, or education in modern society. Such centre|periphery-based societies arose in the very early days of social evolution, when different tribes began operating in limited spatial conditions, fully reliant on physical co-presence and interaction. Ancient Greece or medieval Europe can figure as examples of above|below-centered societies, in which different social strata (slaves|craftsmen|nobility), the parallel hierarchy of religion, and the overall dominance of a religion (the temporal expression of a presumed divine will) determined the social world. Latest with the 18th century in Europe and North America especially, a new form of societal differentiation occurred, which is the so-called functionally differentiated society. Here, the ranking of different social strata has been replaced by the appearance of different societal domains, such as the economy, politics, education, or science. Religion stepped down from its eminent place as a primary and distinguished observer of society and became one amongst many functional milieus. Since then, Western modern society has lost its foundations of a hierarchical nature.

Functionalism as the precondition of modern democracy

The current political ambition that modern democracy could hold sway as the governing principle of today’s world results from a terrible overestimation of its applicability. Originally born under highly specific and improbable conditions in one specific stratum of ancient Greek society, its first manifestation disappeared alongside the political and societal context that gave birth to it. It reoccurred as the political outcome of the Renaissance ending the medieval order in Europe, when Europe’s societies shifted their constituent principle from stratification to functionalization. Both economic and political communication separated from and challenged the religious primary, visible in the tectonic shifts in the political landscape between the 15th and 17th century. Religion lost substantial societal impact and parties and enterprises appeared independent from any religious roots. Democracy became a core program for the system of politics in the first impactful modern nations in Europe, like England or France, later on the ascendant in North American state building ventures. The success of democracy was grounded in its ability to adapt to the call for broad participation of individuals in these societies. If there had not been society-wide political communication, resting on the call for participation and inclusion, there would have been no democracy. Democracy became the modus vivendi of modern societal politics.

The modern relevance of organisations

With the functionalisation of society, another social system launched its extraordinarily successful career: the formal organisation. Already used to great effect in local projects such as dam construction, in armies, and in religious orders, the sheer number of organisations exploded while the stratified society of yore disappeared. Since the general stability of stratified societies was replaced by modern ambiguity and individual uncertainty resulting from the heterogenisation of modern society, organisations stepped in to fill its place. The temporal hierarchy of organisations could serve the need of stability and provide clarity, temporal goals, and individual inclusion. Formal administration became the backbone of nation building, and formal procedures guaranteed the application of democratic principles. Furthermore, organisations have become the core and almost single means of modern society to intervene in itself. Political and economic intervention is basically less about the injection of materiel, overwhelming numbers of soldiers, or developmental aids. It is about an organisation (government, enterprise, army, NGO, United Nations, whatever) intervening in another organisation (government, army, company, school) or another social system (economy, education politics, or quasi-systems like nations or networks). There is nothing left to use but organisations. We have ‘unlearned’ other means. Accordingly, the form of democracy we know today is fate-bound to the principal conditions of modern Western societies, which are functionalisation and organisationalisation.

The pre-modernity of intervened nations

A quick look at the constitution of the ‘nations’ that form the targets of modern intervention reveals that these preconditions of modern democracy do not hold true there. Without any exception, we find stratified or even peripheral societies in which the implementation of a Western kind of democracy lacks all prerequisites and, in very generic terms, is not meaningful. The cognitive horizon of these societies is bound to their form of societal differentiation as much as modern Western society is bound to its own. Literally, implementing democracy does not make sense for pre-modern societies, since the general notion of and emphasis on heteronomy, equality, and individuality is simply not given and has no anchor in the societies’ constitution (as the implementation of pre-modern regulatory means would not hold under modern conditions). Democracy, in short, is unusable, and the attempt to implement such a political and highly organized program astonishingly naïve. Furthermore, the organisation-based style of intervention is inappropriate as well. Different societal constitutions are based on different forms of intervention, and intervening by means of organisations in a society unused to organisations cannot hope to lead to the intended effects.

And now? About functional equivalences

Clearly, the West has been too self-assured in assuming that a modern technology to produce collectively binding decisions could be applied under circumstances which lack the essential preconditions. And it has been astonishingly ignorant to the point that political interventions by means of organisations will not take hold, since there are almost no organisations to intervene in. The agenda now has to be to look for functional equivalences of democracy, which could stabilize the societies in question and which could provide a link to modern conditions of decision-making and participation. An equivalent stand for a program which could create collectively binding decisions (like democracy does to modern nations), however, must acknowledge the different societal constitution. This search will be painful, since Western values and myths like equality and individualism will not be mirrored by whatever it reveals. To bring these values by modern, Western means to pre-modern societies is a vain illusion. There is no other way than to acknowledge the fundamental difference of pre-modern societies first, to accept a fundamental distinction in terms of the values and aspirations on the other side, and to check what is possible in the development of both (arrogant) modern and (ignorant) pre-modern societies in their co-evolution. Local wars will certainly be a constant and almost unavoidable part of this pain. Let’s face it, this pain won’t go away easily.  

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