Prone to Violence
January 7, 2006 4:38 AM   Subscribe

Prone to Violence FROM THE French Revolution to contemporary Iraq, the beginning phase of democratization in unsettled circumstances has often spurred a rise in militant nationalism. Democracy means rule by the people, but when territorial control and popular loyalties are in flux, a prior question has to be settled: Which people will form the nation? Nationalist politicians vie for popular support to answer that question in a way that suits their purposes. When groups are at loggerheads and the rules guiding domestic politics are unclear, the answer is more often based on a test of force and political manipulation than on democratic procedures.
posted by Postroad (17 comments total)
posted by docgonzo at 7:40 AM on January 7, 2006

The rapidly rising costs -- in every sense of the term -- of our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures make it increasingly imperative that the United States abandon its proclaimed policy of bringing democracy to the nations of the Middle East, whether they want it or not.

With rare exceptions, that policy of "democratic nation-building" has been unsuccessful in the past; it is unsuccessful today and is almost surely certain to be equally unproductive in the foreseeable future.

Viable democracies require the conjunction of very special material and social "enabling conditions" such as an adequate level of economic development, the absence of religious conflict, functioning government institutions and adequate levels of education, among others...

Let us turn our attention and our resources to resolving the political, social and economic problems that are threatening to undermine our democracy here at home. The way we have gone about nation building has become a bitterly divisive issue, with the contestants angrily questioning not only their opponents' character, judgment and honesty but also their very patriotism. Few things are as potentially dangerous to a democracy as that type of virulent partisanship.
Nation-building efforts doomed to fail
posted by y2karl at 8:12 AM on January 7, 2006

...History shows us that the broad electorate can be as bellicose as the most bloodthirsty tyrant. But there is a sound reason to equate democracy and peace; sadly, this argument has a fatal flaw.

The argument begins with a perfectly correct observation: decisions made by large numbers of people are more likely to be rational than decisions made by an autocratic clique. Madness may prompt a single tyrant towards war, but madness is unlikely to infect the whole electorate. This argument is perfectly true, and explains why democracy is better than autocracy.

The argument depends on the beneficent effect of random error. Within a given population there will exist a certain number of dangerous lunatics, but the delusions of lunatics are randomly distributed. One lunatic believes that the world will come to an end if spotted owls leave old-growth forests, another frets about an invasion of space aliens, and so forth. If the entire population is allowed to vote, the delusions of the various lunatics will cancel each other out, and voters with rational perceptions and real information will decide the outcome. That is why a broad and free market does a better job of setting prices than a central planning authority.

The trouble is that entire peoples frequently find themselves faced with probable or inevitable ruin, such that no peaceful solution can be found. Situations of this sort have arisen frequently in history, but never as frequently as today, when 90% of the world's languages are not expected to survive the next century. A people facing cultural extinction typically will choose war, if war offers even a slim chance of survival.

Paradoxically, it is possible for wars of annihilation to stem from rational choice, for the range of choices always must be bounded by the supposition that the chooser will continue to exist. Existential criteria, that is, trump the ordinary calculus of success and failure. If one or more of the parties knows that peace implies the end of its existence, there exists no motive to return to peace. That explains why the majority of casualties in such wars are suffered long after all hope of victory has disappeared (see More killing, please!, June 12, 2003). Democratic governments are quite capable of taking such an apocalyptic direction.

That is why Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is the Islamic world's pre-eminent democrat, telling the Islamic masses what they want to hear while the tyrants and autocrats of neighboring lands growl indistinctly through their American-made muzzles.
When self-immolation is a rational choice
posted by y2karl at 8:17 AM on January 7, 2006

See also The Failure Of Democratic Nation Building
posted by y2karl at 8:20 AM on January 7, 2006

...In Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, the veteran political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder make two critical points. Not only is turning authoritarian countries into democracies extremely difficult, much more so than the administration seems to have anticipated. The Middle East could also become a much more dangerous place if Washington and the rest of the world settle for a merely semidemocratic regime in Baghdad. Such an Iraq, Mansfield and Snyder imply, would be uncommonly likely to start wars -- a bull in the Middle Eastern china shop. Unfortunately, such an Iraq may also be just what we are likely to end up with.
Iraq and the Democratic Peace
posted by y2karl at 8:22 AM on January 7, 2006

See also
In truth, Barnett & Hilton’s description of democracy really only applies to western democracy during a few balmy decades after 1945. Those decades were closely associated with a period of unprecedented and seemingly unending economic prosperity unlimited by ecological, demographic or resource constraints; and also with a European generation that had been so scarified by the experiences of Nazism, Stalinism and the second world war that they possessed deep internal barriers to political extremism.

Neither of these factors were inherent to democracy – even to western democracy – but were historically contingent, and may well now be coming to an end. For that matter, even during those decades the picture of democracy as a defender of civil liberties and human rights did not apply to the colonial or neo-colonial wars waged by France and America in Vietnam, France in Algeria, and Britain in Kenya, any more than it does to the United States-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

What the authors mean by democracy is really liberal-pluralist, social-market democracy that possesses the ability both to generate and to redistribute wealth, a vibrant and tolerant civil society, and a judiciary that manages to combine independence from government and mob passions with the basic confidence of the people. Even where democracies or semi-democracies have existed in history before the later 19th century, they did not conform to this picture.

...Concerning the present, there are two key problems. The first is that the economic prosperity and the institutions necessary to create liberal, pluralist, social-market democracy cannot actually be generated by most of the world’s societies and economies at this time. The second is that, as Roger Scruton points out in his rejoinder to Barnett & Hilton, democracies also require at least some basic feeling of common nationhood and loyalty.

Lacking all these things, at best, these societies will produce 'democracies' that are more or less of a façade behind which something else goes on, as in most of Latin America and Africa. At worst, they will simply collapse again, as democracies have done again and again in so many countries over the years. How many times has this happened in Pakistan, for example, since 1947?
Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds
posted by y2karl at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2006

The trouble is that entire peoples frequently find themselves faced with probable or inevitable ruin, such that no peaceful solution can be found. Situations of this sort have arisen frequently in history, but never as frequently as today, when 90% of the world's languages are not expected to survive the next century. A people facing cultural extinction typically will choose war, if war offers even a slim chance of survival.

Cf. the longstanding dictum, "A language is a dialect with an army." Countries formed by agglomerations of dialects, such as Germany and Italy, still face decades of political instability.
posted by dhartung at 9:25 AM on January 7, 2006

Those are amazing articles, y2karl!

(could I ask you though to edit your excerpts a little more ruthlessly? it makes it hard to follow the thread of conversation. think of the excerpt as a teaser... either people are going to go to the link and read it, or they'll skip your posting entirely, and this is true if you post more than one paragraph too...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:30 AM on January 7, 2006

I'd say the GYOFB sentiment is indeed appropriate, docgonzo (though you should have waited a few hours).
posted by billysumday at 9:43 AM on January 7, 2006

...Most Western audiences are fundamentally uninterested in foreign news, except of the melodramatic variety. Most dramatic foreign stories, however, are tragic and disastrous. Ostensibly democratic revolutions are among the few that combine high drama with cheerful and positive emotions. By contrast, the slow unraveling of impoverished pseudo-democracies is both undramatic and highly depressing. But there is also an ideological reason. This pattern allows Western audiences and journalists to retain their pure faith that, in the Soviet phrase, "the wind of history is in our sails." It allows them to avert their eyes from the way in which the West continues to rig the terms of the international economy against developing countries, and to turn their backs on Western responsibility for providing the kind of substantial, long-term economic aid that the new democracies need.
Where have all the revolutions gone?

In regards to the kind of substantial, long-term economic aid that the new democracies need, see U.S. Has End in Sight on Iraq Rebuilding.
posted by y2karl at 10:31 AM on January 7, 2006

karl, I appreciate your enthusiasm on the subject, this is a topic that I study and am interested in, but you are spamming here, add to and enhance the conversation don't drown it. At present this thread looks like an effort in masturbation... please.... a little restraint.
posted by edgeways at 11:36 AM on January 7, 2006

I think y2karl is being praised with faint damning.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:34 PM on January 7, 2006

I was working on a post on Mansfield and Snyder's book, and, by extension, the topic of emerging democracies and their difficulties. I had collected a great of links because that's the way I post. I had the links sitting in a text document, in the process of being whittled down and, because they were pertinent to the topic, I posted them here as is.

Boy, first Smedleyman and then Postroad. In both cases, they posted on things I had been working on, in a desultory way, for weeks, if not months. Smedleyman made his post on Hugh Thompson and Postroad made this post on Mansfield and Snyder. They are both fine posts. In each case, since I wasn't not going to post the topic anymore and had all these links, I hated to see them go to waste. So I posted them as comments. I did not mean to drown the coversation. I just thought they were worthwhile links.
posted by y2karl at 9:53 PM on January 7, 2006

This post is seriously lacking petty snark, personal attacks and refutation without supporting links.

Thank you y2karl.
posted by Balisong at 12:05 AM on January 8, 2006

From y2karl above link from Anatol Lieven, International Herald Tribune "Most developing countries seem closer to the melancholy pattern of most of Latin America over the past century, of a cyclical movement between flawed democracies and ineffective dictatorships and back again - a process interspersed with numerous "people-power revolutions" that turn out to have made no real difference whatsoever. But then, Latin America is barely covered even in the serious U.S. media."
So true. So very true.
posted by adamvasco at 3:33 AM on January 8, 2006

this article has one good purpose, to demonstrate the actual tendency of a democracy; nationalism and war. what this writer forgets to include is the racist nature of nationalistic wars that often follow the emergence of democracy.

i personally prefer a non nationalist-racist dictatorship to a nationalistic-racist democracy.
posted by sundaymag at 2:30 PM on January 8, 2006

I appreciate your postings y2karl.
Please don't stop being thorough.
And a shout to postroad for a fine FPP while we're at it.

On Iraqi reconstruction and the US pullout, Gary Hart did a piece over at HuffPo asking WHY no one talks about the 14 PERMANENT military bases being built in Iraq.

I would like to pose that question myself. You'd think such a thing would attract more attention.
posted by nofundy at 7:48 AM on January 9, 2006

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