The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The thin line between democracy and autocracy

From David Runciman's essay on the European crisis, Will we be all right in the end?, in the LRB:

If elections are not the answer, then what explains the ability of the world’s leading democracies to survive crises, something which has been demonstrated time and again over the last century? My best guess is that their crucial advantage lies in being more politically flexible than the alternatives. That is, in a crisis democracies can experiment with autocracy but autocracies can’t experiment with democracy, not even in small doses. They daren’t, for fear of losing control. This is the real problem for the Chinese system. At some point, perhaps at some point quite soon, China’s leaders will face a critical situation in which they would be better off if they could find an outlet for popular dissatisfaction with the regime. But they will be extremely nervous of opening that door for fear of what lies behind it. So they will be stuck. Democracies can put democracy on hold and get away with it; if autocrats suspend their autocratic powers, they tend not to get them back.

That’s the good news for democracy. People who have announced that Europe’s current experiments with technocracy are a fundamental betrayal of democratic principles are being premature: it could work. But here’s the bad news: there is no guarantee that it will work. The conditions have to be right. The historical evidence suggests that democracies can be flexible only under certain circumstances. To start with, they must not be too poor. In countries where per capita GDP falls below a certain level (usually estimated at around US $7000), democratic experiments with emergency rule often end in disaster. It’s the temporary autocrats who don’t give power back. Political scientists take these thresholds very seriously. Above the line, democracies appear pretty much invulnerable, but below it, even safe-looking democracies might suddenly collapse into something worse. During the economic contraction of the mid-1970s per capita GDP in New Zealand fell perilously close to the cut-off point (it got down to about $10,000). It is hard to imagine what a military coup in 1970s New Zealand would have looked like. But it’s not impossible to imagine. And it’s certainly not hard to imagine what a military coup in 1970s Greece would have looked like.