As predicted, the fate of the “Arab Spring” democracies is leaving much to be desired. Liberal societies can simply not arise from illiberalism and the alternative is, and has always been, to either have secular, authoritarian, pro-Western elites or Islamist, populist, unreliable governments. Between liberal dictatorship and Islamist democracy, the choice is a dilemma.
What makes the choice more difficult is that it is also one between civil rights and political freedoms. In all of last year’s Arab revolutions, the observed constant was ethnic or ideological majorities politicizing the Mediterranean spillover of the Western financial crisis in order to unseat minority regimes. In Tunisia, the Islamists removed the secularists. The same happened in Egypt. In Bahrain, the Shia majority tried to overthrow a Sunni regime; vice versa in Syria, and in Libya there was no majority to be had.
This is nothing new as the same happened in previous waves of revolution around the Europe: the nationalist masses took over from communist intellectuals as well as ethnic minorities (Russians in the Baltic) during the Velvet and Color Revolutions. In both Georgia and the Ukraine the ethnic cores attempted to liberalize the regime against the wishes of Russian-supported minorities (Ossetians, Abkhazians, Russians). The phenomenon could be easily mistaken for democratization were it not for the absence of a democratic tradition in these societies. It means rather that tyrannical majorities are actually the more likely outcome in the medium term.
This tends to take place not as a cause of higher proportions of ethnic diversity in the south but due to a fundamental discrepancy of cultural mentality between those polities where the Atlantic Revolutions took hold and those where they did not.
The emphasis on individual rights has come from Northern Europe where climate and weather have shaped the culture into giving primacy to the responsibility of the individual citizen rather than family or clan ties. Isolation and harsh weather make for an overall absence of agricultural goods and easy means of communication which, in turn, provides incentives for nuclear family and individual means of production rather than family or community enterprise.
The Dutch historian Geert Hofstede explains that in a culture that promotes early ethical and financial independence for its youths, the demand for a just and universally uniform judicial and political system is all the greater since stability is perceived to rely on equal treatment of any given member of society.
In the more southern societies however, climate and weather favor those groupings that manage to accumulate as many resources as possible and rise as high as possible in social status rather than generating these on an individual basis. The same applies to social formality with the system being basic and nondeferential in the north and the opposite in the south.
Jacques Maritain, who is held as the father of Christian democracy, did not himself advocate individual rights but defended a communitarian morality that prevented infringement on natural or divine rights. It is a semicollectivist definition of the term which was avowedly illiberal from its very onset.
Concurrently, Christian democracy established itself in Nordic countries with some difficulty. In Sweden, for instance, the Christian Democrats only emerged in the mid 1960s and unlike their Catholic brethren throughout Europe who spanned their roots to the nineteenth century, and dominated one side of the political aisle, they had only residual presence in parliament until the 1990s when they first emerged as a mainstream party — and only after having shed restrictive stances on individual rights such as opposition to abortion and emphasized more liberal aspects of their programs instead, such as financial deregulation.
Tyrannical majority is not exclusively a problem of civil rights and political freedoms but one of economic rights too, as the financial crisis has revealed.
One of the main reasons for the economic collapse of Europe’s Mediterranean belt has been the overcommitment of state budgets to poverty alleviation and social development to the point that it nearly bankrupted states in the region. Investments in education, health care and social security need not be unsustainable if applied efficiently and proportionately to those who need it most. Instead, the stress on universality has been a ploy which ultimately benefited the middle-class majority in the Mediterranean member states. The lower classes have not been risen from poverty and under the cumbersome load of the demographic majority, state welfare is crumbling under its own weight in such a way that the entirety of these nations will be left worse off.
The distortion of the democratic system is not just a consequence of corruption or mismanagement; it is a consequence of the unsuitable adaptation of an individualist system to a society that isn’t. Unlike what the authors of the “Nordic Way” report presented in Davos last year believe, social equality is not likely to be successful if promoted top-down artificially through state spending means.
Northern European societies did not start out with a corrupt mafia culture which exercises economic promiscuity between the state apparatus and civil society, nor did they start out with a collectivist mindset later ethically individualized through the action of intellectual elites. While economically poor, the mentality and work ethics of northern societies were already in place when the Industrial Revolution changed the European demographic landscape toward urban values based economics. Anonymity, individual initiative and self-reliance were values inherent to Protestant societies, including Scandinavia, and that is the very circumstantial reason why their adaptation to the industrial age happened quickly and successfully. The rural agriculture based models of development of old, on the other hand, were more suitable to southern societies.
The conclusion, then, is that democratic decisionmaking based on consensus and backed by a vibrant civil society, be it in the economic or political realm, has not been a hallmark of societies whereupon democracy has been transplanted since the beginning of the twentieth century. A global financial crisis affects all but it is those whose political system is the most dysfunctional that will be confronted with structural challenges to stability and growth and not simply contextual readjustments.
Be it in Southern Europe or the southern Mediterranean, be it financial debility or political instability, the tyranny of the majority observed makes it clear that the democratic transformation attempted has been left incomplete and that it distorts rule of law and civil liberties. Middle class hijacking of the welfare state and Islamist primacy over the rule of law are the logical conclusion of a process that is flawed by the original sin of social and political universalism.
Those proposing governance reform would do well to take into account that technological evolution and civilizational change happen outside the purview of national politicians and benefit unintentionally and incidentally certain societies. The macroeconomic forces in question are outside anyone’s control and reforms need to take into account the particular strengths and weaknesses of the society in question rather than attempting to exercise social engineering into eradicating them.