Democracy against, across, or for sovereign politics

Juho Korhonen
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

Synopsis: There is a mismatch between our analyses of democracy and its historically varied manifestations. By considering alternative cases we may discover some of the historical baggage and resulting restrictions inherent in the prevalent model for democratic politics that is reproduced through the ways in which we tend to analyze democracy.

Keywords: democracy, democratization, sovereignty, nation-states

Conventional thinking goes that democracy developed in the sovereign nations of the West and spread globally accompanied by calls for independence elsewhere. The first wave of this process began in the 19th century and culminated in the post-WWI order. In this view, democracy ebbs and flows depending on two dimensions. The first dimension is the number of separate democratic nation-states in the world, lined up one after another. It can be described as the horizontal dimension. The second dimension is vertical. It is the depth of each of the units’ democratic engagement, measured individually. Thus, for  example, Norway has a democracy score of 9.87 that can be compared to North Korea’s score of 1.08.

This division is now so fundamental to our understanding of democracy that we rarely stop to consider its historical origins and alternatives. Yet, it was only after the First World War that democracy became universally defined in this twofold manner. This set certain restrictions to the political understanding of democratization and confined it specifically to independent political units that could be measured against each other in the development of their democracies, thus originally justifying the Mandate System and continued colonial politics outside of Europe while confining democratic visions to individual states.

But, before 1919 democracy could more generally refer to political autonomy not only within but also against or across sovereign states. In such contexts democratization was mobilized differently than in its later definitions tied to nation-state sovereignty. Earlier democracies’ horizontal and vertical dimensions were not understood as necessarily separate from each other. For example, the working class could be argued to strive for democracy separate of other classes within the same sovereign state but at the same time jointly across all industrialized states. Similarly, relations between metropoles and peripheries could be thought of as part and parcel of the same process of democratization rather than as separate processes taking place in both.

Assumptions of the prevalent model

Historically, the prevalent model of democracy portrays the spread of democratic polities to have begun in the core regions of Western empires, such as the United States, France and Britain. While this included many pro-democratic movements and revolutions, the key test was seen to be the consolidation of democratic reform into lasting constitutional rule that linked earlier liberal enlightenment ideology with modern democratic governance as its manifestation. This connected democratization to other aspects of modernization. In this perspective, much like the advancement from feudalism to capitalism through successful bourgeois mobilization, the consolidation and advancement of democracy was connected to an incremental diffusion along the most progressive and developed segments of society. It began from white bourgeois males and advanced slowly to other segments that could, depending on their perceived civilizational level, partake in civil society as free actors.

Thus, democratization advanced, depending on the particular society, from propertied male or white settler suffrage, to bourgeois women and the white working classes to black, indigenous and other minorities. Democratization became a marker and proof of development. For example,a relatively recent sociological study of women’s political representation models democratization to proceed from women’s right to vote, to the right to stand for election, to women then actually becoming representatives. The measurement assumes an incremental progression from privileged to less privileged rather than a wholesale democratic process. To be democratic implies capacity and independence achieved through autonomous struggle.

Other historical models of democracy

The prevalent model does not, however, fit all cases of democratization. I take as my examples the Grand Duchy of Finland that democratized in 1905-6 under the Russian Empire and the social democratic party of the German Empire (SPD) that was hailed as the strongest and most successful of its kind before WWI.

In the Finnish case the prevalent model cannot account for democratization. The study on women’s representation mentioned above, for example, fails to accommodate an analysis of women’s rights in relation to democratization in Finland. Its measurements based on incremental democratization do not register Finland, since it adopted universal suffrage and elected female parliamentarians at one go and as a non-sovereign polity. Finland democratized to secure its non-sovereign status, not its independence. Therefore, studies of democratization’s global progression only incorporate Finland starting from the beginning of its sovereign independence in 1919 (for example Bilinsky 2018, Tilly 2007), despite the fact that historically democratization was not connected with sovereign independence in this case.

Whereas the SPD case has been subject to a different sort of misunderstanding of democratization. Retrospective analyses have focused on their successes and failures in relation to national metropolitan politics. However, democratization efforts of the German socialists were directed not for but against the sovereignty of the German state. Historian Geoff Eley, for example has described how the socialists’ power hinged upon the connection they drew between democratic politics in the parliament and non-democratic politics on the street:

“By the last third of the 20th century, the whole raison d’être of the party became reduced downwards into fighting an election, winning an election, keeping itself in office, or getting back there. But the classic slogan of the SPD left before the First World War had been Durch das Fenster reden (“Speak through the Window!”), i.e.. use the parliamentary chamber as an opportunity to challenge the given rules and boundaries of the politically possible by addressing the people outside, and thereby overcome the gap between the committee room and the street.”

Furthermore, an in-depth look into the central debates of the SPD reveals that what was argued about were the strategic dimensions of democratization that could best overcome the restrictions that sovereignty set to democratic politics. One of the key points then was the role of colonial politics vis-à-vis democratic socialism. For example, for Rosa Luxemburg parliamentary politics revealed the clash of class development and global politics of militarism and colonialism and led her to argue for democratization against the grain of power rather than along it. Together with figures such as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein she shifted the debate away from whether or not the extra-parliamentary dimensions of the German empire mattered for metropolitan politics and democracy to how they mattered, thus traversing the horizontal and vertical dichotomy of the prevalent model.

In both the German and Finnish cases eventual nation-state independence redefined democratic politics to happen within otherwise sovereign units, not against or across them.

Keeping an eye out for non-sovereign democratization

Democratic politics at the turn of the 20th century and the model used by democratization research are mismatched. The two cases discussed do not fit the current model, nor do many other historical examples, such as the Haitian or Ottoman cases.

The categories and understandings in use today are not made to describe and analyze all dimensions of democracy but rather spring from one definition that achieved hegemony after WWII, yet they tend to actively hide from sight forms of democracy that are not married to nation-state sovereignty. This may increasingly affect global politics today. What the reflection of historical alternatives shows is that attention should be paid to the distinction between what are the real limits of democracy and what are the limits set by our understanding and definitions. We should be careful not to discard as unsuccessful those alternatives that do not fit our analytical models and forms of measurement. This becomes increasingly important with challenges to the monopoly of the nation-state as the container of democratic politics and the crises of the international liberal order as its guarantor. We need to develop sensibilities to recognize, analyze, theorize and support democratic efforts outside its prevalent assumptions to counter anti-democratic challenges moored in the nation-states’ power.

This article is based on the author’s recent doctoral dissertation at Brown University titled Empire, Democracy, State, and Nation: Sociological Occlusions of the German and Russian Empires (2019).

Photo by sasan rashtipour on Unsplash

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