Chicken or egg: democracy vs economic growth – case Thailand

With 2011, a wave of unrest descended upon the MENA. What became later known as “Arab Spring“ represented a ragged set of uprisings throughout MENA countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. The vision of those uprisings was but one, at least initially, as it could be heard on every street and square, shouted or screamed from mouths young and old. Freedom. Democracy.

Some of those uprisings turned ugly (civil war in Libya and Syria), others (Tunisia, Egypt) ushered in what many reformers/revolutionaries believed to be a new era.

Freedom, democracy. Of course, those high-pitched and loaded terms are as cliché by now, without much merit nor substance, rallying slogans for disillusioned and ignorant. What people really meant, or needed to mean, was “better life standards,“ “more and secure jobs“ (on social/personal level) and “economic growth“ (on national level).

Another cliché/stereotype associates democracy and economic growth. Many think that those two are interchangeable, i.e. occurrence of one will automatically imply or cause the other. Then there is “modernization theory,” predominant since the late 1950s onward, and which claimed that middle and other aspiring classes created by industrial capitalism would necessarily (and eventually) bring about accountable and democratic governments. Reality is less obvious that this foregone and simplistic conclusion.

Why so? There is an easily spotted pattern, in which democracies usually are among the economically developed countries. However, the paths to democracy are varied. One is tempted to think that lack of economic stability or growth, which implies increasing poverty levels, will trap societies in a vicious political circle of dictatorial reign and economic deterioration. While bonds of poverty cannot be dismissed, they are not inexorable. Countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malta and Greece went from utter poverty into spectacular growth, some as much as quadrupling their per capita incomes. Dictatorships bloomed in Taiwan and Singapore during the entire and South Korea during most of this period of drastic economic transition and growth. Only Japan and Malta remained democratic throughout their respective periods of economic growth, and Portugal as well as Greece tattered between democracy and dictatorship, while growing economically.

There is no predictable pattern, but once a democracy is established, its survival depends on a few factors. Foremost among them is the level of economic development.

Let’s have a closer analysis of how a democracy caused an economic depression, with a study of Thailand’s recent history.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, nations from Indonesia to the Philippines embarked on their own democratic transitions, not unlike the 2011 Arab Spring. In Thailand, hundreds of thousands (middle class) came out into the streets of Bangkok in 1992 to bring down a military government. They wanted democracy and freedom. Thailand boasted a large, educated middle class, one of the best-performing economies in the world, and a relatively robust civil society. By the late 1990s, Thailand had held several free elections and passed a reformist constitution that enshrined greater protections for civil liberties and created a wealth of new institutions designed to ensure civil rights.

However, the “reformist“ frenzy started cooling off in the late 1990s, as many leading Thai reformers, who were behind the protests in 1992, backed off. They believed that Thailand had passed a threshold (of transition to democracy and economic growth), and as a result, many NGOs, media watchdogs, and organizations that were instrumental during and in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 uprising closed down. It only helped, with dawn of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, to put many of those idealistic-minded middle-class reformers into unemployment, making it even harder for them to spend time volunteering at organizations dedicated to reforms.

As Thai reformers slowly drifted off, a telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra used his fortune to build a political party. He bought up politicians to join his party. To soften the blow and an at the same time trying to appeal to the larger part of the Thai society, the poor, Thaksin initiated a well-thought combination of entrepreneurial inducement and grassroots empowerment projects, including inexpensive health care schemes and loans to villages to start businesses.

In 2001, Thaksin became the elected PM, and showed little love for democracy. He used his power to threaten Thailand’s free media, eviscerate its independent civil service, and launch a campaign against insurgents in the Muslim south. He rewarded political allies and punished political enemies. In 2005, Thaksin was reelected, again with massive support from the poor, and largely thanks to the lackluster opposition of the Thai middle classes, which by then had grown disillusioned with democracy, believing it had delivered only elected autocracy. The reaction was prompt. Another row of street protests in 2006, whereby Thai middle class once again took to streets, hoping to topple the elected (autocratic) government. The result was a military coup of 2006. Thaksin fled into exile.

The military coup triggered an economic meltdown. Thaksin might have damaged the country’s weak democracy, but the military ruined it. It shredded the reformist constitution and set the stage for today’s Thai government, which unleashed massive force against demonstrators who gathered in the streets of Bangkok in spring 2010.

Thaksin is once more back to the country, in a proxy way, via the elections favoring his sister’s party and her as a PM.

How to avoid a similar democracy failure in MENA?  It is essential to create and keep independent government watchdogs, new and independent press outlets. Introduction of government policies to reduce economic inequalities is also vital, allowing an increasing transition from low to middle class. Lastly, while a charismatic (or not so much) leader is a good focal point for rallying reformists, a more important and longer-term reform is to induce a knowledge economy and infrastructure facilitating foreign investment and (especially foreign-owed) property rights/protection.

is democracy bad for growth?

Why did China outperform India?

“Shanghai Theory of Economic Growth”

  • Infrastructures
  • Strong government
  • State capitalism and government ownership
  • Democracy is a hindrance to growth

It is neither infrastructure (Soviet Union vs China before 1989) nor strong government (Pakistan vs India by 2008) nor state capitalism (success of Korea, Singapore vs failures Burma and DPRK).

So why did China so systematically outperform India even during its Cultural Revolution?

China’s greatest advantage over India was basic education (literacy rate – to read/write 1500 Chinese characters vs write your name in any Indian language you happen to speak) whereas India focused heavily on tertiary education instead.

what bee hives and ants can teach about democracy and common good

When spring comes, bee hives divide into two, one group staying in, the other looking for new home. It’s not the queen assigning “home-searching scouts” but older bees. Scouts fly off looking for places and announce their finds by special dance moves, describing routes to their finds – more dancing for better spots.

Similarly for ants. A leaderless, self-directing society that expands democratically and which communicates/transmits messages using pheromone.

Our politicians/businessmen  can learn from bees/ants/…:

  • Don’t be die-hard/fanatic about your choices/finds
  • Focus on your responsibilities
  • Forget politics
  • Listen to/consider your peers
  • Let bygones be bygones

The real message of Žižek

Who is Slavoj Žižek? According to the following excellent article, he is the Magician of Ljubljana.

Intellectuals possess a special kind of power. Unlike politicians, generals, or corporate bosses, they lack both the authority and the ability to impose their will directly on others. They must therefore rely on “symbolic capital,” a term the historian Shlomo Zand of Tel Aviv University explains this way:

The power of their presence in the consciousness of their colleagues, or in wider public circles, is what establishes their status. As an offshoot, their power source is predominantly the symbolic prestige capital they accumulate. This capital, in many ways similar to financial capital, is obviously not a “thing,” but an attitude. To a certain extent it may be said that the thought patterns of consumers of intellectual output are the banks in which this precious capital is accumulated. This symbolic power can be measured in academic degrees, in prizes, in the extent of mentions and attributions, in the number of publications, and in many other practices routinely employed in the stock exchange of respect and acclamation.1

By these standards, it is safe to say that a sizable quantity of “symbolic capital” is today concentrated in the hands of Slavoj Žižek, philosopher, cultural commentator, and abounding wordsmith. Since the 1989 publication of his first book in English, Žižek, a senior researcher in the faculty of social sciences at Ljubljana University, has become the hot name of the Western intellectual scene. His books, translated into dozens of languages, have earned near-unanimous acclaim: The New Yorker crowned him an “international star” and credited him with putting his mother country, Slovenia, on the world map of ideas.2 Sarah Kay, professor of French literature at the University of Cambridge and author of a critical introduction to Žižek’s work, maintains that his enormous influence on the humanities and social sciences is reminiscent of the profound impression made by French thinker Michel Foucault on these academic disciplines during the seventies and eighties.3 And Glyn Daly, a senior lecturer in politics at University College, Northampton, who published a book of conversations with Žižek, describes him as “the philosophical equivalent of a virulent plague.”4 For its part, The Chronicle of Higher Education employed a slightly less ominous metaphor to describe the unique status of the Slovenian theoretician: “Žižek,” it writes, “is the Elvis of cultural theory.”5

What would be the kind of associations that spring into mind after reading this short para? Humanitarian, egalitarian,  democracy-loving, modern-minded?

His numerous books and articles, many of which are internationally acclaimed bestsellers, leave a different impression, but only to a very attentive and intellectual reader. Below are few excerpts from a shrewd analysis of his works. In the first instance, it is important to remember how he manipulates his “dialectical reversal” to free himself of self-contradiction and mould smoothly the disagreements between his thoughts and notions into the accepted modern discourse of humanism, democracy and capitalism.

It also provides a fine illustration of the sort of dialectical reversal that is Zizek’s favorite intellectual stratagem, and which gives his writing its disorienting, counterintuitive dazzle. Torture, which appears to be un-American, is pronounced to be the thing that is most American. It follows that the legalization of torture, far from barbarizing the United States, is actually a step toward humanizing it. According to the old Marxist logic, it heightens the contradictions, bringing us closer to the day when we realize, as Zizek writes, that “universal human rights” are an ideological sham, “effectively the rights of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market and exploit workers and women.”

Nor does Zizek simply condemn Al Qaeda’s violence as “horrifying.” Fundamentalist Islam may seem reactionary, but “in a curious inversion,” he characteristically observes, “religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance.” And the whole premise of Violence, as of Zizek’s recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence. “Everything is to be endorsed here,” he writes in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, “up to and including religious ‘fanaticism.'”

His numerous pronunciations on violence are more appalling than merely representing a “different perspective”:

The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror–especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes–the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”

Among other feats, Žižek is renowned for his genuine mixture of philosophy and psychoanalysis from one side and pop-culture and consumerism from the other. One of his touchstone messages is based on the famous movie Matrix, where Neo is revealed the reality by the phrase “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” the namesake of which has become a book by Žižek.

But Zizek is not an empiricist, or a liberal, and he has another answer. It is that capitalism is the Matrix, the illusion in which we are trapped.

This, of course, is merely a flamboyant sci-fi formulation of the old Marxist concept of false consciousness. “Our ‘freedoms,'” Zizek writes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, “themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.” This is the central instance in Zizek’s work of the kind of dialectical reversal, the clever anti-liberal inversion, that is the basic movement of his mind. It could hardly be otherwise, considering that his intellectual gods are Hegel and Lacan–masters of the dialectic, for whom reality never appears except in the form of the illusion or the symptom.

This sacerdotal notion of intellectual authority makes both thinkers essentially hostile to democracy, which holds that the truth is available in principle to everyone, and that every individual must be allowed to speak for himself. Zizek, too, sees the similarity–or, as he says, “the profound solidarity”–between his favorite philosophical traditions. “Their structure,” he acknowledges, “is inherently ‘authoritarian’….term “authoritarian” is not used here pejoratively.

But to know what is worth struggling for, you need theories about struggle. Only if you have already accepted the terms of the struggle–in Zizek’s case, the class struggle–can you move on to the struggling theory that teaches you how to fight. In this sense, Zizek the dialectician is at bottom entirely undialectical. That liberalism is evil and that communism is good is not his conclusion, it is his premise; and the contortions of his thought, especially in his most political books, result from the need to reconcile that premise with a reality that seems abundantly to indicate the opposite.

Hence the necessity of the Matrix, or something like it, for Zizek’s worldview. And hence his approval of anything that unplugs us from the Matrix and returns us to the desert of the real–for instance, the horrors of September 11.

What is then the essence of his message?

Zizek endorses one after another of the practices and the values of fascism, but he obstinately denies the label.

“To be clear and brutal to the end,” he sums up, “there is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering’s reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: ‘In this city, I decide who is a Jew!’… In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency.”

And his views on Jews?

In Zizek’s telling, that relationship is sickeningly familiar. Invoking Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, Zizek asserts that Judaism harbors a “‘stubborn attachment’ … to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement.” Thanks to this Jewish stubbornness, he continues, “the Jews did not give up the ghost; they survived all their ordeals precisely because they refused to give up the ghost.” This vision of Judaism as an undead religion, surviving zombie-like long past the date of its “natural” death, is taken over from Hegel, who writes in the Phenomenology of Mind about the “fatal unholy void” of this “most reprobate and abandoned” religion. This philosophical anti-Judaism, which appears in many modern thinkers, including Kant, is a descendant of the Christian anti-Judaism that created the figure of the Wandering Jew, who also “refused to give up the ghost.”

“What makes Nazism repulsive,” he writes, “is not the rhetoric of a final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it.” Perhaps there is supposed to be some reassurance for Jews in that sentence; but perhaps not. For in In Defense of Lost Causes, again paraphrasing Badiou, Zizek writes: “To put it succinctly, the only true solution to the ‘Jewish question’ is the ‘final solution’ (their annihilation), because Jews … are the ultimate obstacle to the ‘final solution’ of History itself, to the overcoming of divisions in all-encompassing unity and flexibility.”

What do we make of him? His views leave no room but to call him fascist. His witty, cultured, flirting and half-joking ways conceal his real message, not unlike the real message of Plato‘s Republic and the way it was and is still understood: completely the opposite, as can be seen from an enlightening analysis of Karl Popper in his (properly named)  “Open Society and its Enemies: Spell of Plato“.

From the second hot war into Cold War

May 1945. The WW2 was over.

The shattered financial and industrial worlds were given band-aid remedies in guise of Bretton-Woods (giving birth to IBRD, World Bank and IMF). Soon enough, few new states emerged (Israel), few split apart (India and Pakistan) and in few, liberal discontents led the way eventually winding up with democratic governments (Egypt).

One socialist regime, based on narrow-minded dogmatic doctrines, emerged from WW2 as one of the two strongest nations in the world. This nation had not only a large conventional military base, but was also in the middle of developing its own nuclear weapons (first tested in 1949).

The other victor of WW2 became a superpower not least due to the war itself. It advocated neatly idealistic doctrines, had a constitution spelling out loud the commitment to highest social and moral values, respect for human dignity and equality and adherence to human rights and law.

The first General Assembly of the United Nations met in London in January 1946, and created the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. Part of their charge was to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction, including the atomic bomb.

America’s first effort to define a policy on the control of atomic energy was Acheson-Lilienthal report (1946). Its premise was that there should be an international “Atomic Development Authority” which would have worldwide monopoly over the control of “dangerous elements” of the entire spectrum of atomic energy. Drawing heavily on the information in the report, the US proposal (July 1, 1946) to the United Nations on international controls on nuclear material (named the Baruch Plan) was presented. It called for the establishment of an international authority to control potentially dangerous atomic activities, license all other atomic activities, and carry out inspections.

The Soviets rejected the Baruch Plan, since it would have left America with a decisive nuclear superiority until the details of the Plan could be worked out and would have stopped the Soviet nuclear program. They responded by calling for universal nuclear disarmament. In the end, the UN adopted neither proposal. Seventeen days after Baruch presented his plan to the UN, the US conducted the world’s first postwar nuclear test. Two atomic tests – code named “Operation Crossroads” – were conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. These tests explored the effects of airborne and underwater nuclear explosions on ships, equipment, and material. Almost 100 surplus and captured ships were used as targets, including the Japanese battleship Nagato (flagship of the attack on Pearl Harbor). These tests were witnessed by hundreds of politicians and international observers, and 42,000 military and scientific personnel. The two bombs used in Crossroads were identical in design and yield to the bomb used on Nagasaki. Crossroads put pressure on Soviets to pour significant amounts of money into research and development of their nuclear arsenal.

This is how the Cold War started. It had two main axes, which were usually typified by one or some of following doublets:

USSR took on the challenge and a nuclear arms race, which became the determinant factor during the next 50 years, ensued. Nuclear race was followed and paralleled by development of strategic triad by Americans. This race got a new spatial dimension, when Soviets launched the Sputnik into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957. John F. Kennedy, despite his short tenure as American president, made few speeches, which resulted in creation of, among others, Peace Corps, and first (American) landing on the moon. As  crucial ideological battle against oppression, McCarthyism became a prominent movement, a sort of a “witch hunt” for communists and communist sympathizers inside America.

As Marx’s tenets had instructed, communism did not stay home; it had be to spread worldwide to achieve utopia. Some countries had adopted communism to help realize that goal, including Warsaw Pact nations, Yugoslavia (1945 – 1992), DPRK (1954 – present), Yemen (1969 – 1990), Somalia (1969 – 1991), Cambodia (1975 -1989). The communist governments in all of these countries (except DPRK) collapsed right around the same time as the Soviet Union. Communism also rose to power in the nations, where it is still alive today, such as China (since 1949), Cuba (since 1959), Vietnam (since 1976), and Laos (since 1975).

The tension between America and the Soviet Union wasn’t just restricted to technological and economic races. Few full-fledged crisis erupted during the Cold War, including the Korean War (1950 – 1953), Vietnam War (1959 – 1975), the Bay of Pigs (1961) Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).

Then Gorbachev came in 1985 with his Perestroika (reconstruction). At that time, all means of production were state-controlled, a fact which discouraged the initiative and innovation. The Soviet system was not adaptable by itself and perestroika was therefore doomed from the start. Gorbachev did not have the political capacity to push the desired reforms through (one of the most significant being Law on Cooperatives). His half-hearted efforts eventually triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was completely unexpected.
The political system, like the economy, rested on a foundation of lies. Political leaders from cities and regions fabricated domestic and foreign policy statistics, using propaganda, including the newspaper “Pravda.” This newspaper later became a symbol of hype about Soviet productivity. In 1991, the Soviet Union officially came to an end (under Yeltsin elected a year before) and split into republics.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, it led to a domino effect of communist nations collapsing.

Cold War was over as well.

The biggest democratic failure of 20th century

The World War I was over. German Revolution was declared a success and Weimar republic was proclaimed. But the suffering from the Great Depression and unfavorable conditions of Treaty of Versailles couldn’t not help but widen the gap of declared system of parliamentary democracy and the harsh political and economic reality of the country. Important factor exacerbating the situation was a right-wing myth that Germany lost the war because of the German Revolution. Radical left-wing communists, on the other hand, were playing with popular emotions by trying to combat what they saw as capitalist policies. To quench the political instability, a rather controversial figure was appointed as Chancellor of Germany on 30 January, 1933.

His rise was difficult and littered with obstacles. It started when the German government received reports of an imminent terrorist attack. A terrorist had launched feeble attacks on a few famous buildings, but the media largely ignored his relatively small efforts. At the time the man who claimed to be the nation’s leader had not been elected by a majority vote and many claimed he had no right to the powers he coveted. Six years later, this leader did not only command popularity and patriotic feelings of his nation but was also hailed as the “Man of the Year” by Times magazine.

He was a simpleton and had a coarse use of language. His simplistic and inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric offended foreign leaders and the well-educated elite. And, as a young man, he’d joined a secret society with an occult-sounding name. The only visible talent he possessed was drawing.

You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in history,” he proclaimed, standing in front of the burned building, surrounded by national media. He used the occasion to declare an all-out war on terrorism, originating, according to him, in the Middle East and in their religions.

Four weeks later, the nation’s now-popular leader had pushed through legislation – in the name of combating terrorism – that suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus. Police could now intercept mail and wiretap phones; suspected terrorists could be imprisoned without specific charges; police could sneak into people’s homes without warrants if the cases involved terrorism. To get his patriotic “Decree on the Protection of People and State” passed over the many objections of concerned legislators, he agreed to put a four-year provision on it. Citizens who protested the leader in public – and there were many – quickly found themselves confronting the newly empowered police, jail cells.

He wanted to stir a “racial pride” (based on eugenics of Gobineau) among his countrymen and began referring to the nation by “Heimat” (Homeland). Playing on this implicitly racial nationalism, he argued that any international body that didn’t act first and foremost in the best interest of his nation was neither relevant nor useful. He withdrew his country from the League Of Nations in 1933, and in 1935 negotiated a naval armaments agreement with England. To further consolidate his power, he reached out to industry, bringing former executives of the nation’s largest corporations into high government positions.

His propaganda minister orchestrated a campaign to ensure the people that he was a deeply religious Christian. Every then German soldier was sporting a belt buckle with “Gott Mit Uns” (God Is With Us). Along the same lines, he declared that the nation had clear Christian roots, that any nation that didn’t openly support religion was morally bankrupt. Many government functions started with prayer.

His speech on April 12, 1922 included:

“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers … was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.

“As a Christian … I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice…”

But after an interval of peace following the terrorist attack, voices of dissent again arose within and without the government. Students (later regrouped as White Rose) had started an active program opposing him and leaders of neighboring nations were speaking out against his racially discriminatove rhetoric. His propaganda minister ntensified the nationalistic campaign. Those questioning him were labeled “anti-German” or “not good Germans.” Another technique was to “manufacture news,” through the use of paid shills posing as reporters, seducing real reporters with promises of access to the leader in exchange for favorable coverage, and veiled threats to those who exposed his lies.

In 1939, to “attenuate” the economic decline and re-unify the nation, he pointed at an external threat: Czechoslovakia (despite English warnings). Shortly after, Poland was invaded in a “defensive, pre-emptive” action.

As his propaganda minister said:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

This dictum not only became reality in Germany but also with it, the leader’s popularity grew as the nation plunged into yet another world war.

The leader of the nation was Adolf Hitler who put an end to the first democratic experiment in Germany.