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Giovanni Sartori

Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences 2005

DEMOCRACY: Export potential and inclusion

Your Majesty, Your Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been extremely prodigal in my long life as an academic; I have taught very different subjects, and have been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. That is because I am a creature of curiosity. However, throughout my profligacy, democracy – the theory of democracy – has been an ever-present and common thread. I feel obliged, therefore, on this grand occasion, to return to this long-standing, never totally extinguished passion 

From the Second World War onwards, democracy, that is liberal democracy, has been spreading. New areas to be conquered have opened up with the demise of the Soviet regime and its ideology. However, whilst the economy has become truly global (insofar as the market economy has been the downfall of Soviet-styled collectivist economic planning) political systems remain divided worldwide into democracies and non-democracies. This fact raises questions as to the export potential of democracy (to what degree and in what conditions). The question clearly presupposes that democracy is born of and in Western civilizations and that the so-called ‘democracies of the others’ are figments of the imagination (just as the notion of Communist democracy was equally a figment of the imagination and a fraud). Having said this, as far as the export potential and spread of democracy is concerned (I am obviously simplifying here), there are two basic theories.

The first theory is economistic: the fact is that democracy is hampered by poverty and is associated with prosperity. Historically, this has not been the case. Liberal-democracy as demo-protection, i.e., as a system of freedom and protection under a constitution, arose in desperately poor societies. What is more, liberalism proclaims the limited state, the control of power and freedom from within (the state); just that, neither more nor less. However, this is now no longer the case. Nowadays, demo-power, which calls for demo-distribution (of wealth), has been added to demo-protection, and in this scenario, the thesis of the economists becomes one of ‘if you generate wealth, you eventually generate democracy.’ The thesis of the sociologists is more cautious. In S.M. Lipset’s classic version, “the richer a country is, the more likely it is that democracy will be sustained.” This is most certainly true. In other words, it is true that prosperity smoothes the way to democracy. The quandary now is whether prosperity will continue increasing and whether the war on poverty (in the world) can eventually be won.

Personally, I doubt it. The world’s population has tripled in less than a century. There are now over six thousand million of us, and we continue to increase by seventy million a year, all in poor countries, which are probably doomed to continue to be so. The only thing I would deduce from this, here, is that the economistic theory should not make us lose sight of the fact that democracy as a political system of demo-protection is an asset per se, and that it is always better to be poor people living in freedom than poor people living in slavery.

The second theory is cultural and relates to ‘world views.’ If it is true – and it is – that liberal democracy is born within the bosom of Western culture and as a function of its secularisation, then we really ought to expect it to encounter resistance and even cultural rejection as it travels the world. Yes and no. Democracy has been exported to Japan by force of arms, but it then took root. In India, democracy is a British legacy, but it has been totally assimilated. So there are cases of culturally unlikely export drives that have nevertheless been successful.

There is, however, a flip side: import (immigration) to the West of alien cultures. The issue here is one of integration, and the question is whether Asians, Indians, Africans and Arabs integrate or not, whether they accept the democratic institutions of the countries they marry into. On this issue, the answer might also be ‘yes and no.’ However, if we are to be more precise, we must specify what we understand by integration. For a start, integration is not assimilation. Indians, Japanese and Chinese uprooted and moved to the West maintain their own cultural identity (and in this respect refuse to be assimilated), and yet they have integrated into the democracy of the city and become good citizens. There is no contradiction in this outcome, because the integration that is required and sufficient is simply compliance with the ethical and political principles of democracy as a political system. There is no more to it, though nor is there anything less.

So, what is the element, or factor, that makes a cultural identity inflexible, almost impenetrable?

It seems unquestionable to my mind that it is the religious factor: to be more precise, monotheism, faith in a single God who is the true God precisely because he is the only God. Such monotheism – as a system of theocratic domination – can be neutralized and halted by the rebellion of a lay society that separates religion from politics. Such a separation has existed in the Christian world since 1600, but it has not come about in Islam, which was and continues to be culturally a theocratic system that encompasses everything (everything merged together).

So, do we want the will of the people or God’s will? As long as God’s will prevails, democracy will fail to make an impact, both in terms of exportation (territorial) and in terms of interiorization (wherever the believer may be). The truth is that the dichotomy between the will of the people and God’s will is, and will continue to be – if I might be allowed to plagiarize a title of Ortega y Gasset – the key issue of our times.

Your Majesty, Your Highness, I have finished. But I cannot end without saying (although it is obvious even if left unsaid) how honoured and profoundly moved I am by the Award that has been conferred on me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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