Friday, September 25, 2009

What I said about Spain and India -- a follow-up to the "Bad Samaritans" post

Ha-Joong Chang said in his book Bad Samaritans that "cultural explanations" of economic development often seem to be self-justification based on 20/20 hindsight. Here's what I said in 2005 at a conference at the Political Science Department of the University of Delhi about how similar discussion of the world history of democracy often misses the point.

What we need, as the record of modern democracy becomes longer and more detailed, is to focus on two things: distinct cases (to avoid the lifeless, silly, or counterproductive overgeneralizations); and the connections between democratic developments across borders and across cultures, so that we can progress from a number of national or regional histories of democracy, to a true world history.

To illustrate the importance of this effort, let’s look at the case of Spain, a provocative puzzle for any historian of world democracy. Spain was early on affected by the French Revolution, but for more than a century and a half thereafter, Spanish democracy seemed like an impossible dream. Spain appeared doomed by its culture and history to either authoritarianism or chaos. Yet in the mid-1970s democracy emerged in post-Franco Spain, and despite separatist sentiment and intermittent domestic terrorism, it has survived and flourished. The case of Spain, like the similar case of neighboring Portugal, confounds easy generalizations about the historical roots of democratic development.

For a very long time it was obvious to historians and commentators of all sorts that Spain, with its absolutist monarchical tradition and its intolerant religious establishment, must be outside the grand democratic tradition of the “West;” yet somehow despite all that historical baggage, in a moment and without attracting much attention, Spain transformed itself into a member in good standing of the democratic club. I cannot claim that this democratic transition has not been studied.[1] But one wonders how many historians not concerned with modern Spain have thought seriously about it, and whether any of them have revised their understanding of Spanish or European history in light of it. As a historian I can hardly argue that “historical baggage” is irrelevant to the life of a society; but clearly in the case of Spain a focus on historical baggage, on the national history and cultural history of Spain, narrowly conceived, deceived us all. Spain deserves more study, and it deserves to be put into a wide context, not as an odd exception, but as a prime datum in the political history of the late 20th century world.

The same can be said, even more forcefully, for India. That India is not like other successful democracies is a well-worn cliché. For non-Indians, how much thought follows the phrase “world’s largest democracy?” Very little, I suspect. The importance of India’s success so far, for the world as a whole, may not be widely appreciated in India, either. Let me briefly state my point of view, which is based on a simple comparison of India with some other, well-known countries.

Imagine the world in 1900. Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead? I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?

[1] Indeed, one of the first systematic treatments of the new democratic developments of the late 20th century was partly inspired by the Spanish case: Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1986).

1 comment:

  1. An interesting couple of posts, Steve.

    I don't want top rule out systemic/cultural explanations, but, as you make clear, it's very hard to know what to focus on.