Friday, November 18, 2011

Competitive authoritarianism and oligarchical democracy

Political scientists love classifications, of course. This is the opening paragraph of Michael Bernhard's review of Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck (in the current Foreign Affairs):
Over the last two decades, a distinctive regime type has emerged across the developing world, one that scholars have come to call competitive authoritarianism. This sort of political system allows for the contestation of power among different social groups, but with so many violations of electoral fairness and so little regard for liberal norms that it cannot be called a true democracy. From Russia to Peru, Cambodia to Cameroon, such regimes are now located in almost every region of the world, and how they develop will determine the shape of the twenty-first century.
Maybe it's time to recognize yet another new regime type: oligarchical democracy. Exemplar: the current United States. Features: Severe inequalities of wealth and income; grossly disproportionate power in the political process exercised by the wealthiest; polarized parties masking a fairly narrow range of "respectable" policy debate; money enshrined as constitutionally protected speech. Etcetera.

"Oligarchical democracy" sounds contradictory and no doubt goes against Plato's and Aristotle's classifications of regimes (and many subsequent classifications). Well, tough s**t.


hank_F_M said...


A different vocabulary, but that sounds like a "Tea Party Critique"

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

It does?

The wrath of the Tea Party, as I understand it, is mostly directed vs the fed. government. The Tea Party thinks Americans are overtaxed, the economy is over-regulated, the govt spends too much on social programs, Wash DC is both too distant and too intrusive. There are some populist overtones I guess (the government is seen as having favored Wall St at the expense of Main St.), but basically the Tea Party as I understand it is a version of Reaganism. The Tea Party does not believe that a more activist fed govt can solve the basic problems, even if it focused on helping 'Main St' more. The Tea Party, as I understand it, opposes the health-care reform act, opposes the individual mandate in that act as an unconstitutional infringement on individual
liberty, views it as evidence of "socialism" (which is of course ridiculous).

The Tea Party is not especially concerned with the balance of power between (organized or unorganized) labor and capital. Though the Tea Party may express vague resentments against the wealthy, its rhetoric is mostly directed against the govt, not against the "1 percent." The Tea Party has not defended the collective bargaining rights of public employees (see the recent vote in Ohio or the battles in Wisconsin), it has not favored efforts to strengthen the ability of unions to organize (the card-check legislation), it has not in short favored much of anything that would redress the imbalance of power in the economy and polity.

The language in my post, by contrast, suggests that there is a structural imbalance of power betw. the extremely rich and corps., on one hand, and the rest of the pop., on the other, and that the federal government could conceivably play a role in redressing this imbalance if it adopted different policies (admittedly unlikely given the current configuration of power). In short, closer to the 'Occupy critique' than the 'Tea Party critique' (inasmuch as I am able to discern coherent critiques here).

LFC said...

And another thing. In the Dem-Rep positions on the deficit, where would the Tea Party come down? Prob. not on the side of letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest.

Here's a lucid summary of the positions from Jeffrey Brown yesterday on the NewsHour:

"Democrats insist on cutting into deficits in part by raising taxes. Republicans on the [super]committee have offered to raise revenues by closing tax loopholes, but they balk at raising tax rates.

"Within that debate is an argument over the Bush era tax cuts. Democrats want everyone who makes under $250,000 to keep the cut, while letting rates rise for wealthier Americans. That would cost $3.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Republicans want the tax cuts to be made permanent for everyone. That would cost $4 trillion. Republicans also want much larger spending cuts than Democrats do in any deficit package.

"If no agreement is reached, automatic cuts in defense and social spending are supposed to go into effect, but not until 2013."

hank_F_M said...

"Oligarchical democracy" sounds like the underlying complaint of the Tea Party.

As they would see it.

An Oligarchy that includes the establishment wing of the Republicans. One gets to democratically choose between elements of the Oligarchy but never challenge it. The Big Government/Big labor/Big Bussiness conglomation runs the country for the benefit of the Oligarchical class and they want to take back to a "government of the people by the people and for the people." to quote Abraham Lincoln.

They are inclined to see the things you mentioned as means for the Oligarchy to maintain control which is one reason they oppose them..

The language in my post, by contrast, suggests that there is a structural imbalance of power betw. the extremely rich and corps, on one hand, and the rest of the pop.

They would agree with you that far, however they tend to see increased Federal governmental action as the means to implement and maintain that structure and less government as necessary to overturn it. Overtaxation, overegualrion, excessive social programs, health care reduce the common person to sort of serfdom (Hayek's "the Road to Serfdom" is popular reading.)

The Tea Party does not believe that a more activist fed govt can solve the basic problems,

They don't. Rather they see it, no matter well intentioned, as aggravating basic problems and increasing the control of the Oligarchy

The Tea Party is not especially concerned with the balance of power between (organized or unorganized) labor and capital.

They are concerned about the the balance of power between the membership and the leadership of the union, who at the highest levels are seen members of the Oligarchy and not really interested in representing their membership. Howqever they might speak higly of their local shop steward.

"Oligarchical democracy" is a good description of their underlying assumption. I suppose you would respectfully disagree with them on details and solutions, as they with you.

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

Yes, I disagree with them on details and solutions. And also on more than that (see below).

I'm not close enough to the labor mvt to comment in detail on what you say about the TP view of unions and their leadership, but my sense is that it is somewhat skewed. The unionized share of the private sector workforce in the US has shrunk drastically in recent decades and now stands at something like 13 percent. That is an imbalance right there vis-a-vis corps.

But more importantly, the Tea Party's sociology (for lack of a better term) is all wrong. Big Labor-Big Govt-Big Business versus "the people" assumes that these three (labor, govt, business) work for the same ends and agree on the means. But, much of time, they don't. Some things govt has done favor big business, but in a big country w a complicated economy one of the only countervailing weights to business is govt. If there weren't regulations on product safety and food safety, at least a few (probably more than a few) corps. would be selling unsafe products. If there weren't environmental regulation, corps. would be polluting. If there weren't land use regulations, there would be no green spaces and fewer forests and parks. Govt regulations like these don't oppress individuals; they protect individuals from being taken advantage of by business and, far from making people into "serfs," they empower individuals to lead potentially healthier, more fulfilling lives. Ditto for Social Security and Medicare (I love that Tea Party sign "govt hands off my Medicare," as if Medicare weren't a govt program!). The whole notion that govt is necessarily an adversary of individuals is, in large part, a piece of ideological mystification that ignores some very important aspects of US history.

LFC said...

Instead of Hayek they should be reading J.K. Galbraith, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (if you want to talk about famous 20th cent. economists, that is)
I know you are a fan of Thomas Sowell btw. I've never read him and have no present intention of doing so. So I can guess we can trade these dueling citations ad infinitum.

Case in pt: A more recent book (though pretty old by now) is Bowles & Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism (1986).

El Jefe Maximo said...

"Oligarchial Democracy" or, more correctly, an Oligarchial Republic, would have been very recognizable to Romans, particularly the last generation or three of the Republic.

In such a system, a good deal of freedom often exists, but participation rights are limited. Electoral competition is best understood as occuring between different factions of the oligarchy, each of which attempts, for its own reasons, to engage the People as a whole on its side.

LFC said...

El Jefe,
Thanks for this note on the Roman Republic.

My Roman history is pretty weak. Only time I studied it formally was in 6th grade, as I recall, and I have only vague recollections of having to learn something about Diocletian. That plus the less-than-historically-adequate stuff picked up from 2 or 3 of Shakespeare's Roman plays, a line here or there in some 19th or 20th c. social theorists, and various less exalted cultural sources does not make for a very informed view.

Btw if you go over to Brad DeLong's blog (not one of my usual stops, but I happened to be there yesterday) he has an (unflattering but interesting) recent post about the Romans containing what appears to be his own translation of a letter from Cicero to someone or other c.54 BC. (I think it's Cicero, didn't bother to re-check.)
Considering the volume of DeLong's blogging (complete w frequent displays of erudition) I'm not sure when he finds time to do his job ... but apparently he does.