Globalization and Democracy

  • Kathleen C. SchwartzmanEmail author
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Authoritarian Regime Democratic Transition Political Form Territorial Expansion African Coloni 
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Democracy is one of several political forms that link civil society and the state. This essay focuses on the role of global dynamics in the emergence of democratic regimes. Conceptualizing globalization in historical terms offers the possibility of describing democratic transitions including those from: monarchies, oligarchies, fascism, bureaucratic authoritarianism, colonialism, and socialism. This far from exhausts the scholarship on democracy, but due to space constraints, this essay excludes work on democratic collapses and coup d’états, as well as extensions of rights and franchise to citizens previously excluded on the basis of property restrictions, race, or sex. Likewise, the myriad “types/definitions/measurements” of democracy are omitted. In short, this is a sample of cases in which global events created conditions for democratization.


Today’s writers often invoke “globalization” to refer to the recent vertiginous growth of global commodity trade, foreign direct investment, and financialization. And, armed with this interpretation, they argue that globalization will lead to democracy – that free (or competitive) economic markets are associated free political competition. There is minimal consensus about the mechanism. It could be Lipset’s (1960) classic notion of economic growth and the rise of a middle class, or it could be that technology allows ideas to spread. Somewhat problematic, however, is that the “open-market democracy” theory is silent about the episodic coexistence of “capitalism and authoritarianism.” Eichengreen and Leblang (2006) judge that while there are a multitude of studies asserting both positive and negative relationships between democracy and globalization, there are also questions about their respective methodologies and the robustness of the findings. Their contribution, in addition to an exhaustive survey of the literature, is an empirical analysis of the two-way causality.

Viewing democracies from a global perspective means moving beyond the notion that political transitions can be understood solely in terms of endogenous factors such as a religious tradition, level of economic development, income equality, civic culture, or education. It also means, as Wallerstein argues (1992) going beyond explanations that are overly episodic, event-oriented and insufficiently structural or cyclical. Likewise, we must expand the concept of “external” beyond acts of foreign imposition. A global impact might take the form of an exogenous commercial shock, external forceful imposition, conspiracy, or “coercive persuasion.” A world-system notion of a globalization – an integrated world economic system beginning more or less in the 1500s – offers possibilities for a more inclusive review.

General Principle

At a minimum, transitions involve the displacement of one ruling group. Democratic transitions are distinguished from royal successions or civil wars in which the successful contender rules utilizing the same political institution. Transitions to democracy entail a process in which one ruling group is displaced by another [either a different fraction of the elite or the previously marginalized rural and/or urban workers], and the victorious contender installs a new democratic political arrangement. The global context emphasizes the exogenous environment which offers challenges: depriving existing rulers of their source of economic or military power, enhancing the capacity of a previously disadvantaged elite fraction, or augmenting the organizational capacity of a subaltern population. The comparative advantage of democracy is not just that rulers are elected to represent the sovereign will of the citizens but also that democracy is an organizational form in which different fractions of the elite can arrive at a compromise (Przeworski 1985).

This essay presents brief descriptions of several countries grouped into five prototypes which demonstrate the globalization – democratization linkage. They range from the weakest global effect (an external commercial impulse) to the strongest (imposition through occupation). Between these extremes are cases in which global factors destabilized pre-democratic regimes or constituted an “incentive” for democratization. These are not historical conjunctures treated in an ad hoc, ex post facto fashion; rather they are exemplars of the effect of world-system shifts on democratization. They are presented more or less chronologically.

Commercial Impulse

Perhaps the most cited work is Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Moore 1966). This classic work inspired replications, extensions, and modifications – all studying history from a social structural and power-conflict perspective. For Moore, democracy was the political outcome of one of the three routes to economic modernization. The particular route to the modern world depended on the existing social structure and the resolution of the exogenous shock. The English transition from monarchy to a Western form of democracy was the political expression of conflict between a rising industrial elite and an entrenched and perhaps even feudal agrarian elite. For Moore, the pivotal factor is an extensive and influential bourgeoisie with economic autonomy from the landed aristocracy or the government.

The challenge was commercialized agriculture. Landed nobility could respond to this challenge by (1) reorganizing to enter into the commercial market or (2) leaving traditional organization of agricultural communities intact. Both the peasantry and the agrarian aristocracy must undergo a transition from nonspecialized and noncommercialized to specialized and commercialized agriculture. The English case involved the enclosures and the elimination of the peasantry.

For the commercial impulse, Moore cites the existence of markets in nearby towns paired with adequate transportation for goods. This could be considered the seed of the spread of the market economy changing power relationships among classes. In Moore’s text, we find less attention to the origin of the commercial momentum. Certainly it came from the Middle Ages “global” wool trade which had made large houses very wealthy. In the 1250–1350 periods, wool trade was the backbone and driving force in the English medieval economy. Thus, the chief carriers of what was to be a modern England were men of commerce in both the countryside and the towns. The successful wool trade had spinoffs in manufacturing, finance, and the commercial sector that transported wool to countries outside of the United Kingdom. It is reasonable to say that the “global” export commodity, not just the presence of townships requiring agriculture from the countryside, was the global event which created conditions for democratization.

An excessive dependence upon export commodities contributed to democratization in Brazil. This may seem like an odd pairing with Moore, but it also illustrates the political consequences of globalization. Coffee was Brazil’s commodity of global integration. Brazil had an incipient industrial sector, but the ruling oligarchy held a strong anti-industrial sentiment. Vargas’ successful coup in 1930 replaced the oligarchy with a new political form including an Electoral Code, a secret ballot, proportional representation, and the franchise for women. The global commercial dynamic was the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1931, the price of coffee plummeted; Brazil’s foreign trade fell 37 % in volume and 67 % in value; the gold reserves disappeared by the end of 1930, and the exchange rate reached a new low. Disenchantment with the agro-export oligarchic model had reached a new high (Burns 1980). This was the commercial impulse for the overthrow of the oligarchy and the establishment of democracy.

Territorial Expansion

Both China (1911) and Portugal (1910) shifted from monarchical to democratic rule at the beginning of the twentieth century. Certainly the internal dynamics and pressures for a republican form of government were distinct. However both monarchies were weakened and destabilized through British territorial expansion.

The Qing dynasty was unsuccessful in facing numerous challenges. At the end of the ninth century, the empire was weakened by international aggression, including, but not limited to, losing Hong Kong to the British, acquiescing to foreign concessions, and losing Taiwan following the Sino-Japanese war. Royal attempts to salvage the empire by modernizing the government and military bureaucracies were insufficient to placate domestic unrest. The Revolutionary Alliance, successful in 1911, rejected the King’s constitutional monarchy “compromise” and declared the Republic of China. The 1897 foreign “scramble for concessions” in China was a global factor in the emergence of the republic.

Portugal, in the 1900s, was a monarchy. The loss of its Brazilian colonial monopoly (as the quid pro quo for English assistance in minimizing the effect of the Napoleonic invasion), followed by Brazilian independence in 1822, undermined the foundation of its absolutist monarchy. Although the Crown treasury was substantially depleted, revenue from the African colonies allowed for some primary accumulation. In the European scramble for Africa, Portugal lost parts of its “claimed” territory to France and Germany. The 1890 British Ultimatum was the most costly. England demanded that Portugal relinquish its lands – between its African coastal colonies of Angola and Mozambique – or lose diplomatic relations with Britain followed by the probably use of force. Unable to cover its debts, Portugal declared bankruptcy in 1892. In 1898 an Anglo-German convention anticipated an economic partitioning of the customs revenues of Angola, Mozambique, and Timor, as collateral for a loan. And there was the possibility of a political partitioning. In 1910 the monarch was overthrown and replaced by the First Portuguese Republic.

The Great Depression of 1873–1896 unleashed a new age of imperialism in which core nations and contenders launched a phase of territorial expansion. These global events aided the anti-monarchical revolts in China and Portugal, creating conditions for democratization.

Occupation and Democracy

Perhaps the most notable transition by occupation is post-WWII Japan. Following the Japanese surrender in WWII, democracy was imposed under the control of US troops. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers arranged for a general election, suspended laws which restricted political, civil, and religious liberties and extended the franchise to women. The United States also provided billions of dollars of food aid. Washington ruled albeit through Japan’s prewar government – the national legislature, the cabinet, and the bureaucracy.

American army and navy officers, partnering with Japan’s pre-WWII government, drafted a Japanese constitution embodying elements of the British system, the American Bill of Rights, and some economic freedoms resembling those found in the US New Deal. Its success, some have argued, rested on the moral and legal legitimacy in the eyes of many shareholders: Americans, Allied powers, Asian neighbors, and a majority of the Japanese.

The global dynamic here is clear: following a global war and foreign occupation, a prefabricated institutional democratic structure was imposed.

World-System Restructuring and Shifting Hegemons

The evolving nature of globalization was the stimulus for the democratic transitions in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Despite internal variation in resistance to their authoritarian regimes, and varying success in attempts to reform or overthrow them, all three transitioned to democracy in the 1970s. Poulantzas (1976) explains these political transitions from an “imperialist world context.” The new democratic forms were political accommodations to the shifting economic balance among the core nations. This exogenous global restructuring contributed to the endogenous growth of new classes, new class struggles, and a new balance of sociopolitical forces (Arrighi 1985; Logan 1985).

In the case of Portugal, the power bloc that ruled from 1928 until the 1974 revolution represented a coalition of colonial capitalists, foreign investors, and landed aristocracy. The colonial fraction functioned as a commercial and financial intermediary for foreign nations which exported capital to the African colonies for extraction of raw material. Portugal remained relatively rural with only a small urban labor force.

This arrangement was upset by a global shift in the origin and destination of capital flows. In response to falling rates of profit, core countries directed a larger share of foreign investment away from resource extraction and toward a productive industrial sector. Although profits were mostly expatriated, such investments boosted the size of the Portuguese working class. Overtime, the European investment share in Portugal surpassed that of the United States. The two shifts (country source and sector destination) of global integration diminished the power of coalition represented in the authoritarian regime. Resistance to a renegotiated pact among fractions of capital within the authoritarian regime culminated in a complete overthrow and the establishment of a democratic form in 1974.

The global shifts intensified the internal struggles among fractions of the bourgeoisies in Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The triumph of democracy represented a redistribution of the balance of forces within the power bloc in favor of the fraction of capital that veered toward the Common Market at the expense of the fraction affiliated with the United States. For Poulantzas, representative democracy (unlike authoritarianism) is that form of state which allows various class fractions to negotiate and resolve differences. And, the shift in the balance of power among capitalist fractions also included a place for the now more numerous and organized working classes.

Corralled Transitions

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of countries rejected their dictatorial rulers and embraced democracy. This period includes not only the transitions in Latin American but also in South Africa and in the former Soviet countries to name a few. The particular form of democracy adopted in this wave should be referred to as polyarchy, distinctly different from popular democracy or a ground up, invigorated civil society (Saul 1997). Rather than accentuating the will of the people and the common good, the polyarchic version of democracy stresses the institutional arrangements for selecting representatives who will make decisions.

The global impetus for this wave of democratic transitions was modified transnational production. It had evolved from an articulation of precapitalist modes of production with capitalists ones, to a single production system. Certainly technological innovations facilitated this global restructuring, but it would be erroneous to identify technology as the causal factor.

Robinson (1996) describes the link between the new economic restructuring and the new political form as follows. Transnational global production accelerated the breakup of precapitalist communities and contributed to labor displacement. In many countries, transnationalism gave rise to increased political mobilization agitation, at times seemingly pro-socialist. Historically grassroots mobilization had been repressed by right wing dictatorships and US “client regimes.” These regimes were acceptable to the United States. Occasionally this “acceptance” involved US military campaigns. Between WWII and the end of the Cold War, the United States employed military force across its borders more than 200 times. Intervention involved direct military force, counterinsurgency, as well as covert operations. Strategic alliances with authoritarian regimes accompanied US Cold War concerns but more importantly economic interests in the Third World, viz., access to raw materials, markets, and labor power.

Robinson supports his argument with the cases of the Philippines, Nicaragua, Chile, and Haiti. The impetus for the political transformation originated in the fact that those authoritarian regimes were no longer able to contain the popular movements. Polyarchy was judged best for mitigating the social and political tensions produced by the previous elite-based and undemocratic regimes and by the dislocations associated with modernization. Authoritarianism and dictatorships had become fetters to the emergent patterns of international capital accumulation. The United States withdrew its support from previously supported military dictatorships or authoritarian client regimes, such as Marcos and Duvalier. They no longer seemed to be guarantors of social control and stability.

Polyarchy represented the replacement of coercive control with consensus. This was reflected in the US government’s diminishing use of the CIA and increasing use of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In 1983, Carl Greshman, president of NED argued that in a world of expanding communication, something other than force was needed to defend the US national security. The United States began promoting “democracy” as a way to relieve pressure from subordinate groups demanding change, stepping in just when mobilization was reaching a peak.

Various US government agencies disbursed funds, overtly and covertly, to organizations that assisted in building up institutions of political and civil society. NED funded activities such as new women’s organizations and publication of a monthly magazine, trade unions, political parties, and churches. All were in an attempt to steer them toward the international order.

The transitions unfolded over time. The CIA came to support Mobutu in the Congo when he carried out his 1965 coup. He was part of the US an anti-communist defense in the Cold War. Lewis (1997) writes that the United States neglected several opportunities to press for reform and continued to help put down rebellions and refrained from encouraging Mobutu’s retirement following a 1991 army mutiny. Only in 1997 did he become, in the words of a White House spokesman, a creature of history.

Whereas extraction and subsequent forms of globalization allowed for the articulation of a myriad of political forms, contemporary globalization – a single system of economic production – necessitates political symmetry. Robinson offers an insightful description of the global events that created conditions for democratization.


The global and local are intimately linked. The analysis of democracy must move beyond the idiographic and beyond abstract notions of culture, religion, or desire for freedom. There will not be an “end of history” based on a unilinear or nonreversible global march toward democracy. Rather, democratic systems (emergence, stability, and collapse) are the consequence of global historical processes: expansions, contractions, and shifts in hegemonic leadership have political consequences for nations.


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Suggested Readings

  1. Poulantzas N (1976) The crisis of the dictatorships. NLB, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Robinson WI (1996) Promoting Polyarchy: globalization, U.S. intervention, and hegemony.Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Stephens JD (1989) Democratic transition and breakdown in Western Europe, 1870–1939: a test of the Moore thesis. AJS 94:1019–1077Google Scholar
  4. Therborn G (1977) The rule of capital and the rise of democracy. New left review. no. 103 (May–June).

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Sociology and Center for Latin American StudiesThe University of ArizonaTucsonUSA