That democracy drives stability and growth in an already stable polity and developed economy is pretty much a given. Unfortunately, some international powers have stretched this concept too far, citing democracy as the catalyst of stability and growth – it is obvious from examples in the developing and non-Western world that this is not necessarily the case. In the contexts of Egypt and Syria, two conflict-stricken lands with severe structural problems, it can be argued that the strengths of their socio-political foundations are too weak to support democratic government. Journalist Gideon Rachman does not deny the validity of the eventual aims of the international powers lurking in the air around the two countries – namely to end bloodshed, uphold personal freedom etc. He does, however, disagree that such aims can be met with one policy – supporting the spread of democracy (which incidentally is more accurately a front for the support of liberalism, not democracy – two rather different concepts). There is certainly a case for encouraging authoritarian government on Egypt and Syria, simply to guide the respective countries into stability.
Growth and Liberalism
The essential theory behind a positive correlation between authoritarian rule and economic growth (taken to mean a decrease in poverty and an increase in international economic competitiveness) stems from the following process, relevant only to growth in a capitalist world economy:
(a) that economic growth requires the development of the capitalist system above all else – i.e. that it takes an authoritarian government to enforce the legal system that capitalism relies upon, and to ensure that the socio-political conditions are preferable to the exploits of capital;
(b) that during the intensification of capitalist development, the idea of economic liberalism – or the free market – must grow alongside it – i.e. that in order for economic development to be fully achieved, the market must be left to rule itself;
(c) that after the development of economic liberalism, the choices will be available to the members of a polity that then require them to obtain political liberalism – i.e. once one’s economic standards are stable and decent, one will be encouraged to demand such in other areas including politics.
The key to this process is that it does not work the other way around. Political liberalism cannot encourage economic liberalism, which cannot then catalyse the equal development of capitalism. Hence, enforcing democracy – the most widely accepted contemporary form of political liberalism – is not the best idea if the desired aim is to economically develop a country in turmoil. Applied to Syria and Egypt, once the violence is over, political (and not military or religious) autocracies should be established in order to foster the conditions for effective development; after this, political liberalism will prosper but not until more pressing matters have been resolved (and in a capitalist world system, these are most commonly economic).
The Middle East (and China, and Africa)
There are plenty of examples as to how authoritarian governments can both benefit and damage a state’s chances of economic development – success usually rides on what form of autocracy the government is. Military autocracies are rarely successful in dragging economies into prosperity. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Idi Amin in Uganda (the latter perhaps more so) are both examples of dictatorships sucking the country dry of resources in favour of the armed forces (Iraq’s war with Iran cost the former $80bn). Religious autocracies are, in the contemporary era, a little more ambiguous. Governments such as the religious monarchies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia have, economically, performed rather well, fostering mainly oil-driven exports. However, the next few decades will prove one way or another the nature of these particular states: as oil becomes more and more controversial as a global fuel, and citizens of such states demand increased political and social freedom, there may be instances of political rejection. For now though, the Gulf-Arab states are perhaps the best examples of authoritarianism and economic development getting on like a house on fire.
Elsewhere, China has proved that secular political authoritarianism can pull an economy along too. The CCP have developed the idea of state capitalism to hedge the Chinese economy towards the $8tn mark (real GDP), an impressive feat seeing that it only broke $1tn in 1998. Again, however, as economic development begins to spread to the more rural areas of China, there will be calls for increased liberty in other areas. In general, it is too early to judge the absolute success of the Chinese government, simple because the economy continues to grow and has been doing so for two decades. It is when such growth falters that the flaws in China’s political set-up will be revealed.
From the examples given, and in relation to the political-economic process described above, it is reasonable to discern that while authoritarianism can pull a country into development, such development will spell the end of the authoritative ruler. Unfortunately for the Gulf royals and the CCP, it is probably inevitable that their success will come back to bite them. In the immediate context of instability in the Middle East, the international powers should not follow their traditional policies of supporting democracy, but instead should encourage authoritarian economic governance to rebuild the foundations that have been dissolved by political turmoil. Religion will always be a complication in the Middle East – it is simply the nature of the region, as was the case in Europe until reasonably recently. The challenge will be, if it is impossible to separate religion and politics, to align the two together in harmony to produce peace and security for all.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, ‘Contemporary Socio-Political Ideas of the Arab-Gulf Moment’. Centre for the Study of Global Governance, 2010
Ludovic Comeau, ‘Democracy and Growth: A Relationship Revisited’. Eastern Economic Journal (22:6, 2003)
Economist. World in Figures. London, 2012
Gideon Rachman, ‘Stability, not an election, is what Egypt needs now’. Financial Times, 19/08/2013