I can’t say that I’m impressed by Sheri Berman’s argument at Dissent to the effect that we should be pleased with the mobocracy in the Middle East on the grounds that, ultimately, it will promote increased liberalism:
France—the birthplace of both modern democracy and illiberal democracy—is a critical and revealing case. When the French rose up against the world’s most powerful dictatorship in 1789 many hoped it was the dawn of a new era, but the transition soon went awry. In 1793 the king was executed and a republic with universal male suffrage and a commitment to a broad range of civil and political rights was declared. But Europe’s first modern democracy did not last long, descending quickly into the so-called “Reign of Terror” in which 20,000–40,000 people were executed for “counter-revolutionary” activities. The English political theorist Edmund Burke was only the most well-known conservative critic to argue that France’s experience showed the dangers of democracy and the need to restrain the people and their passions. But Burke and the other critics were wrong. Even though France’s first democratic experiment slid quickly into illiberalism and then dictatorship, eliminating the ancien régime made a profound contribution to the eventual development of liberal democracy. It did so by replacing a feudal economic and social order with a market system based on private property and equality before the law, and embedding in France (and spreading across Europe) the idea that society was composed of equal citizens, rather than functionally different hereditary groups (such as nobles or peasants).
because I think it relies on a fundamental misconception about societies, institutions, and how liberalism develops. Societies are based on institutions and the goals of those institutions are frequently in conflict or at least in tension. France had both illiberal and antidemocratic institutions, e.g. the monarchy and the aristocracy, and liberalizing and democratic institutions, .e.g the Church and the universities. The Enlightenment grew from the soil of Italian humanism. It didn’t spring forth fully grown like Athena from the brow of Zeus. England had liberalizing institutions going back more than a millennium—the environment there was a good one for the growth of liberalism.
In Russia the liberalizing institutions are weak. In the Muslim countries of the Middle East they are somewhere between weak and nonexistent while illiberal institutions like the tribe are strong.
For liberal democratic governments to flourish in Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, institutions that encourage liberalization are the prerequisites. They will not develop spontaneously, a natural outgrowth of democracy. Without the support of liberalizing institutions increasing democracy will lead to repression of minorities and limitations on fundamental freedoms.
That is the error of Whig history. I think that Ms. Berman needs to examine the histories of France, Italy, and Germany more closely. France did not become more liberal until after it had murdered more than 40,000 of its citizens and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of others, followed by a century of turmoil. Liberal democracy was forced on Germany and Japan through losses in war. Liberal democracy did not merely grow in those places, as natural outcomes of native democratization.
The sample cases for this are Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. In Turkey the military and was, ironically, a liberalizing institution. Kemalism’s secularism was a liberalizing institution. In Iran the Shah was a similar liberalizing institution as was the monarchy in Afghanistan.
Turkey is more democratic now than it was under the previous secular government but it is not more liberal. Similarly, Iran is more democratic now than it was under the Shah but not more liberal. Afghanistan was more democratic under the Taliban. We should not wish for a return of their rule.