On Democracy and "Seasonal" Uprisings

Posted in 2011 Globalization Column The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , ,

There are many ways to model communication flows: There is the Two-Step Model, which relies on opinion leaders to spread a message, monologic flows of communication that are uni-directional and top-down, dialogic modes have two-way flows of communication, and the cybernetic model accounts for noise and feedback. In development work, communication flows have historically been top-down, uni-directional, with no room for dialogue or feedback. Development policies have been shaped in this mode, as have ideals about what constitutes successful development projects. This has shaped certain development discussions, such as framing the debate of development as one world versus another.
One dominant idealogical belief at the core of development since Bretton Woods and the founding of the IRBD and IMF is that democracy is the best form of government. This ideal has spread throughout the world, via forces such as globalization. Development policies have often been shaped with the criteria of a government being a democracy, and having a free election. This standard has always been upheld as a successful development project. One such recent example of spreading democracy has been with the Arab Spring.

from: visualizingeconomics.com

In the case of the Arab Spring, the flow of media operated in the untraditional mode – from South to North, Third World to First World, from developing countries to developed countries. But the images that made it to the First World were framed in our perspective and language, and became situated in the “great hope” for democracy. All of the messaging about the Arab Spring is consistent in the Western World – a grassroots uprising, “tipped”, by a single image – and now a movement that has spread throughout the Arab world to fight dictators, fight autocracy, and welcome democracy with open arms, in order to have an economic future. The language used by the media to frame these events specifically focuses on “hope”, and makes the ideals of democracy seem “natural”.
However, in “our world” the Arab Spring is still framed in those ideals and values that we have historically pushed onto the other. We hope for democracy, for freedom of speech, for change. What is worrisome in the Middle East/African countries that were affected, is that democracy at the end of the day is still a dichotomy – one group wins power and the other loses. With countries that were already divided by those who supported revolutions and those who supported the current government, how can the sides be reconciled and united? Both Collier, in The Bottom Billion (new window), and Stiglitz, in Globalizations and its Discontents, note that democracy in the developing world is not the solution that we idealize. Collier states that “replacing autocracy with democracy…is unlikely to be enough” (Collier, 51). Thus, one must be cautious about optimism in the Arab World. Furthering this point of tension, Stiglitz picks up on the dichotomy of what a country is “told” to do and what is posited as an ideal, that “while the virtues of democracy have been lauded, countries have been told to cede the most important economic decisions, those concerning monetary policy, to independent central banks, focusing exclusively on inflation” (Stiglitz, 232).
As ideas flow in the opposite direction as they historically have, what will the impact be for the United States and its hegemony? Are protests in Madison, Wisconsin or the recent Occupy Wall Street protest enough to be labeled the “American Autumn” – stay tuned for the next post that delves into this issue.