- The East Asian ProspectThe Illusion of Exceptionalism
It is striking that in all of the rich literature on democracy and democratic transitions published in recent years, including in the Journal of Democracy, it is difficult to find a single social scientist who will any longer admit to being a “modernization theorist.” I find this odd because most observers of political development actually do believe in some version of modernization theory. Of course, we must get past the simple-minded and overly deterministic formulations of modernization theory that posited that all societies would, in effect, end up like suburban America in the 1950s. Yet while modernization can take many detours, alternate routes, and backward steps, there are in fact good empirical grounds for thinking that modernization is a coherent process that produces a certain uniformity of economic and political institutions across different regions and cultures. A growing body of empirical data reinforces the correlation posited decades ago by Seymour Martin Lipset between democracy and development. The work of Adam Przeworski and his colleagues, published last year in the Journal of Democracy, contains the striking conclusion that above a level of about $6,000 in per-capita GDP annually (in 1992 purchasing-power-parity U.S. dollars), there is not a single case of a democracy reverting to authoritarian rule. As Przeworski himself argues, economic development is neither necessary nor sufficient to bring about democratic transitions, since they occur with roughly equal frequency at all levels of per-capita GDP, but industrialization and wealth certainly are helpful in maintaining democracy.
Industrialization facilitates democracy for a number of reasons. Most important, a modern industrial economy creates a complex division of [End Page 146] labor that in turn lays the basis for civil society. Contemporary specialists in comparative politics tend to exclude from the definition of civil society not just the state and the family, but also the capitalist economy. While there are understandable reasons for excluding private firms in this fashion, I believe it is a historical and conceptual mistake. The development of a vigorous private sector is important to the development of a strong civil society, as firms provide a locus of social identity and serve to socialize people in certain cooperative habits.
In the earlier tradition of classical political economy, writers like Adam Ferguson, James Steuart, and Hegel all believed that civil society overlapped substantially with the capitalist economy. The theoretical exclusion of the capitalist economy from civil society began in this century with Antonio Gramsci and has been perpetuated by Jürgen Habermas and others with an interest in delegitimating capitalism itself. But highly organized capitalism is important to the democratization process because it both uses and creates social capital, and diverts energy from struggles for recognition that would otherwise take place in the political or military sphere and destabilize democracy.
In any event, there is a worldwide empirical trend linking economic modernization and stable democracy. Thus the question for Asianists is: Why would Asia be an exception to this overall pattern? I believe that the burden of proof should be on those who argue that Asia is going to create well-educated, middle-class societies with high levels of material prosperity, security, and technological sophistication, but in which demands for some form of greater political participation will neither arise nor be met. We should set a high standard of proof for why Confucianism or some other factor will be an insuperable obstacle to democracy but not to other parts of the modernization package.
Two sets of arguments are put forward for “Asian exceptionalism,” the first of which is cultural and the second of which is political. The cultural argument revolves around the assertion that most Asian societies lack a concept of the individual in anything like the Western sense. It is probably true, as Samuel P. Huntington argues, that we in the West tend to underestimate the degree to which modern democracy was born in the cradle of a Christian culture, and that the latter culture was one source of both Western universalism and Western egalitarianism. 1 With its origins in individual conscience and revolt against established authority, the Reformation also had a...