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Time to dust off the old books on “transitions to democracy”


With the "successful" overthrow of the Mubarak/NDP dictatorship in Egypt and that of Ben Ali in Tunisia, it looks as though we're witnessing a new wave of democratic revolutions and "transitions to democracy", only this time in the Arab world.

Previous "waves" of democratization in Eastern Europe during the 1970s and in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s were analyzed by "transition theorists" – most of them liberal democrats or supporters of one for or another of representative systems based on constitutionally-defined political party systems, electoral or procedural methods of representative selection, majority rule and respect for minorities, "free and fair" elections, freedom of the press and freedom of organization, and respect for "life, liberty, and property" of individuals.

A key component of previous "waves of democratization" has been the development of social movements and their conversion into a civil society. Although the dictatorial regimes against which they've risen are not the ones defining these various social movements into a civil society, and although sometimes these movements themselves define themselves in those terms, as happened most clearly in Easter Europe during the 1970s, it is the "international community" led by the forces of Empire, the global corporate media, and local liberal forces the ones that have created "civil societies" out of the radical grassroots social movements that have sparked social and political change. This happened most clearly in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. And it is because of this internationally-imposed agenda of "civil society" on grassroots groups – for funding reasons, for recognition and respectability, for legitimacy and ultimate inclusion in the official public sphere – that these groups end up adopting the language of liberal tolerance and civility and accept the terms of revolutionary surrender in favour of some measure of inclusion into the matrix of hegemonic power relations.

It is interesting to note how the most recent examples of revolution in Latin America, those of Venezuela and Bolivia, have defined themselves largely without the use of the language of civil society, liberal tolerance and civility, or the language of transitions to democracy or human rights. Within Venezuela and Bolivia, actually, it is the right-wing, petty-bourgeois, and largely US-EU-IMF and World Bank-financed (e.g. the Foreign Endowment for Democracy, USAID, the European Commission, Europe Aid and international foundations from the Rockefeller and Soros Foundations to the Friedrick Ebert, Ibis, and other European social-democratic, Christian democratic, and liberal foundations) and key INGOs – middle sectors, mostly in opposition to the property-changing policies of President Chavez and President Morales, their grassroots-empowering policies, their justice-driven redistributions of income, property, opportunities, public employment, their nationalizations and recovery of national dignity, and other policies, the ones that have adopted the language of liberal rights and are calling for a "transition to democracy". The language that most progressive grassroots groups have adopted in this part of the world is the language of radical, sustainable, and ecological community.

It is not surprising, then, that international media pundits, political commentators working for one policy think tank or another, for one research institute or another, are now going to be dusting off the books on "transitions to democracy", call the changes in the Arab world a "fourth wave of democratization", and begin applying the conceptual frameworks of liberal theory to them, hoping to secure for themselves and their "research" centres more western funding, but also and effectively helping to further neutralize the radical impulse of the Arab Revolution. This revolution can still reject the terms of the "transition" that the army is attempting to impose as well as the false revolution that that idea of "transition to democracy" implies.

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