Pankaj Mishra writes: Modern history is the story of how liberal democracy, originating in the U.K. and America, spread around the world. This may sound like an absurd fantasy. In actuality, this Whiggish narrative of progress underpins most newspaper editorials, political commentary and speeches in the West, and frames larger views of political developments in the non-West.
It accounts for the gloomy undertone to Freedom House’s latest report, which records the shrinking of liberal democracy worldwide. Even countries with regular elections, such as India, are far from upholding the notion of liberalism, which advocates the maximizing of individual rights for the fullest realization of human potential.
Perhaps we should discard the ideological prejudice that assumes the universalization of liberal democracy. We might then be able to see dispassionately the true multiplicity of political forms, how they came into being and what they portend.
The specific socioeconomic conditions that enabled both liberalism and democracy, such as the Reformation’s stress on individual responsibility or industrial capitalism, were particular to Western Europe and America.
They couldn’t be recreated elsewhere easily, especially among countries trying to catch up to the West. Japan, the first non-Western country to try to become modern, became an economic and military power without enshrining liberal concerns for individual rights.
Before Japan, there was Germany, another society that embarked on industrialization relatively late compared with the rest of Western Europe, and was modernized by a strong centralized state.
Neither Germany nor Japan embraced the traditions of Anglo-American liberalism, which encouraged individualism, laissez-faire economics and a fundamental distrust of state power. Individual rights were subordinated to the economic and military imperatives of countries lurching late into the modern world. [Continue reading…]