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Democracy versus autocracy: The battle of our times?

In the 1990s, democracy was thought to be the political system of the future. This expectation has turned out to be obsolete. Political scientist Professor Barbara Zehnpfennig has now analysed the possible reasons for the Research Magazine.

Professor Barbara Zehnpfennig has held the Chair of Political Theory and the History of Ideas at the University of Passau since 1999. One of her life's ambitions is to research the political thought that spawned the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century. She has studied Hitler's "Mein Kampf" intently, and the book was also the topic of her habilitation thesis.

Professorin Barbara Zehnpfennig

In a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), she is currently researching the idea worlds of the politically persecuted and of persecutors in Eastern Germany. Her work also focuses on antique philosophy and the emergence of the foundations on which our democracies are built. She has been a member of the Bavarian Academy of the Sciences and Humanities since 2017. Professor Zehnpfennig has repeatedly commented about contentious topics in the public, political discourse from a democratic-theoretical perspective and does not shy away from conflict and disputes with different sides. In 2021, she was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit for her commitment. On 1 July 2022, Professor Zehnpfennig will be holding her valedictory lecture. When she was appointed professor 23 years ago, there was still hope that, after the downfall of the USSR, democracy would prevail as the dominating form of government. The political scientist's farewell comes at a time where an autocrat is waging war in Europe and the Western model of democracy is in decline around the world. She has agreed to analyse the possible reasons for the Research Magazine.

No one likely still holds the optimistic expectation entertained in the nineties of the last century that democracy is the political system of the future and will continuously spread around the world. The trend has definitely turned. According to the current Bertelsmann Transformation Index, more democracies than autocratic regimes have been recorded worldwide for the first time since 2004. The ratio is currently 70 to 67, with the number of autocratic regimes on the rise. The boundaries between the two seem fluid. Worrying developments may occur even in established and recognised democracies, for example in terms of the rule of law or plurality of the media – we need only consider countries like Hungary or Poland. The belief that the 'freedom virus' is so contagious that no one is impervious to it once they have come in contact with the virus has proven to be obsolete. Freedom, that central value of democracy along with equality, can also frighten people off. Russia is a good case in point.

Moscow's Kremlin, Russia's political and religious centre since the 13th century.

Russia has never been a free country, as the tsarist empire preceding the Soviet regime relied on serfs from amongst most of the peasant population and on the support of the imperial army by a service gentry, which itself was dependent on it. The tsars enjoyed autocratic rule, meaning their rule was derived from their own power, which was undisputed and uncontrolled. Coercion and violence were commonly used tactics of power. Timid attempts at reform in the 20th century were smashed when the Bolsheviks seized power. Lenin's and Stalin's terror followed, claiming many millions of lives. After De-Stalinisation in the fifties, reprisals decreased but the Soviet Union was far from being a free country. The absolute power wielded by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union made sure of that.

When the Communist regime collapsed, everything suddenly seemed possible – the centralised state had disintegrated and was no longer able to control every aspect of life. But what the people lived through in those wild nineties was unbridled crime and ubiquitous violence perpetrated not only by the state but by mafia gangs. Freedom became synonymous with the survival of the fittest. Instead of a liberal market economy, people had to contend with dog-eat-dog capitalism. The totalitarian state had been supplanted by a feeble state structure that failed to hold criminals in check, letting them do as they please or even sharing in their booty instead. This experience was incredibly impactful. In their first real encounter with freedom, it appeared in the guise of arbitrariness, disorder and brutal self-assertion. That may have been a boon for profiteers but not for their victims, meaning the majority of the people.

Where freedom signifies chaos and uncertainty, a longing for order and security will arise – even if at the price of ever tighter constraints on the freedom of movement and the repression of dissenters.

Professor Barbara Zehnpfennig

It therefore comes as no surprise that an autocrat like Vladimir Putin succeeded and gradually managed to concentrate all the power in his hands. Where freedom signifies chaos and uncertainty, a longing for order and security will arise – even if at the price of ever tighter constraints on the freedom of movement and the repression of dissenters. Too few people were able to experience the positive sides of freedom, self-determination and that open horizon when choosing of how to live their lives. These positive sides always require taking on responsibility for one's own actions. Freedom is no gift but a task. Many people balk at this responsibility, particularly when they are unfamiliar with it. They would prefer having someone else decide for them. This may even lead to a sense of forbearance when facing harm, which people who were socialised in a free environment find difficult to understand. However, this is one of the reasons why democracy does not simply continue to spread around the world.

Democracy, which was invented in ancient Greece and needed to go through a long historical evolution before establishing itself in the US and the European countries, has many prerequisites that do not exist in all places. The universalist idea of humanity is a key concept: In their rational aptitude or their likeness to God (both basically say the same thing), all humans share a deep commonality; in this they are all the same. Consequently, everything that distinguishes them from one another, for instance as regards origin, sex, skin colour, religious and sexual orientation, is of secondary importance. Their common humanity establishes the eternal value of each individual; humanity becomes manifest in the human being. As a rational being, every human being has the freedom to choose between possibilities. This freedom comes with the responsibility to account for the consequences of one's actions.


National People's Congress in Beijing, China.

Human rights, which constitute individual and not collective rights, were only able to emerge on the basis of such an individualised concept of humanity. As a result, nations with a collectivist orientation, such as China, consider human rights a specifically Western invention that cannot be implemented in their own country. And in large parts of the Islamic world, where humans are primarily seen as part of the ummah, i.e. the religious community, and sovereignty is to be found solely in God and not in the state, western democracy is a model that appears downright incompatible with the system. The rule of law, the principle of representation of the people by parliamentary institutions, the idea that power should not be concentrated in one place but divided between different state institutions – all these components of the democratic order find their origin in the previously referenced notion of humanity and needed many centuries of experience and development throughout history before they were able to take on their present form.

If there is no such historical and cultural backdrop of pervasive influences, any efforts to export democracy will be pointless – see Afghanistan, which has fallen back into the hands of the Taliban after a short-lived semi-democratic intermezzo. Other countries like China profess to be democratic but are in fact cruel dictatorships or even totalitarian regimes – particularly as they seek to control even human thought. As democracy is seen in a positive light, most countries around the world will hold elections to form a government. However, these elections are often not free but manipulated and serve to legitimise tyrants kept in power by corrupt cliques.

As history has shown, however, no rogue state lasts forever. At some point the destructiveness of the wrong done turns on the state itself.

Professor Barbara Zehnpfennig

What can therefore be said is that democracy continues to be held in high regard around the world even when dictatorships simulate democratic procedures in order to conceal their true character. Practicing democracy is contingent on many historical and cultural factors and has little chances of succeeding if these prerequisites are lacking. And even if the necessary conditions are met, it takes a continuous struggle to sustain a democratic order, because, unlike autocratic regimes, democracies pivot on negotiation, compromise and the rule of law. Autocratic systems are easy to set up in that they rely on the greed for power and lucre among those who support the tyrant and can expect to receive a fitting reward in return. Once established, the fear of the oppressed assures their continued existence. As history has shown, however, no rogue state lasts forever. At some point the destructiveness of the wrong done turns on the state itself. There is thus no reason to suppose the decline in lawfulness an irreversible process. Yet, to believe in the automatism of the democratisation process it likewise unrealistic. All that can be done is to support democratic efforts wherever they arise and to hope that they gradually supplant the legacies that work against them.

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