Beyond the Elites?

  • Graeme Gill


The dominance of the élite focus in studies of democratic transition was a reaction to the failure of the earlier attempt to identify prerequisites for democracy discussed in Chapter 1. But the shift away from a search for prerequisites seemed to bring a downplaying of all notions of structural considerations as being of any relevance to the explanation of transition. Not all authors writing on transition have eschewed structural factors (for example, in the O’Donnell/ Schmitter/Whitehead collection the studies of Venezuela and Brazil give some attention to structural factors underpinning the respective transitions1), but the overwhelming emphasis of this school of analysis has been upon contingent choice and the role of élites. In the words of one critic of this approach:

the dynamics of the transition revolve around strategic interactions and tentative arrangements between actors with uncertain power resources aimed at defining who will legitimately be entitled to play in the political game, what criteria will determine the winners and losers, and what limits will be placed on the issues at stake.2


Civil Society Authoritarian Regime Democratic Transition Authoritarian Rule Transition Literature 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Luciano Martins, ‘The “Liberalization” of Authoritarian Rule in Brazil’ and Terry Lynn Karl, ‘Petroleum and Political Pacts: The Transition to Democracy in Venezuela’, Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Latin America (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Terry Lynn Karl, ‘Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America’, Comparative Politics 23, 1, October 1990, p. 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 3.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Transitions... Tentative Conclusions, p. 5.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The most explicit in this is the work of Adam Przeworski.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Transitions... Tentative Conclusions.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For example, according to Huntington, ‘democratic regimes that last have seldom, if ever, been instituted by mass popular action.’ Samuel P. Huntington, ‘Will More Countries Become Democratic?’, Political Science Quarterly 99, 2, 1984, p. 212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    One attempt to theorize transition using game theory does build in a role for the mass of the population, but this is only in a subsidiary capacity, as giving support usually to the regime challengers. In this view, what is crucial is the positions of the regime defenders and challengers, and the willingness and capacity of the defenders to defy or even suppress the popular view. But this élite-focused approach concentrating on élite preferences eschews consideration of the relative unity and power of the respective élites, any connections between élites and mass, and the way that the mass make their preferences known. Gretchen Casper and Michelle M. Taylor, Negotiating Democracy. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Transitions from Authoritarian Rule...Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Enrique A. Baloyra (ed.), Comparing New Democracies. Transition and Consolidation in Mediterranean Europe and the Southern Cone (Boulder, Westview Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    As one student has argued, to say that democratization began with division inside an authoritarian regime is not to say very much because such divisions ‘are presumably ubiquitous and not readily identified as significant apart from the phenomenon they are intended to explain.’ Karen L. Remmer, ‘New Theoretical Perspectives on Democratization’, Comparative Politics 28, 1, October 1995, p. 107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Although there have been cases when political élites not under any pressure from the populace embarked on a course of liberalization in an attempt to improve the performance of the regime. Gorbachev’s USSR is a good case in point.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Fernando H. Cardoso, ‘Entrepreneurs and the Transition Process: The Brazilian Case’, Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead (eds), Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. Comparative Perspectives (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 137–153.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Regime Overthrow and the Prospects for Democratic Transition in Portugal’, Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead (eds.), Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. Southern Europe (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    This point is made in Daniel H. Levine, ‘Paradigm Lost: Dependence to Democracy’, World Politics 40, 3, April 1988, p. 390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For example, see note 7 above.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Linz and Stepan do talk about the deepening of democracy, meaning the quality of it, but this is not part of their definition, nor is it discussed in their analysis. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 457.Google Scholar
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    See Levine, p. 385.Google Scholar
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    Levine, p. 394.Google Scholar
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    See Adam Przeworski, ‘Democracy as a Contingent Outcome of Conflicts’, Jon Elster and Rune Slagstad (eds.), Constitutionalism and Democracy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
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    Even the most sophisticated structural accounts of change are unsatisfactory unless they give due weight to the activity of political actors. For example, see Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions. A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Karl, ‘Dilemmas...’, p. 6.Google Scholar
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    Klaus Nielsen, Bob Jessop and Jerzy Hausner, ‘Institutional Change in Post-Socialism’, Jerzy Hausner, Bob Jessop and Klaus Nielson (eds.), Strategic Choice and Path Dependency in Post-Socialism. Institutional Dynamics in the Transformation Process (Aldershot, Edward Elgar, 1995), p. 6. The determinative orientation of these authors’ view of path dependency is reflected in the fact that they contrast this with a notion of path shaping, whereby forces can intervene at certain conjunctures to eliminate constraints and launch development onto a new path. pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
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    Nielsen et al, p. 6.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of this issue, see the classic accounts in Eric A. Nordlinger, Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and Governments (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1977) Chapter 4, and S.E. Finer, The Man on Horseback. The Role of the Military in Politics (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1975) Chapter 11.Google Scholar
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    Adam Przeworski, ‘The Games of Transition’, Scott Mainwaring, Guillermo O’Donnell and J. Samuel Valenzuela (eds.), Issues in Democratic Consolidation. The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), p. 117.Google Scholar
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    Terry Lynn Karl and Philippe C. Schmitter, ‘Modes of Transition in Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe’, International Social Science Journal 128, May 1991, p. 272.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    See the argument in Karen L. Remmer, ‘Redemocratization and the Impact of Authoritarian Rule in Latin America’, Comparative Politics 17, 3, April 1985, pp. 253–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    To quote the titles of two very influential books. William McNeill, The Rise of the West. A History of the Human Community (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1963) and E. L. Jones, The European Miracle. Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
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    Barrington Moore Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969, originally published in 1966).Google Scholar
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    For one discussion substantially in these terms, see Lester M. Salamon, ‘Comparative History and the Theory of Modernization’, World Politics 23, 1, October 1970, pp. 97–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a good short discussion, upon which the following rests, see Ronald P. Dore, ‘Making Sense of History’, Archives européennes de sociologie X, 1969, p. 297.Google Scholar
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    Discussion will not embrace the fourth path, which does not lead to the same sort of political outcome as those with which Moore is most concerned.Google Scholar
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    Moore, p. 434 cf Theda Skocpol, ‘A critical review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy’, Politics and Society 4, 1, 1973, pp. 14–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Although there were many times when perceived interests did not coincide, e.g. the cases of emancipation and the Stolypin reforms in Russia were instances when the state sought to alter existing power arrangements in the countryside.Google Scholar
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    Moore, p. 418.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    As well as those used in the following discussion, see J. V. Femia, ‘Barrington Moore and the Preconditions for Democracy’, British Journal of Political Science 2, 1, 1972; Stanley Rothman, ‘Barrington Moore and the Dialectics of Revolution: An Essay Review’, American Political Science Review 64, 1, March 1970; Jonathan Tumin, ‘The Theory of Democratic Development’, Theory and Society 11, 2, 1982; Ton Zwaan, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. Tumin’s Theory of Democratic Development: A Comment’, Theory and Society 11, 2, 1982; Brian M. Downing, ‘Constitutionalism, Warfare, and Political Change in Early Modern Europe’, Theory and Society 17, 7, 1988. For a discussion of the critics see Jonathan M. Wiener, ‘The Barrington Moore Thesis and Its Critics’, Theory and Society 2, 1975.Google Scholar
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    For example, Dore, pp. 298–99.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Indeed, this general point applies to all of the class actors in Moore’s analysis.Google Scholar
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    For one critic who makes much of the difficulty of measuring the strength of what she calls the ‘bourgeois impulse’, see Skocpol.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    See the discussion in Ralf Dahrendorf, Society and Democracy in Germany (Garden City, Doubleday, 1969), Chapters 3 and 4.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Zwaan, p. 173.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Timothy A. Tilton, ‘The Social Origins of Liberal Democracy: The Swedish Case’, American Political Science Review 68, 2, June 1974 and Francis G. Castles, ‘Barrington Moore’s Thesis and Swedish Political Development’, Government and Opposition 8, 3, Summer 1973.Google Scholar
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    Tilton and Castles.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Castles, p. 330.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Tilton, p. 569.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    The absence of a standing army, and therefore of the possibility of repression, may also have been significant. Tilton, p. 568.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Goran Therborn, ‘The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy’, New Left Review 103, May–June 1977.Google Scholar
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    Moore, pp. 30–32.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    For example, see the argument in Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London, Verso, 1979, originally published 1974).Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    See Moore, p. 214 and the discussion by Skocpol, p. 29.Google Scholar
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    Therborn, pp. 21–23; Michael Mann, ‘War and Social Theory: into Battle with Classes, Nations and States’, Michael Mann, States, War and Capitalism. Studies in Political Sociology (Oxford, Blackwell, 1988), pp. 158–159 and Michael Howard ‘War and the Nation State’, Daedalus 108, 1979.Google Scholar
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    Moore, p. 414.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    This is a more useful way of approaching this question than Skocpol’s insistence upon notions of state autonomy. The latter may be reduced to an issue of differences in historical interpretation between Moore and Skocpol on particular periods, because an assumption about the possibility of state autonomy seems to underpin much of Moore’s analysis.Google Scholar
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    Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy (Cambridge, Polity, 1992). For an earlier version, see John D. Stephens, ‘Democratic Transition and Breakdown in Western Europe, 1870–1939: A Test of the Moore Thesis’, American Journal of Sociology 94, 5, March 1989.Google Scholar
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    Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens, p. 77.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    The working class was not always the main actor. In the agrarian democracies of Switzerland and Norway, the working class was politically included and democracy was established by peasant-urban middle class coalitions before the working class became a significant political actor. Stephens, pp. 1032 and 1035.Google Scholar
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    Also see the discussion in Chapter 3 above.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Rueschemeyer et al, pp. 80–81.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Kurth argues that the bourgeoisie need not be subordinated to agrarian classes in order for this alliance to come about. He argues that the economic situation of that class, or of segments of it, the need to maintain control over the working class, and the role of the state in industrialization, logically leads the bourgeoisie to alliance with a similarly-placed class in the rural area. James R. Kurth, ‘Industrial Change and Political Change: A European Perspective’, David Collier (ed.), The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
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    Stephens, p. 1038.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Rueschemeyer et al, p. 83.Google Scholar
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    Karl and Schmitter, p. 271. Examples cited of countries where these did not exist are respectively Venezuela and Chile, and Greece, northern Italy, Argentina and Uruguay.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    See the argument in Robert M. Fishman, ‘Rethinking State and Regime: Southern Europe’s Transition to Democracy’, World Politics 42, 3, April 1990, pp. 422–440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. 70.
    And an interim government to administer the transition is unlikely.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    This sort of schema also enables us to place classic types of regimes in comparative positions along these axes, and thereby to generalize about their propensity to experience democratic transition. Classic totalitarianism: high regime unity and atomized society. Military regime: usually high unity (especially if it is a Linz/Stepan hierarchical military regime, less so for a non-hierarchical regime) and society with some civil society elements. One man leadership: usually high unity but with high potentiality to disintegrate, and society with some civil society elements. Bureaucratic authoritarianism: segmentary regime, emergent civil society. Traditional authoritarianism: segmentary regime, weak beginnings of civil society.Google Scholar

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© Graeme Gill 2000

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  • Graeme Gill

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