Alternate Paths to Political Modernization Research Paper

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Political modernization has three different, yet related, meanings. In political discourses, it refers to successful and enduring adaptation of a nontraditional political system to societal change in a way which secures system maintenance and political innovation. Political modernization may also be used of political development of a previously nonmodern or semi-modern political system to a higher level of political modernity. The most widespread use of political modernization is that of a long-term, deep-seated transformation of a nonmodern, mostly traditional political system in a post-traditional modern political order.

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1. The Term Political Modernization

The defining characteristics of political modernization embrace above all (a) ‘rationalization of authority’ (i.e., the replacement of traditional political authority by single, secular, national political authority), (b) ‘differentiation of new political functions and the development of specialized structures to perform these functions,’ and (c) ‘mass participation’ in politics (Huntington 1966, p. 378). All these characteristics may be framed by a democratic political order, such as in a constitutional democracy, a semi-democratic order or a nondemocratic political system, as in the socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Political modernization may include the transformation of an autocracy in a democracy, or the transformation of a regime with limited political participation in a political system dominated by mass participation, continuous differentiation, unification and centralization of the political system, and competitive struggles for the acquisition of power. But it has also been common in modernization theories of the 1950s and 1960s to refer political modernization to socioeconomic and political development in nondemocracies, such as in the former socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, or in more or less advanced autocracies (see, for example, Rustow 1967, pp. 249–58, 272–82, and Zapf 1991). Despite the diversity of politically modern regimes, the most advanced states of political modernization are commonly attributed to the constitutional democracies of post-World War II North American or West European origin.

In contrast to premodern political systems, the complexity of the political functions and the complexity of political survival are significantly larger within the context of advanced levels of political modernization. Following Samuel Eisenstadt’s contribution to modernization theory (Eisenstadt 1973), this can be attributed largely to the twofold task confronting rulers within advanced political modernity: To cope simultaneously with objective pending problems, including mobilization of economic resources and taxation, and to mobilize permanent political support.

2. Routes to Political Modernization

Many routes lead to political modernization. The most ancient route has been that of Western Europe. That trajectory was mainly derived from, or overlaid with, conflicts of class. A second route was opened through the creation of overseas migration to the New Worlds of North America and Australasia. Political development in the ‘colonial zone’ (Therborn 1995, p. 6) marked a third path to political modernization. A fourth route has resided in those cases in which a policy of defensive modernization, initially adopted mainly for the purpose of strengthening the ‘power state,’ was ultimately conducive to democratizing the polity of the country, such as in Japan and South Korea, for example.

A fifth trajectory to political modernization has taken place in Central and Eastern European postcommunist countries. That path involves two modernization processes: First, authoritarian modernization until the fall of the Iron Curtain between Eastern and Western Europe in 1990, and, second, advanced ‘modernization of modern states’ (Zapf 1991) in the period after 1990. Thus, political modernization exists within diverse political, cultural, and economic contexts. It is by no means confined to socioeconomically developed or relatively rich nations, and it is not an exclusive trademark of democratic countries.

3. Simple and Complex Patterns of Political Modernization

The plurality of routes that led to political modernization, and the heterogeneity of the outcome, have challenged the conventional wisdom of socioeconomic theories of modernization. In a stylized fashion, one can distinguish between theories of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ patterns of political modernization. Theories of simple political modernization patterns tend to regard modernization of the polity as relatively uniform, homogeneous, stable, irreversible, and largely free of major crises. This family of theories also expected more benefits than costs from political modernization. In contrast to this, theories of complex modernization patterns tend to conceptualize the process of political modernization as heterogeneous, pluralistic, precarious, crisis-ridden, and reversible. Moreover, these theories also focus attention on side effects, unintended consequences, and massive social costs associated with political modernization. According to this view, political modernization does not necessarily generate a fairer and more efficient political system.

The shift in focus from simple to complex patterns of political modernization mirrors that political modernization on the one hand, and socioeconomic development as well as political performance on the other, are only loosely interconnected. For example, economic and social development may be associated with modernity or traditionalism, and with democratization or maintenance of authoritarian regimes. The latter is exemplified by the former socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe; contemporaneous examples include the economically advanced oil-exporting states in the Middle East. Furthermore, democratic modernization can be achieved not only at a relatively advanced stage of socioeconomic development, but also on a far lower level. With development, A. Przeworski and F. Limongi (1997, p. 178) have argued, democracy can flourish in poor countries. This view is evidenced by both the democratization of former Third World countries in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and the maintenance of democracy in these states. Finally, a relatively advanced stage of socioeconomic development does not necessarily preclude the breakdown of democracy. The collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1933 is a particularly dramatic example of the vulnerability and fragility of a democracy.

4. Determinants of Successful Paths to Political Modernization

The plurality of routes to political modernity is mirrored by a wide variety of factors that are conducive to, or inhibit, the effort to modernize a country politically. None of the influences on political modernization is related deterministically to successful or unsuccessful outcomes. Among the factors which facilitate political modernization, sustained economic growth deserves to receive the foremost mention, while the level of economic development is, beyond a certain threshold, not decisive. But sustained economic stagnation or a long period of economic decline is likely to block every route to political modernization. The driving forces of successful political modernization include a political culture in which civil and social rights of individuals are emphasized, and where the right to participate in political life is regarded as a value. Moreover, the chances for successful political modernization tend to be higher in ethnically relatively homogeneous countries, and lower in more heterogeneous states. However, appropriate techniques of compromise building, such as consociationalism, can bridge sharp ethnic differences. The determinants of political modernization outcomes include political action on the part of collective and individual actors, as well as actor constellations. For example, the distribution of power between traditional and modernization-oriented elites is of importance, and so, too, is the distribution of power between elites and counter-elites. Large protest movements demanding political modernization are also relevant players. Supportive factors include coalitions between social classes which are conducive to democracy, such as the coalition between labor and an independent bourgeoisie, or ‘red–green’ coalitions between labor and independent peasants. The degree of affinity between modernization-oriented elites and major traditional values, as well as the preferences of the most important societal groups, also deserve to receive mention. Furthermore, international factors make a difference. Democratic political modernization, for example, flourishes within the context of a democracy-friendly international environment. In contrast to this, an international environment full of enemies of democracies imposes major restrictions on democratic inauguration and consolidation. Deep-seated cultural traditions have long been regarded as obstacles to political modernization. However, more recent theories point out that cultural traditions can also contribute to political modernization, such as the case of defensive modernization in a country ruled by traditional elites demonstrates (see, for example, the Japanese case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

Like other complex and dynamic processes, political modernization generates different types of outcome— intended and unintended. In contrast to the first generation of modernization theory in the 1950s and 1960s, later generations place more emphasis on unintended, if not self-destructive, outcomes, such as the strengthening of revolutionary tendencies through reforms, or self-destructive costs of rapid modernization, or generation of risks for future generations, such as high ecological costs, or irreversible policy. This tendency manifests itself most clearly in the theory of ‘risk society’ (Beck 1986) and the theory of ‘reflexive modernization’ (Beck et al. 1997).


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