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Self-praise or self-criticism? (English Version)


Xulio Ríos is a renowned Spanish academic and the Director of the Chinese Policy Observatory.

By Xulio Ríos

Along with human rights, democracy must be understood as an integral concept. On many occasions it is reduced to an expression of a purely political nature, ignoring other variables. Although there are elections where the votes are carefully counted with governments formed on the basis of these results, etc., these results don’t go beyond being a formality as long as we do not take two things into account. First, that on too many occasions this is nothing more than a formal exercise when the real power is elsewhere. And here I am thinking mainly about the economic powers that through the “free” market and certain institutions (such as the IMF or the World Bank) determine national policies, while ignoring public opinion, the common good or the national interests themselves. This is an indisputable fact for large parts of the world. The world financial power today is to a large extent, the expression of real and effective power and, of course, it is not democratic: nor is it elected, nor does it address society or pursue its well-being. This trend has intensified in the last 30 years.


Secondly, political democracy without economic, social or cultural democracy is an amputated democracy, of very low quality. We need fundamental components to be able to say that we live in a democratic society. Some authors have defended the idea that only after reaching a certain income level can societies organize themselves democratically. In other words, poor countries cannot aspire to democracy. This is quite a reactionary vision, but also in supposedly rich societies, the cracks in what we call democracy can be enormous. These cracks such as corruption, lobbies, and even racism, xenophobia and organized violence, are all indications of the fragility of what we call democracy. On the other hand, it is equally debatable whether the introduction of the market and the achievement of certain levels of well-being in a society lead per se, almost inevitably, to a Western-style liberal democracy. There are more factors at play.

We need to be careful as we have seen that a strategy of systemic translation to socio-cultural environments (imposition of the institutions and mechanisms of a liberal democracy) can sometimes confront a certain civilization and culture of its own. This factor is also important. We believe that everything happens as in the West and it is not always like that. «Two people can sleep in the same bed and not share the same dream,» says a Chinese saying that is applicable in this case. We have dramatic cases in which that effort has had no other result than instability, chaos, poverty and destruction – in short, failed states whose future is problematic. And those who suffer these failures are local societies.


We can also speak of failure when democratic restoration has been accompanied by economic policies that, for example, have decimated public spending and increased the material poverty of the people. This has been seen a lot in Latin America, where privatization and other phenomena have increased social despair. This abounds in the idea of the integrality of democracy because this contradiction between the political and socio-economic dimensions reflects a chimera that can even lead to backwards steps when electoral legitimacy is insufficient when compared to the civic legitimacy that is determined by the non-adoption of policies oriented to the common good. In this context, democracy becomes an alibi to pass off policies that would otherwise open to question.

Democracy is a process. For many societies, the priority is economic and even physical subsistence when living immersed in the violence that ravages many realities. It can also be cultural, influenced by factors such as religious beliefs that determine the significance of social and individual responsibilities. This can be decisive, for example, in how some deal with corruption – a key phenomenon in democratic deterioration.

In democracy, policies oriented towards the common good are as important as social participation or the selection of elites. In the liberal West, the idea has emerged that the combination of pluralism and electoral competition guarantees popular sovereignty and legitimacy. The efficiency of any political system must be established by its capacity to promote development, freedom and security to the broad layers of the population. Therein lies a good part of a highly questioned credibility. The level of civil disaffection in the West and the valuation of the respective governments show that democracy is bleeding to death and that it requires more self-criticism than complacency, anomalies that cannot be repaired simply by pointing out others.

Therefore, rather than bragging, a deep self-criticism is needed, without the need to resort to point the finger at a hypothetical «enemy» in order to present democratic liberalism as a supposed lesser evil. On the contrary, what is needed is a deep look at the mechanisms that reinforce systemic incompetence in order to bring about a substantial improvement in the quality of a democracy that today is in low hours. We refer both to the low reliability of leaders in Western democracies, largely a product of the crisis in political parties, and to the oligarchic orientation of the policies they promote.

That same self-criticism should be extended to our international behavior, recognizing the tragic limits of “lasting freedom” operations promoted by blood and fire in recent years and which have resulted in dramatic disasters.

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Xulio Ríos is a renowned Spanish academic and the Director of the Chinese Policy Observatory. …