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Democracy and the Quest for Social Rights

By Donatella della Porta

19 January 2015


“Can governments that dissociate economic from political freedoms endure and prosper over the long term?” I think the question the WEF in Davos aims to address in the session “The End of Democracy?” is misleading, as it assumes a relation between economic and political freedoms that is not confirmed by the historical evolution of our societies. As much research in historical sociology has abundantly demonstrated, capitalism, in its different forms, grew quite well under authoritarian regimes that accumulated resources and distributed them unequally thanks to the lack of political freedoms. In fact, it has been the labour movement, rather than the middle classes, the stronger promoter of political freedoms, pushing for the expansion of civil, political and social rights. This is why, also nowadays, neoliberal experiments have been tried and tested by some of the most brutal dictators (Pinochet in Chile, to name just one example), and many coups d’état have been supported by at least part of the national bourgeoisie. If we look beyond the rhetoric of those regimes, this was the case also for the Nazi and Fascist regimes respectively in Germany and Italy. As scholars of authoritarianism have proved, also later on, in Latin America or Southern Europe, dictatorships have been supported as only defence of economic freedoms against those who claimed social rights.   

An important question to address, if one wants to understand what is going wrong with democracy and how to revive it is in fact, “Can governments that dissociate social rights from political freedoms endure and prosper over the long term?”. My answer is no. Social rights have historically always functioned as an important element in legitimating democracy, which has grown with and through the growth of civil and political, but also social rights. In the past, democratisation processes have been in fact promoted, among others, through economic help that allowed the states to implement fundamental rights, like housing, education, health, social protection. The main idea behind this conception of rights, still very much internalised by citizens, is that the states should guarantee them at least a modicum of welfare. Already in the democratisation processes in Eastern Europe in 1989, and even more in recent times, social rights have been instead forgotten, even considered as hampering economic development. As a result, the very people who struggled for democracy have often been strongly disappointed with the regimes that replaced dictatorships - as recently in the case of the Arab Spring - , because of their lack of willingness or capacity to address the claims for dignity, which were strongly linked to the claim for freedom.

If democracy has to be revived, a very first requirement is indeed a return to social rights, with a reduction of those increasing social inequalities that are at the basis of much political disaffection. 


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