Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Capitalist Development and Democracy in Latin America

Evelyne Huber Stephens, Northwestern University
In the current debate on redemocratization in Latin America, the focus is squarely on political variables proper, that is, on the political process as shaped by political institutions and leadership. Political choices by major actors, particularly the adoption of explicit or implicit political pacts designed to ensure the transition, are accorded primary importance. In fact, the most influential work on the topic has argued that the high indeterminacy of the process of transition makes the use of conventional social science categories and approaches, such as class, sectors, institutions, and macroeconomic and world systemic structures inadequate for its analysis (O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986:4).

Whereas this focus is certainly appropriate for the immediate transition period, the other important question, namely consolidation of democratic regimes in the medium and longer run, draws attention to underlying structural conditions favorable to such an endeavor. Analyses of the process of transition in a given country "freeze" the structural context; there is generally little structural change over the relatively short periods of transition. Furthermore, analyses comparing processes of transition in the late seventies and the eighties keep the world economic and political context constant, and they tend to take structure in the individual countries as a given. Taking a longer historical view, though, and asking under what conditions democracies were established and consolidated in Latin America in the past and are likely to be consolidated in the future moves structural variables back into the center of attention.1 Yet, with the exception of Therborn's (1979) attempt, there is no theoretically well grounded, comparative historical structural treatment of the emergence and decline of (nearly) democratic forms of rule which covers all the South American countries.

The following analysis provides such a treatment and demonstrates that structural factors have considerable explanatory power for the trajectory of democracy in South America. The nature of a country's integration into the world market (enclaves versus nationally controlled export sectors), the labor requirements of agriculture, the degree of subsidiary industrialization generated by the export sector, the process of consolidation of state power, the role of the state in shaping civil society, the class alliances to which the economic and social structures gave rise, along with the nature of political parties strongly influenced the dynamics of democratization. The relationships between these variables and democratic rule are by no means simple and unilinear. Some factors have contradictory consequences for democratization, some effects change over time, and the various factors interact over time. Accordingly, the analysis here will be comparative historical, paying attention to the way in which economic growth and the patterns of dependence shaped the class structure and class relations and influenced political change, and taking the lasting effects of certain historical conjunctures seriously.

The theoretical building blocks for this comparative historical analysis are Moore's (1966) emphasis on the importance of the survival of labor repressive landlords into the modern era, Skocpol's (1979) emphasis on the role of the state and the interstate system, Cardoso and Faletto's (1979) and O'Donnell's (1973) emphasis on the effects of dependent development on class structure and class alliances, and the working class strength perspective's (Korpi 1978; J. Stephens 1979; Esping-Andersen, 1985; Stephens and Stephens, 1986) emphasis on the importance of the organizational power of subordinate classes.

In a nutshell, I will argue that the difficult processes of consolidation of state power cast the military in a prominent role in politics, set the precedent for alliances between factions of civilian elites and of the military in the struggle for state power, and made institutionalization of contestation difficult. After a period of significant export expansion, large landowners in nationally controlled export economies tended to develop into a hegemonic class and to establish contestation among themselves. Where agriculture was labor intensive, these landowners became crucial obstacles to political inclusion of the lower classes; where it was less so, they were willing to compromise. In enclave economies, the large landowners were less hegemonic as a class, and in some cases anti-oligarchic alliances were able to force the establishment of a democratic regime, but unable to consolidate it. Where the export sector generated subsidiary industrialization and high urbanization, pressures for democratization emerged comparatively early. Import substitution industrialization generated such pressures everywhere, but the pressures remained weaker where the state prevented the independent political articulation of civil society, most prominently in Brazil. In enclave economies, there was a stronger tendency for middle class - working class alliances to emerge, forged by political parties approximating the mass party type. Such alliances were more likely to push for full democracy, i.e. with universal suffrage, than alliances between the middle classes and sectors of the economic elites which pushed for an opening of the political system and had their base in clientelistic parties. For the consolidation of democracy, particularly for the reduction of military involvement in politics, the presence of two or more strong political parties, at least one of which effectively represented elite interests, proved to be indispensable.

The analysis here will be confined to South America; political dynamics in the Central American countries, which were shaped to a much greater extent by U.S. political intervention, are analyzed elsewhere (Stephens and Stephens 1987). Since genuine democracies are so rare in South America and regime forms so varied, we first have to cast a conceptual net over this diversity and construct theoretically meaningful dependent variables. After proposing a classification of regimes according to their degree of contestation and inclusion and filling it with historical cases, I will first analyze the factors leading to the establishment of the various types of regimes, then the factors which support the consolidation or breakdown of democratic regimes, and finally those which promote redemocratization. The distinction between these different stages in the analysis is important because factors which are supportive of the installation of some form of democratic regime may not be so for its consolidation, and because the existence of a democratic regime profoundly influences future political dynamics.2

Full-Text is available at:

Paper prepared for the Meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 1988. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Meetings of the Latin American Studies Association, New Orleans, March 1988.

I would like to thank the Kellogg Institute of the University of Notre Dame, where much of the work on this paper was done, as well as Manuel Antonio Garretón, Guillermo O'Donnell, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, John D. Stephens, and J. Samuel Valenzuela for comments on earlier drafts. (EHS)

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