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When the belly is full the brain starts to think

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 7 February 2005


The world has more democracies than ever before. But they are home grown - they have not been imposed from the outside. This suggests that the American neo-conservative dream of exporting democracy to Iraq is doomed to failure.

As recently as three decades ago, few people would have predicted the current explosion of democracy.

Of course, there are various definitions of “democracy” and there are debates whether certain “democratic” countries are really “democratic”. The United States has a very low voter turnout - can it still claim to be a democracy? (The January 2005 Palestinian presidential election had a higher voter turnout - despite all the local problems - than the November 2004 US presidential one.)

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Leaving aside all the definitional issues, there is a wave of democracy sweeping around the world. Eastern Europe, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and even Indonesia are part of the global tidal wave of democracy. But in each case, the push for democracy has come from within the country - and not from the outside.

So what is happening? The key factors are domestic economic growth and globalisation.

A brutal dictatorship can run a poor peasant society based on agriculture. But it cannot run a modern industrial state, which requires the free flow of people, information and ideas.

For example, in my 1985 book Reshaping the Global Agenda I dealt with the USSR’s problems in confronting the challenges of economic modernisation and globalisation. On the one hand, the USSR was basically a Third World economy, based on agriculture and mining with only rudimentary industrialisation for consumer goods. On the other hand, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wanted to have economic reform to modernise the country to enable his citizens to have a better standard of living.

But to make modernisation happen, Gorbachev would need to allow the Soviet people to have access to information, computers etc and for his citizens to be able to communicate with each other freely. The Soviet people lived in an information vacuum. For example, there were no maps of Moscow and no telephone directories (either you knew the number in which case you did not need a directory - or you did not know the number in which case you were up to no good and should not be told it!)

If the Soviet Government allowed people to have more information, they would learn the facts of communist life and that it had many problems. They were not living in a communist heaven. Gorbachev took the risk. But the USSR collapsed six years later.

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When the belly is full the brain starts to think.

Poor peasants in tradition-based societies, living on isolated farms in desolate valleys and so on, do not make good revolutionaries. They are too worried about the perils of daily survival. The problem comes (if you are a dictator) from the rising middle class. They get a little money and then they want more. They can see that change is possible. The richer they become, the more politically restive they become.

In psychological terms, this process can be explained by the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This American psychologist argued that there were basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) that had to be addressed before getting on to the higher needs (with the top of the pyramid being “self-actualisation”). Poor people worrying about where their next meal is coming from or who have to spend several hours each day carrying water from a well to their rugged home, do not have much time for higher order issues, such as who is governing the country.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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