Some of the classical theorists of democracy were troubled by this transition. Rousseau distrusted representative democracy because he sensed it would replace the “General Interest” or “General Will” of the people with what he called the “Corporate Interest” of their elected representatives. Marx and Engels were famously contemptuous of representative democracy because, in their view, it simply concealed the ruling economic interests of the bourgeoisie behind the figleaf of parliamentary politics. Perhaps most critical was the political sociologist Robert Michels, who saw elections evolve from being a method by which the people replaced their leaders to a mechanism through which people were manipulated by their leaders to install them permanently in power. Michels went on to assert that representative democracies could not escape the “iron law of oligarchy.”
The fears of these classical theorists of political science became realities in the post-uprising systems of governance that emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Even as traditional elites hijacked the resurgent parliamentary systems, the US and the multilateral agencies subverted them to push through austerity programs that the authoritarian regimes they previously supported had no longer been able to impose on recalcitrant citizenries. It soon became clear that what Washington and the multilateral agencies wanted from the new democratic regimes was for them to use their legitimacy to impose repressive economic adjustment programs and debt management policies. In Argentina, for instance, the international financial institutions pressured the post-dictatorship government of Raul Alfonsin to abandon neo-Keynesian policies, implement tax reforms, liberalize trade, and privatize enterprises. When the government quailed, the World Bank suspended disbursements of a structural adjustment loan to bring it into line.
The Arab Revolution extends this challenge to the democratic imagination to create institutions that will promote greater direct intervention by citizens, sustain popular participation in decisionmaking, block the subversion of the electoral process by elite interests and money politics, and reestablish the primordial link between liberty, fraternity, and equality that has animated all great democratic upheavals since the French Revolution.
The revolutionary democrats of the Arab world have an opportunity to bring about the next stage in the global democratic revolution. Will they accept the challenge, or will they withdraw back to private life, as some have indicated, leaving older generations of politicians to come to center-stage with their tired, archaic western models of representative democracy.