Neoliberalism is Destroying the Third Wave of Democracy

Harris A. Samad 

We hear about financial bailouts in developing countries from the IMF on a regular basis; Argentina, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and countless others. Such countries often spent decades or centuries under brutal, exploitative colonial rule from Europe. Despite this, many post-colonial countries have made astonishing strides in democratic development since they gained “independence” after World War II. Huntington’s Third Wave of Democracy took hold in the 1970’s and was heralded as a transition for the remaining authoritarian entities to become “open and free societies.” This wave has stalled, however, and even reversed in some countries. Why? We must first examine context.

While the Third Wave was emerging from the womb of popular revolutions, another shift was underway, emanating from Washington and London: the spread of neoliberalism. Such a doctrine preaches excessive individual responsibility, the cutting of social support and safety nets, deregulation, corporate tax relief, open financial borders and commodification of the human existence. You are born to work, and if you cannot, it is your fault, your responsibility, even if centuries of colonialism, war or enormous socio-economic barriers make it difficult or impossible to do so. No matter. It is all on your shoulders.

This shift is an attempt to maintain the exploitative relationship between former colonizers and “former” colonies – why are most of our clothes and toys made in sweatshops in developing (and often “Third Wave” democratic) countries, where the employees get paid a pittance to live in poverty while massive corporations heading these operations make billions in profits? Neoliberal policies from the IMF make cheap labor, resources and environmental exploitation accessible in former colonies. Notable examples: many parts of Central and South America, India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and more. 

Shockingly, this system does not work for everyone. Looking holistically at the international populist shift of the last decade or so, the people leading it hold one thing in common; they feel extremely disenchanted with the international socio-politico-economic system. The neoliberal order is creating outrageous wealth inequality, at the expense of the welfare of middle- and lower-class people. The environment, we are told, can go to hell, if it means making a few billion dollars in the meantime. The World Bank and IMF tout yearly GDP growth as a signifier that a country is doing well (Bangladesh as a great example), yet the distribution of resources there could hardly be called even vaguely equitable.

Xenophobia, backlash against minorities, freedom of press, freedom of religion, and the like are partially a response to the neoliberal world order that is providing for an absurdly wealthy elite at the expense of the rest of humankind. These “anti-democratic” movements are a product of decades of oligarchic and elitist restructuring of the world to benefit themselves. If we want to understand why Huntington’s Third Wave has stalled and even reversed in some places, it is important to look at the underlying frustrations that fuel authoritarian appeal in democratic societies; disenchantment with “the system,” inequality, poor access to essential services, terrible living and working standards, corporate consolidation of media, and a myriad of other sectors. 

In order to maintain democracy, the neoliberal order needs to go, and a more equitable international system that actually provides for the common person must be implemented. Otherwise, the resurgence of authoritarianism will continue. Socio-economic frustration almost always lends to the appeal of a “strongman” leadership personality. Approaches to supporting democracy must move away from this “sink-or-swim” elitist landscape that leaves many to fend for themselves, in a system where exploitation has always been the name of the game. 

A more welfare-oriented state system, that provides opportunities and social safety nets to all, but especially society’s most marginalized and exploited groups, should accompany programs to support pluralistic democracy. People cannot simply “lift themselves” out of poverty and instability in a system rooted in centuries of exploitation and colonialist “divide and conquer” strategies. It is the responsibility of the state to provide a reasonable standard of living and environment where opportunities flourish. The social democracies of Western Europe, imperfect and ethnically homogenous as they may be, demonstrate well the benefits that come with such a system. 

The elite-serving, oligarchic neoliberal order will continue to generate miserable, inequitable conditions where an anti-system, anti-democratic strongman government has enormous appeal. If we truly want to save Huntington’s Third Wave, it is time to design a democracy support system that actually provides, instead of deregulating, allowing Western clothing companies to build sweatshops, and calling that “opportunity.”

Harris A. Samad is a second-year in the Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown. He specializes in governance in fragile states in the MENA and Af-Pak region, in addition to the role of structural inequalities in conflict and development. Harris is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh in 2018.