Mind the Jump: A Brief Response to Prof. Messay Kebede

Abiye Teklemariam Megenta

Professor Messay Kebede’s challenging essay, “The fallacy of TPLF’s developmental state,” makes a lot of fresh arguments and suggestions. Some of them are deeply unsettling to many of us who consider ourselves to be part of a pro-democracy struggle in Ethiopia. To the extent that we believe Messay himself is a member of our community — a towering intellectual figure at that — it is hard to escape a sense of deep disenchantment with what appears to be his abandonment of our deepest convictions. But that is not a good enough reason to react negatively towards the article. I agree with American political philosopher Michael Walzer that the internal critics, the incrementalists and foot-draggers, the prophets that are honoured in their own city, are better in achieving the goals of their criticism than the external hammer-on-the-skull critics. But the axe and the furious witnessing (to use Kafka’s phrase) are needed if communities are not to stagnate beyond reprieve, as ours seems to be heading towards. It is refreshing to see that Messay is willing to stick his neck out in service of reason and progress. But alas, most of his arguments, at least the arguments which matter, are far from persuasive.

The main point in Messay’s article is that it is not beyond Meles Zenawi to establish a developmental state provided that the present political structure is reformed in such a way that leaves, at least for some time, the ruling elite in power, but does not exclude the opposition from participating in the act of governing. This is an authoritarian scheme, insofar as its grounding is elite agreement, not voter choice. But Messay takes a hopeful, if not an overconfident, view that democratization is possible under the tutelage of these power sharing authoritarian elites.

The relevant literature in political science and political economy shows that this overconfidence is misplaced. There are diverse explanations of the democratization process, and Messay is on point to claim that elite-conceded or – to a lesser degree – elite-imposed democracy are not implausible. But there are few places where these democratization processes have started with power-sharing arrangements among competing political parties. As Harvard Political Scientist Pippa Norris argues, there is little evidence that power sharing “serves the long-term interests of democratic consolidation and durable conflict management”. As it turns out, the bulk of literature points to an opposite conclusion: that power sharing arrangements in full-scale authoritarian systems unravel quite quickly since the currency of trust and strength of agreement-enforcing political institutions on which the effectiveness of these arrangements rely are very low, or even worse, they lead to exclusionary bargaining systems and political culture that frustrate the emergence of democracy. It is good to note that in the very few cases where power sharing schemes have positive democratization effects, including some of the examples mentioned by Messay, the authoritarian states happened to have strong selectorate accountability, or they were less than full-scale authoritarianisms. In a simple language: the more the scale of authoritarianism, the less the actual democratization effect of power sharing arrangements. If what Messay says about the nature of Meles Zenawi’s rule is true, it makes his idea hopelessly mistimed.

It seems to me that what prompts Messay to consider this path to democratization is his enthusiasm for the developmental state. In a way, his aim is to kill two birds with one stone. But accepting elite authoritarian tutelage would not have been necessary had Messay been less dismissive of the concept of a democratic developmental state. Messay insists, plausibly enough, that the concept ignores the “defining characteristics of Asian Developmental States”. But that is not a good reason to reject altogether its realizability. Indeed, the histories of post-war Germany, Botswana, South Africa and many other countries suggest that a developmental state can be democratic. I do not know the “serious literature” on this issue to which Messay refers, but my understanding is that a good many developmental scholars agree that such states are possible, in both an ideal and non-ideal sense. If such agreement exists for political reasons as Messay contends – which I think is an implausibly strong claim – he fails to offer any evidence.

Also, Messay makes two rather common errors – both of the conflating sort – when he constructs his argument. First, he takes it for granted that neo-liberalism = liberalism. I think it is fair to say that this is a troublesome position. Philosopher John Holbo rightly calls the general tendency to conflate the two as “strawman-ing liberalism”. Some of the most vociferous critics of neo-liberalism – an economic philosophy that is best represented by the ”Washington consensus” – including Joseph Stiglitz, Meles Zenawi’s unabashed champion, are self-proclaimed liberals. The dominant thought in liberalism qua philosophy (to which such egalitarian stalwarts as Ronald Dworkin, Richard Arneson and John Rawls belong) doesn’t prima facie reject a developmental role for the state since the underpinnings of this thought are not property rights. Second, Messay seems to think that democracies are ipso facto liberal. I am sympathetic to the view that no democracy can be illiberal. This is not, however, similar to saying that no democracy can be non-liberal. Certainly, in Messay’s exalted field (political philosophy) there is a rich scholarly work on normative non-liberal democratic theories. The institutional implications of these theories have also been a subject of serious discussion by political scientists. It is not my aim to nitpick Messay for trivial purposes. It is to show that once one escapes such confusions, one can imagine the possibility of a democratic developmental state, and, dare I say, a liberal democratic developmental state.

Messay has much else to say, not least in his kicking of opposition parties in the shin for failing to grasp that Meles Zenawi had no intention to “go back to the situation of 2005”. This is an odd claim. My impression before the 2010 election was that if there was any single point that Ethiopian opposition groups agreed on, it was that Ethiopia was backsliding towards absolute authoritarianism. Am I missing something here? Some believed that their only way of connecting to Ethiopians was to use whatever political space the system provided them; some decided that this was a naïve view and chose a different path; there was a minority who continued to participate in the process with the hope that Meles Zenawi would come to see the follies of his ways. If members of this latter group committed any offence, it is in their anti-determinism, a view with which Professor Messay openly associates. I do not see how a person who advises Meles to make concessions can hold it against the opposition for acting on a similar belief unless the advice is intended to be no more than gestural.

I believe that Messay’s attempt to reflect on the matter of development and democracy in a decently nuanced manner is commendable. The Ethiopian opposition seems unwilling to give up the tiresome but emphatically false argument that democracy is a precondition for economic development. Democracy needs a better and a more convincing defence than one that tastes as a picked cherry or is based on dogmatic assertions that fly in the face of well-grounded knowledge. I can’t emphasise enough how emancipatory Messay’s article is. But its emancipatory value is in the freshness of its approach, not the force of its reason.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])