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1 CES Open Forum Series

Two Paths to Democracy


We argue that differences in economic and political structures at the turn of the previous century caused two distinct paths of democratization in the currently advanced democracies. Countries which were "proto-corporatist" in the early to mid nineteenth century democratized subsequently under working class pressure (mainly Northern Europe and Scandinavia), while democracy was voluntarily extended in those countries that were "liberal" in this period (Britain and its settler colonies, and partially also France). Three reasons lay behind this: (1) Shaping an effective labor force in early industrialization required public goods, notably elementary education and sanitation, but proto-corporatist societies did not require democracy to provide them. Liberal societies, on the other hand, in which landowners were politically powerful and hostile to reform did. (2) In liberal countries the working class was fragmented into uncoordinated craft unions, hence not capable of sustained political pressure to bring about democracy; instead, democracy was the result of an inter-elite conflict, thus voluntarily extended by reformist elites. Industrialization in proto-corporatist societies, the other hand, generated industrial unionism and unified working class parties that could organize political pressure to bring about democracy. (3) Reformist elites in liberal countries did not fear that democracy would lead to major redistribution, since the fragmented working class meant that skilled workers and the middle classes would be opposed to redistribution to low income groups - reinforced by an elite-skilled worker-middle class coalition behind a majoritarian political system. By contrast, a unified working class threatened industrial elites in the proto-corporatist countries with redistribution once democracy was pushed through. As a consequence of these differences, liberal societies extended democracy voluntarily (after intra-elite struggles) because modernizers and industrialists needed political majorities to support public goods expansion, and they did not need to fear a unified working class; elites in proto-corporatist societies resisted democracy because they had the public goods anyway and had good reason to fear a unified working-class.