For almost two decades, the survival prospects and authenticity of new democracies has been assessed through the democratic consolidation paradigm which seeks to assess whether democracies are 'consolidated'. But an examination of the paradigm shows that it is vague, teleological and ethnocentric and measures new democracies against an idealised understanding of Northern liberal democracies rather than offering a plausible means of assessing longevity or democratic progress. Its inadequacy is further demonstrated by applying it to the South African case. The article thus argues for a new approach which rejects the consolidation paradigm's assumption that some democracies (those of the North) are a 'finished product' and acknowledges both that all democracies are incomplete and that each will show uneven progress, so that older democracies will lag behind newer ones in some areas of democratic quality while surpassing them in others.
An Alternative Understanding of Democratic Progress
Richard Turner and South African Liberalism
Richard Turner’s contribution to thinking on race in South Africa is often undervalued. As influential as his thinking on economic and social alternatives was, a close reading of his work in context suggests that his core concern was a critique of white liberalism, and that this was itself a means to a wider analysis of whiteness in a racially stratified society. An analysis of contemporary South Africa suggests that his critique remains an important resource in our attempt to discuss current realities. Acknowledging the centrality of racial domination in Turner’s thought highlights the continued salience of his understanding of South African social reality.
Reviving a Sense of Uncoerced Political Possibility
Utopian thought has been discredited because attempts to re-engineer society using Utopian formulae have invariably produced violence and despotism. But the apparent eclipse of Utopia has left a yawning gap, for economic and social conditions across the globe suggest a need for alternatives to the reigning social order - and thus for Utopian thinking which avoids the pitfalls of 'classical' Utopias. This needs to begin by recognising that the chief flaw in earlier Utopias is that they aspired to a world in which contention and conflict were banished. If Utopia is imagined as a state in which contest persists but in which all can contest equally without violence, it becomes a state in which democratic difference is not abolished - as in earlier Utopias - but in which it reaches its fulfillment. By conceptualising democracy as an 'openended' Utopia we can reconstruct the vision of an alternative which will legitimise neither violence nor the suppression of difference. Utopia is, in the mainstream of social and political thought, no longer seen as a subject for serious discussion. It is necessary that it become one again.