Polyarchy?? Oligarchy I recognise, and monarchy, and even anarchy, but who are you? (with apologies to Acts 19:15). The word was (first?) used in the mid-1970s, but “Promoting Polyarchy” is the title of a book published in 1996, written by William I. Robinson, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee. In it he describes a radical change in US foreign policy that had happened in the 1980s.
Before then the USA was notorious for supporting dictators- Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua, and the Duvaliers in Haiti, not to mention the Apartheid regime in South Africa. But in the 1980s this began to be rethought. It was not that the US was overly bothered about all the human rights violations (except when committed by left-wing governments), but they began to see that supporting extreme right-wing regimes could be counter-productive. In particular, it could alienate more “moderate” business and professional people, so making it far easier for left-wing governments to come to power: exactly what had happened in Nicaragua in 1979 with the Sandinistas, for example.
Although for domestic propaganda purposes these left-wing governments were labelled “Communist”, the issue with them was never (or rarely) that they were Cold War allies of the Soviet Union, but that their economic policies offered an alternative perhaps more attractive model to set against the global “free-market” economy the United States aspired to lead. Also it meant that the potential for exploiting those countries’ resources was more limited. Typically, what had happened was that they had developed strong right-wing, weak centre and strong left-wing political groupings. The US set to work to change that- to create a strong right-wing, strong centres, and a weak left.
Two things were needed to achieve that aim: first to “persuade” the right to be less dictatorial, and to share power with the centre through well-managed elections, which would guarantee the success only of governments committed to liberal “free-market” economies (with a minimum of welfare provision to ensure that the poor were not tempted to rebel). Secondly to replace left-wing militant leadership with “moderates”, and ensure that between elections the poor would be too busy earning a living to pay much attention to politics, and so leave the real business of government in the hands of the relatively wealthy groups.
Robinson does not discuss the UK and Europe, where, of course, the US did not need to intervene so actively in political developments. By the 1970s the growing disillusionment with post-WW2 Keynesian economics brought governments to power by popular vote in many countries which more or less mirrored what the US wished to see. Polyarchy (rule by many, but not by all) had already been achieved.
Since 1996 the world has moved on. In the 1990s the US worked hard to achieve a similar result in the former Soviet Union- but under Putin from 1999 there has been a push-back, though certainly not in a democratic direction. And the rise of China’s economic power in this century perhaps poses questions for US aspirations- or perhaps not, if China sees itself as becoming co-leader with the US in a polyarchic world.
So is this the way the world will be for the foreseeable future? Is it the only workable system for today? Will the Polyarchs (if that is the right word) find ways to deal with the present Climate Change crisis, or will their control of the economy and demand for wealth destroy any chance of that? The jury is still out on that.
And what about the people who do not share in this accumulation of wealth and property which polyarchy is very successfully achieving? Labour MP Jon Cruddas says: “Employees in low-skill, low-paid occupations constitute 45% of Britain’s labour market and for many years their income has flatlined.” (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/apr/11/jon-cruddas-dignity-of-labour-meritocratic-elite-interview). And those dependent on the so-called “gig economy” are in a far worse position.
What does all this have to do with the Gospel? When Jesus said “Blessed are you poor, the Kingdom of God is yours” (Luke 6:20) they were clearly the overwhelming majority of the people he spoke to. That is less true today (though in many countries it is still the case), and those of us who are not poor (including in the churches) can easily spend our time “proving” that Jesus did not mean material deprivation and powerless, or if he did, he did not promise that anything could be done about it “in this world”.
So is Polyarchy the nearest we can approach to an economic and political expression of the Kingdom of God on earth? If not what is our alternative? Rather than an economy where the first priority is the profit of those who own the resources, and the needs of the majority are met if they are compatible with that aim, what are the prospects for an economy and society that sets as its first task the meeting of everyone’s needs? There is work to be done on how that might operate and how it could be achieved.