Capitalist Democracy among Mongolian Herders: Discourse or Ideology?

Article excerpt

Although Mongolian herders sound as if they have adopted capitalist democracy, they are really using the discourse to express their own ideology. Based on cognitive data collected in 1998 and 2003, this paper uses connectionist theory to show that Mongolian herders' political model is shaped by the nexus of three phenomena: (1) a post-socialist political economy granting herders rights and freedoms along with economic responsibility at the family/household level, (2) the pre-socialist cultural themes of appreciation for independence, perception of leaders as distant patrons, and their own isolation from governance; and (3) emotions that guide the interpretation of both, including joy at attaining rights and freedoms, hope of success and fear of failure, and indifference to governance.

Key words: Mongolia, herders, capitalist democracy, liberal democracy, post-socialism


The second communist nation in the world, Mongolia was also one of the earliest to protest Communist rule just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less than a month after the Berlin Wall's destruction (November 1989), citizens from all parts of Mongolia started demonstrating peacefully for multiparty elections, transparent government, human rights, and private property (Kaplonski 2004; Nyamdorj and Nyamsuren 200 1 ). The result was free, multiparty elections in June 1990 and a new democratic, market-economy constitution in January 1 992 (Rossabi 2005; Sanders 2003).

The early transition was harsh. Between 1 987 and 1991, Russia withdrew one-third of Mongolia's national revenues along with its troops. Starting in 1990, a policy of rapid conversion to a market economy entailed severe rationing (Bruun and Odgaard 1996; Rossabi 2005; Sneath 2002). By 1991, the economy was faltering and the people faced food, fuel, and electricity shortages (Kaplonski 2004; Namjim 2000). Freed from the constraints of the secret police (NKVD), people - especially the young - frequently overstepped their bounds, causing others to wonder if their compatriots knew the difference between democracy and anarchy. Still, Mongolia continued to achieve some of the critical criteria of democracy (Fish 1998; Freedom House 2003; Landman et al. 2006).1

When I conducted research among Ulaanbaatar university administrators in 1996, Mongolians told me all kinds of things about democracy. Some held to the Marxist/Leninist idea of proletarian democracy,2 namely that political democracy can only be achieved through economic equality, which is attained through proletarian ownership of production (Lenin 1966 [1919]; Marx and Engels 1978 [1888]; Tsedenbal 1967). Walking across Siikhbaatar Square one day, Hongorzol, an English professor acting as my translator, joked, "You know, the Russians told us that we have had democracy for a long time. After all, in Socialist times we all voted and we all suffered equally." Others espoused the principles of liberal democracy, i.e., politically active citizens, representative government, equality under the law, and rule of law (Diamond 1996; Mill 1997 [1869]; Plattner 1999). A vice rector told me in English that democracy means "government of the people, by the people, and for the people!"3 Still others preferred capitalist democracy, a reinterpretation of Adam Smith whereby economic freedoms are paramount and government's main purpose is to help citizens succeed in the market (Ikenberry 2001; Smith [1776] 1976). My curiosity piqued, I returned two years later to research Mongolian citizens' interpretation of democracy.

With the help of Mongolian researchers, we interviewed over 1,200 in 1998 and 2003 to learn how the meaning of democracy varied through the population. This paper describes the ideas of one segment of the Mongolian population studied, namely herders who have returned to household-level economic units during the post-socialist transition. Herders represent the nation's traditional livelihood, raising mixed herds of horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. …