Saturday, May 4, 2013

Peak Democracy

Fascinating article on Aeon magazine. I think it has a very important point - to understand what's happening we need to think about the very fundamental notions of democracy, the nation state, and industrialism and ask ourselves if these things have a future. I think one thing is certain: democracy as we classically understand it no longer exists. As the byline to the article puts it, "Governments now answer to business, not voters. Mainstream parties grow ever harder to distinguish. Is democracy dead?" I'm going to go ahead and answer that question: yes, it is. Now what?
[Colin] Crouch sees the history of democracy as an arc. In the beginning, ordinary people were excluded from decision-making. During the 20th century, they became increasingly able to determine their collective fate through the electoral process, building mass parties that could represent their interests in government. Prosperity and the contentment of working people went hand in hand. Business recognised limits to its power and answered to democratically legitimated government. Markets were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.

At some point shortly after the end of the Second World War, democracy reached its apex in countries such as Britain and the US. According to Crouch, it has been declining ever since. Places such as Italy had more ambiguous histories of rise and decline, while others still, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, began the ascent much later, having only emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s. Nevertheless, all of these countries have reached the downward slope of the arc. The formal structures of democracy remain intact. People still vote. Political parties vie with each other in elections, and circulate in and out of government. Yet these acts of apparent choice have had their meaning hollowed out. The real decisions are taken elsewhere. We have become squatters in the ruins of the great democratic societies of the past.

Neo-liberalism, which was supposed to replace grubby politics with efficient, market-based competition, has led not to the triumph of the free market but to the birth of new and horrid chimeras. The traditional firm, based on stable relations between employer, workers and customers, has spun itself out into a complicated and ever-shifting network of supply relationships and contractual forms. The owners remain the same but their relationship to their employees and customers is very different. For one thing, they cannot easily be held to account. As the American labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others have shown, US firms have systematically divested themselves of inconvenient pension obligations to their employees, by farming them out to subsidiaries and spin-offs. Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers died in a Bangladesh factory fire in November last year. Amazon uses subcontractors to employ warehouse employees in what can be unsafe and miserable working conditions, while minimising damage to its own brand.

Instead of clamping down on such abuses, the state has actually tried to ape these more flexible and apparently more efficient arrangements, either by putting many of its core activities out to private tender through complex contracting arrangements or by requiring its internal units to behave as if they were competing firms. As one looks from business to state and from state to business again, it is increasingly difficult to say which is which. The result is a complex web of relationships that are subject neither to market discipline nor democratic control. Businesses become entangled with the state as both customer and as regulator. States grow increasingly reliant on business, to the point where they no longer know what to do without its advice. Responsibility and accountability evanesce into an endlessly proliferating maze of contracts and subcontracts. As Crouch describes it, government is no more responsible for the delivery of services than Nike is for making the shoes that it brands. The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further.

Politicians, meanwhile, have floated away, drifting beyond the reach of the parties that nominally chose them and the voters who elected them. They simply don’t need us as much as they used to. These days, it is far easier to ask business for money and expertise in exchange for political favours than to figure out the needs of a voting public that is increasingly fragmented and difficult to understand anyway. Both the traditional right, which always had strong connections to business, and the new left, which has woven new ties in a hurry, now rely on the private sector more than on voters or party activists. As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another, elections become exercises in branding rather than substantive choice.

Crouch was writing Post-Democracy 10 years ago, when most people thought that things were going quite well. As long as the economy kept delivering jobs and growth, voters didn’t seem to mind about the hollowing out of democracy. Left-of-centre parties weren’t worried either: they responded to the new incentives by trying to articulate a ‘Third Way’ of market-like initiatives that could deliver broad social benefits. Crouch's lessons have only really come home in the wake of the economic crisis.

The problem that the centre-left now faces is not that it wants to make difficult or unpopular choices. It is that no real choices remain. It is lost in the maze, able neither to reach out to its traditional bases of support (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose any grand new initiatives, the state no longer having the tools to implement them. When the important decisions are all made outside of democratic politics, the centre-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.
Post-democracy is what we're living in. Now what?
Perhaps, over time, they will figure out how to engage with the mundane task of slow drilling through hard boards that is everyday politics. Perhaps, too, the systems of unrule governing the world economy, gravely weakened as they are, will fail and collapse of their own accord, opening the space for a new and very different dispensation. Great changes seem unlikely until they happen; only in retrospect do they look inevitable. Yet if some reversal in the order of things is waiting to unfold, it is not apparent to us now. Post-democracy has trapped the left between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. We may be here for some time.
Henry Farrell - On Post-Democracy. Aeon Magazine

As vested interests capture the state, and the government becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America, people simply abandon the state as a means of producing beneficial change (unlike in the Great Depression). Their voices are not heard, and they are increasingly powerless, while the authorities live in an alternative universe where money and jobs are plentiful, totally disonnected from the people they "serve." Meanwhile, the media attempts to mollify us and keep us at each others' throats to prevent any kind of concensus. And all the while, the system is collapsing around us, leading to fear and paranoia. It's an ugly situation indeed.

Related: The Rise of the Corporate State (FireDogLake) best part:
We see how that socialization works for corporate fodder. Work hard and keep your nose clean, and maybe you can make a decent living. Or maybe we’ll fire you because we want to make more money or because we don’t like you. Or because we checked your credit score and we didn’t like it. Or because you didn’t wear enough flair. The random outcomes keep people off-balance, and working harder and harder, like perseverating pecking pigeons.

Perhaps you thought your technical and professional skills would protect you, but that’s not true, as all too many excellent computer coders, engineers, accountants and lawyers have learned. It’s no different for many professionals in private practice, and even for middle level administrators. The plain fact is that your success or failure doesn’t depend on your skills, but on whether you get lucky in your selection of a career and an employer.


  1. Meanwhile, the American Center/Left, having largely disarmed itself, strives mightily to disarm the rest of the polity.

  2. I'm reminded of what Mussolini wrote about his own political movement: “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” That would be a very apt quote, except that Il Duce meant a different thing by "corporate" than Americans today do. Even so, what you quoted looks like a merger of state and corporation.

    1. I recently read that quote as "Fascism means one should not be able to slide a cigarette paper between government and business." That sounds much more like Il Duce. =)

  3. The first constitution of Pennsylvania attempted to create a system of political and economic democracy. In those days, people pretty much agreed this was necessary. Then, the elites got cold feet, and scuttled the experiment.

    The result? Democracy in ruins.

    There is no solution in the corrupt systems still extant. The only solution is to begin again in the grassroots, illegible to the PTB.


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