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On post-democracy

crouchSorry if I am slow to the party, but academic Colin Crouch first coined the term post-democracy in 2004. I only encountered it a few weeks ago through this LSE blog post. Crouch’s words:

A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite.

Surely that is what we are approaching in many European countries just now, and especially in the UK? A thoughtful Charlie Stross blog post looks at this in more depth. Entitled “Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship“, the whole thing is worth a read, not least because Stross’s critique rests firmly with political parties – that self preservation of their organisation becomes more important than what that organisation stands for.

Taking this down to the everyday practical level in the UK, there are people like Iain Dale, Alex Smith and Tom Steinberg, hardly political outsiders, who have in recent months all one way or another expressed their increasing frustration or wish for distance from the everyday political process.

In the meantime in ‘real’ politics, as the UK economy falters so Labour has finally woken up to the fact that it has no real economic policy. Ed Miliband, under his One Nation banner that is suddenly en vogue, is described by Polly Toynbee as having the makings of a brave and visionary leader for having proposed a mansion tax (pinched off the Lib Dems) and to reintroduce a 10p in the pound tax rate (once a Labour policy, dropped by Brown). Stewart Wood tries to put more flesh on the Miliband ideas here. But one line sums up the predicament: “The share of UK GDP going to wages rather than profits fell from just under 64% of GDP in 1974 to under 54% today.” – what is any politician going to do about that please? Because the Stross / Crouch thesis would imply that no-one will.

Meanwhile Mark Leonard’s latest column from Washington DC gives a US perspective on this. Citing Ivan Krastev:

The net result, according to Krastev, is the paradox that the citizen has been simultaneously empowered (because her views are being listened to) and marginalized (because she can exist only as an atomized individual to be manipulated rather than as a potential agent of collective action).

The professionalism of US politics at least means, via constant campaigning and data mining, that the impression of the former can be given. In Europe I am not so sure.

Where, I wonder, does all of this leave us? I’m still far from convinced by direct and participative democracy. But what if representative democracy just doesn’t work as well as it used to?

(My apologies for the incoherent nature of this blog post – it’s hard to pull together all these overlapping but not altogether thought-through ideas circling in my head)

Photo: "DLF50_Postdemokratie_14" by Politik.Medien.Öffentlichkeit. on January 6, 2012 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

9 Comments

  • Valéry |

    “But what if representative democracy just doesn’t work as well as it used to?” Did it ever actually work as well as those who pretend it does not anymore tell us ?

  • Craig Willy |

    I am not sure what to make of this. The UK has core State attributes: Its Government can and does wage war, preside over loose monetary policy and devaluations, tax and (deficit) spend. These are not secondary but core issues decided by classic political institutions.

    For example, a Labour government could, if it wanted and in the name of “growth and jobs,” undertake the aggressive inflationary-devaluation-Keynesian policies that Japan is doing right now. I am not saying this is the right policy, but it is a very significant choice, and a possibility in a democracy. It is an illustrative “big choice” featuring distribution of income and trade-offs, classic democratic choices. (This choice, incidentally, no longer exists in the eurozone.)

    There is certainly an issue of the decadence or weakness of democracies: elections become meaningless formal institutions get captured by oligarchic elites. This is not a new issue but one that comes and goes with time, a country being more or less democratic at different parts of its history. Democratic decadence is extremely developed in the United States today: No matter if Obama and the Democrats get the popular vote, their program is without effect given representatives’ dependence on corporate finance, the veto of the filibustered Senate and the gerrymandered House (Republican majority despite getting less votes). Instead of “postdemocracy” one may as well call it plutocracy.

    The EU, particularly the eurozone, is also tending towards this, in a different way (technocracy), as democratic parliaments and governments, just as they have lost all say on monetary policy, are now amputating what powers they have left in fiscal policy. The election of new governments made up of French Socialists, Spanish Conservatives or Greek New Democrats simply has no significant effect on policy, which remains in the hands of functionaries at the ECB and DG ECFIN who are indifferent to democratic majorities..

    The UK, in contrast, seems to me the least “post-democratic.” Britain is free to pursue the economic and foreign policies it wishes. There is nothing stopping Labour adopting an electoral program as radical as that of 1945 and dramatically changing the distribution of wealth and the nature of British society. The same is true of the Conservatives. I tend to dislike the choices made by Britain – war and banksterism – but these choices are real political choices determined in the classic liberal democratic fashion. Liberal democracy has obviously always been imperfect, I am not a fan of the British electoral system, but Britain as far as I can remains in that tradition.

  • Jon |

    @Craig – I think you could do with reading Crouch’s short paper on this – here. This especially relates to your last paragraph. Yes, the EU might be a constraint on a state’s representative democracy, but it is not the only one. So while, theoretically, Labour could return to 1945 redistribution, in practice it will never happen. The parties will converge ever closer in the political middle ground, because that’s the way the parties self preserve. The UK is also the country that bases most of its political decisions on attracting footloose firms, and that has major democratic implications.

  • Craig Willy |

    @Jon – I agree there are some new problems posed by “the firm” and globalization can limit some social objectives. However, capital flight is hardly a new phenomenon. (Indeed Crouch says to not exaggerate the “footloose firms'” ability to constrain.) Nor am I convinced that the IMF or the WTO are a particularly strong constraint on a government that isn’t begging for money. Sweden, Denmark and even little Iceland are able to redistribute and protect themselves from globalization (through devaluation, through forcing banks to default, capital controls in case of Iceland). Heck just look at the various economic policies (often socialist, nationalist, protectionist..) of even poor Latin American states! These are choices.

    Crouch’s piece highlights a number of interesting developments, namely the decline of (working) class and party politics, and, to some extent, the rise of corporate power, but I am not convinced this means a universal trend of “postdemocracy.” I would agree in the case of the U.S. (corporate power is massive due to campaign finance) and much of economic policy in the eurozone (governed by technocracy and immutable Treaties). But beyond that it is a spectrum. Democracy I would say, and with their imperfections, remains vibrant in the bustle and pluralism of Italian and German politics. In France, notwithstanding the mortiferous Anglo-American-style duopoly of parties, there are also real choices to be made outside of economic policy.

    Britain, even with its dubious electoral system and EU membership, nonetheless has a great deal of freedom of action in foreign policy (one should never downplay the gravity of the choice of whether or not to kill foreigners), immigration, monetary policy, redistribution (tax, spending, welfare), nationalization (or not) of services, and so on. I persist: Britain could be Denmark or Sweden if it wanted. It could also be a version of America. And I haven’t mentioned the important decision and debate about whether to stay in the EU. Surely that is democracy, or as democratic as we’ve ever been?

    The problem with Britain from a leftist’s point of view, it seems to me, is not as in other constraint of democratic institutions by corporate or technocratic power. Rather it has been the corruption of the Labour Party since the 1980s so that it now stands for nothing mean that when it holds power policy differs only marginally from the Conservatives. As much as it was affected by broader trends, namely the fall of trade unions and the success of Thatcherism, I am not under the impression that the shift from perhaps too-principled Footism to full-on nihilist Blairism was inevitable..

  • Christian Hudson |

    Jon
    Thanks for posting this. It’s great to read Colin Crouch’s analysis. It fits with my experience and what that has taught me about how politics works. I also had in mind an idea of a decline of democracy. It really matters.

    Of course it really matters for the decline in happiness it brings for people today. But it also matters for every generation to come, which is a far greater aggregate impact on happiness, if it’s conceptually appropriate to aggegrate happiness. That’s where I started from: how can we reduce the destruction of the environmental resources that are essential for future global stability and happiness? The answer lies in some manageable and not particularly costly changes in the direction of innovation in the economy. To bring about those changes requires political support.

    Yet, power over economic decisions is now increasingly held by organisations with short-term interests, or individuals with short-term interests inside organisations. You could see the financial crisis, its causes and the post-crisis legislative reaction as an example.

    I’ve come across a couple of relevant pieces of information this week:
    The Kay report from the UK: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/BISCore/business-law/docs/K/12-917-kay-review-of-equity-markets-final-report.pdf
    This guardian article on anti-climate science financing:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/14/funding-climate-change-denial-thinktanks-network
    and a link highlighting the decline of new business start ups in the US: (which wasn’t this one, but this one tells the story): http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/we-are-witnessing-the-death-of-small-business-in-america

    If that line about the decline of small businesses in the US, we could speculate that it is a results of the legislative framework being skewed in favour of big companies, as a result of lobbying.

    So, it’s another indicator of the influence of business. Maybe that’s not surprising: firms are the new barons: concentrations of wealth, with incentives and opportunities for individuals within them to increase their personal wealth by changing policies in their favour.

    Considering that most people spend their energies working in the interests of their work: for those in firms, of the firms, there’s a huge amount of time and money behind perpetuating current economic patterns through political bias. Offsetting that requires some pretty strong, active and well-financed citizens.

    I’m currently looking around to see what the changes are which could support a trajectory towards a more democratic political-economy. Which changes in laws, would reduce short-termism, or political influences, and yet do so in a way that created enough winners within the currently strong political forces, to be able to become law. Unappealing as it is, I don’t have much faith that direct citizen action will muster enough influence to change law by itself on issues around democracy. Democracy is almost discredited: there has been such a good job in recent years in the UK of discrediting government by the right-wing. The current Tory leadership is a perfect example of misplaced distrust of goverment.

  • Guy-Francis |

    @Craig – I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph because I think it sums up the situation besetting the left quite concisely. I’ve worked for Australia’s largest low paid workers union (United Voice) and after the slaughter of the Labour Party by the Liberals in 2004 we did a survey of the members (cleaners, hospitality workers, rousa-a-bouts etc.) and over a third of them had voted for the Liberals. This trend was only reversed by overtly hostile Liberal industrial relations policies (as opposed to the previously covertly hostile policies) between 2004 and 2007, which led to a Labour victory.

    Further investigation demonstrated a desire by members to see themselves as middle class and they had adopted many of the attitudes that that entails (i.e. low taxes are good, government spending [on anyone but me] is bad). Moreover, the colonisation of the Labour Party by progressive middle class and the promotion of their progressive social agenda meant that many of the remaining outer-surburban working class find the conservative social agenda of the Liberals attractive. End result? A dilution of worker power; a popular view of government redistribution as bad; and a slow pull to the centre, made all the more powerful in Australia by preferential voting, which rewards centrists over radicals.

    Crouch’s ideas are interesting, but I don’t see any crisis in democracy in the West. Rather I think the social, economic and political insitutions (in the widest sense of the term) of the industrial age are slowly and inevitably changing. Social democracy is therefore under strain, tax systems are struggling to cope with more mobile capital (as opposed to more mobile corporations), society is more culturally heterogenous, and in general the simpler conflicts of the industrial age have been replaced by more complex and differentiated ones, with the industrial age ideologies left struggling to find answers.

  • Jason |

    Here in the US, I’m not sure how many people (at least those of us without thousands of dollars to donate to campaigns) feel as if their voices are listened to. The lack of professionalism by politicians (i.e. the abundance of negative campaign ads) and the controversy surrounding Citizens United, among other issues, has led to a lack of popularity of Congress. See for example this graph from the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/10/graph-of-the-day-congress-is-less-popular-than-lice-colonoscopies-and-nickelback/).

    On top of that, when constituents find out that their representatives are spending most of their time campaigning instead of legislative work (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/08/call-time-congressional-fundraising_n_2427291.html), it might lead one to question how democratic our society truly is. Perhaps the bigger question is, can democracy ever be achieved, or is it a continual process?

So, what do you think ?