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Is the Writing on the Wall for Liberal Democracy?

1. Liberal Democracy after Brexit and Trump

Where do the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election leave liberal democracy? Both events are to do with the discontent of the disenfranchised and those experiencing economic and cultural insecurity. And both reveal that conventional politicians on the left and the right failed to understand this.(1) But the unexpected – though perhaps unsurprising – result might tempt us to think that our model of democracy ultimately works and that majority trust in our political system has been restored. Have not Brexit and Trump given the economic losers a political victory over the economic winners for the first time since the New Deal following the 1929-32 Great Depression? Should we not welcome popular resistance against the politics of the Davos oligarchy that promotes the power and pleasure of a fortunate few over the flourishing of the forgotten many? Have not a majority risen up and challenged a creed of low wages, deindustrialisation, job-exporting trade deals, the deregulation of finance and endless war?

Perhaps so, but the crisis confronting Western politics is much deeper than the mechanics of mass democracy. Neither Britain’s EU referendum campaign nor the US election were characterised by a concern for truth and decency. In each case, the problem was about the sheer polarity of the debate and the false choices we were presented with: more technocracy or greater populism? And whatever their differences, both sides in these two contests engaged in a demagogical manipulation of either facts or emotion. Both appealed either to instrumental rationality or the unmediated will of ‘The People’ – not enlightened reason or people as they are in their families and communities. And both promote a plebiscite politics that locks democracy into a dialectical movement between empty theatrics and the power of oligarchy old or new.(2)

2. The Crisis of Liberal Democracy

After both world wars, liberal democracy expanded across and beyond the Western world, and following the end of the Cold War it seemed destined to become the world’s dominant political system – as symbolised by Francis Fukuyama’s prophesised ‘end of history’. Since the fall of totalitarian communism and the triumph of democratic capitalism, the expectation is that democracy deepens where it already exists and spreads to countries where it was previously suppressed. But for some time now the signs are that democratic standards have declined in mature democracies and that an authoritarian rollback is underway in new democracies.(3)

Examples of the former include the US since George W. Bush, the UK since Tony Blair or Italy since Silvio Berlusconi where we can observe increasing disaffection with established political parties, representative government and minority rights. All the achievements, which many assumed were widely approved by citizens of all ages, are now being rejected by a growing proportion of the population, especially the younger generation. A majority of people aged 18-30 in countries as diverse as Turkey, Russia, Germany and Spain no longer view democracy as essential and want to see political rule freed from the constraints of democracy.

Meanwhile, recently democratised countries that are now becoming more authoritarian are not limited to the cases of Russia or Venezuela but also extend to the apparently successful transitions in Hungary and Poland. Once the poster boys of democratic transition, both countries are experiencing an assault on the freedom and independence of courts, NGOs and the media, combined with growing ideological polarisation and political witch-hunt.4 In Hungary, the Fidesz government led by the Prime Minister Victor Orban has enacted constitutional reforms with the effect of undermining checks and balances in relation to the judiciary, the supervision of elections and public broadcasting. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party has attacked the independence of the country’s constitutional court, taken control of the state media and denounced civil society organisations that are supposed to hold government accountable. In short, when it comes to former transition countries, a backsliding into the extremism of the hard left and the radical right akin to the 1930s is no longer unthinkable.

3. Conceptualising the Crisis

The current crisis of liberal democracy is not new but an intensification of some long-standing developments. Certain forms of liberalism undermine democracy, just like certain forms of democracy undermine liberal principles. What might seem like a match in heaven turns out to be an unholy alliance.

Scholars such as Colin Crouch, Sheldon Wolin and Peter Mair conceptualise this crisis in terms of ‘post-democracy’, the spectre of ‘inverted totalitarianism’ or the ‘hollowing out’ of democratic politics.5 Connecting these concepts is the argument that the post-war period of democratisation has given way to a concentration of power in the hands of small groups that are unrepresentative and unaccountable, as exemplified by the nexus between transnational corporations and national governments. However, my argument is that post-democracy and cognate concepts do not fully capture the slide of liberal democracy into oligarchy, demagogy and anarchy.6 First of all, democratic rule is associated with the rise of a new oligarchy that strengthens executive power at the expense of parliament and people. Second, liberal democracy has witnessed the resurgence of populism and demagogy, which are linked to a backlash against technocratic rule and procedural politics. Third, liberal democracies have seen the emergence of anarchy connected with the atomisation of society and a weakening of social ties and civic bonds. In consequence, liberal democracy risks sliding into a form of ‘democratic despotism’ that maintains the illusion of freedom and equality while generating what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘voluntary servitude’ – a seemingly free submission to power that is oligarchic, demagogic and anarchic.

My argument is not that democracy is becoming the same as dictatorship but rather that liberal democracy can mutate into novel forms of illiberal authoritarianism. A new oligarchy seeks to centralise power, concentrate wealth and manipulate public opinion by using media spin, closing down debate and ironing out plurality. The process whereby democratic rule becomes debased and even ‘despotic’ encompasses a series of mutations within democracy itself. Among others, these include elected representatives and governments that act as an interested, self-serving party; a corporate capture of the state; a collective de-mobilisation of the citizenry; a cult of abstract equality; the conceit that the West’s democratic system is the only valid model.

4. How Democracy Undermines Liberalism and Representation

Just as liberalism threatens democracy, so too democracy threatens liberal principles such as incontestable property ownership, the rule of law and the rights of individuals defined as belonging to a recognised minority. Like atomistic liberalism, unqualified democracy has a kind of spatial bias: it supposes that we are all contracting and compromising individuals within a sort of eternalised agora – or assembly in the central spot of a polis. But this is to deny life and the flowing of life as a perpetual glissando through time. Life is not simply democratic, because it is both spontaneously creative and giving: with the arrived child, something new emerges. We must give to this child nurture, but from the outset the child reverses this hierarchy by revealing her unique creative power of response.

No social contract can be involved here, and for this reason, pure unqualified democracy tends to deny the priority of time, the sanctity of life, the importance of the child, old age, death and political participation beyond mere synchronic procedure. Democracy’s ‘normal’ person is rather the freely choosing and contracting, Audi-owning autonomous 31-year-old. But no human person is forever like this; it is, rather, only a moment in a coming to be and passing away.

Thus by ignoring time, purely representative democracy fails to consider the necessarily constitutive cultural dimension of transmission, learning and guided debate. In consequence, all that can finally be voted for is the triumph of the will – the collective will, which, in order to be ‘collectivised’ without real educative influence or debate, must be shaped and led by a secretly or avowedly tyrannical leadership. From Rousseau onwards, the ‘general will’ and the role of the overruling ‘legislator’ are necessarily linked. And we have known ever since Robbespierre that the ‘general will’ enacted by the ‘legislator’ can be anarchic, tyrannical and anti-human.

Moreover, liberalism is about the individual will; democracy is about mass will, directly or representatively expressed. The former may exclude or even disdain the latter; the latter may entirely override the former. Crucially, the power that mediates between these two nominally sovereign wills is necessarily the state, which combines coercive with regulatory powers, both of which are necessary but not sufficient for a plural polity. What is missing from the liberal state is some sort of extra-voluntarist understanding. Such an understanding would have to equitably exceed a merely temporary consensus as to just when, where and to what extent we should balance spheres of individual decision with spheres of shared determination. Equally, one can only justify the role of democracy, or of collective assent, if one assumes that there is, in fact, an objective common good, including a region of shared substantive flourishing to be sought – to whatever degree its nature must remain a matter of continual debate and discernment.

Thus, paradoxically, the real rationale for democracy is extra-democratic: the legitimacy of popular assent consists not in an aggregated will. Rather, it consists in the likelihood that a relatively well educated – morally trained and informed – populace will be better able to sift and refine proposals as to what is ‘best’ for them by genuinely ‘aristocratic’ thinkers and innovators at every level. It is also crucial that the good not only be done, but that it be done willingly and with general assent – else it will be constantly and inevitably thwarted. Without this extra-democratic rationale for democracy, democracy will be identified with a new kind of tyranny – the imposition or manipulation of will.

Finally, modern ‘representation’ remains, properly understood, a ‘mixed’ system. It contains both ‘aristocratic’ and ‘monarchic’ elements, even though it has a proper bias to democracy. Normally, the former means groups of ‘wise men and women’ and the latter has to be in some fashion literally embodied in one person, as it still is today, throughout the world, in the mode of presidential and prime ministerial functions. Liberal democracy’s neglect of aristocratic and monarchic elements of the mix has helped to foment democratic crisis, since any non-purely direct democracy paradoxically requires them for its functioning and even for the encouragement of informal and participatory democracy as opposed to a merely formal one. On this view then, strictly speaking, ‘representative democracy’ is a misnomer because ‘the few’ and ‘the one’ are involved as well as the ‘many’. Any mandatory conception of democracy tends ironically to empower an oligarchic and manipulative executive speaking in the name of the people, whom they really manipulate. Trump maybe is both a reaction against this and a writing of it large. The US system has always been too oligarchic and has always provoked a populist resistance to this. As Trump’s triumph suggests, the republic is in danger of Caesarian reversal.

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