Is Democracy Still Relevant to Political Decision Making?

Mark Mazower has a good piece on Italy in the Financial Times.

The turmoil produced by the Italian elections has directed attention back to where it should have been all along – to the politics of the eurozone crisis. We have had six months of complacency, rising stock markets and wishful thinking. The conventional wisdom was that the crisis had been contained, with Ireland recovering and the risk of a Greek exit from the eurozone reduced. But this view always ignored the politics. … Technocrat prime minsters, such as Italy’s Mario Monti or Greece’s Lucas Papademos … are creatures of banking and economics. While they may understand money, that no longer recommends them to the voters who would rather have someone who understands them. The result is dangerous. It is but a short step from writing off the political class to writing off the institutions of democracy. So far most voters have not done this in either Italy or Greece. But some have and the temptation is there for more to do so

John Quiggin and I predicted something like this in our Foreign Affairs piece back in 2011 (I don’t think we can congratulate ourselves particularly – this was blindingly obvious to anyone who even began to think seriously about the politics). But I think Colin Crouch’s arguments about post-democracy potentially provide a deeper understanding of what is happening.

Crouch argues that the advanced industrialized countries are now post-democratic. While democracy still has some consequences, it is ever less relevant to political decision making. Politicians are constrained by the power of capital, and by tangled networks of relationships with business. The privatization of the state creates a world which conforms neither to the free market dreams of neo-liberalism, nor (more obviously) to the older dreams of social democracy. Instead, it creates a realm of decision making that is neither subject to the free market nor to democratic choice. Although Colin doesn’t talk about it in the book (for good reason: it was written in 2001), this problem has been grossly exacerbated by austerity politics. National politics, bad as it is, is increasingly being displaced by a European decision making process dominated by the ECB and the neo-liberal bits of the European Commission. The problem of post-democracy is becoming more specific, more obvious, and more directly associated in public debate with the European Union.

This makes for easier mobilization in the countries at the receiving end of austerity politics. An abstract set of political developments that might earlier have given rise to vague unease becomes a specific villain, associated with particular and personal economic pain, that people can organize against. It also creates enormous problems for the social democratic left, which is both tied to the system as it is, and broadly pro-Europe. I was at the Partito Democratico summer school last year, along with several other academics, as warm-up speakers before Bersani gave his big address (which was of course what everyone was there to hear). Talking to people there, I got the sense that they were far more worried by the Cinque Stelle people than by Berlusconi. All of the smart and politically motivated young people on the left – whom they might have expected to gravitate towards the Democrats a decade before – were going for Grillo instead.

The problem is that Grillo’s movement – and its equivalents on the left in other countries – are much clearer about what is wrong with the current democratic system than about what they might do to replace it. This is not true of the right wing protest parties and movements. The Golden Dawn in Greece can articulate a coherent alternative to the current system – a xenophobic nationalism which shades into more or less explicit fascism. It is not committed to democracy as such.

Grillo’s movement, and other leftwing movements want more democracy rather than less, but they aren’t able clearly to articulate how this would work. They would like to recover a better way of doing democracy in a post-democratic Europe but they are not sure how to start. Engaging with the system as it is, e.g. by entering into government in coalition with other parties, would be to destroy their own basis of legitimacy. But articulating an alternative is extremely difficult, given the strictures of post-democracy and the lack of obvious levers to create an alternative.

You could read the problems of movements like M5S optimistically, as the inevitable birth pangs of a new democratic alternative. Or you could read them pessimistically, as the doomed efforts of people to figure out something new in a system that is rigged against them. I’m somewhat more inclined towards the pessimistic reading myself, but acknowledge that it’s early days yet.

[Originally posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.