Dangerous Democracy

Defending democracy in (yet another) age of anxiety

The current vexations about democracy and its prospects are as familiar as the values of democracy itself. Throughout its modern history democracy has, it has been claimed, threatened political order or generated bad governance. It has acted as an ideological smokescreen; it has been in terminal decline or crisis; it has been unequal to the forces of ‘globalisation’; it has been captured, become ‘shallow’, or even farcical. I could go on and there is a slew of ‘democracy threatened/in crisis’ books currently doing well on Amazon. Universal franchise, accountable government, and multipartyism has always been an uncertain constellation of political practices and much of the contemporary anxiety rekindles the deeper tensions in the democratic project.

I would like to offer a defence of democracy based in a certain historic reading. I am not going to make even the slenderest claim to address or resolve the current debates about democracy issuing from the hive-mind of intellectuals, journalists, pundits, and controversialists. Nor am I going to make a ‘sensible’ case about how democracy is the least worst political system, a realistic way to address irreconcilable differences within a polity, or a meliorist form of governance that solves its problems through reform and due process. I want to suggest that democracy can be far more dangerous than that.


Democracy’s turbulent capitalist origins

In a very rough and ready way, one can identify in the early history of democracy a kind of double-helix, each running in its own patterns but interconnected to the other. This democratic double-helix emerged from the late Eighteenth Century onwards in the throes of the ascendance of industrial capitalism. One strand is the broadening practices of mass or popular politics, evident in petitions, campaign organisations, labour organisations, co-operatives, and public demonstrations. The other is a material and ideational hardening up of the distinction – and to some degree separation – of government and the economy.

The double-helix image hopefully eschews any sense of determinism here; the point is rather that the emergence of capitalism in Europe created both the possibility of mass politics and a depoliticisation of the economy. The latter did not, of course, mean laissez-faire: capitalist states were/are prone to intervene a great deal in economic matters. It is rather that, before the late 1700s ‘the economy’ as a complex and self-organising system distinct from the state did not exist. And, the construction of a private economy generated a constraint on the extent to which new mass political energies might moot changes to the social relations of property. The DNA of capitalist democracy is, then, one of a tense interplay between an expansion and constraint on (potential) popular political agency.

After the First World War, universal franchise was first and foremost a process through which large numbers of poor working people voted for a party of their choice and their vote was worth as much as a man of property. One of the prevailing questions in this period – not least because of the Russian Revolution – was whether democracy might usher in socialism through the ballot box, or excite revolutionary expectations amongst the masses. The earliest days of European modern democracy were days of high crisis – collapsing orders, revolutionary socialist parties, mass demonstrations, violence and political militias, rapid and uncertain changes in party coalitions and party splits. The idea that democracy has/had a nice stable origin or default position seems rather quaint when one looks at its concrete history.


Democratic pessimism and the Left

In Europe after the Second World War, the rough-edged turbulence of democracy was whittled away by corporate mass party politics, American aid, various social compacts, and a concerted and homogenising nationalism. For socialists, the sense that democracy had failed in its mission to bring popular politics towards socialist transformation was most keenly articulated through Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Now a mainstay for much of the Left’s pessimism and cynicism with democracy, ‘hegemony’ has become a metaphor for a kind of political despair which moves between measured critiques of bourgeois ideologies towards conspiracy theories about media domination and global cabals.

‘Hegemony’ has become the currently of a Left intellectual tradition which works to delegitimise democracy. It is the dominazione and direzione of the people by the ruling class. Over time, the term’s genealogy has seen it cross-fertilise with Foucaldian notions of governmentality in which democracy is disciplinary and invigilating, creating docile subjects. For Gramsci and Foucault, taken together, democracy seems nothing more than totalising, overwhelming, and despotic. And, affectively, mass publics are all to blame, all complicit, or all duped.

From a Left position, one is tempted to ask: if democracy is bourgeois hegemony or some kind of biopolitically-oriented panopticon, why worry about its supposed contemporary crisis? Is it simply that what might replace democracy is even worse, like populism or the historically naïve analogies with fascism? If that is the answer then one is left with a strikingly unenthusiastic endorsement of democracy, maybe some form of ironic defence of democracy full of shrugs and winks. This might be articulated through a broadly Left language but it hardly bears any commitment to the value of a democracy residing in the agencies of the majority of a working class population.


The Great Moderation

If value commitments to democracy have weakened, become shallow or instrumental, it is worth bearing in mind that the political dynamics enabled by democracy are taken seriously by capitalists.

Capital has an equivocal attitude towards democracy. Where democracy is ‘safe’, businesses will enjoy the warm glow of association, the great liberal fantasy that the marketplace is rather like a democracy, packed full of little consumer-sovereigns. However, where democracy generates muscular and popular political demands for changes to property, more control over conditions of work, attenuations to the grabbing of resources, and nationalisation, capital knuckles up to de-democratise, or packs its bags to find more quiescent spaces.

The tendency of capital to worry about the threat of democracy is a lot older than the standard late-seventies-onwards globalisation historiography allows, and it feeds into the double-helix sketched earlier. In late 1800s Britain, elite concerns with an expanding franchise and a socialist threat led some to imagine an imperial confederation in which core facets of capital’s rights would be relocated to an intergovernmental sphere, untouched by the masses during the Reform Acts. Later throughout Europe from 1920 to 1939, a network of intellectuals and politicians sought to generate international codes of practice to insulate capital from what was seen quite explicitly as the democratic threat of mass politics. And in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty established a constitutional project to universalise competitive market relations throughout and above the sovereignties of its member-states.

In each of these cases, then, political elites identified something in democracy that threatened to undermine the unencumbered workings of capital. In a phrase, democracy was actually or potentially dangerous and required a supra-national spatial fix.

These three transnational projects to render democracy anaemic and hemmed in are not even the full picture. Again, from the late 1880s but intensifying during the liberal gusto of the twenty years after the collapse of Communism, a great architecture of transnational disempowering governance was constructed. Seen as a single project, it is remarkable. It involved international finance institutions; the UN; a range of intergovernmental agencies and NGOs; a set of conventions, regulations, standards; and new organisations with mandates to flatten down the sovereignties of the world in the name of trade and investment. Additionally, private organisations of banks, firms, and finance generated government-like powers over states through credit rating, risk assessment, currency trade, and the purchase of government bonds and debt. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how these different structures are heavily networked and share core norms. At the heart of this nebulous and assertive global project is the faith that core facets of capital’s operations are best removed from democratic accountability or any effective popular pressures that might challenge them.

Clearly, now, this ‘neoliberal architecture’ is not what it once was. Between the failed last round of the WTO and the entrenched crisis of the EU, neoliberal ‘global constitutionalism’ has not marched us all into a world of managerial convergence in the name of global competition. For some, even this moderate undoing is troubling. But this cannot be motivated by concerns about democracy. All of these transnational arrangements were essentially about attenuating democracy, rendering it procedural, focusing power within élites increasingly predisposed to think about intergovernmental matters in which the democratic air is thin indeed. It is the politics of the Green Room, sherpas and shuttle diplomacy, the logical framework, the revolving door, and the handshake.

If the core properties of democracy reside within a bandwidth of good governance and hegemony, it is intriguing that capital continues to expend so much effort to insulate itself from it. It suggests that it has potential.


The crisis of democracy?

I am constantly struck by how little nuance, modesty, and attention to empirical evidence political commentators display in their speculations about populism and the crisis of democracy. It is instructive again to think historically here about elite debates regarding Britain’s Reforms Acts: anti-democracy arguments were often made that if you give people the vote they will fuck things up. Closely analogous commentaries abound in present-day assessments of democratic processes.

The explanations of Brexit I’ve read that draw on empirical evidence suggest the vote was largely motivated by concerns with immigration, a sense of disillusion with government generally, a desire to reject a neoliberal project that has left large parts of British cities in an abysmal state, and a cynicism about the European Union. None of this smacks of populism. UKIP has clearly dipped in subsequent polls and elections with Farage leaving the party, now sustained only by the BBC’s odd refusal to give him the lack of air time he deserves. Nor do these reasons to vote Leave tell us about a lack of education but rather a differently situated knowledge to many of those who voted Remain. The Referendum was a vibrant and highly participatory moment of democratic decision-making. Its results might have generated despair for Remainers and they have certainly intensified what was already an awful government, but there is nothing in the outcome that looks especially like a crisis of democracy.

Democracy is Janus-faced. It is about legitimising government, managing political differences, stable party governance through majority rule, citizenship and civic education, and manifestoes that allow people to decide who to vote for. Also, democracy is about contestation that severely tests government; it is about the open expression of widely differing ideas, none of which are entirely correct or true; it is about utopian claims, reaction, and rebellion. It is immanently a means through which a large majority of people could deploy political power to challenge the increasingly bare-faced domination of capital. As a means to make polities strong and stable, democracy has its merits. But the possibility of a transformative project driven by a majority of working people – that is its historic threat and promise. In an age of cynicism and pessimism, it is in the latter that democracy’s value lies.

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