the fate of democracy

by Nathan Coombs

What does the declining turnout for the European Union Parliamentary elections tell us? Most superficially: voters are apathetic, ambivalent and disconnected from the European Parliament. But more generally it highlights the paradox at the heart of the political discourse of Western liberal democracies: the ever-greater symbolic – even metaphysical – weight attributed to the word democracy, in the context of declining voter turnout and disillusionment with politics as a whole.

For instance, in the United Kingdom the panic initiated by the election of two British National Party MEPs and the MP expenses scandal have exposed a deep crisis in public trust for the political institutions and a sense of legitimation crisis on the side of the political class. In response to the expenses scandal, the reaction from most people is that politicians are all corrupt, and many people polled recently were not sure that they wanted to vote for any party. At this critical point the liberal media and political class have been united in repeating that we have to ‘defend our democracy.’ The motif of democracy in danger, democracy imperilled, has driven the crisis of legitimacy into the realm of one of an acute sense of constitutional crisis, with all the major parties proposing some sort of constitutional reform and paying lip-service to the motif of ‘power to the people.’

During my recent debate with Andrew Howell of the COMPASS group, at The Commune’s ‘Uncaptive Minds’ forum on ‘Do we live in a democracy?,’ Howell echoed these motifs of the need for democratic reform. He insisted on the need to pursue the ‘incomplete project’ of the current Labour government for a constitutional shake up; he pressed the need to challenge the increasingly presidential leadership style of our unelected prime minister; he argued against the lack of checks and balances in Parliament; and he raised the possibility of proportional representation to pioneer a democratic revival. But notably, at no point in this fielding of politically correct measures from the ‘democratic left’ did he attempt to link up the collapse in democratic legitimacy to any defense of the meaning of democracy in the first place. He presented it as an end in itself and it was therefore left unclear as to whether such idealistic suggestions could in any way answer the deeper, more profound slippage in the seeming necessity for democracy across the Western world today.

What is interesting in this trend, then, is the way democracy has now become elevated above all discussion of its substantive, dialectically embedded, content. This provides something of a key to understanding the aforementioned paradox of democracy today: the gap separating its objective decline, in contrast with its increasing idealisation. And only by historicising democracy can we unlock this paradox.

In an unfashionable, but grudgingly broadly accepted Marxist historiography, we know that in modern history democracy came from the struggle for an increased political voice for the bourgeoisie, against the monarchical institutions. In the absence of a singular, sovereign bourgeois figure head, the democratic institutions were intended as a way for the bourgeois to resolve their internal antagonisms and disputes and so act in a unified way to tame – or keep at bay – the power of the monarch. In the 19th and 20th century the quest for universal suffrage was propelled by the increased militant strength of the working class and the need to ameliorate the antagonism between the working class and the capitalist class. In the 20th century it was also a global trend that with gender, race and de-colonisation struggles, democratic suffrage acted as a channel to provide a determinate institutional goal to ‘resolve’ the antagonisms. We could even say that in the United Kingdom, up until the New Labour project, in some way the Labour party was still acting as representative of the working class and taking its voice, demands and interests into competition with the Conservative party. The key point from this historicisation is that democracy has always acted as a procedure for a deeper structural social antagonism in which this antagonism could find a way to a consensual stalemate short of the annihilation of one side or the other.

However, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the entrance into the post-political era, where the structural antagonisms have more or less dissipated at the level of political agency or ideology, it is with a great irony that now democracy in-itself is held up as a principle above all others. In this context, minus the power of a dialectical social motor compelling the democratic mechanics, we are made to feel like we have a moral obligation to vote – and in Belgium until recently you could even be fined if you refused to vote in elections! The spectre of declining turnout at elections across the board has caused the legitimacy crisis within the democratic instructions, of which the expenses scandal is just the tip of the iceberg, or possibly: the single spark that starts a prairie fire. The precedent to the current crisis is clear: ever more shrill proclamations of the greatness of democracy in the post-Cold War era and an ongoing political project by state mandarins to increase turnout, including: internet voting, lowering the voting age, and school education programmes on the importance of voting for the democratic well-being.

Recently on BBC Radio 4 a commentator gave a long monologue on the rightness of Western liberal democracy (and why it needs defending), which I think is indicative of the paradox. To justify the point, against all the ills of the political class being exposed in the media, the argument resorted to comparing liberal-democracy to North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, using the example of the 99% vote in favour of Hussein at his elections. Here though we might ask whether this justification of democracy merely in relation to the ‘worse alternative’ of non-democracy isn’t something of a mirror of Saddam Hussein’s elections; in that, they reduce the word democracy to a solely formal, procedural matter of inclusion. The motto in the last weeks has been something like vote for the good of your country; only don’t vote for the nationalist parties! It is in this context that I think we have to mount a critique of democracy as it is passed off in the liberal media and through the political class. This of course is a dangerous strategy, because whenever you critique democracy you are immediately run the risk of the accusation that you are promoting dictatorship. Yet this is exactly the moral blackmail embedded in the current idealisation of democracy: an idealisation leading to the ever more un-democratic, authoritarian governance of Western democracies. To proceed, then, I want to run through the critique of democracy starting from what I think are the weakest critiques through to the strongest, final critique.

First, there are those critiques that criticise democracy with regard to presence of the unelected House of Lords, or the fact that the populace is still subject to the crown. In light of what I have discussed so far about the crisis in democracy coming from the fact that it acts as a resolution procedure for an antagonism that no longer plays a powerful role, I think it is clear that even an elected or abolished House of Lords, or a new constitution will effectively do nothing to resolve this underlying crisis. The same too applies to the debate about proportional representation: without a motor of antagonism it is unclear what the ever-greater democratisation of government will achieve.

Second, there are those critiques that emphasise the media’s corporate influence on voting habits to brainwash people and normalise opinions and voting hatits. This is something like the critique of Walter Lippman’s idea that the media and public relations industry has to manufacture a social consensus in order to keep the masses in place, an idea picked up in Noam Chomsky’s famous text: ‘Manufacturing Consent.’ But again, I think we should reject this hypothesis, since it effectively reduces the people to an easily manipulable mass, without the capacity to think or critique what they are spoon-fed. The estbalishment will always predominantly control the information channels, so if we blame the media we are essentially giving up on any prospect for democracy, and for any form of change and popular sovereignty in general.

Third, there is a slightly cleverer critique of the system of Party-based representative democracy: because many people hold a varied set of preferences, when they are triangulated amongst the Parties they produce a consistently status quo centrist aggregate. For example, in the run up to the Iraq war, when millions demonstrated, arguably the movement didn’t go any further because ultimately there is the prevalent idea that we live in a democracy and the ballot-box is the only way to resolve the disagreement. But let us look at the real dynamics: only the Liberal Democrats opposed the invasion, and unless that was the only issue at stake, even if there was an impromptu general election, there are numerous positions in which overall people would end up still voting for Labour and Conservatives and the war would still have gone ahead. For economic, social, strategic reasons etc. the system doesn’t correct itself to the will of the people, but would simply repeat the already existing dynamics.

The fourth and final critique is I believe the strongest. That is that the very mechanism of representative democracy is designed to pacify people from becoming political subjects. Here I would follow Alain Badiou’s critique of the state, that there is a constitutive illusion behind representative democracy which counts us all as individuals. Why I call this an illusion is that we know politics itself is the act of coming together to collectively determine our destiny; and yet only through electing a representative to act on our behalf does the system recognise in some way the will of the people. But in the same act that will is also taken away and placed in the hands of the other, with conflicting sets of commitments. Thus in a vicious loop, the will of people seeing its only limit to power ceases to be a will and to see representatives as sovereigns who they simply have the power to ‘keep in check.’

And at the same time, from a more Marxist perspective, the way representatives are chosen in accordance with a geographical, abstract space conceals the role of productive relations and their representation within the system. If our social being is fundamentally defined by our work and relations in the system of production and exploitation, then our political being under representative democracy is a very meagre thing indeed. The political will of individuals is abstracted from the workplace and put instead into an arbitary geographical space. This is why we have the doubling up of the Union bureaucracy in sort of dual power structure with the representative electives. Yet the widespread docility and subservience of the Union structures to the political democratic representatives of Parliament, means they are essentially a second tier structure, who through their conflict with the political levers become passive; and as we have seen in the last two decades the Unions are withering in numbers across the Western world. So we should take it as no surprise that the capitalist class promotes representative democracy so vigorously, because it essentially reduces representation to representation of individuals as consumers of democratic choice.

This is the point at which we should instead advocate a properly Marxist-communist alternative where people are forced to govern their own affairs – and on those matters which require a consensus in an aggregate structure, that structure should reflect the will of people represented via their place in the system of production. This would of course put the entire capitalism system in jeopardy, since without the abstraction of democracy as we know it, the will of people vis-a-vis their direct consciousness as producers creating social value would be mediated directly and thereby subordinate capitalist exploitation and squeeze it out of the system. This is because the direct representation of workplaces in a democracy could no longer be democratic under the conditions of corporate exploitation.

Thus, I think the way forward for the Left and communists is a direct and relentless attack on the word ‘democracy’ as we know it. That is not because democracy is an unworthy ideal; rather in its current form it has become a meaningless reification of the existing order.

This blog piece is an edited version of a talk given in the Uncaptive Minds Forum on 8th June, 2009, in amdebate with Andy Howell of the COMPASS group.

Nathan Coombs is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London and co-editor of the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies.


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