The discontents of post-democracy February 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I have read three things in recent days that make for a dispiriting insight into the state of Western democracy. First, Zoe Williams on the up-coming Eastleigh byelection:

There is one matter on which the people of Eastleigh are in complete unison – “this lot,” says [UKIP supporter] Talbot, “I just think they’re in it for themselves. They’re lining their pockets, and sod the rest of us.” Terri Smith, asked what she thought of Chris Huhne, said: “I hope he goes to jail. What was he even in parliament for anyway? He doesn’t need the money, he’s a millionaire many times over.”

“I don’t think a lot of any of them,” [voter] Bernard said sadly. “You never get the truth, they do something wrong, there’s a scandal, it fades away. If that were you or me, we’d be out.”

Next, a more articulate version of the same malaise from Charlie Stross:

Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It’s obviously subtle — we haven’t been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we’ve somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What’s happening?

Here’s a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what’s happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken… our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. They have done so by converging on a common set of policies that do not serve the public interest, but minimize the risk of the parties losing the corporate funding they require in order to achieve re-election.

Finally, a nuanced view, as you would expect from a professional political scientist in two different posts by Jonathan Hopkin:

Why risk annoying powerful people who can finance your reelection, when you could do nothing and blame someone else for the bad consequences of failing to deliver reforms? Postdemocracy, as Colin Crouch calls it. There will be no way out of the crisis without mobilizing social groups that have an interest in reform. The longer it takes for this to happen, the less likely it is that there will be peaceful outcome to this crisis.

[But] Democracy can’t be ‘consumed’, it’s made with our own engagement and involvement in the political process.

The problem, then, is clear. Professional politicians have (mostly) become disconnected from the popular will. This doesn’t matter for their electoral chances due to corporate funding, and because there is usually little alternative. The result is increasing distrust of the political process; but we only have ourselves to blame if we do not engage. This state of affairs cannot get worse forever so either some charismatic popular politician will capture the popular imagination and the other party(s) will have to follow them; or we will see some more damaging failure mode. I hope that it will be the former, but as Charlie and Jonathan say, there is a risk that it will be the latter.

7 Responses to “The discontents of post-democracy”

  1. A modest proposal from a self-avowed reactionary. If we’re going to have an oligarchy why not just call a spade a spade. Restore 18th century continental monarchy. For whatever their faults, certainly no one would describe the Bourbons as “beige.” I like the honesty of having the system’s internal mechanism actually matching the outward description.

    No more of this hogwash of brainwashing naive schoolchildren that power is held directly by “the people.” When in reality it’s exercised by a small class of people who have the means and motivation to buy influence, find loopholes in the system, horse trade with influential people, and engineer winning election campaigns.

    Even leftists I think can muster a certain amount of buy-in. On the up side white may not be red, black or green, but it’s certainly further away from brown than beige. Plus it’s hard to imagine Frederick the Great acceding to lobbyists who want to set up bid-rigged public contracts, take irresponsible financial risk or rape the environment on public lands. After all those contracts are paid from his personal treasury, those banks are using his currency, and those forests are property of the crown.

    Unfortunately the current crop of talent in terms of descendants of great houses with real world governing experience is quite thin. I’ll offer up Hans-Adam II, there’s scarcely any patch on Earth more prosperous, peaceful, stable and well-run than Liechtenstein. It’s a small government to be sure, but Hans has really knocked it out of the park for the past two decades. At any rate he certainly seems aeons above Cameron and Clegg in the governance department.

    In a very convenient coincidence, Hans-Adam’s grandson (heir to his heir) also happens to be the Jacobite pretender to the English throne on his mother’s side. Joseph Wenzel will make a fine new monarch for Britain, with his grandfather as regent and mentor till he’s of age.

    It’s settled: A Jacobite Restoration! Out with the Windsors, I’ve heard enough about the Middletons for an entire lifetime anyway. All acts and legal changes subsequent to the English Civil War to be declared null and void, not unlike the vacation of the Vichy regime in France.

    Britain gets a proper fit-to-rule king who holds true and indivisible sovereignty. An oligarchy, yes. But at least an oligarchy with 1.5% unemployment! Hans-Adam can see fit to re-modernize the legal code from its mid-17th century restored state. If it so chooses the US can also void the Treaty of Paris (signed with the Windsors), ditch its even beige-er oligarchy and join a proper government.

    I have little doubt after seeing a few years of the results that we will. I haven’t personally visited all 11 of Liechtenstein’s communes. But as far as I understand none would be in any way, shape or form in a state remotely resembling Detroit, Southside Chicago or Oakland.

  2. Hmmm, I think I’d rather do it by lottery, Doug. A ten year term, say, for a randomly selected citizen, or perhaps small group of citizens. Beef up the civil service to support them, but otherwise do away with politicians entirely…

  3. I don’t know about a monarchy. The only successful monarchies have been ones with “sacred kings.” I.e., kings appointed by God. Such as the French kings,, the Hapsburg Emperors, and the Ottoman Emperors (a different god than the other two, but the same principle). These were all NOT nations but multinational and “diverse” empires. Perhaps now that “multiculturism” and “diversity” are Politically Correct, we can go back to empires.

    Before that, however, we desperately need the creation of a legally recognized aristocracy. I study French history. There are families that held major offices for a thousand years. For example, the Rochefoucald tribe. It’s enough just to look up these families on Wikipedia, even though W is not always accurate, to see what I mean. There used to be a theory that in return for immense wealth and prestige, one ought to serve the king/nation as a professionally-trained leader in the courts, administration, military, or church.

    Today, in contrast, we have all these super-rich families that have total contempt for public service–and, indeed, who are financing the Republican theory of Nihilism and the abolition of government.

    Whether one likes the Kennedys or the Rockefeller, one has to admit that Jay Rockefeller’s spending years in the Senate shows that he felt a certain obligation to the nation that had made his family rich. Whereas today the second and third generations of the immensely wealthy do nothing at all and spend their time in idle debauchery.

    So let’s adopt the English system of titles and aware them to those that serve their country in some way. Say first generation are barons. If they keep up the tradition, the fourth or fifth generation to serve can be promoted as dukes.

    Doing this would recognize the incontrovertible fact that the US no longer is a democracy but rather is ruled by a small oligarchy. We would give the oligarchs legal titles and honors in the hopes that this would encourage at least some them to be of some use to someone.

  4. This lament is not new, it’s certainly been current since I’ve been able to read, and I bet it was already current in the fifth century BC Athens.

    What people forget is that any form of not too oppressive government, whether formally a democracy or not, is going to be a messy compromise. What people want is messy. Some people want to pay no taxes, some people want the government to deliver twice the GDP’s worth of public services, and sometimes they are the same people. Some people want to live in an environmentally friendly world, and some people want to fly to Florence for the weekend, and sometimes they are the same people. Some people want to have the person who stole an apple crucified on the spot, some people want human rights, and sometimes they are the same people. Some people want honest politicians, and some people want to drive over the speed limit unchallenged, and sometimes they are the same people. The ideal compromise that balances all these contradictory desires is never going to look super elegant. The current mess is probably not that wildly off the theoretical ideal mess.

    As for people who complain of being in a quasi police state, when the chance they end up in a state’s dungeon or with an official bullet in their head is effectively zero, they are simply spoilt kids who are disrespectful of people who really live in actual police states.

    It doesn’t mean we should stop trying to achieve some incremental improvements, but perhaps being realistic about the current state of affairs would be a good start.

  5. The bottom line is “democracy” isn’t the magic panacea of pure goodness that so many like to pretend it is. Democracy, all by itself simply means that 51% of the people get to dump on the other 49%. What makes/made the American style political system great are things like private property, rule of law, enforceable contracts, a bill of rights against the state and an environment generally protective of free enterprise and personal liberty. You’d much rather live in a monarchy or dictatorship that had those things than a democracy that didn’t.

    But more important than even all that is the over-arching concept of limited government, originally a major theme of the U.S. Constitution, now a quaint relic. The larger the state becomes the greater are the incentives for it to go into business for itself and expand for the sake of self-perpetuation. Are there any areas of life into which Barak Obama and the Eurocrats don’t want to deeply insert regular government authority and activity? Not really. Sex maybe.

    If you keep swapping liberty for “security” every chance you get, you will lose and lose hard in the end.

  6. What perplexes me is how serving as a member of parliament has become such a lucrative career in and of itself. I think that when this takes hold, the desire of parliamentarians to act in the nation’s real interest, which at points means radically, is dulled. They fear leaving the gravy train 5 years hence and you are left with centrist herding as opposed to representative democracy. So maybe MPs should be paid less. Then it wld be more likely to attract those passionate about the national interest not self interest.

  7. […] The discontents of post-democracy – “Professional politicians have (mostly) become disconnected from the popular will. This doesn’t matter for their electoral chances due to corporate funding, and because there is usually little alternative. The result is increasing distrust of the political process; but we only have ourselves to blame if we do not engage.“ […]