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.