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February 11, 2013 11:19 AM Post-Democracy

By Henry Farrell

Charlie Stross argues that we’re living in a post-democratic system.

Institutional survival pressure within organizations — namely political parties — causes them to systematically ignore or repel candidates for political office who are disinclined to support the status quo or who don’t conform to the dominant paradigm in the practice of politics. … The status quo has emerged by consensus between politicians of opposite parties, who have converged on a set of policies that they deem least likely to lose them an election — whether by generating media hostility, corporate/business sector hostility, or by provoking public hostility. … The news cycle is dominated by large media organizations and the interests of the corporate sector. … Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. … So the future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It’s a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state.

His analysis reminds me a lot of Colin Crouch’s brilliant book, Post-Democracy [Powells, Amazon] (nb – Colin is a former supervisor and current friend of mine). If you want to date it back to its original publication in Italian, this short book is now ten years old. I don’t think it has had a big US readership, but it has been quite influential in the UK, and very influential indeed in continental Europe. I gave a talk at the Italian Democratic Party’s summer school last year – three of the other five academic speakers that afternoon based their talks on their disagreement with Colin’s arguments.

Colin’s analysis reaches a similar end-point to Charlie’s, but from a different starting point. Charlie looks to Michels’ iron law of oligarchy to explain why democratic politics is in such a state – those who want to get ahead in political life can only do so by behaving in ways that don’t rock the boat. Colin wouldn’t disagree with this, but he would likely see Michels’ analysis as in need of supplement. After all, Michels was writing about the German Social Democratic Party in the early 20th century, and described tendencies that existed during the heyday (such as it was) of responsive political parties. What are the underlying structural conditions which explain why we’ve seen so much of the life-blood sucked out of democracy in the last few decades?

Colin thinks that these have everything to do with the specific consequences of neo-liberalism. One part of his argument is the common claim that states find themselves constrained by the increased bargaining power of business. But he also points to more subtle problems. In particular, he argues that governments are losing their capacity to do things, as their functions become increasingly marketized. More and more state functions are put out to the private sector (sometimes under direct pressure from multilateral organizations). As this happens, governments lose their capacity to direct and coordinate, and increasingly become just another nexus in a set of anonymous chains of contracting and subcontracting. As the line between government and business becomes ever blurrier, politicians become ever more closely embroiled with business leaders, taking on and representing their interests. The political aspects of the state shrink to a hard and unaccountable core, surrounded by a variety of contracting relationships.

This does not lead to the complete abandonment of democratic forms. We do not live in non-democratic states, but in post-democratic state. As Colin puts it, we are on the declining segment of the parabola, long after the apex was reached. Hence, we still have democratic forms – elections, parties and the like. However, they become increasingly disconnected from mass publics. Politicians and parties simply don’t need public support any more in the way that they used to. A little bit of volunteerism is still useful – even artificial entities such as Berlusconi’s Forza Italia! eventually acquired local branches. But it doesn’t have much connection to policy, which is made in a circuit between business and lobbyists. This results in corrupt relationships and regular scandals, which further devalue conventional politics, and paradoxically render accountability more difficult, not less

Colin’s analysis has some important implications. First – he suggests that this is a perverse outcome for the ideology of neo-liberals, which claimed that marketized relationships would address the problems identified by public choice scholars. But what we have seen is not an expansion of free markets, but instead increased oligopolistic concentration, combined with an ever-larger set of ambiguous relationships in which government and business interests are impossible to distinguish from each other. Colin argues that Hayek never solved the problem of politics – a Hayekian order is unsustainable because businesses can do better from playing with the rules of the game than from engaging in competition. An implication of Colin’s arguments is that the only way that neo-liberalism will work is in a confined system, where there are clear demarcations between politics and markets, and specifically an emphatic recognition of an inviolable realm of politics where the public good, rather than the pursuit of private benefits dominates. How to get there from where we are is less obvious. The old system worked because we had a class which recognized its common interests and was prepared to act on them. We do not have any equivalent today.

There are bits of the book that are outdated. There’s little discussion of the Internet. The world after the economic crisis is a different one than the one that Crouch describes (although, as he discusses in his more recent book, not nearly as different as as one might have hoped). But as its consonance with a post Charlie wrote just a couple of days ago suggests, its main lessons and arguments are entirely relevant today. People who like Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, but want to read something with a broader historical, cross-national and sociological sweep than Chris is able to give in a book aimed at a more general audience will find it invaluable.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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