Book Review: Democracy: Crisis and Renewal

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A system in crisis

There were two remarkable things about the Lisbon Treaty referendum that have been almost completely ignored by the men and women whose job it is to chew over Irish politics on a daily basis. First of all, the result showed that Irish citizens have no confidence in the people they vote for. Parties that hold over 90% of seats in the Dail told us that it was essential for the Lisbon Treaty to be passed. The response from the electorate (including a large number of people who had voted for the establishment parties barely a year earlier) was a decisive “no thanks”.

The whole system of representative democracy rests on the assumption that politicians are in touch with the views of the people who vote them into office – there may not be a perfect over-lap, but there should certainly be a rough coincidence of opinion between the political elite and the mass of citizens. But on an issue which that elite considered to be of fundamental importance for the future of Ireland, there proved to be a monumental gap. This fact deserves far more analysis than vague references to a “disconnect” between rulers and ruled.

The second point of note was the reaction of the Irish political establishment – and its European counterparts – to the verdict. In all the commentary, which has consumed several forests’ worth of newspaper since polling day, you would have had to search very carefully to find any suggestion that the verdict of the Irish people should be respected. The Irish Times has sometimes been tactless enough to say what others are thinking: the Irish electorate has disgraced itself by voting the wrong way, and will have to sit in the bold corner until it is ready to correct its error and allow the resumption of normal business. Another fundamental pillar of representative democracy, the right of citizens to choose between different options, is seen as an unwelcome hindrance which should be emptied of all its practical content.

Paul Ginsborg would not be surprised by any of this. According to his excellent new book Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, there is something badly wrong with the practice of democracy in today’s world. At first sight it may seem absurd to talk about a “crisis” of western-style representative democracy. In purely quantitative terms, that system has never been in better shape. As late as 1973, the majority of present-day EU member-states were ruled by dictatorships, whether fascist (Iberia and Greece) or communist (Central and Eastern Europe). Not only has parliamentary democracy conquered the whole of Europe – with some problematic zones on the eastern fringe – but it has spread to countries like Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Chile that were once notorious for political repression.

But according to Ginsborg, democracy has been hollowed out in its European heartlands. The malaise has a number of key features. One is “the assignment of politics to a separate sphere, inhabited by professionals, organised by party elites, protected by the technical language and bureaucratic practice of administrators, and to a very great extent impermeable to the general public”. This development has been matched by a withdrawal of citizens to private life, greatly encouraged by the spread of consumer capitalism and the privatisation of leisure activities. Commercial television is a prime culprit:

“Its iron logic dictates that programming is always dependent upon maximising the size of an audience, so that viewers are considered primarily as market members, not citizens. This fundamental choice then determines all the rest: advertisements advocating consumption invade every moment of screen time, and programmes are primarily planned as entertainment and distraction, not information and instruction, especially at peak viewing times. Public television corporations in different nations for a time resisted this logic and practice, but they too have succumbed to a greater or lesser extent. A very strong cultural model on a global level has been established, and there is little space for democratic politics in it. Where politics does survive, it has become media and personality politics, to be viewed rather than experienced.”

The power of media oligarchs is just one symptom of another aspect of the democratic crisis: “Politics and plutocracy have joined hands, with the outcome of elections ever more dependent on big, or very big money … modern elections are not fought on level playing fields, and electoral spending in nearly all democracies has spiraled completely out of control.” Big business has never been bigger, while countervailing forces (above all organised labour) have been forced to retreat.

Ginsborg focuses primarily on Europe in this book, so he is bound to address the particular role of the European Union in compromising democracy. It is refreshing to come across someone who is willing to state the obvious about the EU:

“Right from the start, the European project, and the language it adopted, separated out the needs of political economy from those of liberal democracy. Decisions were taken by administrative and governmental elites, without any desire to make them the result of due democratic process or of public political debate … the EU’s overall structure not only does not take on board participative democracy, but has grave difficulties even with according space to representative government.”

The principle of “subsidiarity” has been touted by Eurocrats as a solution to the infamous “democratic deficit”. But as Ginsborg notes, it is drawn directly from Catholic canon law (“a legal tradition that boasts no great democratic pedigree”), and has made little or no difference to the practice of the EU. No wonder that almost every time the EU project has had to face the genuinely democratic challenge of a popular referendum, a crisis has ensued.

Marx and Mill – two visions of democracy

In order to suggest what might be done about the crisis of democracy, Ginsborg goes back to the ideas of two great nineteenth-century thinkers, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. He uses the two men as foils for his own analysis throughout this short book. Usually when you see Marx and Mill compared, you should expect to find a bland celebration of the English liberal as the personification of all democratic virtues alongside an equally trite picture of his German contemporary as the evil genius responsible for the worst crimes of Stalinism. Commendably, Ginsborg breaks with that pattern.

He notes that the libertarian instincts of Mill were undermined by his fear of the masses, which led him to insist on property qualifications for the franchise. Despite this failing, there is still plenty of strong critical passion in the writings of Mill that should make latter-day neo-liberals pause before they claim him as one of their ancestors. Take this for example:

“No longer enslaved or made dependent by force of law, the great majority are so by force of poverty; they are still chained to a place, to an occupation, and to conformity with the will of an employer, and debarred by the accident of birth both from the enjoyments, and from the mental and moral advantages, which others inherit without exertion and independently of desert.”

That’s the sort of talk that would have you kicked out of the British Labour Party nowadays (Peter Mandelson would probably describe it as “the politics of envy”). Equally good is his view of the character type best suited for a democratic society:

“The true virtue of human beings is fitness to live together as equals; claiming nothing for themselves but what they as freely concede to everyone else; regarding command of any kind as an exceptional necessity, and in all cases a temporary one; and preferring, whenever possible, the society of those with whom leading and following can be alternate and reciprocal.”

Mill had an exaggerated faith in the ability of parliaments to represent the whole of society (“every person in the country may count upon finding somebody who speaks his mind, as well or better than he could speak it himself”), and did not explore the option of direct, participatory democracy as an alternative to the model of rule by a parliamentary elite. This is where Karl Marx enters the stage, holding up the brief experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 as a model for direct democracy and working-class government.

As Ginsborg correctly states, the vision of a libertarian commune-state sketched out by Marx was far removed from the ultra-centralised regime that later took power in the Soviet Union and claimed Marxism as its main inspiration. Among the features of the political order envisaged by Marx would be the direct election of all public officials, and the ability of citizens to recall them if they broke their mandate; the abolition of all privileges for office-holders so that they would receive the typical wage of a skilled worker; and the disbandment of a standing army and police force, to be replaced by democratic militias of citizens.

The question of direct democracy was placed on the agenda during and after the First World War by the spread of workers’ councils in many European countries, notably Russia, Germany and Italy. Many socialists at the time followed in the foot-steps of Marx and urged the working class to build its own system of “council democracy” that would be vastly superior to the “bourgeois” system of parliamentary democracy. The Bolsheviks took power in Russia with the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” and placed the idea of council democracy in the statutes of the Communist International which they founded after the war. Lenin’s famous pamphlet The State and Revolution, written in the summer of 1917, is a call for direct rule by the working class through councils as an alternative to parliament.

Of course, it wasn’t long before any form of democracy, council or parliamentary, was extinct in the USSR. Ginsborg argues that this was not merely the result of “objective conditions” – the destruction caused by civil war and economic collapse – although this certainly played a role. The political decisions of the Bolshevik government were more important:

“The Soviet system of democracy was above all destroyed by the subordinate place that it occupied in the overall political theory of the Bolsheviks. Democracy was never a sine qua non of their system, a central pillar of socialist revolution. It was more of an optional extra, the adoption of which could be first suspended in the name of the war, and then endlessly postponed in the years after 1921.”

Liberty – ancient and modern

Ginsborg agrees with Marx that democratic systems have to allow citizens much greater scope to participate in decision-making than the elitist parliamentary model favoured by Mill and other liberal thinkers. He argues that while it would be unrealistic to expect people to devote all their leisure time to politics, “putting aside a few hours every week for matters of public interest could quite easily come to seem customary … there is nothing to prevent time spent in improving democracy from becoming a habitual part of people’s lives.” Without this cultural change, the crisis of the political order will only get worse: an element of participatory democracy must be introduced if the “renewal” of the book’s title is to occur.

One of the chief objections to any call for direct democracy is based on a practical argument. As Ginsborg reminds us, this view was first put forward by the French intellectual Benjamin Constant in the early nineteenth century, when he distinguished between “liberty of the ancients” and “liberty of the moderns”. Constant argued that direct democracy was only practical in small communities, such as ancient Athens. Large, complex, modern societies would require a representative system, where politicians acted on behalf of citizens without consulting them directly between elections.

Obviously there is some truth in what Constant said. A state or a city with a population of millions or tens of millions cannot be governed by a weekly mass meeting of the full citizen body. Any form of democracy will need some kind of representation if it is to function properly. But this does not mean that we could not combine representative and participatory democracy, giving citizens the chance to play a direct role in decision-making at a local level and making national representatives more accountable to the people who vote for them. There is a lot more room for mass participation in politics than our current system is willing to allow. This is not caused simply by a failure of imagination on the part of our rulers: the need for the political system to co-exist with a capitalist economy acts as a brake on its democratic potential.

For starters, the realistic scenario that would see citizens spend a few hours every week on public affairs cannot be expected to develop in isolation from the nature of work in our society. At the extreme end of the scale, some people have to work such long hours that they need to spend all their spare time resting to recover their energy for the next shift. Others are a little more fortunate, but their working day is still long and stressful enough to make the thought of going to a political meeting of any kind during the evenings deeply unattractive. This is aggravated by housing and transport systems that add two or three hours’ commute to the time spent in work every day.

The time factor explains why, as Ginsborg notes, the foot-soldiers of civil society groups tend to be disproportionately middle-class. A reduction in the working week to 35 or even 30 hours would do more to encourage active citizenship than any number of earnest speeches. Nor is it just the length of the working day that undermines democratic participation. The structures of the workplace are inherently undemocratic – anyone who tries to act like a citizen in their dealings with the boss won’t have a job for very long. Work (or the lack of work) plays a central role in people’s lives, and its current form is most likely to encourage feelings of apathy, indifference and cynicism.

Combine that with some of the factors mentioned by Ginsborg: the corruption of politics by corporate funding; de facto censorship of information by media tycoons; the vast gulf which separates political elites from the people they claim to represent. The wonder is not that so many people are indifferent to politics – it’s more surprising to find anyone taking an interest in public affairs at all. And yet, it moves. Despite all the obstacles in their way, large numbers of people take part in social movements of one kind or another, using their spare time to lobby for political action. The resilience of active citizenship in such unpromising conditions suggests that many people would seize the opportunities granted by radical reform of our political systems to enable mass participation. So what might those reforms involve?

Breaking the mould

In his survey of reforming experiments, Ginsborg begins with the various “citizen juries” and “electronic town meetings” that have been organised in Britain, the USA and other countries. Whatever may be said in favour of these initiatives, they all suffer from a basic flaw: “There are no mechanisms to ensure that politicians will actually implement any of the proposals that these “random sample” groups produce.” Political elites may wish for greater engagement from citizens, but only as long as it doesn’t restrict their own freedom of maneuver. A genuine devolution of power is not on the agenda. In practice citizen juries and electronic town meetings are just another variation on the focus groups and opinion polls that are used by politicians to legitimise choices they already want to make (superficial critics of Tony Blair often accused him of being a slave to opinion polls – but he was in no hurry to act when polls showed over 70% support for the re-nationalisation of Britain’s railways).

There has been a much more impressive attempt to open up the political system to mass participation in the Brazilian city of Porte Alegre since the late 1980s, under the stewardship of the Workers’ Party (PT). The PT created a new structure of popular assemblies to debate the city’s budget priorities: the famous “participatory budget” allowed ordinary citizens to influence the final shape of the city’s spending plans. The new system did not replace the old structure of representative democracy. Instead, the two forms of democracy were intertwined. Popular engagement grew steadily – 1,300 took part in the first participatory budget in 1989, but that figure had reached 31,300 by 2002. That included a large number of citizens from Porto Alegre’s ethnic minorities, who had generally been excluded from the political process.

Ginsborg notes that even with 30,000 citizens taking part, the budget assemblies could only draw in a minority of the city’s population:

“Participatory democracy of this sort, however precious, is a minority activity and cannot replace representative democracy, which for all its failings still involves well over half the adult population in a secret and formal process of voting. But the two can and indeed must meet, with the liberty of the ancients coming to the aid of that of the moderns. The power and responsibility of representatives are not negated or even diminished. They are, rather, modified, enriched and institutionally constrained by the deliberative and participatory activity that is taking place around them.”

I would have liked to see Ginsborg talk a little more about the political context that made the Porto Alegre experiment possible. You cannot separate what happened in the city from the emergence of a mass working-class party with a radical programme, basing itself on the support of militant trade unions, left-wing Catholics and other social movements. Any attempt to replicate the participatory budget in other countries is bound to be a feeble imitation unless it has the political muscle that a only a movement like the PT can provide.

The minority participation noted by Ginsborg probably owes a great deal to the social conditions produced by Brazil’s savage form of capitalism. As long as many citizens face a daily battle for survival they will not have much time for political engagement. The powers of the Porto Alegre government have always been limited: it cannot abolish extreme poverty, or challenge the stranglehold of big business over mass communication. The PT would have to initiate radical reforms on a national scale in order to transform Brazilian society. But that is exactly what the PT leader Lula failed to do when he became Brazil’s president in 2002. There has been no attempt to broaden the Porto Alegre experiment to cover the Brazilian state as a whole, or to break the power of economic elites whose wealth is based on the poverty of the favelas. The rightwards march of the PT has also compromised the health of Porto Alegre’s democratic reforms, showing that you cannot build participatory democracy in one city alone.

Towards economic democracy

You can tell that Paul Ginsborg is serious about uncovering the roots of our democratic crisis when he devotes a chapter to the elephant in the room:

“Most of the literature on democracy, especially of liberal stamp, pretends that gross disparities of wealth and power between individual citizens in modern democracies have little bearing upon the quality of those democracies themselves. Quite the opposite is true. If citizens share equal rights in the political sphere, but are highly unequal in the economic one, then democracy is likely to be deeply flawed.”

A statement of the obvious – but one that you will rarely hear uttered in polite company. Ginsborg insists that we must enable “greater democracy and empowerment at the workplace, the possibility for those who work in an institution, factory or service industry to make their voice heard and be part of a decision-making process. Active, dissenting citizens cannot just be present as a reforming movement within civil society and political institutions; they must also, in ways yet to be defined, carry those same democratic values into their daily work experience.”

This is fine stuff, and should be taken on board by any consistent democrat. Ginsborg refers to a couple of practical examples from the 1970s that pointed in the right direction. One was the proposal for “wage earners’ funds” drafted by the Swedish socialist Rudolf Meidner and adopted by Sweden’s trade union movement:

“Each year, according to Meidner’s scheme, every large Swedish corporation was to be required to issue to its employees shares equivalent to 20% of its profits. These shares were not to be owned individually but were to be entrusted to regional management boards. The boards were to be made democratically accountable, and they were to use the income from the shares to promote social priorities and the public interest. The shares could not be transferred. As the community’s stake in the large enterprises grew, so too would its ability to influence corporate decision-making.”

Meidner’s plan was never put into practice: it provoked a furious backlash from Swedish industrialists, who mobilised all their resources to campaign against the reform. European politics was already beginning to shift towards the right when Meidner drew up his proposals. In the years since, Swedish social democracy has tended to lose ground in the face of neo-liberalism, and more ambitious steps to democratise the economy have vanished from the agenda.

Ginsborg’s other example comes from his own specialised field, modern Italy. His wonderful earlier book A History of Contemporary Italy really came alive when Ginsborg described the great wave of collective action that swept Italy between 1968 and 1980. At the heart of that wave were the factory councils: by 1973 there were 16,000 councils with 150,000 delegates elected from the shop-floor of Italy’s workplaces. In Democracy, Ginsborg quotes a summary of their activity:

“The delegates intervened on a vast range of issues: work rhythms, manning levels, pauses, production-line speeds, environmental inspections, health and safety dangers at work, exposure to noxious substances, information on high-risk practices in the factories; levels of skills (qualifiche) and the rotation and reorganisation of functions; negotiation of shift work and the reduction of night shifts; the introduction of freshly prepared food in the canteen, etc. The protagonists of all this activity were delegates of considerable training, and sometimes technical and scientific skills deriving from paid study leave.”

But there is something fundamental missing from Ginsborg’s vision of economic democracy. What are we to do about the people who own and control the factories and offices today? As A History of Contemporary Italy showed, Italy’s capitalist elite regarded the factory council movement as a horrifying departure from the norm, a permanent threat to their social position that would have to be neutralised as quickly as possible. The climax of Ginsborg’s earlier book was a description of the set-piece battle at FIAT’s Turin plant in 1980, a bitterly fought strike which both sides recognised as decisive for the future of Italian society. The FIAT management emerged triumphant and immediately set about removing as many shop-floor militants as possible. Over the next decade, Italian employers increasingly shifted towards smaller production units in order to break up the massive concentrations of workers that had spawned the factory councils.

You simply cannot expect a movement that intervenes on such a broad scale – clashing with the traditional “right of management to manage” – to co-exist indefinitely with a capitalist economic system. Nor can you expect capitalists to go about their business quietly while ownership of their firms is gradually transferred to social funds that are under democratic control. A real and lasting step towards economic democracy will require firm measures to establish social ownership of industry and finance and uproot the power of traditional elites. Sooner or later there will be a confrontation between the old order and the emerging system, with one side carrying the day.

Curiously, Ginsborg rejects this path, which he describes as “the revolutionary expropriation of the capitalist class, and the establishment of workers’ control in the factories”, arguing that “it has not led in historical terms to greater democracy, either political or economic, rather to less”. Leaving aside the archaic language (I don’t think any socialist would talk about “expropriation” these days), Ginsborg is obviously referring to the East European model of Communism. But there was no attempt to establish “workers’ control in the factories” in those societies: on the contrary, any form of independent working-class organisation was harshly repressed. The old elites may have been expropriated, but only by a new elite of Communist bureaucrats who imposed the same authoritarian power relations on the working class.

To be sure, any movement that hopes to build a new society founded on political and economic democracy (I would call that “socialism”, but the name matters less than its content) will have to develop an original strategy, based on modern conditions. There will certainly be no repeat of the October Revolution or the Cuban guerrilla war in today’s Europe. But it will still be necessary to break the power of the dominant economic class. That is the nut which must be cracked, one way or another.

The future of democracy

In one of the book’s most telling passages, Ginsborg asks why the great upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s did not lead to the triumph of democracy in every area of society:

“The failure can be explained in part by the changing balance of forces at the end of the 1970s – the decline of the social movements of the previous years, the re-establishment of employers’ control and discipline in the factories, and above all the rise of an all-conquering international ideology, that of neo-liberalism. But it was also due in no small part to the incapacity and unwillingness of left-wing political parties to channel the great pressure from below into new forms of governance, to rethink democratic participation and to break out of a model of politics in which their own influence was fortified within the state but democracy as a whole was not enriched.”

That lesson should be absorbed by anyone who wants to revive the Left and renew democracy (the two are closely linked, as should be clear enough by now). It doesn’t seem likely that the existing centre-left parties will prove capable of rising to the task, any more than they did in the 1970s. That leaves the long road of building new political forces that can accommodate demands for participatory democracy and channel the energy of social movements without absorbing them into the old political system. This may seem like a hopelessly ambitious goal, given the current strength of the radical left in Europe. But one advantage of the “hollowing out” of democracy identified by Paul Ginsborg is this: established political loyalties are not as deeply rooted as they were in the past. They could quite easily be shifted if a credible alternative was placed on the agenda.

If the Left does not raise its game, the future may hold something worse than the apathy and cynicism of today’s scene. As Ginsborg warns:

“Democracy has many enemies waiting in the wings: politicians and movements that are for the moment constrained to play by its rules, but whose real animus is quite another – populist, manipulative of the modern media, intolerant and authoritarian. They will seize their chance if we do not reform our democracies swiftly.”

It’s not hard to guess which European government Ginsborg has in mind, observing from his academic perch in Florence. Nor is Silvio Berlusconi’s gruesome coalition the only warning sign of late: the fact that almost one-third of Austria’s electorate voted for ultra-right parties earlier this year should be enough to wake anyone out of their complacency. There is a crisis alright – and recognising that is the first step towards renewal.