One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month, we ask:
Is democracy working?
With responses from: Jeremy Gilbert; Renske Doorenspleet; Raúl Zibechi; Marianne Maeckelbergh; Henry A. Giroux; Umut Bozkurt; Christian Fuchs; Tim Jordan; Gerald Sussman; Emma Crewe; Arang Keshavarzian; Marina Sitrin; James Martel; Dario Azzellini; Stephen Zunes; Paulina Tambakaki.
Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His recent publications include Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism (Pluto, 2013). He is currently working on a book for Verso – with Alex Williams – titled Hegemony Now: Power in the Twenty-First Century. His website is at: https://www.jeremygilbert.org/.
The question of whether democracy is working obviously depends on what we mean by ‘democracy’ and what we mean by ‘working’. But let me answer the question as naively as possible. By ‘democracy’, let us mean the existing institutions of liberal representative multi-party democracy in most countries that have such institutions. By ‘working’ let us mean ‘doing the thing that they are hypothetically supposed to do’. The definition of the latter is obviously itself contentious, but let us agree that if they are supposed to do anything, those institutions are supposed to translate the express wishes and desires of electorates (insofar as they can be measured) into the programmes enacted by their governments.
From this perspective, it is clear that they are not working and have not been, across much of the globe, since the 1970s. The general neoliberal programme has never enjoyed a clear majority mandate anywhere (except perhaps in parts of Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of state socialism).
It has been implemented by governments from the notional Right, elected by an electorate who believed that they would enact socially conservative measures that would slow down processes of social dislocation and cultural change; those governments may have passed some reactionary measures, but they slowed down nothing.
It has been enacted by governments from the notional left, elected by electorates who for the most part expected them to restore and extend post-war social democratic settlements; those governments may have passed some measures to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality, but they have rarely passed a measure that would have been recognised as social democratic by even the most right-wing members of their own parties just a decade or two previously.
Such a situation cannot be described as ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense.
Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Warwick University, UK. Her books include Democratic Transitions (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005) and Rethinking the Value of Democracy in Comparative Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2018). She is also the co-editor of two books on parties and party systems in Africa (2013, 2014).
The answer to this question partly depends on what one means by ‘democracy’. If we define democracy in a procedural, Schumpeterian way, then democracy is (still) working. Since the 1970s many countries have democratised, and clear reverse waves away from democracy have not happened. Not yet, at least. It would be better to talk about ‘stagnation’, as not many dictatorships have democratised recently, while democracies have not yet collapsed. However, if democracy is defined in broader terms (e.g. participatory, deliberative or social democracy), then democracy is not working well, as these systems hardly exist around the world.
Moreover, procedural democracy might be working, but working for what? The debate around this question has been polarised and ideologically driven. My forthcoming book looks for answers in a more empirical way, namely by analysing the findings from hundreds of statistical cross-national studies, which have been published not just in political science but also sociology, economics and development studies. These studies tend to focus on four outcomes: peace between countries, prevention of civil war, control of corruption and economic development. The findings show that dictatorships do just as well with regard to these outcomes, while democratising and hybrid systems are the worst performers. Hence, we should be realistic about what democracy can deliver.
In addition, we must rethink the study of the value of democracy. Why not move to new territories, develop and use new (broader) measures of democracy which can be used in statistical analyses as well? In addition, it would be good to investigate whether democracy is working better with regard to other outcomes (e.g. health, education, socioeconomic equality, access to clean water etc.). Such research is important as the enthusiasm for world-wide democratisation is rapidly fading away. In my view, it is impossible to defend democracy against its critics without making it crystal-clear what it stands for, and what it is good for.
Journalist and researcher linked to social movements in Latin America. As a popular educator, he conducts workshops with social groups, particularly in urban peripheries and with peasants. Three of his books have been translated into English: Dispersing Power (AK Press, 2010), Territories in Resistance (AK Press, 2012) and The New Brazil (AK Press, 2014).
Democracy is in crisis, throughout the world, even in the regions where it was consolidated, such as Europe, North America and some countries in Latin America. There is no single cause for this crisis.
First, democracy is one of the victims of the concentration of wealth. It has been kidnapped by the 1%, which controls the mass media and has the resources to support millionaires’ electoral campaigns. So the ‘representatives of the people’ have become representatives of the banks, Wall Street and the big multinationals.
The second cause of the democratic crisis is geopolitical. As the tensions between big powers dramatically increase, to the point that we are once again talking about nuclear war, the elites seek to homogenise their societies and prevent dissent, and for that they appeal to their control of the media and the militarisation of our societies. The Arab Spring was settled with wars and dictatorships, not with more democracy, because global powers are interested in having friendly governments, not governments that represent popular interests.
Third, the power that civil societies have throughout the world, sometimes expressed in social movements, has provoked anti-democratic reactions. Think how state powers liquidated Occupy Wall Street or the repressive reaction with which they responded to the ‘indignados’ in Spain.
Real democracy has become an obstacle for the 1% to maintain its power.
Associate Professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. She is the author of The Will of the Many (Pluto, 2009).
The short answer to ‘is democracy working?’ is no. But of course the real answer depends on how we define ‘working’? Democracy is a concept that invokes a specific set of structures on the one hand and an expansive set of values on the other. If we reduce democracy to the basic political structure of picking leaders through elections, then we could say that, in many countries at least, democracy works. However, if instead we think of democracy as a set of values, the picture looks decidedly more bleak. What has become of democracy’s promise of equality, participation, justice, freedom, solidarity? These values are much harder to measure than the existence of elections, but even without a precise measuring tool, it is safe to say that they are far from realised and that the imagined linear progression towards more democracy over time might be far less certain than we think.
Twenty years ago a social movement spread across the world to challenge the right of international organisations like the World Trade Organisation and the Group of 8 to make decisions that determined everyone’s future without any pretence to democratic representation or consultation. This movement claimed that the increased centralisation of power that governed in the interest of financial capital, leaving people everywhere without any channel of redress, was a serious threat to democracy.
In the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2007/2008, the prioritisation of capital over the popular will has merged with age-old xenophobic tendencies to revive another threat: the resurgence of racist, misogynist, anti-Islamic/anti-Semitic organising worldwide. These groups are evidence of democracy’s failure in three ways. First, its failure to create citizens who desire solidarity and equality. Second, its failure to create a political context in which people feel represented by their leaders. Finally, these groups highlight democracy’s fundamental inability to deal with human difference. Democracy amplifies racist and misogynist voices by imagining politics as a marketplace of ideas in which all voices are legitimate and equal and so there is no need to account for centuries of structural inequality.
Henry A. Giroux
Chaired Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University. His most recent books are America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017) and American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018).
All over the globe, the dream of democracy is turning into a nightmare as more and more people are subjected to the whims of a market that considers them expendable or reduces them to the status of mere survival. The failure of global capitalism’s promise of social mobility, equal opportunity, employment, and privatised dream worlds has given way to regressive taxation, off-shoring, deindustrialisation, the slashing of social provisions and public services, and the rise of authoritarian right-wing populism. Waves of xenophobia and racism, and a fear of refugees, undocumented immigrants and those considered ‘other’ have become the new normal for many countries, with the United States under the Trump administration taking the lead.
More and more people are now inclined to express support for authoritarian alternatives, and favour the interest of white majorities who advocate the return of barricades and borders. Calls for prosperity and cultural nationalism take place against, rather than for, the promises of democracy. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, spoke for many when he proclaimed that societies founded on liberal principles will not be able to compete in a global market and that there is no reason for democracies to be liberal in order to be successful.
The war against democracy is fuelled by a landscape of massive instability, inequality and insecurity, driven by a counterrevolutionary global capitalism. In failed states and broken economies there has been a retreat into the promises of the security state, racial cleansing and economic nationalism, a call for the suppression of dissent and a growing emphasis on law and order. The crisis of democracy is in the midst of what some have called ‘the great regression,’ an apt metaphor for the growing collapse of civil society, public discourse, social values, democratic institutions and public spheres.
The political crises shaking the foundations of liberal democracy reveal more than pent up collective energies of despair and rage. They also speak to the growing mechanisms of exclusion and ideologies of racist contempt that have returned with a vengeance all over Europe and in the United States, dressed up in the discourse of a competitive hyper-capitalism. Accompanying the rise of authoritarian states in Russia, India, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, the Philippines, and the United States, there is also the growing presence of right-wing political formations in France, Greece, Italy, and a number of other countries.
The spell of neo-fascism has to be broken. Democracy can no longer be taken for granted as the forces wedded to its opposite are growing all over the globe. Resistance in this instance is no longer an option, but has to begin now and cross national boundaries if democracy is not to become a relic of the past. It is time to dream big, talk back, organise collectively, and resurrect the radical imagination.
Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Eastern Mediterranean University. She is co-editor with Nicos Trimikliniotis of Beyond a Divided Cyprus: A State and Society in Transformation (Palgrave, 2012).
The recent rise of populist governments in different countries is presented as a threat to democracy. Can we say that democracy is not working anymore and will soon be replaced by a different type of political system?
In order to answer this question, we need to explain populism first. What is really specific about populism is that the leader reaches the followers in a seemingly direct, quasi-personal manner that largely bypasses established intermediary organizations, such as parties and interest associations. However, populism should not be understood only in terms of a political strategy but also in terms of a hegemonic project that enables us to grasp the class basis of populist leaders’ policies. Gramsci defines a hegemonic project as a concrete programme developed in a particular historical moment, through which a particular class/group maintains its hegemony by articulating its interests with the interests of subordinate classes/groups.
In this context, the rise of populist governments should be seen as a political reaction to the crisis of capitalism in 2007-2008. The retreat of the state since the 1980s has led to more insecurity on the part of the working people who struggle to survive in a flexible labour market. The recent crisis only exacerbated these problems and led to many people losing their jobs and homes. Within these circumstances, Donald Trump gave the promise to the battered white working classes that he would ‘make America great again’. He managed to articulate to the white working class a neoliberal, conservative hegemonic project. This is a dangerous project as it includes dividing the working class into whites vs immigrants and scapegoating immigrants as the main culprit of the economic crisis.
So does that mean we will say farewell to democracy? Are we heading towards more authoritarian regimes? Not necessarily. Populist regimes should be seen as a symptom of a certain problem inherent in the system. Capitalism is a destructive system that leads to inequality, exploitation, injustice and violence. Mainstream political parties have overlooked the increasing discontent among the working people and maintained their support for this system. What we are observing is not a failure of democracy as such but the failure of political parties that can formulate alternative strategies that can gain the consent of the working class.
Critical theorist of society and communication. He is co-editor of the Marxist open access journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique (http://www.triple-c.at) and an academic at the University of Westminster (http://fuchs.uti.at).
No matter which model of democracy you favour (participatory democracy, liberal democracy, representative democracy, direct democracy, pluralist democracy, libertarian democracy, etc.), the prospects for it seem bleak today in many parts of the world. We have seen the rise of new nationalisms and authoritarianisms.
Some speak of the rise of right-wing/far-right populism. But is populism the right term? In the broadest sense, populism is the movement of making something popular, such as in popular culture. Etymologically the term ‘popular’ stems from the Latin word popularis that designates that something is prevalent in the public. In a more political understanding, populism means the movement of making something appealing to the people. The problem of this second meaning is that by the people one can refer to (a) all humans, (b) all citizens, (c) the nation and those belonging to it. There is a variety of meanings of the term ‘the people’ as the populace that ranges from universalism on one end to nationalist particularism on the other end.
Populism as a political movement goes back to revolutionary movements in 19th century Russia. But the term has also become associated with nationalist and right-wing extremist forces and ideology that try to appeal to prejudices, and conceive of the people as an undifferentiated unit so that classes and their antagonisms are downplayed. In addition, populism is also used as a term for a particular style of politics that uses tabloidisation, scandalisation, entertainment, ridicule, simplification, one-dimensionality, and banalisation.
In contrast, I prefer to speak of the rise of authoritarian capitalism. In the context of political and economic crises of capitalism, neoliberal capitalism has not been abolished, but sublated to the new level of authoritarian capitalism, in which top-down leadership, nationalism, the friend-enemy scheme, law-and-order politics/militarism play an important role in the organisation of capital and power.
Nationalism and authoritarianism are today not just communicated through traditional means of political communication such as speeches, election campaigns, television, radio and newspaper, but also make use of social media, the Internet and big data, which has resulted in discussions about online nationalism/racism, fake news, fake profiles, algorithmic politics, the role of political bots, fact-checking, etc. A critical communication perspective is needed for adequately understanding nationalism and authoritarian capitalism today.
Professor of Digital Cultures in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex. His most recent books are Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society (Pluto, 2015) and Culture, Identity and Intense Performativity: Being in the Zone, with Kath Woodward and Brigid McClure (Routledge, 2017).
Democracy is confused and bumping into walls rather than finding the exit. Confounding democratic processes, among other things, is the flood of information afforded by internet and digital technologies. This is the fake news flood, with automated information drowning Twitter and other outlets, putting a fake finger out to tip understanding in one way or another. But it is also the gigabytes of leaks coming from those like Snowden and Manning, citizen journalism providing instant pictures and video, or the previously unheard voices who can now write blogs, make videos and show pictures (reaching none to millions).
The picture of a democracy damaged by lies and internet-enabled deceit reveals a nostalgia for authority, and for knowing which interests a particular authority represents. News outlets, experts, politicians and others who used to be information elites now need to adjust to how authority in information is created. When you can check Snowden’s claims by reading the same documents he bases his views on and when you cannot be sure whether those tweets are from a bot or not, then democracy’s dependence on information becomes confused.
It is too easy to see democracy as damaged or not by the digital age; it is both damaged and empowered. Untangling this confusion is a task needed for us to be democratic in the digital age.
Professor of Urban Studies and International & Global Studies at Portland State University. He is the author of several books, including Branding Democracy (Peter Lang, 2010).
Is democracy working in America? Apparently not, if one examines public opinion. According to the most respected polls, trust in the basic organs of US democracy is extremely low. Indeed, trust amongst the ‘informed public’ in American institutions in general, that is, government, business, NGOs, and the mainstream media (MSM), is going through the worst crisis of confidence in recorded history, according to the marketing firm Edelman in 2018. By their measure, the US is the lowest rated of the 28 countries surveyed by the firm. This is not consistent with the image of a constitutional ‘democracy.’
In a Gallup survey, just 19% believe that government does the right thing always or most of the time. The public doesn’t have much confidence in the MSM either. A mere 18% have ‘a lot’ of trust in the MSM, while 74% see them as ‘biased’ (Pew Research, July 2016). The Harvard-Harris poll in May 2017 confirmed this: 65% of Americans consider the mainstream media biased, obsessed with scandal, and full of ‘fake news’ and therefore unworthy of trust. If people feel they cannot depend on either the government or the MSM, what will sustain democracy? Some conservatives might argue that people can better rely on rule by the Church and big business, regardless that the Constitution disallows the Church from interfering with the political sphere and refers to the word ‘business’ only with respect to the ‘business of government,’ i.e., the public functions of the state.
Why is elected government considered the problem? It is most likely because that which constitutes a sense of well-being in a modern society – affordable health care, higher education, and decent housing and adequately paid, full employment – is rapidly getting out of reach of the majority. A democracy can only work when the resources of the state are sufficiently and equitably distributed among the citizenry, not controlled by the wealthy elites.
Research Professor in the Anthropology Department, SOAS, University of London, Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire’s Business School and Chair of Health Poverty Action and Find Your Feet. Her publications include Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics (Manchester University Press, 2005) and House of Commons: An Anthropology of MPs at Work (Bloomsbury, 2015).
The democratic claim is that politicians supported by the majority – as signalled by the ritual of a vote – can legitimately make decisions on our behalf. The existence of a vibrant opposition inside and outside Parliament serves to hold politicians in government to account and punish them for any idiotic choices they may make by withdrawing support. That is the theory. But what is happening in practice?
From some perspectives, democracy is thriving. Take the UK: apparently our judges are honest, our press is free and politicians work hard in Parliament and constituencies. And yet research by the Hansard Society describes a growing discontent with our democracy, which is reflected in a widespread mistrust of politicians and historically low levels of voter participation. The relationship between politicians and those they represent has been put under terrible strain by the competing forces of nationalism and globalisation. Globally the rise of populist demagogues and a sense of creeping authoritarianism has led some to ask whether the world is turning against democracy.
So whether democracy is working depends on who you ask and then who you find persuasive. Politics always involves taking sides. I think globally democracies need urgent revitalisation. According to a new network at SOAS deeper democracy may require:
- more accountability for the way MPs represent the increasingly complex and changeable interests of 10,000s of people in their constituencies
- more clout for women, minorities, and others who are currently under-represented in Parliament and government
- enhanced space for opposition, civil society and the media
- relationships and processes that discourage hate speech and action and encourage compassionate debate and contestation
- investment into political scrutiny by scholars and decolonisation of international research
The Global Research Network on Parliaments and People links researchers, artists and activists and enables them to discuss and imagine what democratic politics might look like in a more engaged and inclusive political world.
Associate Professor in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Author of Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report (www.merip.org).
I want to consider the two-decade debate over whether the Islamic Republic of Iran can be reformed into a democracy. One set of arguments and promises has been that existing and imperfectly republican institutions can be used to either transform the state or create contradictions through which a democratic regime would result. At various moments and junctures, such as the demise of the 2009 Green Movement against Ahmadinejad’s second election victory or the petering out of recent nation-wide protests, other commentators have reasoned that either the institutions are incapable of reform or that vested interests are so powerful that they can smother and absorb any such efforts.
From this perspective, the reformist path to democracy is untenable. In its stead, some Iranians and pundits have called for revolutionary action and even international intervention and support to dismantle the Islamic Republic and build a new Iran; one that is hopefully democratic. This is a risk that Iranians at this moment seem unwilling to take, in part because of experiencing the social costs of revolutionary change four decades ago, and due to the palpable tragedy and chaos in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the past two decades Iranians’ concrete practices on the ground have revealed alternative conceptions of democracy. Iranians have simultaneously engaged and worked through institutional forums/avenues – elections, legislative processes, and demanding recognition of autonomous associations. This does not always mean they believe that presidential candidates, MPs, or bureaucrats are democrats willing and able to protect due process, tolerate political pluralism, or differentiate between individual and social interests. However, after living under the reformist presidency of Khatami, the populist tenure of Ahmadinejad, and the current centrist administration of Rouhani, there are significant segments of the polity that go to the ballot box and advocate for agendas believing that it matters who holds office.
Some of these very same people who vote and even run for local and national office have used localised civil disobedience and claims-making to both protest work conditions and advocate for their general welfare. The conditions they protest, including non-payment of salaries, insolvent banks, dire environmental conditions and economic inequalities, come from a toxic mix of mismanagement, international sanctions and economic speculation by oligarchs. However, the repertoire of protests has deep roots in Iran’s political culture and reflects as much the successes of the revolutionary order as its failures.
Making democracy work is more than hypothesising about a transition to a procedural blueprint. It involves dealing with the pressing reality of the governed contesting those who claim to represent them. This contestation can take multiple forms and often spills out beyond the institutions of the state.
Assistant Professor of Sociology at SUNY Binghamton. Her books include Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006); Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (Zed Books, 2012); and co-authored, They Can’t Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (Verso Books, 2014). She is currently writing a book on global societies in movement and non-movements with the University of California Press.
Is democracy working? No. And yes.
What we have inherited as an idea of democracy, representative democracy under capitalism, is not working, cannot work, and was never intended to work.
Real democracy, however, participation where people feel heard and seen, where our ideas matter and have direct influence, effect and affect, is growing – and doing so from below – expanding and taking on new meanings as it moves further to the left – the affective left, where the heart resides, as the Zapatistas remind us.
The foundation of the United States, for example, the country where I live, explicitly warned against the ‘covetous majority’ in the founding documents of the nation – arguing for the need to keep the majority under the control of the minority land owners (white men). This intention has remained the same for over 200 years. Systems of voting for people who represent this class system do not create democracy. There can be better and worse representatives, and it is always preferable to have the better, but it does not result in rule by the people.
On the other hand, there is an ever-increasing dissatisfaction with this lack of democracy – read as participation in the things that matter in our lives – and in response people have been taking to the streets, squares, workplaces and universities to create alternatives – manifesting the sort of democracy desired. Having been long ignored by those who claim to represent us, and no longer looking to those institutions of power, people are looking to one another to defend ourselves and meet our needs.
Millions are doing things such as taking over workplaces by the hundreds in Argentina and dozens in Uruguay and Southern Europe; creating autonomous health care in Greece; alternative forms of adjudication from Chiapas and Guerrero, Mexico and Rojava; taking back tens of thousands of homes in Spain and over 17 million acres of land in Brazil, and on and on. Each example is organising horizontally, with direct and participatory democracy, autonomy and self-organisation – creating the desired future in the present – not asking for democracy, but making democracy real.
Teaches in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University. He is the author, most recently, of The Misinterpellated Subject (Duke University Press, 2017). He has a forthcoming book entitled Unburied Bodies: The Subversive Power of the Corpse and the Authority of the Dead (Amherst College Press).
Democracy works very well. The problem is that there are no democracies, at least not at the level of the nation state, in our time. No country in the world that calls itself a democracy today is actually democratic. In my view, truly democratic polities avoid the principle of political representation entirely. A democracy consists of a polity that collectively make their own decisions without recourse to elected officials. When people vote for someone, to represent them, they are effectively depoliticising themselves, giving their political power over to someone else who will then (if they are lucky) roughly approximate what they might want, or (most of the time) do whatever they want in the name of ‘the people.’
This doesn’t mean that there is no democracy; it just means that you won’t find any democracy at the national level. At the subnational level, things are different. Whenever people come together to decide, whether in a social, economic or political context – without bosses, overseers or other hierarchical agents – they are employing their democratic power. Democracy as such happens every day and all over the world; these subpolities permit people a degree of self-determination even as they are otherwise at the mercy of their states and their elected (or unelected) officials. Yet, as a rule, we don’t recognise what they do as being political (much less democratic) because the state is constantly claiming any local decisions made as its own, constantly telling its subjects that its usurpation of their democratic power is legitimate and even fortunate (because the rest of us are so busy, lazy, tired, uninterested, untrustworthy etc.)
This does not mean that democracy can never be ratcheted up so as to defeat and replace the non-democracies that claim that name. There have been untrammelled democratic moments in the past (the Paris Commune, anarchist Spain, the various occupations of squares and public places in the last decade, to name a few examples) and there will be more in the future. The good news is that we’ve been practising democracy all of our lives even though we don’t always recognise it as such. When we do recognise our own power and authority, democracy, which never disappears from the world, can be instigated in a form where it is practised openly and without competition from sovereignty or archism. I call this practice of democracy political anarchism.
Visiting Research Fellow at the ILR School, Cornell University (Ithaca). Recent publications include Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below (Brill, 2017) and An Alternative Labour History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy (edited, Zed Books, 2015). Together with Oliver Ressler he is producing Occupy, Resist, Produce, a series of documentaries on recuperated factories under workers control in Europe. More information: www.azzellini.net
The term democracy is generally used as a synonym for liberal democracy, which is far from being the only possible form of democracy; indeed, it is even questionable whether liberal democracy was ever intended to be truly democratic. For centuries, liberals and democrats have been fierce opponents. Liberals only accepted democracy when it was limited to the political sphere, excluding it from the economic and social sphere. Liberal democracy became the new form of governance of the emerging production model (industrial capitalism). Stanley Moore wrote that, ‘when exploitation takes the form of exchange, dictatorship tends to take the form of democracy.’
A common misconception is that the liberties and civil rights we enjoy today are due to liberal democracy. The truth is that liberties and rights are not at all an inherent part of liberal democracy. In fact, they were won in long, hard struggles going back to the nineteenth century or earlier, and they only took effect after the enforcement of the new model of production. As soon as ‘rights’ or ‘liberties’ were won by people of colour, women, workers, the poor etc. – from the right to an eight-hour workday or education to the right of not being discriminated against – liberal democracies immediately started to undermine them.
When people start to take democracy too seriously, and the powerful are unable to maintain their political and social hegemony anymore, liberal democracy responds with fierce repression, not excluding military action against civilians. This has occurred both in the supposed core countries of liberal democracy – such as in France in 1968, in Italy in the 1970s, or in the US with COINTELPRO – and in ‘liberal democracies’ in the periphery; for instance, Colombia has had a series of narco-governments that actively supported paramilitaries who killed 240,000 people in the space of three decades. When coercion and fraud are not sufficient for preventing systemic change, liberal democracies organise and legitimate coups, such as the ones in Brazil, Paraguay and Honduras. When it better serves their geopolitical interests, liberal democracies favour fascists, religious nationalists or ISIL over democratic structures, such as in Afrin, Kurdistan, currently under attack by Turkey.
Nevertheless, as Marx pointed out, the idea of democracy is a constant threat to the rule of the bourgeoisie, since it can be used by critics of the existing order against the ruling elites. This is the reason why, especially in times of crisis such as the one we are witnessing now in Greece, Spain, Turkey, the US, Argentina or Brazil, the bourgeoisie tends toward the enforcement of authoritarian rule and the suspension of civil and democratic liberties and rights.
Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the programme in Middle Eastern Studies. His research covers such issues as strategic nonviolent action, pro-democracy movements, Middle Eastern and North African politics, U.S. foreign policy, and human rights.
Democracy can work, but only if a strong civil society ensures that it does. There is an inevitable tendency for powerful interests to take advantage of the system through having a disproportionate control of media, campaign funding, lobbying, and other methods of manipulating the process. The ability of a given society to challenge this tendency is by mobilising popular forces representing labour, students, women, minorities, consumers, environmentalists, the poor and middle classes, anti-militarists, and others to ensure that their interests are also fairly represented in the political system through legislation which supports a more equitable and pluralistic system.
The primary means by which such movements have made structurally democratic systems more genuinely democratic has been through strategic nonviolent action, as employed by the women’s suffrage movement, the labour movement in Scandinavia and some other European nations, and the Civil Rights struggle in the United States. Anti-war and anti-imperialist movements have forced the United States and other countries to curtail overseas wars, limit and phase out nuclear power generation, and enact stronger consumer and environmental protection laws despite powerful economic and bureaucratic interests demanding otherwise. In a number of countries, popular protests in support of electoral reform have led to proportional representation, stricter campaign finance laws, an end to gerrymandering, and greater transparency.
The critical lesson is that democracy does work to a degree and can work better, but there needs to be strong political engagement by ordinary people. Given that the electoral and legislative systems can be unduly influenced by special interests, action outside of normal political channels is often required, even including civil disobedience. In certain ways, what is even more important than the politicians we elect is the choices we give them. As the adage goes, ‘If the people lead, the leaders will follow.’
Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. She is co-editor of the Routledge book series Advances in Democratic Theory. Her publications include a monograph entitled Human Rights, Or Citizenship? (Birkbeck Law Press, 2011) and articles in various academic journals.
Questions about the future of democracy abound today. Some people argue that democracies will die from within – when autocratic leaders skilfully ascend to power by manipulating popular support. Others argue that democracies will die from without – as a result of the rise of inequalities that spill over democratic borders. And yet others announce that democracies are already dead – because their institutions, that favour oligarchic interests, are running dangerously low on popular affect.
Are these pundits right in the shared assumption that democracy is no longer working? This might not be the right question to pose. Criticisms of democracy have never been in short supply. What has been in short supply, with few exceptions, is an appreciation of the fragility of democracy – not its misworkings nor its end. If we take this fragility seriously, then we might begin to question the growing consensus that democracy is not working. It is this consensus, one that aligns progressive with authoritarian sources, that is troubling.
Much like any other consensus, it is troubling for what it suppresses and silences. It might awaken aspirations to transgress democracy or to replace it with some other, ‘better’, system; but it also represses and undermines hard fought struggles for democratic ideals. This consensus certainly taps into growing anxieties over excessive inequalities but it also, perhaps, silences how radical democracy is as an idea. It empties democracy of radicality and, in so doing, abandons it to antidemocratic forces that seek to exploit rather than grasp and placate popular discontent.
To be clear, it is one thing to question how well democracy is working and can be improved, but quite another to claim that democracy no longer works and to give up on the radical project entirely.