Neither neoliberalism nor Putin. Democracy has a bigger problem.

This is a short post that is intended to introduce a theme. I won’t develop it too much here (though I’ve filled it with links to posts that I, and others, have written that flesh out specific parts of the argument). I will be publishing something a lot more substantial on this shortly.

We are going through a period of political polarisation at the moment. The organised left may think that this is a good thing, but I have argued previously that this is a game that we are always going to lose at.

Both in terms of being principled, and finding the right political message, I would argue that (with some important caveats – see below) Bernie Sanders’ campaign focus was actually the right one. “Drain The Swamp” does look like a very effective political ticket to run on, and the European left needs to learn from it.

However, this may not be as simple as it looks. The whole “neoliberalism” thesis tell us that corporate elites have too much power, but we are beginning to see that they are not the only problem – or even the main one. In recent key elections (Trump, Brexit) corporate money did not back the winner.

The go-to alternative explanation has often been that hostile nations (in this case, Russia) out-played the neoliberal elites, and with a fraction of the cash that would be needed to exert influence using military means, subverted democracy and damaged national sovereignties. (I argue that this is a bit more complicated and that liberal democracies have abandoned some of the rudimentary failsafes that are needed).

I’d like to offer a third possibility – one that is a good deal more problematic. The problem German democracy had in the 1930s was not that it drifted into the hands of corporate elites as much as it became the plaything of people who were very active politically. The individual became less represented by comparison to cohesive groups that emerged from a period of political polarisation that political movements – both left and right – collaborated to produce.

Then, as now, the quality of defence that individuals had on policy issues went into in free-fall with a crude interpretation of “the will of the people” being used to threaten the individual rights that thrive in a more liberal climate.

Before Trump’s victory, and the Brexit vote, both of which have cast real authoritarian shadows, democratic inequality has been widening and has got significantly worse in the past decade. The dangerous cult of ‘transparency’, political hobbyism, dark money, micro-targeting, the emergence of PACs, etc have all resulted in the vote of individuals carrying less and less weight while Olson’s ‘Logic of Collective Action’ (in summary, that non-excludable public goods can be monopolised by people with wealth or strong social bonds) has been turbo-charged by the Internet.

This is not a new observation. As democracy started to emerge at the dawn of The Enlightenment, the Mayor of Dublin, one John Philpot Curran made an argument that has been widely pinched and paraphrased, but one that is worth preserving in full:

“It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.” (1790)

Democracy may be destroying itself, without having anyone else to blame. The problem is no longer its it’s commercial, or national rivals even though we have reached a point in history where those two enemies (neoliberalism and Putinism) are in plainer sight than ever. This will not be an argument that will be welcomed on either the organised, or the liberal left.

With the technical developments of recent years, the way that we participate in politics may not be compatible with democracy any more.

Politics has always been seen as the accelerant that democracy needs. I would argue that, if democracy is to survive, we now need to find a way of being a democracy without allowing political processes, and political actors to be its main animating force.

I have an idea about how this can be achieved. More on this to follow.

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