The Democratic Reformation (isn’t going to end soon)
We have been given a few sharp warnings about democratic complacency recently. In the UK, we have seen the ‘Brexit’ vote, with its implicit rejection of the kind of policies that are permitted by a purely representative democracy, along with a public contempt for the advice of experts.
Looking over towards the US, we see the emergence of Donald Trump as a serious candidate for the Presidency. Trump rejects the norms of liberal democracy and seems happy to improvise popular and simplistic pieces of retail policy while standing at a podium that broadcasts them to millions.
With a lack of self-awareness that is alarming, this is being described as ‘post-truth politics’ by the small-c conservatives who have, in turn, allowed themselves to be labelled as ‘the establishment’. They are speaking of this disregard for authority almost as a temporary aberration. Remember, this is a social caste that imagines that it is a ‘meritocracy’ (and that the public accept the legitimacy of it’s dubious claims about the justice of ‘meritocracy’).
The vote to leave the EU is, in turn, being written off, perhaps, as a fit of pique among voters, and seen simply as a response to noticeably changed economic conditions that are affecting certain demographics more than others. Alternatively, it is seen as an angry response to effects of globalisation such as immigration.
Either way, there’s not much evidence of this being treated as a permanent and systemic shift in the way that voters are behaving. Instead, it is being spoken of as a kerfuffle that will hopefully die down once the wider population acclimatise themselves to the inevitability of permanent mass migration, or when they become accustomed to their new personal economic realities. It is all very symptomatic of an almost unchallenged arrogance in assuming that it is racism or stupidity that leads people to reject the obvious virtues of les énarques.
By treating the Brexit vote as some kind of inchoate, shamefaced expression of reflexive base popular instincts, ‘the establishment’ seem to be telling themselves what they want to hear. That this genie that they call ‘populism’ can somehow be put back into its lamp once everyone comes to their senses.
To shatter this complacency about the transcendence of our Representative Democracy, it may be worth looking back 500 years to the Protestant reformation that threatened the dominance of a similarly transcendent Catholic order. It was challenged by a version of ‘the truth’ that could no longer be treated like a piece of exclusively owned and licensed Intellectual Property.
Once the demand to access the scriptures became too great to ignore, Europe found itself in a situation that a large part of its more entitled classes hoped to reverse out of. In doing so, it failed to notice the systematic inevitability of clerical reform. It didn’t prepare for the inevitable, and was plunged into a new bout of warfare that resonated for centuries, both within states as disastrous civil wars, and between them.
Christians who abandoned the diktat of Rome didn’t start believing in something else instead, they started believing in anything. They stopped being manageable social groupings and started to voice unpredictable and incoherent demands that made the idea of a single ecclesiastical authority (or ultimately, The Divine Right of Kings) unsustainable.
The insane Anabaptists of Münster — that ISIS-like orgy of mass conversion, torture, beheadings and polygamy — prefaced an age of more subtle and fanatical sectaries. They, in turn, were often accommodated in various ways as allies by forces that we could see as being analogous to today’s opportunistic demagogues. Henry VIII recruited this movement to the purpose of securing a male heir (and a spot of The Other) for himself. Barely 100 years later, those sectaries had beheaded his brother King and abolished the monarchy.
The consequences didn’t just rebound on kingship either. In the British Isles alone, all of this happened at the end of a horrifically bloody conflict that wrecked communities and destroyed countless lives (particularly for the Irish where it resonates still).
When radicals talk about widening ‘The Overton Window’, there is a lot that we can learn from the greatest crisis of Christendom because the parallels are so striking. In the same way that technological change has created a new challenge to today’s ‘elites’, the printed word enabled ordinary people to see for themselves where the dominant interpretation of the scriptures was corrupt and self-serving.
Our current political caste may see this as a harsh judgement on themselves. They are right to do so — after all, liberal democracy has been the most astonishingly successful historical aberation — a sublimely successful delivery vehicle for peace, growth, justice, equality and innovation. Within that framework, it also offers us more ‘voice’ in a sustainable way than any of the alternatives do.
For all of its petty corruptions, it is the least-worst form of governance that we have yet found, but this disruptive radicalism not a social force that is given to taking the long, pragmatic, or even fair view. Sometimes, the call for radical change is a very political demand from a social force that rivals the apparently hegemonic ones. When we hear a call for ‘more democracy’, it can often be a factional demand rather than a universal one. When people say ‘democracy’ they often mean ‘politics’.
Then, as now, a social caste of clerics started to lose the ability to be the ultimate arbiters of moral and political acceptability. They were no longer trusted to claim to have a wise and disinterested insight into how governance should be managed.
In the end, the reformation didn’t go away and it was also not an untrammelled movement for the good of all. It also bit the hands that cultivated it as sharply.
It is time to start taking this democratic reformation seriously and understanding it as a permanent feature of our politics. It is also time to look for alternatives to the crude versions of direct democracy that political entreprenneurs are foolishly offering.
Can we make the study of Participedia compulsory please? Urgently?