Charles Taylor on the Crises of Democracy
A lecture as part of the Civid Freedom in an Age of Diversity program.
See the lecture in full (67 min) on Vimeo here where he explores the very complex situation we’re in. He says we’re not in a period of democratic stagnation, but in a downward spiral that has to be actively stopped. He takes up the same thread as in his Sources of the Self, that we have to go back to retrieve our past, our trajectory here and all the assumptions we brought with us, in order to understand our current situation. There’s is a summary of his ideas below condensed in a way that I can best understand it all.
He’s critical of John Rawls’s veil of ignorance theory for ignoring an important part of politics. It’s correct at the core, but it misses the reality that, at any given time, the capacity people have to put together common actions is limited or augmented by their culture. Whether or not a revolution succeeds or fails has to do with the state of the democratic repertoire, or what Taylor calls the “social imaginaries” of the people. During the American Revolution, people ruling already had a purchase in the habit of electing assemblies, so the notion of what it was to set that up was already familiar. That wasn’t the case for the French Revolution, so a lengthy battle ensued.
If people can do something active within institutions outside of democracy, like credit unions and trade unions, then people can learn to act together and accomplish something. But we need a critical mass of people who are able to work together in this way before we can do it as a society.
Taylor prefers Tocqueville’s focus on the political culture of a time, and Arendt’s notion of the collective power of the people. Social imaginaries allow for collective action. Then he heaped praise on the current work of Jim Tully in the field of global communities.
THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY
We have a naïve belief that the world is becoming democratic. Underlying that belief is the idea that democracy is the most stable, most legitimate form of government, but this belief undermines other forms of government. It might be a true belief, but it’s a limited truth. There’s an earlier understanding of democracy that’s important to recall that goes back Aristotle’s idea that the Demos is the rule of the non-elites over the elites, which is why the term wasn’t used favourably for centuries. When the common people take over, the economy is destroyed because everyone’s in debt. The Republicans came up with checks and balances but kept the common people out of this. Democracy has evolved into a rule by experts but with a turnover policy that the Demos can affect. That’s very different than the original notion.
Demos is a term with a double meaning. We can’t afford to lose the original sense of the word Demos referring to just the non-elites. Western democracies are in danger of a regression because we don’t think of it in those terms. We glorify the notion of every voice and idea having equal value. This notion, the longstanding struggle whose ultimate achievement is when the elites and non-elites fade into one another, hopes to see the Demos becoming the equivalent to the people as a whole. When that becomes our view, then we see a sliding back. The moments when democracy is most vibrant are moments when the Demos (the non-elites) are moving ahead in economic prosperity, but not when they’re the policy makers. In the 20th century, this was “Les Trente Glorieuses,” the period from 1945 to 1975 in which we saw the development of the welfare state, a high marginal tax rate, and the development of trade unions. After 1975, the situation rolled back again.
NECESSARY SOCIAL IMAGININGS
In order for democracy to work, there has to be some sense that we as a whole people can act together. For example, in 1917 Russia, there was no understanding of how people could work together, so the revolution produced a dictator. If the people can’t make it happen, then a small group or individual will rise up to lead, and it can be disastrous. A repertoire of ideas that lead to collective action is needed. And there must be a social imaginary that allows for democratic conflict, that allows for the legitimacy of really different interest and demands within the limits of non-violent discourse.
During Les Trente Glorieuses, there were certain operations that ensured progress, but they were undermined by good and bad forces that created a downward spiral that we’re still trying to deal with. The nature of citizen efficacy offered us is through broad party programs with issues that mattered and the offer of a free vote. That understanding is being profoundly lost for good and bad reasons. A good reason it’s being lost is that the system of large parties that puts all the demands into force doesn’t cope well with minority demands. We end up with an epoch breaking out. Large parties can’t back smaller idea like ecological movements or feminist movements or occupy movements. A bad reason it’s being lost is a negative self-feeding reason. The large party system weakened other forms of political struggle. There’s a lack of trust in the parties and a decline in the level of voting, a rise in the importance of cash, a media controlled by money, and a spiral downwards in the sense that the political efficacy of the whole is declining. We’re still trying to reply to that.
The occupy movement (and similar smaller movements) and the left need each other, but there’s a degree of alienation that makes it difficult for them to work together. Smaller movements like that get new things on the agenda that weren’t there before, but needs some kind of party mechanism to put these things into effect. The Arab Spring shows the difficulty of going it alone with a movement without party backing.
But, one reason it’s best for parties not to back the movements is it can be a great concern for the internal democracy of the party. It offers new techniques for broad discussion, but at the same time, it can then mean difficulties for leaders to disassociate themselves from acts of vandalism and violence. The most negative factions of the smaller movement can destroy any party that backs them. The problem becomes how to move beyond the stalemate in order to bring the two forces together to make democracy vibrant again.
We recognize that our situation has grave problems. There’s tremendous inequity. There are lots of cases in which the existing repertoire allows some kinds of collective action, but not anything that can satisfy our basic demands. We’re in a zone of arrested power that makes our situation highly unsatisfactory. It will take work to change it. There’s a general despair of the Demos. The non-elites feel like nothing can be done.
One great strength of our current set of repertoires, though, is an understanding of ourselves as a people who can take collective action through procedures. We can understand and relate to that. We have a common cohesion around principles. There’s a powerful sense of belonging together. Taylor argues against Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan idea because we must have a sense of belonging to a group to have any solidarity. We must accept and trust each other enough to help each other with a redistribution of taxation. We have to imagine ourselves as citizens working with other citizens. If some are gated and other ghettoized, it’s harder to imagine being equals. We used to have things like baseball games to bring us together, but even that has seen a ‘skyboxification’ of American democracy.
But there’s a dark side to this; an ethnicization can develop around solidified groups. Mann refers to it as the dark side of democracy. It can lead to an exclusion or destruction of smaller groups, and we have to be mindful of that in order to watch for the first signs (like we’re now seeing in the U.S.). There are two dominant imaginaries right now, that move us forward and back. There’s a moving to bring in people who are different, which is a great achievement to create a viable repertoire for common action that includes everyone. But then there’s a push back through a fear of what that common agency will look like. It’s a battle about what the identity of the agency is.
We need to ensure egalitarian participation — a situation in which people, when they enter into common action, have a sense that we’re creating something together as equals, that nobody’s telling us what to do. There’s a ritualistic element to enacting citizenship which helps deepen repertoire. People enact citizenship when they make a ceremony of voting. But there’s a perpetual danger of exclusionary narrowness built into the sense of solidarity. It can turn into rejection, so people can be reluctant to join.
[I’ve seen this in my own city where community neighbourhoods have gotten significant support to develop their own name and brand (some with glossy mags about their homes), and now there’s a competitive element that makes people in one neighbourhood disparage those in another. It was a means to develop city-wide community that devolved into nasty little factions. I’ve seen the same thing in my school when people solidify by departments in a process that erodes the school as a collective. It’s classic Tajfel in-group / out-group mentality, and it takes a careful process to prevent it.]
Another way people get alienated is through a sense that policy is developed and applied by elites, and we don’t understand it, but we get the idea that if we don’t go along with it then we’re not reasonable. There are people speaking on our behalf. And often it’s a matter of media misinformation that allows for lunatic decisions to be furthered. This fear is played up by irresponsible governments. We try to get the truth out there, and we must go on doing that. There’s a trough developing between how people understand each idea. They’re often not necessarily differing in ideas, but in basic facts.
There’s also the inability of people to get at international issues that can’t be handled by one government, like planetary disaster. We need a collaborative citizenship that crosses boundaries and expresses non-violent forms of resistance. We need repertoires working within societies and across societies, but working at one and the same time.
There’s a mythology that we’re all middle class now, but we’re not. The middle class is dying out. The old dream that kids will do better than their parents can’t be envisaged anymore. This has altered our consciousness, which might create significant potential for action.
If populism is stymied, we get little movement. The success of parties and the success of the Demos are inversely correlated. We have to attend to exclusion, disempowerment, and nationalism together. In a sense, parties never did it alone, they were backed by trade unions, cooperatives, women’s movements, and later corporate lobbyists. Can we have a functioning democracy without political parties? We can’t really live with them or without them. They cause problems, but they’re necessary. The issue is how to recreate the contemporary version of the kind of symbiosis that existed before, and recreate that in the world in which we have parties and movements. We have no viable model of that yet.