Tag Archives: John Keane

The pathologies of populism

The Conversation

John Keane, University of Sydney

During the past year, The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network, a global partnership of researchers, journalists, activists, policymakers and citizens concerned with the future of democracy, have published a lengthy series of scholarly reflections on the causes and consequences of populism.

The following remarks aim to summarise the contributions, to tease out their insights, and to draw some conclusions about the vexed relationship between populism and democracy.


Many people are today asking questions about the worldwide upsurge of populism. Does burgeoning talk of “the people”, and action by governments in their name, offer fresh hopes for democrats in these darkening times? Can populism rescue us from the corruption and decay of the ideals and institutions of monitory democracy, now under attack from a potent variety of corrosive and contradictory forces?

Are Nigel Farage and other peddlers of populism basically right when colourfully they call upon a “people’s army” to take back “their country” by sparking a “political tsunami” in support of “democracy” against a corrupted “political class”?

The spirit of populism

In a sign of our times, the two dozen contributors to this series on populism, and democrats everywhere, are divided deeply in their replies to such questions, and about what can and should be done to deal with the upsurge of populism.

Without doubt, most democratically minded scholars, journalists and commentators find the new populism fascinating. For several years, hypnotised by its “simple, headline-grabbing, dramatic message” (Benjamin Moffitt), populism has been their favourite topic of discussion.

Some are genuinely unsure about what to think, or what to do. They prevaricate: sit on the fence or, as Simon Tormey proposes in his interpretation of populism as the pharmákon of democracy, keep their minds open to the perplexing dialectics and potentially surprising, if unintended, practical effects of populist politics.

These abreactions are understandable, not least because populism is a political phenomenon marked by democratic qualities. What could be more democratic than public attacks on financial and governing oligarchs, “unrepresentative plutocracies” (Christine Milne), in the name of a sovereign people? Isn’t democracy after all a way of life founded on the authority of “the people”?

And what about the populist account of the pathologies of contemporary parliamentary democracy? When measured in terms of political “theatrics” (Mark Chou), populism is “a spectre of things to come: of political performance in an age of projection rather than representation” (Stephen Coleman).

Jan Zielonka notes that within today’s so-called democracies far too many governments regard themselves as “a kind of enlightened administration on behalf of an ignorant public”. Ulrike Guérot says that in an age when “nobody seems to care” and “opportunity remains a fiction for many people”, we should not be surprised by the global upsurge of populism.

Wolfgang Merkel agrees. He describes contemporary populism as a “rebellion of the disenfranchised” and a symptom of the “general failure of the moderate left to address the distributive question”.

They and other contributors warn that the diagnoses proffered by Rodrigo Duterte, Thaksin Shinawatra, Narendra Modi, Marine Le Pen and other populists contain more than a few grains of truth.

In effect, all contributors to this series ask: isn’t the populist mobilisation of public hope, its insistence that things can be different and that people should expect better, consonant with the spirit of democracy and its equality principle?

The Life and Death of Democracy, my contribution to rethinking the history of democracy’s spirit, language and institutions, replies to these questions by analysing populism as a recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy.

That’s to say populism is not just a symptom of the failure of democratic institutions to respond effectively to anti-democratic challenges such as the “growing influence of unelected bodies” (Cristóbal Kaltwasser), rising inequality and the dark money poisoning of elections; populism is itself a problematic and perverted response that inflames and damages the cells, tissues and organs of democratic institutions.

The point should be obvious, but it’s often ignored: populism is a pseudo-democratic style of politics. In the name of an imagined “people” defined as if it were a demiurge, something akin to a metaphysical gift to earthlings from the gods, populism is a style of politics whose “inner logic” or “spirit” (Montesquieu) destroys power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality.

Yes, populism can have positive unintended consequences, as history shows. By publicly exposing the Trump-style crudeness and potential brutality of unbridled state power exercised in the name of “the people”, populism can spark long-lasting democratic reforms. But everywhere, at all times, the inner logic of populist politics and its “folksy slogans” (Takashi Inoguchi) are anything but folksy: their practical effect is to rob life from power-sharing democracy.

Populism “always tends towards extreme forms of plebeianism”, observes our Chinese contributor Yu Keping. He is right. Populism necessitates demagogic leadership. It encourages attacks on independent media, expertise, rule-of-law judiciaries and other power-monitoring institutions.

Populism “denies the pluralism of contemporary societies” (Jan-Werner Müller). It promotes hostility to “enemies” and flirts with violence. It is generally gripped by a territorial mentality that prioritises borders and nation states against “foreigners” and “foreign” influences, including multilateral institutions and so-called “globalisation”.

My line of interpretation may seem harsh, or one-sided, but its feet are planted firmly on the ground. Not only does it pay attention to the inner dynamics (let’s call them) or functional imperatives of populism, it also taps evidence from many recorded cases of populism, past and present. T

he interpretation notes that populism is a recurrent feature of the history of democracy, and it pinpoints the efforts by past democrats to cure the democratic disease of populism.

Ostraka cast against Aristides, Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles, Athens, 5th century BCE. John Keane

In the age of assembly democracy, for instance, citizens of Athens and other city-based democracies dealt with demagogues by voting to send them into prolonged exile, a practice known as ostrakismos .

During the early modern age of representative democracy, by contrast, periodic elections, multi-party systems and parliamentary government in constitutional form were designed to check and restrain populist outbursts (“the people”, noted John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, “may desire to oppress a part of their number” so that “precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power”).

Our post-1945 age of monitory democracy was born of efforts to apply much tougher political restrictions to (fascist and other totalitarian) abuses of power in the name of a fictive people.

Public integrity bodies, human rights commissions, activist courts, participatory budgeting, teach-ins, digital media gate watching, global whistle-blowing, bio-regional assemblies: these and scores of other innovations were designed to check populists bent on self-aggrandisement in the name of “the people”.

Current events show that this old problem of populism is making a comeback, and that populism is indeed an autoimmune disease of monitory democracy. Populism picks fights with key monitory institutions, such as the courts, “experts”, “fake news” platforms and other media “presstitutes” (Modi). The new populism wants to turn back the clock to simpler times when (it imagines) democracy meant “the people” were in charge of those who ruled over them.

Political dynamics in Hungary, the US, Poland, Thailand and elsewhere show that the aim of the new populism is to amass a fund of power for itself and its influential supporters. That’s why it is bent on destroying as many power-monitoring, power-restraining mechanisms as it can, in quick time, all in the name of a people that is never carefully defined, a phantom people that is simultaneously present and absent, everything and nothing.

Left populism?

How serious is the populist threat to monitory democracy?

More than a few democrats, especially those with a strong sense of history, suppose that the current epidemic of populism will abate. They think along the lines sketched by the American historian Richard Hofstadter, who once likened populism to a stinging bee. After causing annoyance and inflicting pain in the backside of the political establishment, populism, on this view, typically dies a slow death, especially after it reaches elected office.

Workingmen’s Party of California 1870s postcard. Boston Public Library

Hofstadter was principally concerned with the American case, where during the late 19th-century populist parties such as the Workingmen’s Party of California and the Populist Party were outflanked using democratic means, cleverly and constructively transformed by their elected opponents into catalysts of long-lasting democratic reforms.

As Michael Kazin and others have noted, the dialectics of populism produced surprising results. While at first populist bigotry prevailed (“The Chinese Must Go!” campaign in California, for instance), populist politics, in spite of its exclusionary impulses, helped trigger such inclusive democratic reforms as the full enfranchisement of women (1920), a directly elected Senate (1913), municipal socialism, new laws covering income tax and corporate regulation and the eight-hour working day for all wage earners in the country.

More than a few analysts and defenders of democracy are today tempted to think in this way about the tactical outflanking of populism.

Earlier this year, for instance, American political scientist Larry Diamond told the BBC that “mainstream politicians” will need to concede ground, stepping back from their previous “liberal” commitments to open-door immigration and global trade. The overriding aim must be to defeat populist “authoritarianism” by absorbing its concerns into mainstream “liberal democratic” politics.

Diamond cited the example of Geert Wilders, whose populist PVV (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands did worse than expected in recent elections exactly because Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte grasped what was happening and reacted by making “significant policy adjustments”.

It’s worth noting that among these concessions was Rutte’s public announcement that the Dutch experiment with “multiculturalism” was over. Many Dutch citizens were shocked, not just by the indignity inflicted verbally on various minorities, but by the realisation that Rutte hadn’t prevailed over the populist right, but joined its ranks.

Making political concessions to populists is risky business. It can result in co-optation and end in charges of hypocrisy, outright political humiliation and defeat. That is why, historians remind us, the power ambitions of populism were sometimes blocked by their opponents using more drastic means, as in late 19th-century Russia. There its public appeal was snuffed out anti-democratically, killed by armed force.

Elected populist governments also tasted forcible overthrow by coup d’état. This was the fate of El Conductor, Juan Domingo Perón. The former Argentine lieutenant-general and twice-elected president was forced from office into exile (in September 1955), hunted by hostile allegations of demagogic corruption and dictatorship. These were charges designed to erase forever memories of his massive support by millions of Argentine citizens, his many descamisados (“shirtless”) followers rapt by his efforts to dignify labour and eradicate poverty.

Supporters of Juan Perón perch atop a lamp post at a rally in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. Cornell Capa/International Center of Photography

Inspired by the example of Perón, the Belgian scholar Chantal Mouffe is sure there’s another way of meeting the challenge of Trump- and Wilders-style populism: a new, true politics that can get us out from under the rubble of collapsing “liberal democratic” institutions.

Known globally for her thinking and writing on politics and popular sovereignty, Mouffe calls for a new brand of “left-wing populism”.

During the past year, and in an earlier contribution to this series, she has launched spirited attacks on what she calls the “anti-populist hysteria” of our time.

She’s also sided publicly with populist leaders like Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He’s the politician who in June stood on the steps of the Assemblée Nationale, together with his newly elected La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) MPs, fists clenched, laced with shouts of “Resistance!” and his talk of their collective “service of the people”.

Mouffe’s political thinking is symptomatic of a rise of aesthetic and political fascination among disaffected left-of-centre intellectuals with populism.

The attraction is understandable. It has a positive side. It embraces the “wisdoms” of contemporary populism: for instance, the ways in which contemporary populists have exposed the “deep tension between democracy and capitalism” (Thamy Pogrebinschi), turned their backs on corrupted middle-of-the-road cartel parties, denounced rising social inequality, poured scorn on the deadening breaking news “churnalism” of mainstream media platforms and raised expectations among millions of people that things can and must be better.

Mouffe echoes these points, but her principal contention, in opposition to “neoliberalism”, is that the political right enjoys no monopoly on populism. A left-wing populism is possible and is needed urgently in these anti-democratic times. She concludes that “the only way to counter right-wing populism is through left-wing populism”.

The argument is expressed in simple binary terms. But what exactly does she mean, in theory and practice?

Mouffe’s reply runs thus: the imperative is to defend and extend “democracy”, understood as a political form that draws strength from “the power of the people”.

So understood, democracy is “ultimately irreconcilable” with, and superior to, “political liberalism” and its mantras of the rule of law, the separation of powers, free markets and the defence of the individual. A commitment to democracy implies opposition to “post-politics”, the liberal and neoliberal “blurring of [the] frontier” between the right and the left.

Mouffe explains the recommendation at greater length in On the Political and deploys it in her latest pleas for more democracy and support for Mélenchon. The “principles of popular sovereignty and equality”, she writes, “are constitutive of democratic politics”. So what is now needed, and what she predicts will have to be born, is left-wing populism, an “agonistic populism” that breaks with exhausted “social democracy”.

The point is to stop philosophising and to begin drawing lines by means of a new politics (the language is obviously drawn from Marx and Engels and Gramsci) that “divides society into two camps” by engaging in a “war of position”, in support of the “underdog” against “those in power”.

How are we to assess these large claims? Her thesis certainly invites historical objections.

I have noted elsewhere that Mouffe’s reliance on Carl Schmitt’s attack on liberalism misleads her into saying that “the origin of parliamentary democracy”, the watering down of democracy by liberal representative government, resulted from the 19th-century marriage of convenience of “political liberalism” and “democracy”.

In her own defence, Mouffe cites my doctoral supervisor, C.B. Macpherson, but this was not exactly his argument (his vision of future democracy preserved plenty of liberal themes, for instance).

Besides, as The Life and Death of Democracy shows in some detail, parliamentary representation has pre-liberal medieval roots, while the republican melding of the languages and institutions of representation and democracy happened during the last quarter of the 18th century, not in the century that followed.

These are fripperies over which historians and political thinkers bicker and tussle. They needn’t detain us. The real trouble is with Mouffe’s case for “left-wing populism”.

My discomfort stems not only from its poor sense of the history of democracy, her wilful ignorance about monitory democracy and her unjustified nostalgia for an unadulterated “sovereign people” principle.

Or from the fact that her rhetorical style is Bolshevik, a species of “redemptive” political thinking that preaches the need for “agonistic” (pain-in-the-backside) populism and the use of “democratic means” to “fight” with “passions” against “an adversary” (which passions? which adversary?, she doesn’t say).

Or discomfort triggered by the suspicion that her commitment to “democratic Hobbesian” axioms is worse than oxymoronic, but actually self-contradictory.

Mouffe reduces democracy to a mere tactical weapon. It is a means for dealing agonistically with enemies.

In her view, democracy courts violent power conflicts, in accordance with the old Hobbes principle of homo homini lupus (man a wolf to men), the precept that warns that politics is about the danger that the world can lurch towards an unruly “state of nature”, in which (so much for the sovereign people principle!) actual human life becomes solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

It’s true there are fleeting moments when Mouffe’s vision of left-wing populism admits of the dangers of “authoritarian populism”. The “antagonistic populism” of the French Revolution is the example she gives, by means of a half-hearted anachronism (the terms populist and populism were coined only in the mid-19th century).

That doesn’t really rescue her overall argument from association with the politically damaging pathologies typically found within every type of populism. These pathologies blindside her whole argument.

What’s more, they are normally ignored in treatments of populism as a “thin-centred ideology” (Cas Mudde) bent on separating any given society into two homogeneous but antagonistic groups: “the corrupt elite” and “the pure people”, whose volonté générale (general will) should be the measure of all things political.

“Depending on its electoral power and the context in which it arises, populism can work as either a threat to or a corrective for democracy,” Mudde and his co-author Cristóbal Kaltwasser write. “This means that populism per se is neither good nor bad for the democratic system.”

In this SDN-commissioned series, Thamy Pogrebinschi echoes the point. She says that since “populism is not an ideology”, it “can be so politically empty that it joins forces with ideologies as different as socialism and nationalism. Populist discourses can thus favour exclusion, or inclusion.”

This content-centred approach, a way of understanding populism as a “thin-centred ideology”, addressing only a limited set of issues and open to variations as different as “nationalism” and “socialism”, is evidently mistaken. It fails to spot the pathologies inherent within all forms of populism.

Pathologies

The most obvious formal pathology is the inner dependence of populism upon political bosses. “It is not a question of ending representative democracy,” says Mouffe, “but of strengthening the institutions that give voice to the people.”

Fine words but, to put things bluntly, this precept wilfully ignores the way populism functionally requires big-mouthed demagogy, a devil’s pact with leaders who pretend to be the earthly avatars of “the people”.

Chavez, Wilders, Fujimori, Trump, Kaczynski and other demagogues are neither incidental nor accidental features of populist politics: metaphysical talk of a people necessitates the personalisation of power.

When seen in populist terms, emancipation of a people can never be the work of The People itself; populism and substitutionism are twins.

Ecuador’s most famous populist Jose Maria Velasco, who was elected president five times but deposed by the army four times, understood this well. “Give me a balcony, and I will become president,” he liked to say.

Sometimes, as Irfan Ahmad points out in his contribution to this series, Big Leader populists claim they have the support of the heavens. Vox princeps, vox populi, vox dei. This is the way Modi interpreted his 2014 electoral victory: as the victory of “the will of the people” blessed by the Hindu god Lord Krishna (janata jan janārdan).

“Left populism” dispenses with talk of deities, but it similarly demands the materialised embodiment of “the people” in a leader capable of mobilising sections of “the people” to confirm who they are: The People.

Populism is demolatry. Populism is ventriloquism. Through acts of concealed representation, it incites and excites Big Leaders who are above the common herd, The Ones who attract a coterie of lesser, loyal people, citizens who are encouraged to follow because they are offered spoils, calculated gifts designed to produce followership from leadership.

Populism so interpreted is a strangely anti-democratic throwback, a 21st-century and secularised version of the old king’s “two bodies” doctrine, which supposed the body of the crowned ruler is the spiritual and visceral manifestation of the body of the people.

In contrast to the “two bodies” doctrine, however, today’s populism has no seamless solution to the succession problem when the Great Leader dies, or is felled, as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Nicolás Maduro have both been forced to recognise.

The earthly worship of the mortal political boss helps explain other pathologies lurking within Mouffe’s call for a left-wing populism. In this series and in his book, What Is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller notes the simple-minded mentality of populism, its hostility to ambivalence, complexity and pluralism.

The point needs toughening: the drive to build followers by big boss leaders fuels their hostility to institutions that stand in their way. Populists have little or no taste for institutional give-and-take politics. Unchecked ambition is their thing; so is tactical manoeuvring to deconstruct and simplify organisations and their rules. Populism loves monism.

Gripped by an inner urge to destroy checks, balances and mechanisms for publicly scrutinising and restraining power, populist leaders and parties reveal their true colours in action. It’s a myth that election to office slakes their thirst for power.

In Alberto Fujimori’s Peru, democracia plena (as he called it) meant hostility to the palabrería (excessive, idle talk) of the political class and its established media. Declaring an end to oligarchy, government secrecy and silence, it proceeded to contradict itself by bribing and browbeating legislators, judges, bureaucrats and corporate executives.

Theresa May nowadays dreams of transforming the Westminster parliament into a poodle of executive power, in the name of a fictional “British people”. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta rails against courts run by “thugs” paid by “foreigners and other fools” who rule “against the will of the people”.

In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán has collared mainstream media, the judiciary and the police, and now breathes fire down the necks of the universities and civil society organisations. “We are committed to using all legal means at our disposal to stop pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros,” says Human Capacities Minister Zoltán Balog.

Trump meanwhile seems to be locked in a low-level, permanent war with Congress, so-called fake news media, the judiciary and intelligence services, even the Boy Scouts of America. He hankers after trust in family ties, and demands loyalty from his followers, egged on by their talk of the need to “bring everything crashing down” through deep budget cuts, centralisation of federal decision-making and refusing to fill empty leadership positions.

Trump thinks of himself as a lollapalooza leader who never ever loses. He is thus for government by nepotism: not bureaucracies, but personal channels, self-styled machismo against foes at home and abroad.

None of this clientelismo is accidental, or random: populism yearns for a type of politics that resembles a permanent coup d’état in slow motion. Populism is “not an ideology”, replies Mouffe. “It is a way of doing politics” guided by “the construction of a demos that is constitutive of democracy”.

The reply is tautological, and it begs important questions that lie at the heart of a genuinely democratic politics: in the process of constituting “popular sovereignty”, who decides who gets what, when and how? Who does the politics? Who establishes the “chains of equivalence” to decide who is the demos? Who determines what counts as “democracy”, and how do its champions deal with differences and disagreements about means and ends? Are the champions of “the people” themselves subject to legitimate institutional restraints?

Mouffe provides no clear answers to these political questions. The hush is revealing of her populist understanding of politics as the uncompromising battle to win friends and to monopolise state power over followers persuaded they are the promised People.

The definition of politics is narrowly Hobbesian. Seen as the struggle to win over allies and to crush opponents, populism is a strange and self-harming form of politics.

For tactical reasons, to protect its flanks, populist governments usually forge alliances with friends in high places. For all its talk of empowerment of “the people”, populism embraces the ancient political rule that governments need allies whose loyalty requires that they be treated well.

Populism practises “in-grouping”. Rudiger Dornbusch and other scholars, including James Loxton in this series, have shown that although populism can foster economic growth and redistribute wealth and income in favour of formerly marginalised groups – as in the Bolivia of Eva Morales, the great champion of natural gas-funded public works projects and social programs to fight poverty – it typically has the effect of privileging new sets of elites.

It is well known that Trump’s campaign talk of “draining swamps” is actually filling them with millionaires and billionaires, but left-wing populism doesn’t escape the same rule.

In the name of “the people”, it practically does what all populism does: it creates a wealthy stratum of oligarchs, like Venezuela’s boliburguesía, whose appetite for chartered flights, real estate and luxury cars has been whetted by kickbacks linked to state contracts showered on pro-government corporate executives and former military officials.

The logic of in-grouping inherent in all forms of populism contradicts Mouffe’s claim that left-wing populism is straightforwardly pitted against oligarchy. It confirms the suspicions of ancient Greek democrats, who used a (now obsolete) verb dēmokrateo to describe how demagogues ruling the people in their own name typically team up with rich and powerful aristoi to snuff out democracy.

There’s another self-contradiction that plagues populism. In practice, populism not only cultivates new oligarchs; its struggles in the name of “the people” force it to pick political fights with those it defines as deviants, dissenters and protagonists of disagreement and difference.

Populism champions the tactic of “out-grouping”. That’s why it comes as no surprise that Mouffe’s call for “left-wing populism” is hand-in-glove with Schmitt’s definition of politics as all about “friend-enemy” alliances. We could speak of Mouffe’s Law: “There is no ‘we’ without a ‘they’.”.

At no point does she say who would be excluded from her brand of populism: big business, super-rich bankers, government bureaucrats, confessed neoliberals, surely. But who else, pray tell, would be on her hit list? Knowing perhaps that a detailed list would scare off potential supporters, she doesn’t say.

Still it’s clear that her avowed commitment to “democracy” is contradicted by her dalliance with a politics of exclusion. The contradiction runs deep through populism: in its drive to amass a fund of power, confronted by opponents, populists typically hit hard against those they define as Other.

In the past, the designated enemies were monarchs, aristocrats, railroad magnates, bankers, Chinese immigrants. Today, populists like Wilders rail against Muslims and their “palaces of hatred” and Moroccan youth “street terrorists”. They spit at “liberals” and “foreigners”, unpatriotic people from nowhere, ethnic minorities and environmental activists.

Local politics always defines who exactly is under the gun, but the outcast marginalia of The People are deemed people who are “not even people”.

Writing in this series, Jan-Werner Müller quotes a passing but similarly revealing campaign rally remark by Donald Trump:

The only thing that matters is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.

This way of thinking helps us understand why it is no accident that populists are frequently fascinated by violence, or urge violence, or speak of it as a feature of “human nature”. Some present arms.

Yogi Adityanath, the priest-politician recently appointed as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest
state, says protection of the “rashtra” (nation) is the “dharma” (religion) of his government. Among his favourite personal possessions are a revolver, a rifle and two luxury SUVs, plus a reputation as a much-feared activist who arrives quickly with his supporters at trouble spots, to cause trouble.

By 2014, the pending criminal cases against Adityanath included promoting enmity, attempted murder, defiling a place of worship, trespassing on a burial site and rioting.

Admittedly, this is populism in its most extreme form. But the important thing to see is that the populist commitment to wilful out-grouping of people judged as worthless trash necessarily results in a dalliance with violence. Trump’s advice to police officers, not to be “too nice” when handling suspects, is no exception, no idiosyncrasy.

The dark energy of violence was present at every Trump campaign rally; “knock the crap out of ’em”, “punch ’em in the face” and “carry ’em out on a stretcher” were among his favourite fighting phrases.

Mouffe’s aesthetic fascination with violence fits the same pattern. In a little-known passage, she puts things plainly, in the language of Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. “The same movement that brings human beings together in their common desire for the same objects,” she writes, “is also at the origin of their antagonisms. Far from being the exterior of exchange, rivalry and violence are therefore its ever-present possibility … violence is ineradicable.”

That conviction is consistent as well with the propensity of Mouffe and other populists to think in territorial terms. They are attached to bounded territorial states. They like borders, stricter visa and immigration rules and talk of “national sovereignty”.

There are times when Mouffe appears to dissent on this point. She says she favours more “democracy” at the European level, but it turns out that her “progressive left-wing populism” comes wrapped within a territorial mentality.

It echoes Mélenchon’s speeches, interviews and policy program, L’Avenir en Commun (A Common Future). This speaks of a “democratic reconstruction” of European treaties and France’s withdrawal from the European Union’s Stability Pact, NATO and the World Bank.

The program also calls for closer ties with Russia and respect for Brexit, without “punishing” the UK for its decision to leave the EU, except for withdrawal from the Le Touquet accord, which allows British border controls to operate inside France.

What’s to be done?

The contributors to this series, for different reasons, are mostly united in their opposition to populism in its various local forms.

Among the exceptions is Adele Webb, whose diagnosis of the public ambivalence produced by dysfunctional democracies sets out mainly to understand the populism of Duterte and Trump, to help us grasp that their popularity stems in no small measure from their “appeal to people’s desire not to be fixed into pre-determined standards of how to think and behave”.

Cristóbal Kaltwasser similarly calls for engaging populists “in honest dialogue” and proposing “solutions to the problems they seek to politicise”. Laurence Whitehead recommends “respectful engagement and genuine dialogue” about the “darker” but potentially “emancipatory” potential of the new populism. Mick Chisnall is interested in interpreting populism as a form of politics based on people’s “identification with a common form of enjoyment-in-transgression”.

Simon Tormey similarly reserves judgement about its political merits. “We have become populists in the sense of seeing elites as disconnected or uncoupled from the people,” he writes.

Populism is symptomatic of the breakdown of representative democracy; but he’s unsure whether populism “will ‘work’ and make life better”, or if “there is life after representative democracy”, or whether the best cure for the dysfunctions of contemporary democracy is a “non- or post-representative strategy that will reduce, if not eliminate, the distance between the people and political power”, for instance through the nurturing of “liquid democracy” and “deliberative assemblies”.

Other contributors, understandably, for good reasons, are more doubtful about the democratic potential of populism; several express open disdain for its pathological, anti-democratic effects.

The anthropologist Irfan Ahmad reminds readers that the Western literature on contemporary populism suffers a secular bias. The case of India shows why the bias is misleading, and why the BJP government led by Modi is spreading a religious form of populism with murderous consequences for Muslims and other non-Hindu citizens.

Henrik Bang, citing Jürgen Habermas, similarly worries about the anti-democratic potential of populism. He reminds us of the political importance of everyday makers, “laypeople who can act spontaneously, emotionally, personally and communicatively as interconnected ‘fire alarms’, ‘experimenters’ and ‘innovators’”.

Bang calls for a new democratic politics that values “mutual acceptance and recognition of difference at all levels, from the personal to the global”, a politics of everyday making that can “push against populism by reminding political authorities that the only exceptional leaders we need today are the ones who help us to govern and take care of ourselves”.

Bang is surely right in questioning the mistaken Mouffe-style presumption that all politics is populist politics.

Along similar lines, using a different language, Nicole Curato and Lucy Parry consider “the democratic virtues of mini-publics” to be a vital antidote to the pathologies of populism.

Populists are said to be the foes of “intellectual rigour”, “evidence” and public-spirited “deliberative reason”. They peddle “base instincts” and “prejudices and misconceptions”. What is needed is more “deliberative democracy”, randomly selected public forums guided by “the virtues of participation governed by reason”.

Their call to rejuvenate the spirit of democracy is laudable. But the proposed vision of “deliberative democracy” suffers a rationalist bias; the means of achieving it are equally questionable.

There is certainly a pressing need in our times for what I have called “a new democratic enlightenment” in which democracy “dreams of itself again”. But the vision of “deliberative democracy” is no match for populism and its pathologies.

Supposing that the “essence of democracy” is “deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government” (John S. Dryzek’s opening words in Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations), democracy is reduced to “authentic deliberation”, or “the requirement that communication induce reflection upon preferences in a non-coercive fashion”.

This way of thinking about democracy by deliberative democrats suffers multiple weaknesses. Their self-understanding of their own historicity, and the age of monitory democracy to which they belong, is weak. Their penchant for small-scale, face-to-face deliberative forums begs difficult tactical questions about scalability, including whether micro-level schemes can be replicated at the national, regional and global levels.

Deliberative democrats are prone to understate such strategic challenges as the “artificiality” of pilot scheme experiments (where indefatigable citizen deliberators are expected to behave as if they are rational communicators in a scholarly seminar).

The bullish veto power of power-hungry vested interests is also underestimated. The contested meanings of the word “reason” don’t feature. The propensity of calm “reasonable” talk to dissolve bigoted opinions, of the kind expressed by hardcore populists in “civic dialogues” hosted by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland to tap rising anxiety about immigration, is exaggerated.

In sum, we could say that the whole vision of “deliberative democracy” suffers from nostalgia. Inspired originally by the work of Habermas (as my Public Life and Late Capitalism emphasised), deliberative democrats are secretly Greek.

Convinced that democracy is quintessentially assembly democracy, or “participatory democracy”, they downplay the strategic and normative importance of courts, media platforms and other power-monitoring institutions and generally seem blind to the ubiquity and importance of elections and other forms of representation within political life.

So where do these analyses leave us? No doubt, critical consideration of the pathologies of populism, the weaknesses of “deliberative democracy” and the pitfalls of “left-wing populism” should force democrats of all persuasions to ask truly basic political questions, in support of viable democratic alternatives.

The historic task before us is not only to imagine new forms of democratic politics that aren’t infected with the spirit of populism. The goal must be to outflank populism politically by enabling democracy to dream of itself again, in other words, to strengthen monitory democracy by inventing adventurous new forms of democratic politics that don’t fall prey to big boss Leaders and their blarney and blather about “the people”.

At a minimum, this means not just more citizen involvement in public life but also inventing new forms of monitory democracy.

That calls for mechanisms with teeth capable of politically rolling back unaccountable corporate and state power, building non-carbon energy regimes and fostering greater social equality among participating citizens who value free and fair elections, welcome media diversity and feel utterly comfortable in the company of different others who are not treated as “enemies”, but as partners, strangers, colleagues and friends.

Democratic politics is a politics that democratises the sovereign people principle. It feels no urge to bow down and worship an imaginary fictional body called “The People”.

Democratic politics has regard for flesh-and-blood people in all their lived heterogeneity. It thus refuses the urge to smash up power-monitoring institutions, to label whole groups as out-groups and threaten them with violence and expulsion beyond “sovereign” borders that are deemed sacred.

What’s needed is much more monitory democracy, radically new ways of humbling and equitably redistributing power, wealth and life chances that expose populism for what it is: a form of counterfeit democracy.

Once upon a time, in the early years after 1945, such political redistribution went by the names of “progressivism”, “socialism”, “liberalism” and the “welfare state”.

The ConversationIn the harder times that are coming, what ecumenical name should we give to this new radical politics? Why don’t we simply call it “democracy”?

John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

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The End of Representative Politics?

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John Keane, University of Sydney

The following notes on the future of democratic representation were inspired by Simon Tormey’s The end of representative politics (2015), launched at a Gleebooks event organised by the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), May 15th 2015.

Camping in Barcelona, 21 May 2011. Julien Lagarde

Whatever is happening in the field of party politics within the old parliamentary democracies? Why is mass membership of political parties a thing of the past? How come politicians are so disrespected, turnout rates volatile and elections often treated as pay-back moments by angry citizens?

A handful of clues is provided by the 2015 UK General Election, whose dynamics and results have attracted great global attention and floods of commentary on such matters as the break-up of Britain, the possible exit of Britain from the European Union and the dismal failure of the Labour Party to win over those parts of the middle class convinced there’s no alternative to the mean clampdown politics of austerity. The 2015 election was undoubtedly a media event extraordinaire. For a few days, it even featured robust debate about the failings of a first-past-the-post electoral system that awarded only one seat each to UKIP, which won 3.8 million votes, and to the Greens, who won 1.1 million votes.

Voter Turnout, United Kingdom General Elections (1950 – 2015) UK Political Info

By contrast, media assessments of the ocean of public disaffection on which the ship of Westminster and its parliamentary elections are now floating have been rare. During the days following the election, for instance, I rummaged in vain to find within the British press commentaries on the steady decline of voter turnout since 1950 (the United Kingdom now ranks 76th in world turnout rankings). I also couldn’t find any analysis of the number of citizens who actually voted for the return of a Tory government now blessed (thanks to the electoral system) with a thumping absolute majority in the House of Commons. I was forced to do my own calculations, to discover (on an overall turnout of 66.1%) that a mere 24.4% of adult citizens actually cast their vote for the new Conservative government.

Journalists and public commentators wilfully or blindly ignored such figures and long-term trends. Some did lament the way television broadcasters successfully managed to push ‘horse-race’ coverage, for instance by emphasising just how close the contest was between the Conservatives and Labour, why a Labour/SNP coalition government was a real possibility, and whether or not such a government could handle the fragile economy. Other commentators chose instead to bang on about the surprise result, and why it happened. Or they noted the end of Duverger’s Law, which states that first-past-the-post systems typically produce two-party systems.

Missing in these reports was any sense of the several ways, slowly but surely, parliamentary democracy in Britain is drifting backwards, heading towards a 21st-century version of late 18th-century politics. By this provocative analogy I mean to highlight the way present-day parliamentary politics is coming to be dominated by such 18th-century facts as the capture of government by the rich, the weakening of independent parliamentary powers and the near-collapse of mass political party organisations. The regressive trend includes as well cuts to welfare support for permanently poor people (1 in 5 of the UK population, 13 million people, now live below the official poverty line). Elections that bear more than a passing resemblance to pork-barrel plebiscites, widespread public mockery and disaffection with politics on high and tough law-and-order measures designed to spy on and control ‘harmful activities’ are also part of the same backsliding.

Rough Music Politics

These are mere tendencies, yes. But they’re to be found within many other parliamentary democracies, and that is why, to extend the 18th-century simile, ‘rough music’ politics is everywhere returning to their streets, parks and fields. In practically every existing parliamentary democracy, the disaffected and excluded are expressing their annoyance in unconventional ways. Once upon a time, as Edward Thompson famously pointed out, the 18th-century poor and powerless and pissed off expressed their indignation through ritual, revelry and riot. Raucous ear-shattering noise, unpitying laughter and the mimicking of obscenities were the weapons of the weak. In France, such practices were called charivari (Italians spoke of scampanate; the Germans Katzenmusik), while in late eighteenth-century Britain the protests paraded under such strangely obsolete names as ‘shallals’, ‘riding the stang’ and ‘skimmingtons’, rowdy parades expressing moral disapproval featuring effigies of the proxy victims.

William Hogarth’s depiction of rough music during a skimmington ride. Baldwin & Craddock, 1822.

The end of representative politics

Today, in the much-changed, media-saturated circumstances of the 21st-century, rough music assumes different forms, as Simon Tormey convincingly shows in his newly-published work, The end of representative politics. The book is a precious gem. A genuinely original contribution to the field, it’s a beautifully crafted slim essay with a big thesis: we are living through the end of an aura, says Tormey, the slow but sure decline of legitimacy and vibrancy of party politics and representative government. ‘We are moving, remorselessly, away from representation and representative politics towards styles and modes of politics that engage us immediately, directly, now.’ Symptomatic is the world-wide flourishing of what Tormey calls ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’: flash protests, occupations, hacking, boycotts, Facebook- and Twitter-led campaigns, circles, pinging and micro-parties. Concerned active citizens, he says, are no longer patiently prepared to wait until election time to express their concerns. Harnessing state-of-the-art media ‘they seek to make their views, anger, displeasure, known immediately, now.’

Simon Tormey (2013)

Tormey examines the causes of the declining aura of representative politics. He’s right to say that the peccadilloes of politicians and the politics of enforced austerity are not the principal drivers of the trend. There are multiple deep causes, including such peculiarly modern factors as the collapse of old collective identities, like belonging to a working class community, individualisation and the spread of globalised capitalism. The weakening of parliaments by the massive expansion of executive state powers and the outsourcing of political decisions to corporate and cross-border bodies might have been added to the list. A more thorough analysis of the rapid contemporary growth of communicative abundance would have been helpful as well. But these oversights are minor blemishes in an outstanding book that most definitely is on to something of epochal political importance.

Its potent analysis naturally prompts the curly question of whether, as the title suggests, we’re living through times that count as the end game of representative politics. ‘It’s the end of the paradigm, the “metanarrative”’, answers Tormey. ‘Much of the enthusiasm has gone for the classical model of representative politics and all the paraphernalia that went with it: a belief in the essentially benevolent or well-intentioned motives of those who would represent; a belief that our deepest needs and interests are best off in some other person’s hands than our own; a belief that joining a traditional mass party will prove the best use of our time and energies as engaged citizens. The props fall away; but the superstructure is still intact.’

History matters

The words are wonderful and the core thesis of The end of representative politics is both daring and consequential. The book offers important insights and prompts intellectual and political questions; it also triggers doubts, as every adventurous book does. We should thank Tormey for forcing us to ask after the book’s wobbly sense of history. From when dates the collapse of the paradigm of representative politics, we may ask? Through the examples he cites, Tormey leads us to think of the collapse as a pretty recent phenomenon, one that stretches back no more than a couple of decades. There’s admittedly mention of the Zapatistas and the World Social Forum as instances of the end of representative politics, but by and large the book depends upon very recent examples of what he calls DIY politics: the M-15 movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square and the 5-Star Beppe Grillo phenomenon in Italy. They’re all good and interesting examples, to be sure; but they have the effect of obscuring the fact that since 1945 every major public issue, from civil rights and nuclear weapons to feminism, environment and disability, has been activated, publicised and pressed home by civic initiatives, networks and movements outside the zones of formal parliamentary politics.

The point is historical, and it’s important, if only because it reminds us that those who neglect or misunderstand the past are prone to misrecognise the present. The point is this: politicians, governments, parliaments and political parties have been under pressure for much longer than this book implies. The decline of representative politics has been coming for a generation, which implies the need to see the sea change noted by Tormey as connected to the near-collapse of parliamentary politics during the first half of the 20th century (a point developed at length in The Life and Death of Democracy) and the birth, during the 1940s, of a brand new form of democracy that I call monitory democracy.

Do Political Parties Have a Future?

This long-term transformation of democracy that began in the 1940s has decentred and de-territorialised elections, politicians and parliaments. The trend has naturally posed challenges to political parties, and raised questions about their fate. Do political parties have a future? On this point, Tormey is ambivalent. He mostly sides with the ¡Democracia Real YA! position that ‘the democracy of the representatives has come to be regarded by many as not only a rather pale imitation of the real thing, but a mechanism for preventing ordinary citizens exercising greater control over their own lives.’ But there are moments when Tormey admits that the party isn’t over. At one point he says that contemporary politics resonates with ‘the sound of anti-political politics, anti-representational representation’. In saying this, he has Podemos, Syriza and the SNP in mind: ‘Recent initiatives’, he notes, ‘suggest that even the most horizontal of activists now see that under representative or post-representative conditions the “horizontal” may need to be combined with the “vertical” to leverage alternatives for citizens during elections, to provide a focus for specific campaigns and demands.’

¡Democracia Real YA! (‘Real Democracy Now’) poster by the Mexican art collective Lapiztola Stencil.
Rosario Martínez Llaguno and Roberto Vega Jiménez

In these and other passages, it’s as if Tormey is neither for nor against representative politics, but just the reverse. His vexed ambivalence is entirely understandable, especially because a straightforward return to mass-membership political parties seems most improbable. During their heyday, as Robert Michels famously pointed out in his classic Political Parties (1911), political parties were powerful patronage machines. They offered paid-up members and supporters significant benefits: jobs, financial support, literacy, promises of one-person one-vote and access to state power and its resources. Parties today are ghostly silhouettes of their former selves, which raises the question: since for the foreseeable future political parties will remain indispensable conduits of access to such state resources as taxation revenues, law-making powers and policing and military force, which kind of political party has the greatest chances of success in getting out the vote, attracting the support of citizens? Are slimmed-down and flatter political parties using multi-media tactics and Google-type algorithms to turn heads, inspire hearts and to mobilise the vote viable alternatives to the old mass-membership party analysed by Michels? Or might party forms of the 21st century instead come to resemble accountancy parties (let’s call them). Might there in future be more of what we have now, so that organised parties resemble firms of well-advertised accountants and tax advisors hungry for business? Drab firms that nose-pinching citizens conveniently hook up with from time to time, when the need arises (elections), to do what they have to do (deal with the state), to submit their returns (by casting their votes), then to resume their everyday lives, at a distance from the party system, all the while complaining about the performance of politicians and poking fun and spinning crabbed jokes about the sad and boring rituals of all parties, including the party for which they’ve just voted?

Hobbes and Rousseau

Tormey doesn’t declare his hand on this point. In part, I suspect, this is not just because the task of building distinctively 21st-century parties is very much unfinished, speculative and highly challenging business; or because his whole approach (as he puts it) is ‘weakly normative’. Something else is at work here: it’s called gut contempt for representation. It’s a pity the book doesn’t attempt a fine-grained genealogy of the plural meanings of representation, but enough is said to confirm that Tormey typically understands representation in its originally Hobbesian sense of substitution. In plain English, representation for Tormey is a con. It’s a deceptively ideological practice whereby those who exercise power over others falsely claim themselves to be identical with those whom they rule. Put abstractly, representation (‘Trust and respect me, I am your representative’) is supposed likeness, matching and direct correspondence. It is unity through identification, congruity, alleged similarity. The representative claims to be the self-same or twin of the represented, a Doppelgänger, a facsimile or carbon copy of the represented, a chip off the old block.

From Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651)

Tormey’s provocative image of representation as illegitimate ruling, as a vertical relationship between leaders who lead by claiming falsely that they have the interests of the led at heart, helps to explain his repeated insistence that representation is the opposite of ‘horizontal’ citizen participation, and that the task of radical politics is ‘to connect rather than represent’. Inspired by Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who despite their substantial differences were agreed that representation is ruling others, Tormey strikingly concludes that 20th-century Communist Parties were ‘a quintessentially representative discourse and representative form of politics’.

The Principle of Disappointment

To my mind, this understanding of representation as unification through ruling is one-sided. It downplays the way the brand new idea and practice of representative democracy, as it emerged at the end of the 18th century, contained within it the principle of popular rejection and rotation of leaders. When measured by the ancient Greek standards of democracy as self-government by the people, for the people, representative democracy was of course a defective form of government. That was Rousseau’s strong objection. Government under conditions of representative democracy nevertheless rested, ideally speaking, on the premise that ‘the people’ are ultimately ‘sovereign’. It followed from this formulation that while perfect accord between representatives and the represented couldn’t ever be achieved, steps towards self-correction could and should always be taken. In the lonely hour of the last instance, ‘the people’ must always have the final say in determining who governs. Vox populi, vox dei. But in striving for mimesis – a closure of the gap between citizens and their representatives – representative democracy, according to its own standards, constantly chased after the unattainable. Its self-inscribed, openly declared lack of perfection stemmed from the fact that it embraced the principle of disappointment: the recognition that representatives and citizens are ultimately not identical.

In the life and times of modern representative democracy, the disappointment principle was often seen as its fundamental weakness, as proof of its reactionary incoherence. Today, as Tormey correctly emphasises, public disappointment with representatives is fuelling deep disaffection with parliamentary politics. The odd thing is that defenders of representative democracy (from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Dahl) consistently saw the disappointment principle as its greatest strength, certainly in comparison to tyrannical regimes that boss and bully their subjects into submission. They hailed representative democracy as a practical new method of publicly admitting differences of opinion and apportioning blame for the poor political performance of leaders. It was seen as a brand new way of enabling citizens to complain publicly and to let off steam about their leaders and, thus, to chastise them with threatened or actual rotation of leadership, guided by such criteria as merit, performance, responsiveness and humility.

Put differently: from the end of the 18th century, champions of representative democracy thought of it as a new and livelier form of humble government. It was seen as a novel way of creating space to enable not only individuals but also groups and dissenting political minorities to defend their interests legitimately, and to control those who governed them by means of an open competition for power that enabled elected representatives to test their political competence and leadership skills, in the presence of others equipped with the power to trip them up and throw them out of office, if and when they failed, as surely they would in the end.

Hanna Pitkin (1931 -)

The founding principle of representative democracy was both original and powerful: ‘the people’ do not govern but they do make periodic appearances in elections in order to judge, sometimes harshly, the performance of their representatives. Electors are entitled to throw the idiots out. That is how, from time to time, they solve what Hanna Pitkin famously called ‘the paradox of representation’: that citizens have to be absent in order to be re-presented but also present in order to be re-presented. Seen in terms of the deep tension that is inherent in the process of representation, this is the whole point of elections: they are weapons for periodically cheering up the disappointed. If representatives were always virtuous, impartial, competent and fully responsive to the wishes of the represented, elections would lose their purpose. The represented would be identical with their representatives; representation would lose its meaning; the animating disjunction between what ‘is’ and what ‘can be’ or ‘ought to be’ would consequently collapse. However, since representatives are rarely (if ever) like this, and since, in the eyes of the represented, they never quite get things right and are never so worthy and persuasive, often behaving like idiots who get things badly wrong, elections function as a vital means of disciplining representatives for having let down their electors. Through elections, the friends of representative democracy concluded, electors get their chance to throw harsh words and paper rocks at their representatives – to chuck them out of office and replace them with popularly elected substitutes.

The Changing Ecology of Representation

Well, that’s the old orthodox theory. In our times, for the variety of reasons outlined in this wonderful book, ideals are being crushed by practice. Tormey makes a stimulating and persuasive case for a new democratic politics pitted against mainstream political parties. In opposition to felt injustices and mounting inequality, he is right to champion new forms of public clamour. He calls for a ‘politics of resonance’, a renewal of the sense that democracy has been kidnapped, and that it needs to be reclaimed, and lived anew within everyday life. Trouble is that the new ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’ forms of democratic politics he has in mind are everywhere, and without exception, instances of representative politics. Their lack of structure and formal leadership and avowed rejection of representation (‘United, the people do not need parties’ was the cry of protesters from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, five years ago) are only apparent. Their reliance upon mechanisms of representation is too often disguised, or denied. Truth is they rely upon mechanisms of representation, if by that word is meant what the earliest champions of representative democracy meant: acting on behalf of others, in their name, subject to their consent.

Michael Saward and others have recently pointed out that in this sense all politics involves claim making on behalf of others, and it therefore follows from this wider definition that in the age of monitory democracy the politics of representation is not confined to elections and parties and parliaments, that is, formal parliamentary politics in the narrow sense. Often in opposition to mainstream political parties, unelected and non-party representative politics is flourishing. That’s a key reason why mainstream political parties are feeling the pinch. They increasingly find themselves competing in fields of power with other bodies claiming to be representative of their constituencies. The fundamental point is that we’re not witnessing the end of representative politics but, rather, we’re living through times in which the ecology of representation is changing, becoming more complex, and ever more dispersed. Tormey agrees, and that’s the principal insight of his excellent book: within human affairs, the central political struggle is no longer, or primarily, the battle for one person, one vote. In the age of monitory democracy, the central struggle is to establish the principle of one person, many votes, multiple representatives, wherever power is exercised.

The ConversationSeen in this way, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Greenpeace are just as politically important as any political party on our planet. So, too, are citizens’ efforts to blow the whistle on institutionalised racism, or to extend rights of representation to indigenous peoples, disabled citizens and the poor. Which is to say that rather than witnessing the end of representative politics, we’re now living in times faced by a double democratic challenge: the challenge of breathing life back into political parties as trusted representatives of the wishes and needs of citizens considered as equals, and the difficult, potentially complementary struggle to extend the principles of representation into every field of power where arbitrary rule currently mangles the lives of people and their environment.

Simon Tormey (centre), Geoff Gallop (left) and John Keane (right), Gleebooks, May 15th 2015. John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

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A New Democratic Enlightenment?

The Conversation

John Keane, University of Sydney

This is the slightly rewritten text of my address to the opening plenary session, ‘New Enlightenment Neue Aufklärung’, at the European Forum Alpbach, Alpbach, Austria, 28 August 2016.

European Forum Alpbach, Austria

Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens and Citizenesses:

The disintegration of Europe that the world is witnessing, and in some quarters beginning to fear, no doubt has multiple causes and causers. One cause whose power to shape ultimate outcomes should not be underestimated is the felt decadence of democratic institutions. Many observers speak of a developing crisis of European democracy. While the headline phrase triggers my discomfort about unwarranted exaggeration, it plausibly captures a basic fact of contemporary European politics: the fact that the present-day paralysis of the spirit and institutions of democracy in the European region is bound up with the slow death of social democracy.

In the Austrian context, in the run-up to a bitterly contested presidential election, I’m aware that talk of the death of social democracy sounds straightforwardly a political statement. Understandably so, for once upon a time the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAPÖ) was among the most powerful, dynamic and forward-thinking party machines of the modern world. In striking contrast, today’s Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) is a sickly pale shadow of its former robust self. The decline of social democracy in Austria is palpable. Yet what I have to offer to you this afternoon is an analysis that aims to be less local and more far-reaching, an audit of social democracy that is at the same time conceptual and historical and concerned with global trends, a probe that equally pays attention to language, through which (I remind you in the village of Erwin Schrödinger) people form pictures of ‘reality’ and move through their world.

Enlightenment

The theme of our European Forum Alpbach symposium on politics is the New Enlightenment (Neue Aufklärung) so here’s my opening conjecture: the language and ideal of social democracy has its roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Enlightenment: when people encounter the word, they think immediately of reason and rationality, a black swan moment when new mental energies flowed, when the early modern 18th-century world began to be turned upside down by fearless criticism of prejudice, pride and power.

The interpretation is unfortunately too simple. Truth is that the intellectual upheaval that came to be called the Enlightenment (the phrase was largely a 19th-century neologism, typically circulated by its enemies) was a much messier affair. Historians, philosophers and political thinkers have taught us to see this 18th-century upheaval in less Whiggish and sanguine ways. Most analysts of the so-called Enlightenment today prefer to view it as multiple enlightenments, as various intellectual and literary tendencies centred on many different themes, with positive and negative effects.

Consider, for example, how Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault long ago challenged us to see that the 18th-century fetish of ‘reason’, its will to know everything and to measure and master the world, fed the spirit of bureaucratic ‘unreason’, incarceration and totalitarian rule. Or think of Isaiah Berlin’s reminder that the opponents of Enlightenment, dubbed the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, included thinkers, poets, painters and writers who plausibly championed pluralism and attacked the blind belief in scientific progress, in effect because they viewed the world as shaped not by the ‘laws of nature’, but by the contingencies of history.

My research on Thomas Paine and the eighteenth century (published as Tom Paine: A Political Life) tried to complicate matters by making the point that the Enlightenment also included champions of civil rights, social justice and democratic representation, rebels and radicals who were sharply aware of the miseries suffered by people ground down by modern institutions not of their own choosing. These dissenting rebels despised misery. Thanks to them, we could say, misery was given its proper name. Starvation and indignity, violence and powerlessness, were denounced as unnecessary blights on the face of the world. Misery was no longer regarded as God-given, or as part of the natural order of things (natura naturans). It was seen to be contingent, remediable, if necessary by means of revolutionary upheavals.

Social Democracy

Social democracy was the offspring of this bold way of imagining a world freed from misery. Its fortunes were tied to the rise and expansion of modern industrial capitalism. Coined during the 1840s, the neologism Sozialdemokratie first circulated among disaffected German-speaking skilled craftsmen, farm and factory workers, whose support for social democracy made possible the conversion of isolated pockets of social resistance into powerful mass movements protected by trade unions, political parties and governments committed to widening the franchise and building welfare state institutions.

Market inequalities fuelled resentments among the supporters of social democracy. Their powerful charge was that ‘free market’ competition produces chronic gaps between winners and losers and, eventually, a society defined by private splendour and public squalor. If Eduard Bernstein, Karl Renner, Rosa Luxemburg, Clement Attlee, Jawaharlal Nehru or Bruno Kreisky were suddenly to reappear in our midst, they would not be surprised by the way practically all market-driven democracies are today coming to resemble hour glass-shaped societies. In these societies, as Thomas Piketty and other political economists explain, the wealth of small numbers of extremely rich people has multiplied, the shrinking middle classes feel insecure and the ranks of the permanently poor and the precariat are swelling – as in the United States, the richest capitalist market economy on the face of the earth, where 1% of households now own 38% of the national wealth; or in Britain, where at the end of three decades of deregulated growth, 30 per cent of children live in poverty; or in Austria, where at least 20% of citizens are now suffering money and dignity problems.

Social democrats of the 19th- and early-20th centuries found obnoxious, and actively resisted, social inequality on this scale. They railed against the general dehumanising effects of treating people as commodities. Social democrats acknowledged the technical prowess, productivity and dynamism of markets. But they were sure that love and friendship, family life, public freedoms and the vote could not be bought with money, or somehow be manufactured by commodity production, exchange and consumption. That was the whole point of their radical demands for a living wage, the abolition of child labour and Eight Hours Work, Eight Hours Recreation and Eight Hours Rest. In the dark year of 1944, the Hungarian social democrat Karl Polanyi put the point in defiant words: ‘To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment’, he wrote, ‘would result in the demolition of society’. His reasoning, traceable to the 18th-century Enlightenment, was that human beings are ‘fictitious commodities’. His conclusion: dignity through democracy had to be fought for politically, which at a minimum meant the weakening of market forces and strengthening the hand of the commonweal against private profits, money and selfishness.

Market Failures

More than a few social democrats went further, by pointing out, in opposition to Jean-Baptiste Say, Friedrich von Hayek and other liberal political economists, the reasons why unregulated markets are prone to collapse. Economists of recent decades have regularly described these failures as ‘externalities’, but their jargon is misleading. Something more fundamental is at stake. Free markets periodically cripple themselves, sometimes to the point of total breakdown, for instance because (a) they whip up socially disruptive storms of technical innovation (Joseph Schumpeter’s point) or because (b) as we know from recent bitter experience, unregulated markets generate bubbles whose inevitable bursting bring whole economies to their knees.

The social democratic critique of free market capitalism proved compelling for millions of people. But what exactly did social democracy mean to its champions and sympathisers? Winning parliamentary elections and controlling the levers of state power, certainly. Yet there was always some muddle over the meaning of the ‘social’ in social democracy; and there were frequent brawls about whether and how the taming of markets, which many called ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’, could be achieved.

There is no time for me to recall the great moments of high drama, conceptual strife and contradictions, dark sides and luscious ironies that form part of a recorded history that includes courageous struggles of the downtrodden to form co-operatives, friendly societies, free trade unions, and to spread literacy and win the struggle for the universal franchise through social democratic parties. There were fractious splits that gave birth to anarchism and Bolshevism; and outbursts of nationalism and xenophobia and (in Sweden) experiments with eugenics. The history also includes the re-launch of social democratic parties at the Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International (1951), as well as efforts to nationalise railways and heavy industry, to socialise the provision of health care and formal education for all citizens. And the history of social democracy also embraces big and bold thinking, romantic talk of the need to abolish alienation, respect for what Paul Lafargue called the right to be lazy (le droit à la paresse), even the vision of a future communist society projected by his father-in-law Karl Marx, a society in which women and men, freed from the shackles of the market, went hunting in the morning, fished in the afternoon and, after a good dinner, engaged others in frank political discussion.

A Slow Death

A strange but striking feature of the history of social democracy is just how distant and worn out this language now feels. The slow death of social democracy during the past several decades has the quality of an unfolding political tragedy; it certainly signals the decline and disappearance of the spirit and substance of the old Enlightenment. Yes, there is a Grosse Koalition in Germany, and a red-green government led by Stefan Löfven in Sweden. But almost everywhere social democratic political parties and organisations have run out of steam; their loss of organising energy and political imagination is palpable. Collaborators with financial capitalism (Jürgen Kocka) then double-speak apologists of austerity, their Third Way has turned out to be a dead end.

Gone are the flags, historic speeches and bouquets of red roses. Party leader intellectuals of the calibre of Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941) and C.A.R. Crosland (1918-1977) are figures of a distant past. Today’s party leaders who still dare to call themselves social democrats are by comparison intellectual pygmies. Loud calls for greater equality, social justice and public service have faded, often into choking silence. Positive references to the Keynesian welfare state have disappeared. As if to prove that social democracy was just an intermezzo between capitalism and more capitalism, these leaders speak of budgetary restraint, triple ‘A’ ratings, ‘renewed growth’ and ‘competition’, public-private partnerships, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘business partners’.

Sometimes the duplicity induces pain. I once witnessed the fabulist Tony Blair reassure a gathering of trade unionists that he was against free market forces before moving on, two hours later, after a light lunch together, to tell a group of business executives exactly the opposite. The crisis of Atlantic-region capitalism since 2008 seems to have amplified the duplicity. Within the dwindling ranks of committed social democrats, few now call themselves socialists (Alexis Tsipras and Jeremy Corbyn are exceptions), or even social democrats. Most leaders are party faithful, machine men and women surrounded by media advisers, connoisseurs of governmental power geared to free markets. Few make noise about tax avoidance by big business and the rich, the decay of public services, the weakening of trade unions, or rising inequality. All of them, usually without knowing it, are blind apologists of the drift towards a new form of financial capitalism protected by what I have elsewhere called ‘banking states’ that have lost control over money supply, so that in most democratic countries over 95% of the ‘broad money’ supply is now in the hands of private banks and credit institutions.

Ladies and gentlemen: social democracy failed to understand, let alone regulate, this new historical type of capitalism, whose near-breakdown in 2007/2008 has damaged the lives of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere. But the disintegration of social democracy has been overdetermined by other, multiple forces. Among the most important are these entangled trends, here summarised in the briefest form:

● Membership of social democratic parties has dipped dramatically. Although accurate figures are hard to obtain – these parties are notoriously secretive about their active membership lists – we know that in 1950 the Norwegian Labour Party, one of the most successful in the world, had over 200,000 paid-up members; and that today its membership is barely one-quarter that figure. Much the same trend is evident within the British Labour Party, whose membership peaked in the early 1950s at over 1 million and is today less than half that figure. Helped by the recent £3 special offer registration, total membership of the Labour Party is now around 370,000 – less than the 400,000 figure recorded at the 1997 general election. During Blair’s years of leadership alone, membership declined steadily every year from 405,000 to 166,000. When it is considered that during the post-1945 period, the size of the electorate in most countries has been steadily increasing (by 20% between 1964 and 2005 in Britain alone) the proportion of people who are no longer members of social democratic parties is far more substantial than even the raw numbers suggest. The figures imply a profound waning of enthusiasm for social democracy in party form. Satirists might even say that its parties are waging a new political struggle: the struggle for self-effacement.

● Social democratic parties were among the slowest to react to the upheavals effected by the digital, globally networked communications revolution that began during the 1960s. The harnessing of big data through networked campaigning techniques by these parties has often been resisted, or ignored. Striking is the contrast with the powerful social democratic parties of the late 19th century. They stood for universal public literacy and published influential newspapers, books, pamphlets and best-selling utopian novels and literary fantasies such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888). Social democracy was once a powerful symbol of democratic openness and communicative empowerment. Today it symbolises sound bites and media grabs, the avoidance of bad news. The old class struggles have been replaced by phrase struggles;

● Social democratic parties have shown limited awareness of the emergence, since the 1940s, of monitory democracy. This is a new historical form of democracy in which free and fair elections and parliaments are of declining importance, certainly when compared with the rising importance of the public monitoring and restraint – humbling – of arbitrary power by means of a multitude of newly-invented watchdog institutions such as citizens’ assemblies, teach-ins, public forums, activist courts, environmental networks and WikiLeaks, to name just a few innovations;

● Gripped by a territorial state mentality and confined to nation state barracks, social democratic parties have underestimated the agenda-setting and blackmail and veto effects of cross-border chains of organised corporate and governmental power. Operating within the boundaries of territorial states, social democratic parties and governments have consequently been weakened and victimised by what Albert Einstein dubbed ‘spooky action at a distance’: cross-border butterfly effects, arbitrage pressures and quantum tunnels, all of which have greatly complicated the politics of wealth and income redistribution;

● The rise of the People’s Republic of China as an economic great power on the global power stage has had two ironic effects: it has weakened an important part of the social support base of social democracy (industrial manufacturing, trade unions, workers) and established a viable ‘socialist’ alternative to capitalism in social democratic form: one party state capitalism legitimated by locally-made forms of democratic rule; and

● The long-term silence of social democrats about environmental degradation has accelerated the death of social democracy. We have entered an age of gradually rising public awareness of the destructive effects of the modern human will to dominate our biosphere, of the bad habit of treating nature, just as Africans or indigenous peoples were once treated, as commodities, as objects of production, profit and other selfishly human ends.

This last-mentioned development needs some elaboration. For more than half a generation, beginning with works such as Rachel Carson’s _Silent Spring _(1962), green thinkers, scientists, journalists, politicians and social movement activists have been pointing out that the whole social democratic tradition is implicated deeply in the spoliation of our planet. They note that social democracy was the Janus face of free-market capitalism: both stood for the human domination of nature. Hence they call for a new politics with green qualities, a new democratic enlightenment that poses a fundamental challenge to both the style and substance of the old social democracy, or what remains of it.

The New Democratic Enlightenment

What is this new democratic enlightenment? It has multiple features, especially a strong sense of the complexity and indeterminacy of things and processes in our world. It displays resistance to wilful simplification, and opposition to all ideologies, including populism. There is preference for extra-parliamentary civic action and monitory democracy against the old model of electoral democracy in territorial state form. The Neue Aufklärung features sympathy for a rich repertoire of new political tactics practised in a variety of local and cross-border settings: citizen science networks, Barcelona-style municipalismo, bio-regional assemblies, green political parties (the first in the world was the United Tasmania Group), earth watch summits and the skilful staging of non-violent media events (Greenpeace originally called them ‘mind bombs’).

The new democratic enlightenment is marked by an earthy cosmopolitanism. It displays a deep sensitivity to the global interdependence of peoples and their ecosystems. There is support for new post-carbon energy regimes and opposition to fossil-fuelled growth and habitat destruction. There is also acute awareness of the opportunities and dangers posed by marketisation of the most intimate areas of everyday life, for instance fertility outsourcing, data harvesting, nanotechnologies, stem cell research and humanoid robots. The new enlightenment has a clear understanding of the golden rule that whoever has the gold rules. It displays strong awareness that market control of daily life, civil society and political institutions has negative social and political consequences, unless checked by open public debate, political resistance, public regulation and the positive redistribution of wealth, for instance through a basic citizens’ income. Especially striking is the new enlightenment’s call for the ‘de-commodification’ (Claus Offe) of the biosphere, in effect, the replacement of social democracy’s will to dominate nature and its innocent attachment to History with a more prudent sense of ‘deep time’ aware of the fragile complexity of the biosphere and its multiple rhythms.

The new democratic enlightenment is opposed to the old social democratic metaphysics of economic progress, and the machismo of its favoured imagery of warrior male bodies gathered at the gates of pits, docks and factories, singing hymns to industrial growth, under smoke-stained skies. The new enlightenment issues a warning: that unless we human beings change our ways with the world in which we dwell things may turn out badly – very badly indeed. Its overall attitude to the world is precautionary: whether we know it or not, it is said, we humans are now deciding which evolutionary pathway awaits us, including the possibility that we are trapped in an extinction event of our own making.

It is worth asking whether these themes of the new enlightenment are evidence of a black swan moment in global affairs? Are they proof that we are living through the beginning of a large phase transformation analogous to the last decades of the 18th century, when the rough-and-tumble resistance to the miseries produced by market-driven industrial capitalism slowly but surely morphed into a highly disciplined workers’ movement receptive to the siren calls of social democracy?

It is impossible to know with utter certainty whether these are the right questions, or whether our times are like that. Only the historians of the future will be able to tell us, yet it should be noted that many champions of the new enlightenment are now convinced that a tipping point has indeed been reached. Their sense of alternative possibilities (Robert Musil’s Möglichkeitsinne) is strong. In effect, the new enlightenment is an exercise in democracy ‘dreaming itself’. It demands that democracy be taken seriously and self-reflexively redefined as monitory democracy. It insists that the point is not only to change the world, but also to interpret it in new ways, through new languages, to grasp that so many things of our times are too strange to be thought, to see that although democracy is never fully realisable, that it is always the ‘democracy to come’ (Jacques Derrida), it is nevertheless still the most powerful earthly weapon available for humbling the powerful and taming their arrogant and foolish will to power.

But where does this new enlightenment leave social democracy? What is the relationship between the first and second enlightenments? Thinking social democrats will reply to such questions by emphasising the flexibility of their creed, the capacity of their originally 19th-century standpoint to adapt to 21st-century circumstances. I have friends and colleagues who are adamant that it’s much too early to bid farewell to social democracy. They reject the charge that it is a worn-out ideology whose moments of triumph belong to the past, or that it is a mournful lament for the achievements of bygone days (Tony Judt).

These social democrats admit that the goal of re-building social solidarity among citizens through civil society and government action has been damaged by market-produced inequality and fudged agendas designed to win votes from business, the rich and right-wing political competitors. These thinking social democrats know that the old slogans and sense of time of social democracy are exhausted. They admit to being impressed by the media-savvy initiatives and staged détournement of civic networks such as M-15, Amnesty International and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, whose actions aim to put a stop to the violence of states, armies and gangs, but also to corporate misconduct and market injustices and miseries in cross-border settings. These thinking social democrats then play the ace card in their pack: they reiterate the importance of ‘complex equality’ (Michael Walzer) as the core value of their creed. These social democrats aim to retrieve its most fruitful old ‘wish image’ (Wunschbild) to deal politically with the new problems of our time. They are sure that the old topic of misery, inequality, capitalism and democracy deserves to be revived. In a recent lecture in Firenze, along these lines, Jürgen Kocka, one of Germany’s most influential social democratic intellectuals, expressed this point well. The new ‘financialised’ capitalism, he noted, is ‘becoming more and more market radical, more mobile, unsteady and breathless’. His conclusion is defiant: ‘capitalism is not democratic and democracy not capitalistic’.

The Future?

Ladies and gentlemen: you will no doubt be asking after the chances of practical success of the new enlightenment, this new dreaming of democracy. In Europe and elsewhere, how viable is the hope that red and green can be mixed, you will ask? Can the result be more than bland shades of neutral brown? Might the old and new be combined into a powerful force for an enlightened politics of democratic equality against the power of money and markets and their ruination of our biosphere? Time will tell whether the proposed metamorphosis I’ve sketched can happen successfully. As things stand, only one thing can safely be said. If the new enlightenment happened then it would confirm an old political axiom famously outlined by the English designer, poet and socialist William Morris (1834 – 1896): when enlightened people fight for liberty, equality and democracy, he noted, the battles and wars they lose typically inspire others to carry on their fight. When they do that, in much-changed circumstances, he noted, they need to experiment with new languages, and use new and improved means, fuelled by new hopes and new sensibilities. Shouldn’t a new enlightenment, a second enlightenment that is less intellectually arrogant and more democratically powerful than its predecessor, heed this wise advice?

The ConversationJohn Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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