The epistemology of democracy’s death

In the last few weeks, I’ve written a few times about the epistemological questions posed by post-democracy. This notion put forward by Colin Crouch sees transitions within mature democracies as involving a hollowing out of democratic  structures rather than a dramatic shift to non-democracy. As he described it in a recent interview I did with him:

I defined post-democracy as a situation where all the institutions of democracy – elections, changes of government, free debate, rule of law – continue, but they become a charade, because democratic institutions have been surpassed as major decision-making entities by small groups of financial and political elites. I argued, not that we had reached such a situation in most western countries – there is far too much lively politics for that – but that we were on the road towards it.

This runs contrary to many folk theories of democracy’s death, tending as they do to associate the end of democracy with a sudden seizure of power. It would be foolish to deny this as a possibility, not least of all because political scientists have ably theorised this as ‘authoritarian reversion’:

We think that comparative experience demonstrates that there are two distinct forms of backsliding, each with its own mechanisms and modal end-states. We call these authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. The basic difference between reversion and retrogression as we use the terms is how fast and how far backsliding goes. Authoritarian reversion is a wholesale, rapid collapse into authoritarianism. Such a wholesale movement away from democracy most often occurs through the mechanism of a military coup d’état or via the use of emergency powers.

One of the reasons conversations about post-democracy have entered the mainstream is the number of unfolding cases we can see at present. The authors of the aforementioned blog post cite Hungary and Poland but we could just as easily point to Brazil or Turkey:

Examples of retrogression abound. In both Hungary and Poland, for example, elected governments have recently hastened to enact a suite of legal and institutional changes that simultaneously squeeze out electoral competition, undermine liberal rights of democratic participation, and emasculate legal stability and predictability. In Venezuela between 1999 and 2013, the regime established by Hugo Chávez has aggregated executive power, limited political opposition, attacked academia, and stifled independent media. Crucially, across these examples and others, democratic decay is catalyzed incrementally and under the “mask of law”: It is a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker.

The extent to which our democratic imaginary is dominated by examples of such authoritarian reversion works to squeeze out constitutional regression. This is further compounded by what I’ve argued are pronounced tendencies in how we conceive of social continuity:

  1. We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  2. We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  3. We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  4. We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  5. Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

What capacity we have to recognise the possibility of large scale change reduces it epochal transitions. We have one social formation then we have another, with a detailed conception of the process of change being subsumed into the (inflated sense of the) agency of some macro-actor  whose machinations account for the real or imagined transition. This is why a gradual process of retrogression struggles to register at the level of political experience:

Retrogression, on the other hand, is a more subtle and insidious process. It involves a more incremental, but still ultimately substantial, decay in the three basic predicates of democracy, namely competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive.

One of our core claims is that scholars have largely focused on the possibility of swift autocratic reversions such as a coup d’etat (as in Thailand, Mali, and Mauritania) or via the use of emergency powers (most famously, in Weimar Germany). But we think that threat of constitutional retrogression—a more insidious form of institutional erosion—is more substantial.

The threat is indeed more substantial and our awareness of it is limited by many factors. But some of these, I wish argue, should be understood as epistemological. A process of this sort is harder to conceive of because many of the ways in which we tend to think of social change militate against it.

What I have written so far is prospective, concerning how we imaginatively orientate ourselves to a future possibility. But the same issue confronts attempts to conceive of what is ongoing because such a retrogression is, as these authors describe it, “a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker”:

Each of the individual changes may be innocuous (or even) defensible in isolation. But a sufficient quantity of even incremental derogations from the democratic baseline, in our view, can precipitate a qualitative change that merits a shift in regime classification. Understanding where, how, and whether that happens in the United States, we think, is furthered by a close study of experience of other countries.

A sufficient quantity of isolated occurrences across the system can cumulatively constitute a qualitative change in the system itself. Democracy can unravel around us, without any grand announcements of its death. Recognising the epistemological obstacles to acknowledging this unraveling can help us appreciate the urgency of the situation we are beginning to face.

2 responses to “The epistemology of democracy’s death”

  1. I find the absence of social movements (and social movement theory) in this epistemology telling. Every re-arrangment of institutions, from the American Revolution, to the French Revolution, to the Bolshevik Revolution, to the Cuban Revolution started as a social movement: a group of like-minded people with common concerns & characteristics who sought some type of social change, and organized in a particular way to achieve that. Some scholarship even points to Neoliberalism as a social movement (including some of my own, along with Philip Mirowski).

    Looking at the successful social movements (even the bad ones) there are some common features beyond that of just like-minded people. The most glaring are three: a charismatic leader, a well-organized stratification that can re-arrange institutions, and protests were a tool, not the end-goal. And it’s not just in 17th Century, or even early 20th Century social movements that turned into political change. As recently as Brexit and Trump are recent examples.

    Nigel Farage was a charismatic leader that organized Brexit in a very systematic way, where protests were not the main goal. Trump was the charismatic Tea Party candidate after Sarah Palin became pre-occupied with making money on book deals. Trump had a very well-oiled organization, and protests were minimal. And when we look at successful social movement on the left, we see the same thing. The Civil Rights movement started as a very small social movement called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by a very charismatic leader: Martin Luther King. American institutions would be forever re-arranged because of that movement, where non-violent protests were a large tool, but not the main tool. The main tool was using political and economic power. King had his movement very well thought out.

    We can also see the opposite when we look at the collapse of social movements over time. Movements like Occupy disappeared because they had no leader, and no social organization whatsoever. Or how about the anti-WTO movement that was big in the 1990s globally. We don’t hear much from them anymore. Who was their leader(s)? How were they organized? What did they do besides protest?

    So I think that any post-democracy analysis that ignores the role of social movements does so at its own peril. And when engaging the analysis of social movements, we need to make a clear distinction between a “social” movement, and a “protest” movement.

    Just my unsolicited thoughts…

  2. I agree! I’ve written about this as ‘fragile movements’. Do you know any good literature I should incorporate? I find the social movements literature intimidatingly vast and I’m really worried about this stage of the project.

    The book I’m very very very slowly writing is an attempt to combine different levels of analysis: distracted people + fragile movements + defensive elites in a post-democratic system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.