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.

There are two issues which have long fascinated me that seem more salient with each passing day. Our struggle to conceptualise long term social change from within (particularly the possibility of civilisational collapse) and the transition away from democratic government. Cinematic spectacle dominates the imaginary through we conceive of either, whether this is our imagery of what a collapsed social order would look like or our bleak authoritarian dystopias. As Thomas Pepinsky observes in this excellent article:

The mental image that most Americans harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (free men throwing off the yoke of British tyranny), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Our images of collapse are perhaps no more veridical. We imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios where we entirely descend into chaos while stuck on an earth we have ruined. Or finding salvation through technology in an escape to space. But as Peter Frase argues in Four Futures, the substantive questions posed by crises of this severity are much more complex. From loc 1103:

The real question is not whether human civilization can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive it together, in some reasonably egalitarian way. Although the extinction of humanity as a result of climate change is possible, it is highly unlikely. Only somewhat more plausible is the collapse of society and a return to some kind of premodern new Dark Ages. Maintaining a complex, technologically advanced society no doubt requires a large number of people. But it does not necessarily require all 7 billion of us, and the premise of this book is that the number of people required is on the decline because of the technical developments outlined in Chapter 1 .

Our social imaginaries of crisis and collapse are depoliticising. They obscure questions of distribution, interest and power. They embody what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: a putatively gritty look at the ‘reality’ of a situation, real or imagined, which in actual fact mythologises the system within which this representation is constructed. This is perhaps not surprising because much of the explosion of social representation has taken place roughly alongside the onset of post-democracy. We’re now seeing a deepening of the post-democratic tendency at a time of social crisis. This is why it’s crucial that we begin to think more deeply about how we represent crisis and the implications this has for our politics.

One way of doing this is to look at examples of systemic change that are presently taking place. Owen Jones has an excellent (in a depressing way) report from time he’s spent in Turkey recently:

Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump to the most powerful position on Earth. I spent last week with Turkey’s beleaguered opposition parties, newspapers and activists. Their courage is inspiring, their plight distressing.

Last July an attempted military coup failed to dislodge the autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The backlash was swift. As Human Rights Watch reported, the regime took advantage of the moment “to crack down on human rights and dismantle basic democratic safeguards”. More than 120,000 Turks have been sacked, nearly 90,000 detained, and more than 40,000 have been arrested, 144 of them journalists. Turkey is a world leader in jailing media workers, with some 160 outlets closed.

The human rights situation is appalling. Those journalists and opposition activists not arrested are harassed en masse. The opposition is accused of terrorist links and subject to furious marginalisation. It’s becoming a crime to ‘insult’ the President. And something akin to an enabling act is on its way. As Jones goes on to argue, there are obvious affinities to other national contexts:

The west is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. Last July Trump praised Erdoğan for “turning it around” after the attempted coup. And Erdoğan cheered Trump’s car-crash press conference last week: Trump, who told a CNN reporter that the organisation he worked for produced fake news, had – according to Erdoğan – put the reporter “in his place” because media organisations such as CNN “undermine national unity”.

Turkey’s fragile democracy is being bled to death. It is dusk for democracy in Poland and Hungary too, as populist rightwing governments keep the superficial trappings of democracy for appearance’s sake but hollow it out in practice. Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side.

Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?

But how seriously do we take that possibility? We need to be careful of what Cory Robin describes as the ‘politics of fear’ reaching the left: “a politics that is grounded on fear, that takes inspiration and meaning from fear, that sees in fear a wealth of experience and a layer of profundity that cannot be found in other experience”. Such a politics of fear denies agency as well. The point is not that these changes are inexorable but that the window of opportunity, given the prevailing balance of forces, might be contracting precipitously as darkness looms on the horizon. If we conflate non-democracy with totalitarianism, we’re liable to entrench this lack of sensitivity to the possibilities now ahead of us. The reality of Democracy’s death would be banal for the majority, at least most of the time:

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered, as Anna Politkovskaya was in Russia; they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe about their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed — in the greatly underappreciated 1978 volume Elections without Choice to elections in Portugal under Salazar.

The point is that, as Pepinsky puts it, “Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy”. The sooner we realise that, the easier it is to acknowledge that people can tolerate non-democracy because democratic governance can become a low priority. This has important implications for our political orientation to the apparent fragility of democratic structures, as Pepinsky argues in the culmination of his essay:

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang.

It is more likely that democracy ends with a whimper, when the case for supporting it — the case, that is, for everyday democracy — is no longer compelling.

From The Black Box Society, by Frank Pasquale, pg 52:

An unaccountable surveillance state may pose a greater threat to liberty than any particular terror threat. It is not a spectacular dangers, but rather an erosion of a range of freedoms. Most insidiously, the “watchers” have the power to classify those who dare to point this out as “enemies of the state,” themselves in need of scrutiny. That, to me, is the core harm of surveillance: that it freezes into place an inefficient (or worse) politico-economic regime by cowing its critics into silence. Mass surveillance may be doing less to deter destructive acts than it is slowly narrowing of the range of tolerable thought and behaviour.

Where might this lead? What I think of as ‘techno-fascism’ is a speculative answer. How bad could this get if left unchecked? What would life within such a social order look and feel like? Could we imagine a frozen social formation, one able to perpetually recreate itself without change or challenge?

I really like this framing by Zizek on pg 177 of his Trouble in Paradise. The discourse on ‘populism’ should be read through this lens: the bewilderment and scorn elites feel when this polite agreement breaks down.

In this sense, in a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king –but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by an executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call a ‘crisis of democracy’ does not occur when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they experience the anxiety signalling that ‘the (true) throne is empty’, that the decision is now really theirs. There is thus in ‘free elections’ always a minimal aspect of politeness: those in power politely pretend that they do not really hold power, and ask us to freely decide if we want to give them power –in a way which mirrors the logic of the offer-meant-to-be-refused, as mentioned above.

From Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, pg 35. As he goes on to say on pg 107, “the ‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce.”

These elites, the main culprits for the 2008 financial meltdown, now impose themselves as experts, the only ones who can lead us on the painful path of financial recovery, and whose advice should therefore trump parliamentary politics, or, as Mario Monti put it: ‘Those who govern must not allow themselves to be completely bound by parliamentarians.’ 

 What, then, is this higher force whose authority can suspend the decisions of the democratically elected representatives of the people? The answer was provided back in 1998 by Hans Tietmeyer, then governor of the Deutsches Bundesbank, who praised national governments for preferring ‘the permanent plebiscite of global markets’ to the ‘plebiscite of the ballot box’. 

Note the democratic rhetoric of this obscene statement: global markets are more democratic than parliamentary elections since the process of voting goes on in them permanently (and is permanently reflected in market fluctuations) and at a global level –not only every four years, and within the confines of a nation-state. The underlying idea is that, freed from this higher control of markets (and experts), parliamentary-democratic decisions are ‘irresponsible’.

This is a worryingly plausible account of how outwardly post-democratic regimes in former liberal democracies could seek legitimacy. From pg 107:

The paradox is that, precisely because it lacks democratic legitimacy, an authoritarian regime can sometimes be more responsible towards its subjects than one that was democratically elected: since it lacks democratic legitimacy, it has to legitimize itself by providing services to the citizens, with the underlying reasoning, ‘True, we are not democratically elected, but as such, since we do not have to play the game of striving for cheap popularity, we can focus on citizens’ real needs.’ A democratically elected government, on the contrary, can fully exert its power for the narrow private interests of its members; they already have the legitimacy provided by elections, so they don’t need any further legitimization and can feel safe doing what they want –they can say to those who complain, ‘You elected us, now it’s too late.’

A powerful polemic by Paul Mason in the Guardian arguing that the post-democratic character of the EU is intimately connection to the reemergence of fascism across Europe:

All this suggests that those of us who want Brexit in order to reimpose democracy, promote social justice and subordinate companies to the rule of law should bide our time. But here’s the price we will pay. Hungary is one electoral accident away from going fascist; the French conservative elite is one false move away from handing the presidency to the Front National; in Austria the far-right FPÖ swept the first round of the presidential polls. Geert Wilders’s virulently Islamophobic PVV is leading the Dutch opinion polls.

The EU’s economic failure is fuelling racism and the ultra right. Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU with the Third Reich was facile. The more accurate comparison is with the Weimar Republic: a flawed democracy whose failures fuelled the rise of fascism. And this swing to the far right prompts the more basic dilemma: do I even want to be part of the same electorate as millions of closet Nazis in mainland Europe?

The EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice. If so – even though the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today – I will want out soon.

This is a difficult issue to know how to treat, but I think it’s an important one. Declining political literacy of the sort described here by David Shultz in American Politics In An Age of Ignorance, loc 143-157 is a unnecessary but  sufficient condition for ‘shadow mobilisations’ of the kind which are the most worrying feature of the contemporary post-democratic landscape:

Rick Shenkman’s Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter describes the declining literacy in American politics (2009). He notes how at a time when Americans seem to be demanding more and more opportunity to engage in direct democracy via initiative and referendum, they seem to know even less and less about basic facts regarding how the political process works. Similarly, in perhaps the most comprehensive study on American political literacy Michael DelliCarpini and Scott Keeter confirm the public’s ignorance in What Americans Don’t Know About Politics and Why It Matters (1989). Drawing upon extensive survey research, they found barely 40% could define the Bill of Rights, over 40% did not know that the Supreme Court could declare laws unconstitutional, only 20% could name two first Amendment rights, and only 19% could name all three branches of the national government (DelliCarpini and Keeter 1989: 70–71). Survey research in general suggests that only 59% of the population according to a Pew study can name who the vice-president is. 

This address to Congress seems remarkably relevant given current events in the United States. It’s quoted in The Deep State, by  Mike Lofgren, page 30:

Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, message to Congress, April 29, 1938

I’m really enjoying Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan. Much more so than I expected to in fact. He offers a thoughtful and incisive insider’s critique, in the style of a less verbose Jaron Lanier, concerning the likely trajectory of contemporary digital capitalism. On pg 105 he writes about the “new regime” creeping up on us:

The new regime will creep in silently and unnoticed, as if on cat paws, while you marvel at how the modern world grows ever more convenient, customized to you, and efficient. But behind the scenes, enormous synthetic intellects will be shaving you the thinnest slice of the benefits that you are willing to accept, while reserving the lion’s share for … exactly whom?

The idea of techno-fascism I’ve been playing with all year fits nicely into this account. Techno-fascism is a speculative account of what might result when this nascent digital elite, so thoroughly invested in the ‘new regime’ described by Kaplan, find their power and prestige challenged: specifically, if a significant mass use this architecture of modelling and control for explicitly political, as opposed to commercial, purposes. This is a prospect made more feasible by the regulatory vacuum into which this new regime is ‘creeping in silently and unnoticed’, as well as a broader process in which democratic governance has been hollowed out over recent decades.

A really interesting article about the current political turmoil taking place in Portugal and its implications for democracy within Europe:

If this “soft coup” stands, taxes, interest rates, public ownership, investments, and economic strategies to control inflation and unemployment—long the battleground for conflicting ideologies—will no longer be issues to be decided democratically. Unelected bodies, like the Troika, will make those decisions, in spite of the fact that many of the Troika’s policies—like austerity—are highly controversial and have an almost unbroken track record of failure.

Democracy is what is at stake in Portugal, and it is a crisis that cuts to the heart of the European Union experiment. Do people still have the right to make decisions about policies that have a profound impact on their lives? Or do they only get to quarrel about the color of park benches?

The rhetoric seen here is particularly telling, with a responsibility to the markets and a commitment to the European project invoked in order to justify a refusal to accept democratic defeat:

He said: “In 40 years of democracy, no government in Portugal has ever depended on the support of anti-European forces, that is to say forces that campaigned to abrogate the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Growth and Stability Pact, as well as to dismantle monetary union and take Portugal out of the euro, in addition to wanting the dissolution of NATO.

“This is the worst moment to radically change the foundations of our democratic regime … Outside the European Union and the euro the future of Portugal would be catastrophic.

“After we carried out an onerous programme of financial assistance, entailing heavy sacrifices, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets.”

At what point might a soft coup turn into a hard one?

Absolutely fascinating comments offered by Varoufakis in response to unfolding events in Greece:

In the wake of Tsipras’s unexpected move on Thursday to call early elections, Varoufakis said: “Tsipras made a decision on that night of the referendum not only to surrender to the troika but also to implement the terms of surrender on the basis that it is better that a progressive government implement terms of surrender that it despises than leave it to the local stooges of the troika, who would implement the same terms of surrender with enthusiasm.”

As a result, Syriza once the hope of Europe’s anti-austerity movement, had not only betrayed the cause but mutated into the very thing it had set out not to be. “This mutation I have already witnessed. Those in our party/government who underwent it, then turned against those who refused to mutate, the result being a split in the party that our people, the courageous voters who voted No, did not deserve,” he wrote.

Tsipras’s rash decision to resign and call elections – the third poll to be held in Greece this year – the MP argued, amounted to a concerted effort by the leader to purge the party of dissent. “For it is clear,” he continued, “that once you start implementing policies it becomes untenable to say constantly: ‘I am passing law X through parliament even though I think it is toxic.’ At some point either you resign or you remove the cognitive dissonance by beginning to believe that law X ain’t that bad; perhaps it is what the doctor ordered.”

I wonder what went on during the negotiations? As Nikos Mouzelis has pointed out on many occasions, face-to-face meetings between international leaders are an example of macro events that look micro. But the interactional dynamics that micro-sociologists study still obtain: how was the situational logic, which Varoufakis alleges his former colleague has now internalised, enforced and enacted through a perverse sort of peer pressure in the meeting itself?

Superb and worrying article in the LRB. I’d like to know more about international parallels to this trend in the UK, as it strikes me this is a very important dimension to the emergence of post-democracy:

Unlike most other litigation costs, these fees must be paid up front; if you can’t pay, your claim won’t be heard. But not everyone with a claim to a large sum of money has £10,000 lying idle. Indeed, they might not have the money precisely because they have a good claim. If a builder works on a project for six months but goes unpaid, his cash reserves will start to run dry. And his bargaining position is weakened by the changes: the high price of issuing a claim creates an incentive to settle for less than he is owed. Employment tribunals are a stark illustration of the risks. Since July 2013, employees have had to pay as much as £1200 to bring a claim. Applications fell by 70 per cent, allegations of sex discrimination by 91 per cent. The explanation given by the minister for the courts and legal aid, Shailesh Vara, was that employees – objecting, for instance, to discrimination or to their employer’s failure to pay the minimum wage – are no longer ‘simply trying it on’. He gave no evidence to support this inference; nor did Gove when, in his evidence to the Commons Justice Committee on 15 July, he implied that claimants had been ‘too promiscuous’ in their use of tribunals. These assertions, it turns out, can be tested: if fewer people are now ‘trying it on’, fewer people should be losing cases; in fact, the proportion of cases won at employment tribunals versus cases lost has remained the same, which means that as many good claims are being abandoned because of cost as weak ones.

An excellent piece on Democrat Audit looking at the role of the ‘reasonable technocrat’ in the unfolding of the crisis in Europe. It’s important to analyse the moral underpinnings of technocratic discourse, looking at what makes it plausible and important to those who see the world in this way: a self-congragulatory pragmatism, regarding oneself as a ‘very serious person’ able to take tough and necessary decisions, based on an accumulated expertise that the impressionable public lack:

Can the EU afford to follow the will of turbulent, wavering people?  For some, the answer is: no. They propose to hand over decision-making to ‘reasonable technocrats’ instead. This not only promises to save people form their own short- sightedness but would also be preferable over the (impossible) promises of ‘populist’ or the take over of political extremists.

Effectively the ‘reasonable technocrat’ is a second coming of Margaret Thatcher’s (and, more recently: Angela Merkel´s) TINA politics. If ‘there is no alternative’, ‘necessary action’ must be taken. It is arguably the core feature of the above mentioned advocacy coalition to refuse to call their core beliefs on economics into question. All to avoid frightening the markets.

But has democracy proved itself being incapable of coping with the crisis? Maybe one should ask what a ‘reasonable technocrat’ actually looks like. A reasonable politician may always be urged to follow the wishes of their voters and thus might make wrong decision. In contrast, the reasonable technocrat is bound to a specific theoretical paradigm and therefore runs into the danger to make logical but callous decisions. However, it may be hard to tell the reasonable from the unreasonable technocrat, the one who follows personal interests, affiliates with elites or entertains an ideological world view rather then the impartial assessment of the rational expert.

Putting too much trust in experts (reasonable or not) is always dangerous. For it may herald the hollowing out of European democracy and the marginalisation of the original constituency: the people. Back in 2012, the European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi was determined to ‘save the Euro at all costs’. If these costs include the viability of European democracy, one might ask: what was the Euro saved for?


Earlier today Tony Blair gave a speech in which he finally took the gloves off. As someone with a growing interest in theorising post-democracy, I found it oddly intriguing. To anyone acquainted with the writing Anthony Giddens was spewing out in the 1990s, it was familiar stuff. Despite the fact his politics would long since have placed him in the centre of the Conservative party, Blair’s position is  framed in terms of social democratic politics:

Social democratic politics in the early 21st century has one great advantage; and one large millstone.

The advantage is that the values of our age are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that by and large has left behind deference, believes that merit not background should determine success; is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race; and believes in the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state. This doesn’t mean to say this is the reality. But even the Tories, in the open, have to acknowledge the zeitgeist.

What should give the Labour party enormous hope and pride is that we have helped achieve all this.

However, the large millstone is that perennially, at times congenitally, we confuse values with the manner of their application in a changing world. This gives us a weakness when it comes to policy which perpetually disorients us and makes us mistake defending outdated policy with defending timeless values

This has always been the premise of Blarism. It started off as a psephological position (the changing composition of the electorate necessitates a recognition of the newfound ‘aspiration’ of swing voters) which grew into a pragmatist’s analysis of media power, in which winning over print media came to be seen as an unavoidably necessary step which only the truly idiotic would fail to recognise. Giddens codefied these intellectual tendencies and gave them the air of historical inevitability, claiming to illuminate the unfolding of social change while nonetheless seeking to bring it about through his energetic search for intellectual sponsorship amongst the ranks of the powerful.

Nonetheless, Blarism effects to be a pragmatic concession to a changing world. A reinterpretation of social democratic values for late modern times. Its ethical theory, in so far as it has one, rests on those values for its moral force: “if you really care about social democracy, you’ll support new labour because we’re the only way you’ll be able to put those values into practice”. This leaves it caught uneasily between the affirmation of values and embrace of pragmatism. It affirms both yet in doing so empties the former of substantive content to the gain of the latter. It’s axiomatic that ‘social democratic values’ are shared yet the intellectual framework is setup in a way which obscures questions of exactly what these values are and how they might change after 13 years of power. ‘Values’ becomes a cypher for the ends to which we will exercise power, invoked to silence dissent in a way that becomes ever more meaningless with each iteration, while the constitutive pragmatism disposes the cohort of Blairite politicans to a form of moral agency which we might charitably  describe as elastic. The ‘social democratic values’ become a vanishing point, a pole of identification which retreats further into the distance the more concrete decision-making becomes, with tactics, triaging and triviality rushing in to fill the void.

But this means Blairite critique can get really weird. As Blair put it today,

We then misunderstand the difference between radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary, and radical social democracy, which is all about ensuring that the values are put to work in the most effective way not for the world of yesterday but for today and the future.

This assumes those ‘values’ are static. It assumes that the question is merely one of how best to implement them in a changing world. The case for Blairism is that its sensitivity to the reality of this changing world, its commitment to ‘modernisation’, means it is (down to its very core) better able to enact these values than is ‘radical leftism’, with its ‘reactionary’ character. But by taking ‘social democratic values’ as axiomatic, it’s left rhetorically shackled to something the adherents of Blarisim viscerally oppose as people. This becomes clear when Blair says that “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

But I thought the point of Blairism was that it was a way of winning elections, recognising late modernity in a way that left it able to ensure that the values ‘we’ all share find a place in an out of control world? It turns out there are more values, other values, which don’t enter into the rhetoric of Blairism. Values which are what motivate the Blairites. But what are these? Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear. The speech ends with some fascinatingly banal tactical considerations (Labour should “work out what a political organisation looks like today”) and then this gloriously vacuous passage:

We won elections when we had an agenda that was driven by values, but informed by modernity; when we had strength and clarity of purpose; when we were reformers not just investors in public services; when we gave working people rights at work including the right to join a union, but refused unions a veto over policy; when we understood businesses created jobs not governments; and where we were the change-makers, not the small -c conservatives of the left.

Even read charitably, the status of these claims is unclear. Are they statements of strategy and tactics, to be evaluated on their success in winning elections? Are they statements of principle, to be argued for on their own basis or as straight-forward assertions of ‘social democratic values’ to which we are all assumed to assent? Or are they something else entirely? History whispers in Blair’s ears, it always has. Unfortunately, its message has been to trust his instincts, giving expression to those deeply held beliefs which would have led him to join Cameron’s Conservative party if he had entered political life twenty five years later.

In this chilling interview, Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of Nato and one time favourite of Michael Moore for the Democratic Presidential nomination, rather aggressively floats the idea of interning those who are disloyal to the United States for the duration of the ‘war on terror’:

If we look at this in terms of the Overton window, we’re seeing a disturbing movement from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘radical’ of the idea that compliance with the law is sufficient to avoid harassment by the state. Though offering less specifics, David Cameron put forward a similar principle after the election:


To be deemed ‘susceptible to radicalisation’ increasingly entails a state of exemption. As Wesley Clark puts it, it’s both the right and the obligation of governments to segregate citizens who fall into this category for the ‘duration of the conflict’. But how does one come to be placed in the category? It strikes me as potentially open-ended because it’s defined as a propensity towards being drawn into ‘extremism’, itself understood in opposition to values which are nebulous at best: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. The exact objects of the war on radicalisation are endlessly elastic because the terms upon which their meaning depends are always amenable to situational reinterpretation. Something extremely worrying is happening here.

Towards the end of her memoir/manifesto, the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas offers an articulate warning about the “drip-by-drip erosion of our liberties”:

There is little risk of anyone seizing power, declaring martial law or suspending the constitution in Britain; instead through a hundred lesser acts, the state takes more and more power to itself, and our protections becomes steadily weakened. We are comforted by being told that these are a response to an extraordinary situation; but we have seen time and time again that powers given supposedly to fight terrorism are used by the police for far less significant threats, such as checking up on whether people have claimed the right benefits or tax rebates, or even spying on protesters or campaigners.

Caroline Lucas, Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change, pg 249

I’ve always found the tendency of some on the left to invoke the spectre of a ‘police state’ to be worrying and irritating in equal measure. Even in its most sober versions, it tends towards a ridiculous degree of overstatement that is offensive to those who have actually lived under such conditions. It also contributes to an atmosphere within which conspiracy theories can thrive on the left, not least of all the appearance of 9/11 trutherism in the UK.

However the risk is that this position can too easily give rise to the dismissal of the underlying concerns. The reality is much more mundane. In a New Statesman essay last year, David Runciman made a convincing case that we are witnessing a trajectory towards long-term decline in British politics of the sort in which “nothing gets sufficiently broken for anything to get finally fixed”. He compares our present circumstances to the intensity of the political crisis in the 1970s:

The first is that there existed a surprisingly widespread belief during the mid-1970s that, were the muddle to continue, it might need to be ended by force, with a military takeover. A coup was not outside the realms of political possibility (and we now know that rogue forces within the secret services made cack-handed attempts to organise one, with either the Duke of Edinburgh or Lord Mountbatten as the preferred strongman to replace Wilson).

The particular focus of these fears was rising inflation. It was a common assumption at the time that no democracy could survive a sustained bout of inflation above 30 per cent – and in Britain the rate hit 25 per cent in 1975. It was commonplace to invoke the baleful example of Latin America, where the global economic crisis of the mid-1970s led to the collapse of a number of democratic regimes. The economist Milton Friedman suggested in 1974 that the failure to control inflation had been responsible both for Heath’s replacement by Wilson in Britain and for Allende’s replacement by Pinochet in Chile. It cost one man his job; the other his life. The barely veiled sense of threat was apparent.

Today the talk of democracy-destroying inflation has more or less disappeared. Yes, we face a mix of rising prices and stagnant or falling wages – the “cost-of-living crisis”, as the Labour Party likes to call it – that has some echoes of 1970s stagflation. But the scale is very different. Ours is a slow-burning, incremental squeeze on living standards, not the threat of an inflationary rip tide sweeping away savings and security. In large part because of the fears generated in the 1970s, we now have economic technicians in charge of an independent central bank whose job is to ensure that inflation remains more or less under control. Likewise, the idea that the current crisis might result in a military coup seems laughably remote. We worry – or at least some of us do – that the military-security complex is squeezing what is left of our privacy by spying on our communications. We don’t, however, worry that the security services are secretly plotting to install a member of the royal family as an unelected head of the government.

What we’re seeing is not the emergence of a ‘police state’ but rather the drip-by-drip erosion of liberties in conjunction with a growing inability of any political agency to reverse the trend. The issue doesn’t capture the attention of a distracted public, the political socialisation of MPs mitigates against concerning themselves with such matters and the time horizons of party-politics incentivise headline grabbing announcements concerned with the performance of virtue rather than the practicality of policy.

Such a gradual trend that results from so many disparate causes resists easy theorisation. But if the politics of austerity are here to stay, we should all be concerned by the shrinking sphere of civil liberties. The notion of ‘extremist’, one who has been subject to ‘radicalisation’ and now promulgates ‘extremism’, increasingly dominates government rhetoric and it’s a terrifyingly elastic notion. These are two aspects of the recent bill which particularly concern me:

  • Creating an obligation to monitor and report extremism – Colleges, schools, prisons, GPs and councils will now have a legal duty to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. Schools, nurseries even GPs will be required to monitor those they provide services to and report anyone they believe is at risk of, or has in fact been drawn in to terrorism. Universities will have to draw up policies on extremist campus speakers, and prisons will be required to have policies for dealing with radicals. The Home Office will be able to get court orders obliging bodies to comply with their obligations.
  • “De-Radicalisation” Panels – The Bill creates a legal duty that will require local authorities to establish a panel to refer people identified as being at risk of ‘being drawn into terrorism’. The composition of that panel is set out in the Bill, and its purpose is to draw up a “de-radicalisation” plan for the person identified as being at risk. The Bill makes no provision for the person identified to have legal or other representation, or in the case of a child, to have a parent present.


But what I find so disturbing is that this legislation seems as much to do with Theresa May positioning herself as Iron Lady 2.0 in order to compete for the leadership of the Conservative Party as it does with any reflective desire to solve a social problem, as much as I might disagree with either the interpretation of the problem or the proposed solutions.

If ‘extremism’ entails ‘opposition to British values’ and those values include ‘free markets’, it’s not unlikely we’ll see some of these new powers brought to bear upon anti-cuts protesters. These will be situational application of new powers rather than a considered attempt to suppress dissent. But the effect will be that possible agencies of change outside parliament will come to be muted in much the same way as those within it. Thus reinforcing our long post-democratic drift into a state of perpetual crisis in which “nothing gets sufficiently broken for anything to get finally fixed”.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly might have noticed, I’m a fan of Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy. I’ve interviewed him about it a couple of times: once in 2010 and again in 2013. Whereas he’d initially offered the notion to illuminate a potential trajectory, in the sense that we risk becoming post-democratic, we more latterly see a social order that might be said to have become post-democratic. He intends the term to function analogously to post-industrial: it is not that democracy is gone but that it has been hollowed out:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.

Crouch is far from the only theorist to have made such a claim. But I think there’s a precision to his argument which distinguishes it from the manner in which someone like, say, Bauman talks about depoliticisation. My current, slightly morbid, interest in representations of civilisational collapse has left me wondering what entrenched post-democracy would look like. Asking this question does not refer to an absence of democracy, for which endless examples are possible, but rather for a more detailed sketch of what a social order which was once democratic but is now post-democratic would look like. While everyday life might look something like that which can be seen in Singapore, ‘the city of rules’ as this Guardian article (from which the picture is taken) puts it, I think there’s more to be said than this. However we can see in Singapore a vivid account of how micro-regulation can be deployed to facilitate a city in which ‘nothing goes wrong, but nothing really happens’ as one ex-pat memorably phrases it in that article. Is it so hard to imagine efficiency and orderliness being used to secure consent, at least amongst some, for a similar level of social control in western Europe or America?

Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian
Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian

Perhaps we’d also see the exceptional justice that intruded into UK life after the 2011 riots, with courts being kept open 24/7 in order to better facilitate the restoration of social order. There’s something akin to this in mega sporting events: opaque centralised planning overwhelms democratic consultation, ‘world cup courts’ dish out ad hoc justice, the social structure contorts itself for the pleasure of an international oligopoly upon whom proceedings depend, specialised security arrangements are intensively deployed in the interests of the event’s success and we often see a form of social cleansing (destruction of whole neighbourhoods) presented as a technocratic exercise in event management. We also see pre-arrests and predictive policing deployed to these ends and only a fool would not expect to see more of this as the technological apparatus and the political pressures encouraging them grow over time.

These security arrangements point to another aspect of a post-democratic social order: the economic vibrancy of the security sector. There is a technological dimension to this, with a long term growth fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ coupled with an increasing move towards ‘disruptive policing’ that offers technical solutions at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but we shouldn’t forget the more mundane side of the security industry and its interests in privatisation of policing. This is how Securitas, one of the world’s largest security companies, describe the prospects of the security industry. Note the title of the page: taking advantage of changes.

The global security services market employs several million people and is projected to reach USD 110 billion by 2016. Security services are in demand all over the world, in all industries and in both the public and private sectors. Demand for our services is closely linked to global economic development and social and demographic trends. As the global economy grows and develops, so do we.

Historically, the security market has grown 1–2 percent faster than GDP in mature markets. In recent years, due to current market dynamics and the gradual incorporation of technology into security solutions, security markets in Europe and North America have grown at the same pace as GDP. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years.

Market growth is crucial to Securitas’ future profitability and growth, but capitalizing on trends and changes in demand is also important. Developing new security solutions with a higher technology content and improved cost efficiency will allow the private security industry to expand the market by assuming responsibility for work presently performed by the police or other authorities. This development will also be a challenge for operations with insourced security services and increase interest in better outsourced solutions.

Consider this against a background of terrorism, as the spectacular narrative of the ‘war on terror’ comes to be replaced by a prospect of state of alert without end. We’ve not seen the end of the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen a spectacular narrative become a taken for granted part of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be narrativised any more because it’s here to stay. Against this backdrop, we’re likely see an authoritarian slide in political culture, supplementing the institutional arrangements already in place, in which ‘responsibility’ becomes the key virtue in the exercise of freedoms – as I heard someone say on the radio yesterday, “it’s irresponsible to say democracy is the only thing that matters when we face a threat like this” (or words to that effect).

Crucially, I don’t think this process is inexorable and it’s certainly not the unfolding of an historical logic. It’s enacted by people at every level – including those who reinforce the slide at the micro level of everyday social interaction. The intractability of the problem comes because the process itself involves a hollowing out of processes of contestation at the highest level, such that the corporate agents pursuing this changing social order are also benefiting from it by potential sources of resistance being increasingly absent or at least passive on the macro level.  This is how Wolfgang Streeck describes this institutional project, as inflected through management of the financial crisis:

The utopian ideal of present day crisis management is to complete, with political means, the already far-advanced depoliticization of the economy; anchored in recognised nation-stated under the control of internal governmental and financial diplomacy insulated from democratic participation, with a population that would have learned, over years of hegemonic re-education, to regard the distributional outcomes of free markets as fair, or at least as without alternative.

Buying Time, pg 46