The economic crisis and the democracy crisis share some of the same causes: redefining the ideal of democracy, the impotence of current regulatory methods in the face of collective decision-making, and a crisis within political programmes. Yet, analysis of the causes suggests that in many ways the feeling of a crisis in democracy, in the European Union as a whole and in individual Member States, preceded the economic and financial crisis.
In France, Italy and Spain, as well as in some Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, opinion polls show a downward trend in approval ratings for political representatives and public institutions as a whole. This decline is coupled more widely with a political and societal reactionism of public opinions as demonstrated by various protests during the adoption of the “marriage for all” bill in France, and the referendum which resulted in a no vote for same sex marriage in Croatia.
Of course, trends vary according to geographical location, for some 20 years they have resulted in an increase in votes for populist parties across Europe: in Eastern Europe (Hungary), Northern Europe (Finland, Denmark, Sweden), in Central Europe, and in Western Europe (France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Austria) with the rise of the National Front in France, Vlaams Blok in Flanders, and the Liberty Party in Austria. These trends arise from, among others, a greater desire for power and the resurgence of the “scapegoat” rhetoric. At least, that is what garnered 7 % of the votes for Golden Dawn, an openly neo-Nazi party, in Greece’s national elections in 2011.
On both an electoral and chronological scale, the emergence of the democracy crisis does not seem to be directly related to the economic crisis. With the exception of Greece, the countries hardest hit by the economic crisis are not necessarily those that weathered the storm of the most visible democracy-defying demonstrations. Inversely, since 2008, the rise of “outside of the system” parties, on both the left and right, has been more intense in those countries generally portrayed as being at the top of the class economically in Europe: for example, Finland, Austria, Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands.
The rise of populism is undoubtedly fed by a sort of “chauvinism of well-being” which combines a desire for economic preservation with a fear of slipping from the front of the pack in the wild goose chase of the world economy. That said, such anxiety existed long before the economic crisis and stems more from a fear – sometimes controlled, sometimes shameful – in the face of globalisation and the rules of the economic game, and the relativity of a level playing field.
Democracy in crisis: a weathered concept
In this context, the rise and restructuring of populism reminds us that there is nothing more anchored in political thought than the idea of a “democracy crisis”. In essence, democracy is a questionable regime since it gives every citizen the right to think and say that what others think and say is stupid. As illustrated by Canfora, political thought has always proved sceptical when reflecting on the virtues of democracy.
From Aristotle to Schumpeter, the idea that exercising the sovereignty of the people could actually create general interest has long been considered hazardous at best, the people being conceived either as a passive mass or an aggregate of irreconcilable interests. At worst, it is considered as a simulacrum for putting and keeping the strongest and richest in power through majority consent. It has always seemed tenuous that the most incompetent members within a community could legitimately construct well-being, and that collective construction could be anything more than a shadow theatre for the strongest.
Nonetheless, current defiance presents some specific structural dimensions that lead to the rejection of the term democracy crisis. The causes have not been triggered by the economic crisis. They comprise a deep-rooted ideological fatigue, in both the destabilisation of the idea of political community, and the loss of the meaning of institutional transpositions of the democratic ideal.
An era of peace and compromise
First, let us address ideological fatigue. Putting aside the question of social inequality in the strictest sense of the term, there has never been a more peaceful time in terms of political conflict in the EU. Communism is no longer considered the bogeyman. A liberal-democrat compromise has been largely imposed. Although the social partners do not participate in negotiations and/or the implementation of social policies everywhere, they do benefit from a legal status.
The degree of political violence experienced in Europe towards the end of the 1980s, whether perpetrated by the police or extra-parliamentary political groups, has quickly been forgotten. We are currently experiencing a period of resignation regarding the political debate. Christian democracy has lost a sizeable chunk of its confessional base and, with the end of the bi-polar world, part of its allure. One example is the German CDI – those parties that still carry the flame of Christian democracy have essentially shifted from an inter-classist stance towards the centre-right of the political sphere. Liberalism no longer seems to hold the key to unlocking the economic and social promises of simultaneously achieving strong growth, economic development, a flourishing middle class, and – in fine – enhanced well-being.
Finally, for nearly 20 years, social democracy has positioned itself as a doctrine of the social adjustment of capitalism. Either it redefines its identity around progressive or democratic values, as if simply subscribing to political liberalism were enough to define a redistribution model, or it presents itself as a realistic version of socialism without, however, clearly defining its objectives, or more generally, its less-than-ideal conception of justice. Therefore, the redistribution of wealth ideal gives way to the logic of helping the weakest, which is now justified as social inclusion or social cohesion. In this way, the fact that social equality is no longer an objective per se feeds a generalised doubt as to whether or not political institutions are able to promote the well-being of all. It also weakens the very meaning of political equality: the idea that a legitimate regime should promote shared citizenship is debunked by the observation that some stakeholders have access to significantly more resources, more routes to power, and even more opportunities for failure, to such an extent that they live in a parallel political strata.
What lies beyond the nation state?
This feeling of ideological impotence is accompanied by a growing difficulty in identifying the social basis upon which democracy is built. In other words, it is becoming increasingly complex for citizens to determine to whom common rules apply and where such rules come from. It is well known that public administration is undergoing a double process of denationalisation and destatisation. Yet, this process does not just require a re-evaluation of the nation state as a reference in political decision-making. It also saps the legal framework we have inherited from modernity, which is characterised, among other things, by checks and balances, the pyramid of laws, the principle of rule of law, and state monopoly on collective administration. The emergence of what François Ost and Michel van de Kerchove refer to as “law in networks” does not necessarily imply force prevailing over law. It responds to specific constraints associated with the desire for more flexibility and openness in the concept and application of legal standards.
he idea that a legitimate regime should promote shared citizenship is debunked by the observation that some stakeholders have access to significantly more resources, more routes to power, and even more opportunities for failure, to such an extent that they live in a parallel political strata.
However, it tends to increase the uncertainties citizens have as to the where, how and who: Who is making the decisions – governments, public or private international institutions, networks of stakeholders?; What are the various steps in the decision-making process?; How can one exert influence on them? Contemporary transformation of the legal scope gives the impression that the action of representatives is either becoming incomprehensible – when decisions are made by elected or co-opted representatives in bodies that are increasingly being removed from public view – or derisory, when the simplest decision must get through three levels of power, some of which are completely removed from the political control of citizens. Finally, the very discerning of these rules can be unclear – many of them are part of ‘grey legality’ that includes official recommendations, management by indicators, and reports that result in social sanctions imposed by peers. Therefore, the question raised is not just if the national level is the most appropriate for handling public affairs, but is also how to democratically organise social institutions that, although extra-governmental, make a significant impact on community life.
The shift in democracy towards a strong regime or technocratic government is not the result of a sudden power grab by fascist movements or a mysterious group of experts, but rather of a gradual, passive, re-evaluation of the idea that political legitimacy comes from the collective exercising of individual political equality.
This re-evaluation runs through the gradual neutralisation of the principle of representation, as witnessed by a quick overview of the EU institutions. Often criticised for being overly bureaucratic, in fact the European institutions now function much more democratically than they did even 10 years ago, both in terms of broadening the European Parliament’s powers and media attention to European policy. Nonetheless, their operations feed a profound feeling of collective dispossession, independent even of the substance of the policies implemented to resolve the banking and financial crisis.
The European Commission is seen as a decision-making body that is both partial and inscrutable. The European Parliament, with its limited powers, has been unable to establish itself as the EU institutions’ democratic forum: public opinion is focused on what has become the infamous “lack of a public space for Europe”.
Then there is the fact that the European Council comprises heads of state and government, legitimised by the fact that they were elected, but nonetheless not made democratic: the debate over passing the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance of the European Union left the impression that the EU does not live up to transparency required for a truly democratic process. This is supported by the fact that the Council’s operations are short-circuited by directorates from some larger Member States; that the European Commission capitalises on the opportunity to exert influence over national policy which has nothing to do with the powers bestowed upon it by the treaties; and that the European Parliament is sidelined in the decision-making process.
Obviously, reducing democracy to an increasingly diluted relationship between the citizen’s vote and establishing a government programme and its negotiated transposition to Europe, results in reinforcing the idea that democratic elections have ridiculously little influence on public management.
Democratic legitimacy and the public space
Moreover, the democratic crisis is linked to hijacking the pluralist ideal to the benefit of a new type of elitism. The European discourse on public management is based on the idea that it is not possible to avoid the blind rule of the masses – or, on the contrary, to compensate for the non-existence of a public European space – unless forms of government are developed that are capable of representing society in all its diversity while extracting a rational voice.
Democratic legitimacy consists either in “a healthy and open expression of conflicts of interests and differences in opinion”, or by setting up the deliberative bodies necessary to ensure that an impartial and objective debate can be held. In this context, real attempts at power by members of the social space are removed in favour of developing “deliberative systems” charged with choosing and distilling them in the public space. From Majone in the past to Scharpf or Rosanvallon more recently, ample literature exists extolling the virtues of government by agreement among all the stakeholders, setting up independent and pluralist agencies, establishing intermediary control bodies to keep a check on power, and setting up discursive and educational mechanisms to ensure reflexivity, impartiality, as well as the civic culture of public debate
Reducing democracy to an increasingly diluted relationship between the citizen’s vote and establishing a government programme and its negotiated transposition to Europe, results in reinforcing the idea that democratic elections have ridiculously little influence on public management.
The Rage of the Democratically Dispossessed
Very few places are as transparent and inclusive from within than the four prongs of buildings that make up the European neighbourhood in Brussels. The Schuman quartier resembles nothing less than a small democratic Trianon. It is the same at both national and European level: the elitist characteristics of the representative regime are strengthened by a lack of clarity as to the division of responsibilities among the various representative bodies.
When consensus building at federal, national and European level requires reconciling interests so diverse that even the simplest decision requires negotiation behind closed doors; and when multilevel diplomatic conferences swell the hierarchy of executive bodies, the conveyor of popular representation no longer functions as a means of legitimising power but rather as a practical way of appointing those responsible for negotiating public decisions. Deliberative processes or techniques for direct democracy are quickly sidelined because of their impracticality or their populist dimension – as if “more pedagogy” or “results-based culture” augmented citizens’ feeling of democratic dispossession.
Thus, the financial crisis translates to a regulations crisis, whereby government had become a moral and practical obstacle to freeing up economic energy. But it was also a crisis of the democratic ideal, reduced simply to each individual’s economic freedom and placed on a pedestal by administrative or government experts charged with proposing measures “detached from the short term” to fight the crisis. The slogan “We are the 99%!” is less an outcry against the economic mishaps of capitalism but more a cry of rage against the grabbing by some or all of the economic and political resources and perversion of the very sense of political equality.
This article was originally published in La Revue Nouvelle, n° 4-5, April-May 2014.
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