Thirteen theses on (the end of) liberal democracy

Liberal democracy isn’t doing so well these days. The countries that have it seem keen to get rid of it. The countries that do not have liberal democracy, meanwhile, do not seem all too excited about getting it. So what's going on?


Liberal democracy isn’t doing so well these days. The countries that have it seem keen to get rid of it. Presidents are installed without being elected (Italy), autocratic populist parties are on the rise (the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands), debates are settled by hand-to-hand fighting (South Korea), and freedom of speech is inhibited (everywhere). The countries that do not have liberal democracy, meanwhile, do not seem all too excited about getting it. What follows below are thirteen theses on the problems of liberal democracy.

1. History is accumulative. I know, I know. You’ll probably think: “History, huh! Wasn’t this going to be about democracy?” Don’t worry, it will be. But in order to be able to understand what democracy means, we need to get what History is about. For democracy takes place in History: it is born, it grows up, and, eventually, like everything else, it dies. I will explain this correlation further shortly. So, to get back to where I was: History is accumulative. With this I mean to say that History with a capital H, that is, the way we reflect upon thousands of years of human life on this earth, is a narrative that builds. History is not simply a sequence of unrelated events. On the contrary: the way we perceive humanity at, say, the time of the fall of the Berlin wall is linked to the way in which we understand people’s behaviour during the Enlightenment. Similarly, discourses on cyborgs are entwined with accounts of the Renaissance. Each new event is seen in the light of previous events. (To be sure, which events are remembered and which are forgotten, and how accurately these events are recalled, is another question.)

2. History is developmental. The History of humankind is a history of development. We no longer walk around in mammoth skins, we have developed language, our curse words changed, we replaced horses with cars, cars with aeroplanes. This doesn’t mean to say that things have necessarily gotten better or worse. It just says that things have changed and are changing. The way we think changes, what we want changes, how we set out to fulfil those wants changes, and so on.

3. History is plural. History is not a single line. If the writings of White and Borges have taught us anything, it is that History is the label for innumerable accumulations and developments. Some of these narratives follow each other; others run parallel. There are narratives that cross, there are those that diverge; they splinter, they rejoin; they run amok, they tear apart.

4. Liberal democracy represents a stage (or rather, stages) within this accumulative, developmental, plural History. The idea of democracy developed sometime during Greek antiquity and was reformulated at various points in History later on. At present, liberal democracy appears to be the dominant principle of rule. What this means is that, as Wikipedia informs us, most political systems today “are characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the protection of human rights and civil liberties for all persons.”

5. Liberal democracy does not represent the End of History. Some thinkers in the nineties concluded that liberal democracy constituted the end of accumulation and development. “It doesn’t get any better than this”, they said. And: “there isn’t a political system in the world that is as profitable and sustainable for all those involved”. Or something along those lines. It is true that liberal democracy is the most prevalent form of government today. It is true also that liberal democracy has done wonderful things for many countries and many people. Yet it is not the only principle of cohabitation, nor is it necessarily the best (if one takes into account the many principles of rule that may exist in the future). It certainly won’t be the last. Nothing that is ongoing has ever ended. It is a contradiction in terms. In fact,

6. Liberal democracy is in crisis. Yep, you read it correctly: liberal democracy is having a tough time. I even dare say it is in decline. This is not something I personally celebrate. Although I think there’s plenty wrong with liberal democracy, I do believe that democracy in a broader sense has proven the best form of government yet. For one, it allows me to write all this (or so I hope). What I mean is that over the past few years, some of the core principles on which liberal democracy is constituted have been jeopardized. The divisions between state power and law enforcement are increasingly blurry. The public sphere is dissolving. The precise meaning of things like ‘citizenship’, ‘collective agreement’ and ‘human rights’ is subject to constant debate.  Questions of equality – of equal rights, of equal access, of equal treatment – are ignored. Freedom of expression, on blogs and on twitter and in churches, is under attack.

7. Democracy is always in crisis. There is, of course, a problem with the above reasoning. On at least three accounts (but I imagine there are more): firstly, pace Derrida and his friends, nothing is solid or stable. Everything, History and Liberal Democracy not excepted, is defined through differentiation and therefore not merely liable to change but is in a way in itself change. Second, democracy as a principle of rule is founded on dialectics, on conflict and negotiation: in theory, it is the ever changing quotidian of what all parts of society want and need. Indeed, the moment one part weighs heavier, dissensus becomes consensus, is the moment democracy ceases to be democracy and becomes something else. So not just is democracy an animal that changes in the way all animals change, growing up, growing old; it is a chameleon, for whom change is a strategy for survival. So to say that democracy changes beyond the parameters within which it is defined is something of a catch-22, since those parameters themselves are adaptable. In addition, and this is the third point, one may justifiably say that it is not so much the case that the principles of democracy are threatened now whereas they weren’t previously, but rather that the Internet and mass media have enabled greater awareness of it. That said, it seems to me that there are certain developments – five, specifically – that do not merely illustrate the ways liberal democracy changes but problematize what liberal democracy as change is about.

8. Democracy is in crisis of representation. Liberal democracy has traditionally been founded on principles of representation. Throughout the twentieth century it worked something like this: since it is impossible to all govern together if you are with, say, 100 million people, each person elects someone to govern on their behalf. That person represents you. However, because that person represents not only you but also millions of other people by whom s/he was elected, s/he has to negotiate your concerns with those of others. The bad thing about this system is that it may happen that your concerns are not always addressed as you would like them to be. But the good thing is that the more radical and/or ridiculous concerns are filtered out and their compromise will be something that is actually attainable. In this system, you may be extreme in private; but the public sphere is a space of compromise, or what they used to call PC. Since the arrival of the Internet, and web 2.0 in particular, this system has been problematized. It is possible to voice your concern to large groups of others with the click of a mouse. You can write a petition for any one cause and have it signed by millions in a day, for instance. Or you can tweet to your followers. You no longer need someone else to speak for you. This is good for liberal democracy because it allows the citizen to address his/her concern precisely as s/he’d like it. Yet the bad thing is that it allows for the most radical and ridiculous things to take foothold in the public domain. As the boundaries between private and public become blurry, so to it becomes unclear where extremity begins and ends.

9. Democracy is in crisis of postmodernism. Corollary to the crisis of representation is the crisis of what one may call, for lack of a better word, the crisis of postmodernism. Since the late 1980s, politicians no longer tell grand narratives but instead try and listen to the various micro-narratives that exist. There are no more five-year plans and utopias. What we have are political aides conducting peer groups made up from all parts of society to find out what the constituents ‘actually’ want. This is clearly a good thing since it allows politics to cater more closely to the perceived needs of the people. Yet, as the BBC satire The Thick of It has shown so well, it is also a bad thing since it reduces politics to a game of catching up, of reacting rather than acting. Instead of leading the crowds, politicians today seem to be walking after them, asking the slowest of the bunch where they are heading. I should stress here once more that I have no stake in the decline of liberal democracy. When I write that something is good or bad, it is not a value judgement but an observation on the nature of the political system. (A disclaimer: recently, stories have returned to the forefront of politics. But it is a different kind of storytelling, one very much tied up with the metamodern oscillation between modern and postmodern practices, swinging between absolutism and relativism, believing and feigning. I will leave this discussion for another time, however.)

10. Democracy is in crisis of mediation. This point has been made so often that it is turned into a cliché, but a cliché that remains valid today. Mass media, especially television with its narrative arcs and close-ups, have made politics into a series of metaphoric soundbites, emphasising emotional resonance, and, most of all, personality. As the linguist George Lakoff has famously detailed in his book Moral Politics, presidential debates are no longer about Reason, about argumentation, economical calculation and programme notes; they are about using the one allegory that sticks in audiences’ minds, about the anecdotes that people can relate to, about the human being one is outside of politics. I certainly would not wish to say that politics was not always to some extent also about the latter, but today, it seems, it is exclusively about it.

11. Democracy finds itself in crisis of affiliation. Philosophers tend to say that democracy and capitalism are historically intertwined. It’s a long story that has its origin in the reformation, in the writings of Luther and Calvinus in particular. What matters here is that for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the relationship between them was such – at least in theory – that capitalism served the needs of democracy. Put bluntly, the financial system would be changed to improve the political status quo: to create – again, in theory – general wealth, to generate peace, to maintain peace. Today, however, democracy serves capitalism. Governments make alterations to the law so as to increase capital gains they do not necessarily share in. I, as did many others, thought that the financial crisis would at least shift this balance back in favour of politics. But it did not. On the contrary. After bankers earned lots of money on which they paid little taxes, money with which they threatened to leave if they were to pay higher taxes, they asked the government to bail them out. Not only did our governments do so, they then allowed these guys to pay even fewer taxes. The gap in the government’s own budget was filled by privatising every last bit of the country. I understand things are not this simple – but are they?

12. Democracy is in crisis of territory. Where does a democracy begin and end? In the past, there were clearly defined nation states with clearly protected borders. Each state had its own set of rules, to which its citizens abided. Since the late nineties especially, however, these boundaries have become increasingly diffuse. The EU is a case in point. The borders between democratic countries like Germany and Austria, France and Spain, are no longer controlled. If I travel to Belgium, I do not have to show my passport. I can move freely. This is great, for many reasons. Yet it is also not great, for the simple reason that democracy does not travel with me. As recent research by Ines Wagner and Nathan Lillie has pointed out, there are workers in all the above countries that can not claim the rights you would expect from a democratic country, simply because they are employed in another democratic country. If you work for company X in country A, but are employed by subcontractor Y in country B, you are in a bit of a pickle. The union in country A has trouble representing you because you are employed in country B, while the union in country B encounters some problems because you work in country A. The result is that some of Europe’s most expensive and expansive projects – energy projects, academies, the European Bank – are constructed by people who earn less than the minimum wage and more often than not need to take a loose approach to labour rights. My point here is not that we should return to strong nation states. It is rather that if liberal democracy wants to prevail, it needs to think about these matters – but this, of course, would mean that it should also rethink points 11 (capitalist gains), 10 (complex issues), 9 and 8 (do something that will, judging from the recent right-wing sentiments, not go down well with everyone).

13. There are alternatives. Many of us still believe that though liberal democracy is flawed it is still the best of the bunch. It’s better, for instance, than communism, or Nazism or what not. Period. But not every form of government that is not democracy is necessarily fascism, communism, libertarianism, and so on. Just because something does not exist yet does not mean it is not possible. There are other systems out there. We just need to think them up.

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There are 3 comments

  1. CF

    Interesting! But, actually, the Italian President was elected by the Parliament. The one you’re referring to is the Prime Minister. None won the Italian elections, and he represents the failure of our “ruling class”. You’re sentence seems to allude to a golpe. What happened (is happening) it is even worse.

  2. R sridharan

    THE CONCLUDING COMMENTS ARE GOOD. We have to think radically
    about modern governance.
    In my opinion humanity has a great future because of the leap like
    scientific and technological
    advances. I foresee future societies will go back to past systems of developing character in tender age under personal care of teacher. Cockroaches and amoeba survive. Will not the human society learn to survive collectively. It will ., Definitely.

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