Thursday 13 December 2012

On 'Post-Democracy'

Here's an old book review I wrote on Colin Crouch's Post-Democracy. Crouch's small book was published in 2004, and this review appeared a year later. Where political debate is concerned, many (if not all) the problems addressed by Crouch's rather pessimistic argument still exercise the political imagination eight years on. Do I agree with what I wrote then, now? Yes - though I would definitely not try and hitch this piece to the then already-dated anti-capitalist bandwagon. Consistent democracy is necessarily socialist. A politics that wants to reverse the tendency to post-democracy is also one that cannot but help recast social relationships and challenge the supremacy of capital.

At a time of falling participation in elections and a widespread scepticism toward parliamentary politics, Colin Crouch’s new book is a timely diagnosis of the key problems facing advanced liberal democracies.

As the title suggests, Crouch’s thesis is that Western democracies are approaching a condition of ‘post-democracy’. Evoking the metaphor of the parabola, Crouch argues the democratic forms established at the high point of liberal democracy (located in the immediate post-war period, where rates of political participation were high and Keynesian interventionism had temporarily secured what Crouch terms the ‘democratic economy’) continue to persist, but their existence is constantly pressured by processes that seek to empty them of democratic content. This means we are not seeing a return to the pre-democratic past, but rather the negation of its negation: a new synthesis combining elements of the 19th century elitist past with the ‘democratic moment’ of post-war democracy.

The chief characteristics of this post-democratic epoch is a stress on “electoral participation as the main type of mass [political] participation, extensive freedom for lobbying activities, which mainly means business lobbies, and a form of polity that avoids interfering with a capitalist economy.” Crouch suggests this “is a model that has little interest in widespread citizen involvement or the role of organizations outside the business sector” (p.3). He is careful to emphasise that post-democracy and the democratic moment are ideal-typical constructs useful for measuring the health of democracy. The subsequent political-economic analysis where these tools are deployed lays bare a number of worrying trends.

Taking the developmental patterns of the contemporary capitalist firm as the starting point, the global firm is increasingly subject to rapid turnovers of corporate identities owing to the speed which take-overs, buyouts, and reorganisations occur. Coupled with an unceasing appetite for casualised labour, companies have found it increasingly difficult to inculcate a sense of company identity as they seek to meet the imperatives of a fluidic global economy concerned with maximising shareholder value. For Crouch the ‘phantom firm’ sits at the apex of these developments. Drawing heavily on Klein’s (2000) critique, these corporations view their core business as a rigidity that can be sub-contracted to various entities around the globe. This allows the business to shrink its infrastructure to service the financial and strategic decision-making necessary for concentrating on the new core: branding.

This model of the flexible firm has been adopted by political elites as the path to good government. To illustrate, Western governments can and do divest themselves of the “core business” of running public services by sub-contracting these operations to the private sector. The problem here is that governments can lose the competence to run these services themselves, with a consequent increased reliance on private consultants. By its own actions, “the despised institution of government is tending to resolve itself into three parts: a number of activities which it tries increasingly to convert into market form; a dreary residual and burdensome set of obligations which the private sector will not take off its hands; and an image-creating purely political component” (p.42). These processes do not bode well for the health of democracy: it generates conditions for extremely close relations between government and business elites, where the latter enjoys almost unlimited access to the centre of political decision-making, and with it undue policy influence.

Recent changes in the class structure have fed into post-democratic developments. Crouch performs the contentious move of identifying the manual working class as the working class per se by opposing it to the “middle mass” of “diverse and heterogeneous groups of professionals, administrators, clerical and sales workers, employees of financial institutions, of public bureaucracies, and of welfare state organizations” (p.57). Nevertheless by considering these non-manual strata as a differentiated block Crouch is able to bring out the important divisions: the horizontal division into the public and private sectors, and the vertical split between senior managers and professionals who are structurally closer to capital and routine workers likely to experience proletarian conditions of employment. The identification by the upper tier of this stratum with capital aside, the political amorphousness of its subordinate levels has allowed politicians to read “lower middle class” concerns as identical to business interests, where they are addressed by politics as individuals, “encouraged to seek no means of improvement other than for themselves” (p.60).

This group represents a difficult problem for democrats – they are most susceptible to manipulation owing to the absence of an autonomous political profile and tend to be the most politically passive of groups, whilst being the most rapidly expanding sector in Western societies. Mainstream parties however have failed to acknowledge let alone address the real conditions of its everyday existence. For example, contemporary politics have shown a remarkable inability to grasp how downsizing, growing workloads, and mounting pressures on free time are common experiences of the workplace, meaning that discontent around these issues could escape ‘official’ frames. Such grievances might lead to a progressive politics animated by the “objective political agenda”, or find a populist rightwing expression - as the emergence of formations like the Lijst Pim Fortuyn and the United Kingdom Independence Party suggest.

This decoupling of politicians from their constituents is yet another outcome of the formers growing dependence on business elites. Drawing on models from political science in which a party leadership is surrounded by concentric circles of parliamentary representatives, activists, members, supporters, and the electorate, Crouch describes how this has given way to the elliptical-shaped leadership of the post-democratic party. This new core is composed of “conventional” party leaders and activists, an element motivated by money more than political commitment, and pure professionals drawn from outside the party’s ranks. Consequently the big money and media connections the ellipse provides helps partially overcome the previous reliance on activists (who tend to be rooted in a party’s constituency) for financial and electoral support, pointing toward a situation where political elites with their intimate ties to corporate interests are almost entirely self-reproducing. This is a situation where the lobbyist has pre-eminence over the citizen.

Simultaneously an outcome of and an aggravation toward post-democratic tendencies is the encroachment of capital into areas previously deemed essential to the quality of social citizenship, and therefore too important to be subject to commercial imperatives. Viewed in the context of capital’s insatiable appetite for markets, politicians may believe commercialisation promises better quality public services, but for Crouch the existence of not for profit welfare systems has acted as a significant break on the development of service provision as profitable markets. The role of the WTO and the IMF in the global dismantling of welfare states illustrates there is more behind privatisation than concerns for efficiency and consumer sovereignty.

What is to be done? Not a lot it seems. Crouch endorses a number of schemes designed to reactivate the citizenry, such as a democratised form of state funding for political parties, and the use of temporary citizen’s assemblies. He also suggests that “egalitarians” should stay alert for the emergence of new movements with democratising potentialities; make use of the post-democratic avenue of lobbying; but continue to work “critically and conditionally” through parties; and seeking ways to regulate the role of money in public life. Somewhat pessimistically Crouch concludes that these measures can only mitigate post-democratic processes: a major reversal is impossible. Anti-capitalist projects are unfeasible because “no-one has yet found an effective alternative to the capitalist firm for process and product innovation and for customer responsiveness where most goods and services are concerned” (p.105).

This is frustrating because it allows Crouch to turn away from the logical outcome of his arguments: a consistently democratic challenge to post-democracy. He notes “the tension between the egalitarian demands of democracy and the inequalities that result from capitalism can never be resolved …” (p.79), so why not overcome the split between politics and economics characteristic of capitalism (Wood 1995) by advocating a socialist project that subordinates more and more economic activity to democratic participation and regulation? Such a politics could potentially mobilise significant support by opposing privatisation with a democratic understanding of public ownership, whilst being rooted in the everyday “objective political agenda” post-democratic politics cannot address. In short and almost in spite of himself, Crouch shows how the struggle against post-democracy must necessarily be anti-capitalist if substantive democracy is to be the defining feature of 21st century politics.

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