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What Was Democracy? | The Nation

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What Was Democracy?

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Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

The Logic of Discipline
Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government.
By Alasdair Roberts.
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Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt.
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The Society of Equals
By Pierre Rosanvallon.
Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer.
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The Crisis of the European Union
A Response.
By Jürgen Habermas.
Translated from the German by Ciaran Cronin.
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The Confidence Trap
A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present.
By David Runciman.
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The fate of the idea and reality of democracy is being nowhere more severely tested than in Europe, where the pitched battle between right-wing populism and technocracy—with the democratic national welfare state caught in between—is most openly in view. The continent displays the full gamut of democratic afflictions, from the pure technocracy of Mario Monti’s brief, unpopular government in Italy to the right-wing populism of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to the rise of citizen assemblies in Bosnia determined to replace a sclerotic social democracy with something yet unknown. This only makes the state of current thought about democracy by several of the most representative European thinkers all the more puzzling and, if intellectual thought contains the grains of future political possibilities, more despairing. “Crisis of democracy” comes easily to the lips of every thinker on the continent, yet the remedies on offer are not only inadequate in most cases, but also testify to an intellectual softening that appears to have set in over the course of the past three decades. Mostly, European intellectuals have diagnosed limited problems: rising inequality, immigration pressures, tensions in Franco-German relations, Russian intransigence. They have explained the emergence of these problems by invoking relatively local causes: the ideological obtuseness of Margaret Thatcher or the perpetual ineffectiveness of center-left parties such as France’s Parti Socialiste. And so, they conclude, containing the crisis of democracy calls for familiar solutions: more regulations and higher taxes on capital, a determined defense of existing welfare provisions, or calls for a bottom-up mass movement that will somehow come from the left rather than the right.

Such nostrums may be comforting, but they have become fatal to the left’s ability to win political victories and, if they do, to govern effectively. Two distinct temperaments now prevail among most European intellectuals who have tried to diagnose the crisis of democracy, and neither is conducive to effective political action: nostalgia for the social-democratic past, and technocratic faith in policy Band-Aids that might somehow repair the social-democratic project. Some intellectuals operate primarily in the first mode, some primarily in the second; most draw on both. What they share is a reluctance to realize the seriousness of the current crisis—an unwillingness that leads them to underestimate the difficulty of formulating an adequate response.

The nostalgic camp is occupied by figures as various as Pierre Rosanvallon and the late Tony Judt. In the wake of the neoliberal revolutions of the 1980s and the Soviet collapse, Judt, an Anglo-American historian, and Rosanvallon, a French sociologist, argue that the pursuit of material self-interest became central to the way we live now. Inequality rapidly rose, and living standards for average citizens rapidly fell. “Wealth creators,” from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, became cultural heroes. Worst of all, in good part because Marxism lost what remained of its residual prestige by the 1980s, we became “unable to conceive of alternatives,” in Judt’s phrase, or to imagine a “society of equals,” in Rosanvallon’s. With no alternative vision to aspire to, we have come to think of even the most obviously unjust aspects of our contemporary economic order as inevitable.

The response that Judt and Rosanvallon call for is simple: reject the idea that there are no alternatives. Once we have done so, we will have the courage to reassert the primacy of politics over economics by creating a more equal society. Some of our old institutional arrangements may need to be adjusted to contain the noxious effects of globalization, but the heyday of the egalitarian past provides a clear enough guide for a more egalitarian future. For Judt, winning the good fight is a matter of reviving, with slight modifications, the social-democratic welfare state that came into bloom in Western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Rosanvallon, the fall from grace occurred earlier. He sees the historical sweet spot for democratic equality in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Western European governments, in response to the “first globalization,” invented new forms of social redistribution and social insurance. For him, new ways need to be found to cushion citizens from another phase of global capitalist integration.

The vision of the nostalgic camp is undoubtedly attractive. But as much as we might like to live in the world that Judt and Rosanvallon evoke, it does not mean that we can. There are several reasons why the golden age of social democracy is gone for good, and the roots of our failure of imagination run much deeper than Judt and Rosanvallon acknowledge. The social-democratic parties of Europe, after all, had become ideologically depleted well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Partially this owed to their victories. So successful were social democrats in shaping postwar European states in their image that, by the late 1970s, they had few new demands around which to rally their members. European social democracy—a movement that had once been progressive, that had hoped and believed it could bring about a better future—slowly evolved into a movement marked by deep conservatism, whose primary goal has been to prevent changes to the status quo.

Yet Judt, in his mode as a professional historian, already acknowledged this stasis in his masterpiece Postwar. The post-ideological consensus generated by the success of social democracy in the 1970s, he showed, is part of what made it so vulnerable to dismantling by both free-market technocrats and populists. Likewise, American military power, which had contributed to making the space for social democracy possible in Western Europe (in part by shutting off the more radical elements that sprang from World War II partisan movements), was coming under attack by European citizens who felt implicated in its violence. The inability to conceive of alternatives was not brought about by the fall of Soviet communism; it was the result of a process in which the strong social-democratic parties won a string of victories and started to define themselves predominantly as the guardians of those gains, rather than the advocates of new ones.

Conceiving an alternative political vision is never a matter of sheer will or talent; it is possible only in the right historical conditions. Once social democrats had reinvented themselves as guardians of the status quo, changing economic circumstances undermined even that limited ambition. After the devastation of Europe in World War II, the continent feverishly rebuilt itself and enjoyed the growth rate of a developing country. By the late 1970s, this period had come to an end. High employment began to recede, and demographers noted that longer life expectancies threatened to make pension systems unsustainable. A host of interrelated transformations were fracturing the foundations of the welfare state, and social democrats themselves no longer had a powerful vision of a better future.

All of this makes the palliatives on offer from the European nostalgics drastically unsatisfactory. Their lamentations about the present are seductive, but their solutions ultimately revolve around a return to a state of affairs that has been embattled—for deep structural, economic, political and geopolitical reasons—for many decades. The leaders of the left, from Italy to the United Kingdom, committed many blunders during the past three decades. But in their defense, their task was complicated. If it were just a matter of convincing electorates not to forfeit social protections in the pursuit of selfish values, even such terminally uninspired leaders as Romano Prodi and Gerhard Schröder might have succeeded. But their actual task was twofold: to conserve what is best about the social-democratic settlement—which, economically speaking, would require them to change everything, so everything could remain the same—and to develop a new vision of the left that would cast off the drab conservatism that has marked it for so long. Faced with such a challenge, it is hardly surprising that social democrats instead settled for an uneasy mix of right-wing opportunism and left-wing conservatism.

In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville had good reason to believe that the progress of equality was inevitable. Though he did not welcome its prospect, he was convinced that aristocratic nostalgics who hoped to hold fast were deluding themselves. If something was going to impede the march of equality, it would have to be a new political vision that took as its starting point the incontrovertible fact that the ancien régime was irretrievable. Today, our situation is reversed. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the return to conditions of increasing economic inequality, which very quickly precludes political equality. If something is going to stop this development, it is going to be a new political vision that acknowledges at its starting point that the sun has set on the golden age of social democracy.

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