Friday 26 April 2013

The end of democracy?

Why is the public gradually disengaging from democratic politics?

Henry Farrell thinks he knows the answer. In an essay inspired by Colin Crouch’s influential book Post-Democracy, he writes a depressing epitaph for democracy. Globalisation and neoliberal economics have combined to shift power elsewhere, while the voters are left with less and less choice. In a postscript on the Crooked Timber blog, Farrell laments the current political chaos in Italy.

The problem with Farrell’s thesis is that he conflates the malaise of democracy in general with that of social democracy or moderate socialism. It is true that democracy is in trouble, and that neoliberalism has had a major role to play in the undermining of democratic politics. But just because the traditional left has no answer to the current economic crisis does not necessarily mean democratic politics as a whole is impotent.

The collapse of neoliberal orthodoxy in the recent financial crisis was a gift to its opponents but the traditional left has been completely unable to provide a coherent or compelling response. That is not because democracy is failing. It is because the social and economic conditions of the post-war era (which made the social democratic settlement possible) no longer apply. Like UKIP, social democrats yearn for a return to the 1950s, but for different reasons.

There is a coherent and compelling response for the Liberal Democrats to adopt (once they get over their current fixation on blending into the establishment). First, they should adopt the recommendations of the Rowntree-funded Power Inquiry (full report here and executive summary here), which examined popular disengagement from formal democratic politics in Britain (and which was previously discussed on this blog here). Second, they should develop some radical new economic thinking, and this work has already begun, in particular with the ALDC’s 2008 pamphlet by David Boyle and Bernard Greaves, The Theory and Practice of Community Economics, and the just-published Green Book.

One can at least agree with Farrell that things cannot continue as they are. One cannot accept his fatalism simply because the parties of the old left resemble exhausted volcanoes.

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