politics without democracy, democracy without politics

bergens tidende, 9 november 2011

It’s startling, and not a little worrying, how quickly the claim that ‘All politicians are useless’ has transmuted into the demand that ‘politicians should be replaced by technocrats who know what they are doing’, a demand that we’re increasingly hearing in response to the Eurozone crisis. From the upheaval in the Eurozone to the ‘Occupy’ movement now spreading across the globe, there are two crises shaping contemporary political debate. The first is, obviously, the economic crisis. The second, perhaps more insidious, crisis is that enveloping democracy. It is insidious because the problem is not the imposition of tyranny or the formal removal of the right to vote. Rather, the relationship between political change and the democratic process has become so strained that the very meaning of both democracy and politics has become skewed. The ease with which people are now demanding the replacement of politicians with technocrats as the way of dealing European instability is one indicator of this.

Last week’s Greek referendum-that-never-was expressed well the problems of the current debate about democracy. The now–departed Prime Minister George Papandreou called the referendum for reasons of expediency, not of democracy, viewing it as a means of shifting the blame for the austerity programme now being imposed upon Greece. What raised the ire of European leaders was, however, not the fact that a referendum would have given the Greek people little choice, but that it would have given them any choice at all. ‘I truly fail to understand what Greece intends to have a referendum about, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted. ‘Are there any real options?’ Or as Nicolas Sarkozy put it, ‘the solidarity of the Eurozone countries is not possible unless each one agrees to measures deemed necessary.’ In other words, why bother asking the Greek people what they want when we already know what they need?

It was not simply traditional Europhiles who reacted badly to the possibility of the Greek referendum. George Osborne, who at the Tory Party conference last month condemned the very idea of the Eurozone, and who trumpeted the fact that any transfer of sovereignty from London to Brussels now legally requires a referendum, nevertheless criticised the Greek referendum on the grounds that it ‘has added to the instability and uncertainty in the euro zone’.

The response of Europe’s political elite to the Greek referendum was in keeping with their broader attitude to the whole European project. The creation of a more integrated Europe should be about greater freedom and democracy. European politicians have, however, preferred to integrate by stealth rather than through public debate. There is a growing consensus that the longterm solution to the Eurozone crisis will have to be closer fiscal and political union, possibly between a smaller group of nations. Even Eurosceptics like George Osborne seem to advocate such a scenario. Few, however, expect this to be established by winning popular support. Indeed, there is widespread acceptance that closer ties will be created by treaty changes that will have to be pushed through in the face of public opposition. And most regard such opposition as an obstacle to be avoided rather than a democratic will to be respected. In the meantime, the Greek government has fallen, the Italian prime minister is about to be replaced, without the electorate in either country having had a say, but both having happened in response to the demands of Eurocrats and foreign leaders, in particular the so-called Frankfurt Group.

The debate about the EU is a bit like the Greek referendum would have been: a choice between two unpalatable alternatives. On the one side, there is rightwing euroscepticism, hostility to the European project fuelled by nationalism and xenophobia, and articulated through populist parties like the Northern League in Italy, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns and, in Britain, UKIP and the nastier end of the Conservative Party. And on the other side, there is liberal Europeanism, through which is expressed, all too often, contempt for the electorate and an ambiguous view of the democratic process, and an insistence that the future of the EU should be shaped not by open, public debate but by bureaucratic negotiations. What is missing is a place in the debate for a democratic Europhile, for someone who wants to break down national barriers but to do it through popular support and the extension of democratic institutions, not their emasculation.

The EU today represents the triumph of managerial over democratic politics. And in this, it is a project for our times. As the broad ideological divides that characterised politics over the past two hundred years have been all but erased over the past two decades, so the political sphere has narrowed and politics has became less about competing visions of the kinds of society people than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system.

One way in which people have felt this change is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt. The sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within the traditional working class, whose feelings of political isolation have increased as social democratic parties have cut their links with their working class constituencies. This sense of alienation has been one reason for the success of populist, reactionary movements across Europe.

Economic recession and the imposition of austerity policies have led, however, to much wider sections of the population feeling alienated from, and abandoned by, the political mainstream. The ‘Occupy’ movement, which in the space of a few months has spread into a global phenomenon, is a striking example, driven by a deep sense of anger, both at the unfairness of the financial system and at the failure of mainstream politics to tackle that unfairness. One of the characteristics of the movement is its lack of formal structures, organization, leaders or demands. Supporters celebrate this as the movement’s great strength, its rejection of traditional politics, the creation of a new form of democracy. In fact it is its greatest weakness. Political amorphousness is not an alternative to the crisis of political representation. It is its consequence.

Without anger there can be no political change. Rage at the way that society is necessarily lies at the root of all demands for society should be. Anger, however, can take many political forms, reactionary as well as progressive. The danger of any movement that mobilizes popular anger in the absence of coherent political policies and demands is that it is not progressive solutions into which anger and disenchantment is channelled. The aim of the Occupy movement is to create a big tent, to represent the 99%, in the name of democracy. But democracy requires not big tent politics, but the very opposite. It requires the drawing of political lines, the engaging in political conflict, the making of political choices. It is the ability to do all this that defines a democracy, and marks it off from non-democratic systems. For democracy to work, politics has, paradoxically, to be non-inclusive.

The Eurozone crisis and the Occupy movement reveal two sides of the contemporary failure to grasp the significance of democracy. In one case, political change is reduced to technocratic fiddling, in the other democracy equated with lack of political structure. This separation of politics and democracy should worry us as much as the economic crisis itself.