Review: Miriam Cosicon democracies in decline

Exhortations to the Resistance

The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency at the end of 2016 came as a day of reckoning for political observers who were studying the backlash to late twentieth-century cosmopolitanism and feminism and the rise in nativism across the liberal-democratic West. The triple vectors of ‘progress’ – capitalism, liberalism and individualism – seemed to have stalled since Francis Fukuyama’s diagnosis of the end of history after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

With the improbable arrival of Trump in the White House, fast-growing economic inequality and its concomitant insecurity hit a 1984 moment. A demagogue had arrived. Elected on the promise of ‘draining the swamp’ and fairness to ‘ordinary’ people, he immediately set a wrecking ball to conventions as hallowed as the rule of law and international diplomacy. He oversaw legislation that rolled back workers’ and women’s rights, environmental protections and other progressive measures, and sped up the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

And all the while his particular combination of buffoonery and narcissism held the entire world mesmerised, whether entertained or appalled. A liberal ‘Resistance’ – half spontaneous, half organised – rose in America in response, but all over the world oligarchs and authoritarians were emboldened. That half-entertaining, half-deadly-earnest approach was used in the Brexit campaign too.

Despite increasing inequality and reductions in welfare, the small-government Morrison government that has been in disarray since 2014 has just been re-elected here in Australia. And its persuasive hostility to migrants and Muslims, no longer dog-whistled but quite open, doesn’t even seem visceral or sincere. We were reminded by the resurfacing of a two-year-old news story during the election campaign that Scott Morrison, when immigration minister, had urged cabinet to increase its anti-refugee rhetoric in order to win voter approval – a suggestion that was immediately dismissed by small-l Liberals in the room.

So the planks of that made post-second world war liberal democracy relatively comfortable – regulated capitalism, welfare, social liberalism, individualism – are being undermined as we watch. And we are being watched as we watch it, in an increasingly surveilled society. Street cameras, electronic data retention, facial recognition: such techniques are being used on a massive scale for commercial and policing purposes. The exploited and enervated mass societies envisioned by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are slowly coming to life.

As Shoshana Zuboff put it in her brilliant recent study, Surveillance Capitalism, we are entering a new feudal era. ‘What is unbearable,’ she stresses,

is that economic and social inequalities have reverted to the preindustrial ‘feudal’ pattern but that we, the people, have not. We are not illiterate peasants, serfs, or slaves. Whether ‘middle class’ or ‘marginalised’ … we know ourselves to be worthy of dignity and the opportunity to live an effective life. This is existential toothpaste that, once liberated, cannot be squeezed back into the tube.

Donald Trump’s inauguration also inaugurated something of a publishing genre: book-length exhortations to the ‘Resistance’. Historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century, for example, was a call to arms and a handbook for action. Former chief book critic of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, resigned her position in order to write The Death of Truth, a literary meditation more passionate than disciplined but popular.

David Runciman is head of the politics department at Cambridge University. His 2018 contribution to this category is alarmingly titled How Democracy Ends. From the outset, he acknowledges that the institutions of flourishing liberal democracies like the United States are robust. Indeed his last book, The Confidence Trap, was an exhilarating trip through some of the twentieth century’s near disasters. It was the flexibility of democratic states that saved them —  sometimes more through luck than good planning.

How Democracy Ends is less optimistic. It poses questions that are both important and worrying. One of the ‘central puzzles’ of political science is what causes democracy to ‘stick’. The answer to that, he says, is trust. People who feel they lose out at an election have to trust that they will have another chance at the next one. In a cohesive society, the rich need to trust that the poor won’t dispossess them. Soldiers need to trust that civilians won’t disarm them. The problem is that often this trust breaks down: ‘Then democracy falls apart,’ he writes.

If we take institutional arrangements for granted, do we notice when they cease to work? Here I mean arrangements such as regular elections, democratic legislatures, independent law courts and a free press, which together form the bedrock of democratic politics. All can continue to function as they ought, while failing to deliver what they should. A hollowed-out version of democracy risks lulling us into a false sense of security about its institutions. Democracy could fail while remaining intact.

Voters dislike and distrust their elected representatives now more than ever. We know this. Runciman reports that level of education is more significant than age, gender or class in determining how people vote. That was true of the elections of Trump and Emmanuel Macron, and of the Brexit vote, and no doubt holds in Australia too. Ordinary people don’t want their politicians to be like their doctors or other highly-trained professionals;  they want to see a reflection of themselves. ‘On a visit to the US from Germany during the first decade of last century,’ Runciman writes,

Max Weber asked a group of American workers why they kept voting for politicians who seem barely qualified for the task and ended up letting them down. He got this answer: ‘We spit on these ‘professionals’, these officials. We despise them. But if the offices are filled by a trained, qualified class, such as you have in your country, it will be the officials who spit on us.’ That sentiment still animates representative democracy today.

In his final chapter, Runciman ponders what a functioning alternative to the democracy we have today might look like. He returns to basics. The appeal of modern democracy has two foundational elements. First, it offers dignity and respect to all: citizens’ opinions, including of their governments, are protected. Second, it offers the prosperity that is the result of living in stability and in peace. He compares the apparent contradictions of these two elements, which only liberal democracy, so far, has been considered able to merge. Neoliberalism and the explosion of inequality it has encouraged have derailed that utopian dream.

The divergence can be seen starkly in two fast-emerging economies. China, as an authoritarian state, makes much of national dignity, but little of individual political freedoms. It has almost managed to conquer abject poverty, illiteracy and shortened life expectancy through rapid economic growth. But freedom of speech is not on offer. The state can, and does, intervene in people’s lives without constraint. India, by contrast, is the biggest democracy in the world, with a population of 1.34 billion sprawling across 29 states and myriad language and religious groups. It too has enjoyed something of an economic miracle this century, though, unlike in China, a more even spread of the rewards has not been regulated.  What it had instead was freedom of speech and an egalitarian system of representative democracy. Worryingly, however, the Modi government, which has encouraged Hindu nationalism to a degree that might endanger India’s freedom of speech as well, has just been returned with an enhanced majority. These countries have come to their economic growth from different directions: China via authoritarianism and a planned economy; India via democracy, free-market policies and, leaving the poorest to their poverty, what amounts to an austerity economy.

Runciman’s alternatives to the current crisis are tentative and idealistic. He draws on the work of Derek Parfit, the British philosopher of identity and ethics. ‘There is a case to be made for some disaggregation of individual identity,’ he writes.

[Parfit] has argued that our attachment to the illusion of a single identity over time is one of the things that stifle our moral and political imaginations. We instinctively believe that we have more in common with the person we will be in twenty years’ time than with the person sitting next to us right now.

This, Runciman says, is not true. ‘I am not the me I will be in the future. The two of us are essentially different people.’ Disaggregated personhood — which is seen as a bad thing by communitarians — should make us better and more responsible people than we are.

This returns us to the education gap. Abstract concepts are difficult to wield for those untrained in wielding them. In other words, it is a stretch to imagine a future that is unlike our past, and an identity that is not rooted in the village but in cosmopolitan values. It is no accident that the industrial city of Manchester had the largest pro-Brexit vote. Faced with relentless globalisation and automation, the shift of jobs to machines and cheaper working populations, those left behind experience an aggressive form of nostalgia.

Runciman also meditates on Parfit’s view that relative equality between people is a pre-requisite of moral renewal: ‘we will be able to see what we truly owe each other once we can see each other as equals. By contrast, the fracturing effect of digital technology coincides with growing inequality.’ This is what Zuboff has called, more memorably, the return of serfdom. No wonder those disillusioned by the failure of democracy, such as the gilets jaunes in France, are taking to the streets.

One of the mysteries of our political times is why people so frequently vote against their own interests. The Conservative Party in Britain, the Republicans in America, and the Liberal-National Party in Australia all favour the rich. They undermine the unions that brought working people a liveable wage at the expense of a small proportion of employers’ profit; they arrange financial structures to favour the investment and profit requirements of big banks and corporations; and they have reduced the welfare measures that help the chronically poor and unwell.

Part of this has to do with the narcotic effect of mass entertainment.  Part has to do with the increasingly sophisticated propaganda of neoliberalism, which is undermining the very concept of truth in a way that the Soviets and the Nazis would have envied. Many have internalised Trump’s slogan about ‘fake news’, in Australia as well as in the US, even though our national broadcaster has been a rock amid the eddies of partisan media through the decades. In an ominous repetition of totalitarian manipulation of public information, Western citizens have come to see ’the truth’ as what powerful mass media or the social media bubbles they inhabit most convincingly say it is.

‘Fake audio and video may soon be so convincing that we will no longer be able to distinguish them from the real anyway,’ writes Sophia Rosenfeld in Democracy and Truth: A Brief History, in which she traces concepts of public truth from the early modern period to the present. From the early days of printing through to the nineteenth century, newspapers were expected to reflect the interests of their owners. Slowly, the concepts of relentlessly tracking down facts and speaking truth to power emerged.  Hannah Arendt, Rosenfeld writes, ‘saw this “new zeal for truthfulness” born originally of Protestant engagement with the New Testament, together with the new science, to be one of the distinctive hallmarks of modernity. And at the same time, a burgeoning capitalist marketplace on both sides of the Atlantic grew up on related practices of interpersonal trust.’

Here is trust again, and honesty — both essential for Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to operate. Rosenfeld discusses the need for truth, or facts, or correct interpretation of information in godless modernity. How do we escape the words of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov: ‘if God is dead, all is permitted’? Rosenfeld quotes the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who described the ‘pitiable condition of having nothing to guide us but our own feckless speculations or fantasies and the importunate and unreliable advice of others’. Thus, she suggests,

ordinary people had to turn to some combination of elected officials and what would eventually be called “experts” to supply, candidly and transparently, the preliminary factual truths that they needed to make well-reasoned judgements at the ballot box about the larger natural world in which they lived, about the social and economic world they had constructed, even how government works and the options before it. They would also require experts to filter out from ordinary discussions what is plain wrong, whether because it is mistaken or because it is a lie.

Rosenfeld tells us that the ‘truth’ in politics we consider to be essential to contemporary liberal democracy was first demanded by the Swedish Diet in 1776. The Swedes at that moment, in the grip of the Enlightenment, considered a free press vital to preventing tyranny — ‘since even ostensibly honest governments always had reasons to try to cover up illegal or incompetent behaviour’ — and to empowering citizens in forming public opinion. Rosenfeld makes the case that, 250 years later, truth and mistakes and lies are all part of the information maelstrom that swirls around us as tyranny lies in the offing.

Neoliberalism has not been restricted to the internal politics of nation states. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, set up by Western countries with a free-market ideology, have demanded austerity from client countries — especially and ironically since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, when failed banks were bailed out by governments worldwide. This has increasingly shifted the operational line between international aid and human rights.

Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and of history at Yale, has been an influential voice in the growing academic discipline of cosmopolitanism. In 2010, he published a controversial book, The Last Utopia, which dated the rise of the human rights regime, not from the end of the second world war and the adoption of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but from the 1970s and the sudden expansion of Non-Government Organisations. His latest book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, places neoliberalism at the heart of another contradiction: its concurrent rise with that of the international human rights regime.

The adoption of human rights by the international community has been troubled. At first, the Western powers argued for the exceptionalism of their colonies and later, once those colonies had reached independence, strict Muslim and Christian countries would baulk at gender rights. Importantly here, two streams quickly emerged in the human rights debate, with two very different goals: equality and sufficiency.  The emergence of post-colonial states, long exploited by the West for their natural resources and manpower, placed the original emphasis on the political ideal of equality. Slowly, as the enormity of existing inequality emerged, the ex-colonial masters recovered from the exhaustion of the second world war and began again to energetically pursue their trading privileges. As neoliberalism gained ground, favouring free markets over anything that might be construed as moral interventions by government, that goal shifted to the economic ideal of sufficiency. And as economic inequality widened within states, political and economic equality lost its momentum between states. The material benefits of getting everyone fed, housed and educated to an acceptable minimum was a happier fit with deregulated capitalism than the ideological job of teaching people to think differently about dignity  and exploitation.

Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being is a frightening polemic that brings Marxism to bear on contemporary politics. He discusses not just the economic disfiguration of our liberal democracies, but the whole trajectory of our post-technological age and the ancient hatreds its insecurities have summoned. ‘During the free market era we learned to celebrate the subjection of human beings to market forces,’ he begins,

We treated concepts like citizenship, morality and ‘-agency’ (the power to act) as if they were irrelevant to the workings of the world, which was now run only by consumer choice and financial engineering.

Now, however, the free-market system is imploding. The logic of selfishness, hierarchy and consumerism no longer works. As a result, the religion of the market has given way to older gods: racism, nationalism, misogyny and the idolisation of powerful thieves.

As we approach the 2020s, an alliance of ethnic nationalists, woman-haters, and authoritarian political leaders are tearing the world order to shreds.

In discussing the accession of Trump, Mason borrows the concept of ’tiredness’ from Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic Fear of Freedom. Fromm suggested that the German people’s readiness to submit to fascism came from a tiredness and a resignation that permeated modernity, even in democratic countries. Mason writes:

Where this inner ‘tiredness and resignation’ comes from in the richest economy in the world and in a society buzzing with cultural creativity, is one of the most fundamental problems those trying to resist the new right have to confront.

That tiredness — perhaps a redefinition of my diagnosis of the narcotic effect of mass culture — may hasten the end of democracy in a way that makes the political revolutions of yore look half baked. Witnessing the slow dismantling of our values and expectations, as Runciman suggests we are doing, may bring to mind the proverbial frogs in boiling water. What citizens choose to ignore politically is as crucial as what they notice. ‘By picking Trump to run for president,’ Mason writes, ’the Republican Party created a new and shocking subtext: the rich no longer even have to look clean to run America.’

As befits a Marxist, Mason defends workers. It was not the white working class that supported Trump. He quotes a study showing that, among men, being an active misogynist, as distinct from your ordinary everyday sexist, was as strong a predictor of a vote for Trump as overt racism. Being poor, he says, came nowhere close. Stagnating incomes and collapsing wealth may have set up the arena, but Trump supporters were primarily waging a war on race and gender, not on class.

This translates easily to Australia and other wealthy countries. For all their claims to stand for ‘ordinary’ Australians, the Pauline Hansons and Fraser Annings did not fight the chain retailers underpaying their workers or the corporate-funded government that is abolishing hard-won union benefits. Rather they fought migrants and Muslims and feminists, all of whom they believe to be bent on dismantling traditional Australian values.

Today’s right-wing culture warriors, including Hanson and Anning, dislocated from history and from community, are different to their historical antecedents. ‘Their predecessors in the 1930s resorted to fascism because they had to smash an organised, politicised working class with a strong attachment to democratic rights, and a resilient middle class inspired by the moral values of Christianity,’ Mason explains.

That’s what fascism was: the militarisation of a lower-class mob to defeat the organised working class by force, take the state, merge it with the fascist militias and enforce rule by terror on behalf of big business.

This time around they probably don’t need fascism. Solidarity has been atomised, our belief in collective action eroded, our sense of self hollowed out by the routines of market behaviour — and with that, so has the moral basis for liberalism.

One of neoliberalism’s great successes has been the smashing of unions, which, until the 1980s, had been the humanising force within capitalism. Organised labour brought us the eight-hour day, the weekend, the universal franchise and more. Mason adds that labour movements, right across Europe, took up arms to defeat the Nazis. The aim of neoliberalism has been to break that solidarity and, in turn, people’s will to resist. Its methods are multilateral. The constant evocation of ‘mum and dad investors’ by neoliberal politicians, for example, has made even working class people believe that, through their slim superannuation investments, they have a stake in the success of corporations.

Mason’s analysis is in line with others’, though redder, less forgiving and sharper edged. Where he swings off into his own preoccupation is where he thinks the post-democratic and the post-technological is leading humanity. And it is not just towards a new form of economic organisation. It is into a whole new reality. ‘In fewer than 10 years, the neoliberal project had reshaped the world economy,’ he writes. ‘But its true achievement lay in the changes it made to the way humans think and behave.’ In defeating organised labour, neoliberalism has persuaded working people that progress lies in flexibility and precarity, that they should work to set production targets and not to the clock, that individual negotiation for wages and conditions will serve them better than being part of a union. ‘The neoliberal subject has, in short, exchanged security for autonomy and adopted individualism as the solution to the failure of collective action,’ Mason writes.  Again one must pause to ask how it is that people have come to agree with what puts them so completely at odds with their own interests.

It is not only people’s lives but the nation’s financial structures that have been reorganised against their interests. While governments have been busy downsizing and outsourcing public services, delivering big business ever-higher profits, business has been busy outsourcing financial risk to government. The most dramatic instance was the way governments stepped in to save banks from their own malpractice in 2008. ‘While shrinking the state with religious fervour, the private sector created a mountain of unpayable debts that would have to be underwritten by the state itself,’ Mason points out.

In Hegel’s time, the elite’s mistake was to design a geopolitical order but to assume the economic order would design itself. The neoliberals made the reverse error: they designed an economic system but refused to design a geopolitical system to contain it. Their economics told them in effect that economics would shape and regulate the global order by itself.

Meanwhile we, the ordinary citizens, are left with a falling standard of living and increasing atomisation and loneliness. Mason, too, quotes Hannah Arendt, from her indispensable Origins of Totalitarianism:

What had made the people susceptible to fake news in the 1930s, Arendt argued, was ‘loneliness’: ‘the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.’ That’s the kind of loneliness you experience today in small-town USA, or in the left-behind industrial towns in Britain, or the backwaters of Poland and Hungary — all heartlands of the new authoritarian racism.

Mason believes, however, that neoliberalism has sown the seeds of its own defeat. The dismantling of democracy will conjure a backlash. Whether that will be a return to hard-won rights or a brave new future we can’t imagine remains to be seen. Like other writers who attempt to formulate solutions, Mason’s are tentative and idealistic. Even in his final chapter, his diagnoses are more powerful than his cures.

We need to understand first of all that capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which is losing its capacity to adapt. For more than 200 years, as technological progress made things cheaper and destroyed the need for certain skills, the system adapted by creating new needs and markets inside developed countries.

At the same time, capitalism has survived by using our planet as both a tap and a waste pipe: it has assumed the earth has unlimited capacities to provide raw materials and energy, and to absorb both waste and carbon. But the waste pipe is blocked and the tap is running dry. Climate change, pollution, resource depletion, demographic ageing and mass migration all look like serious ‘external’ shocks to the system, but are in fact long-term by-products of capitalism itself. And they have begun to feed off each other.

We are now locked into a three-way struggle between the individual, the tech monopolies and the state. Instead of fulfilling the promise of automation to increase leisure, the advanced economies have created millions of politically expedient ‘bullshit jobs’ as the anthropologist and anarchist, David Graeber, memorably called them.  Mason’s plan is ambitious and utopian, one that will involve overturning the ideology of liberal democracy as it stands now. It involves directing automation to both make people’s lives easier and stabilise the environment. It will protect the privacy of data, regulate artificial intelligence and resist the control of humans by commercial and political algorithms. How exactly? His demands are radical, as were the demands of the exploited working class in the nineteenth century. Some of their most modest demands seemed impossible in their day, and so do Mason’s. But thinkers like Mason and Runciman are just getting the ball rolling. Change will have to come, either top-down from a politics that finally realises the dangers we face or from the ground-up by citizens who reject those dangers.