Friday, January 24, 2014

Stephen Holmes on democracy in the neoliberal era

Stephen Holmes in Goodbye future? Eurozine (German version published in Blätter 1/2014), reflects on the state of democracy in the world since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The article is adapted from a speech of 03/22/2012 at a conference on the work of Claus Offe, a political scientist and sociologist working in the Frankfurt School tradition of political theory.

Already in the 1990s, I think it is fair to say, most of us had stopped being euphoric. No sooner had Poland exited the communist bloc than Leszek Kolakowski published an article reminding us that euphoria never lasts very long. Anyone following the aftermath of the Arab Spring will appreciate what he had in mind; and democratic euphoria after 1989 was similarly short-lived. True, no one back then predicted that Hungary would lapse ominously back into single-party rule as it has today, with devastating personal consequences for many ordinary Hungarians. By the late 1990s, students of post-communism had started seeing themselves less as transitologists than as traumatologists. That was certainly true for Claus Offe, who wrote extensively about the peculiarly non-revolutionary nature of the post-communist transitions and especially about the fateful absence (with the possible exception of Poland) of an organized counter-elite that, having overthrown the old regime would therefore have had the public credibility and organizational experience to act as an agent of directional change, steering the process of post-communist development. The consequence of this lack was political drift ungoverned by any shared concept of public purpose. My point, in any case, is that already in the 1990s, students of post-communism were perfectly aware that when autocracy collapses, democracy does not arise automatically to take its place, like toast popping out of a toaster. As post-1989 euphoria wore off, the elementary lessons learned earlier by students of European decolonization reasserted themselves: the absence of obstacles is not the same as the presence of preconditions; less state does not mean more freedom; gaining influence over legislation is pointless if no one obeys the law; and, since democracy is a tiny spot in human history, it must have many complex preconditions. [my emphasis]
Holmes detects two general types of democratic discontents: discontent with the specific forms of democracy in a particular country, and "a more general dissatisfaction that seems to afflict all or most democracies in the world for more or less similar reasons."

Holmes' article deals with American claims to be promoting democracy by bombing, killing and torturing in Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that reminds us to be caution about so-called humanitarian interventions.

One of the more interesting phrases he uses is what he calls the "movement for the liberation of the rich" from the need to be responsive or accommodating to the democratic majority. He looks for a rational basis for this trend, such as a "flooding of the labour market by a low-cost Chinese
workforce" that he assumes "has also reduced the interest of the American and European capitalist class in the health and education
of American and European workers." This is a little unclear; I assume he is referring to Chinese exporting of cheap products to retail giants like WalMart more than Chinese emigration to other countries. He also suggests that reliance on professional armies rather than conscript-based is significant factor: "When volunteer armies with high-tech weapons replace citizen levies, one of the main motives for elite interest in public welfare is substantially weakened."

I think he may underestimate the raw power of greed here. Franklin Roosevelt in a 1935 speech referred to those "who are ready to put a weary, selfish or greedy hand upon the clock of progress and turn it back." (A Radio Address to the Young Democratic Clubs of America 08/24/1935) Those people we have with us always. Currently they have names like Koch, DeVos and Walton.

Holmes' discussion of how power fragmented in the post-communist societies like Russia is fascinating. This is something I don't recall seeing mentioned before:

Even more extraordinary is the radical privatization of Soviet psychiatry for utterly personal ends. In today's Russia, if you covet your elderly sister's apartment, for instance, you can make a "sensitive payment" to the same psychiatric institute that once tortured political dissidents and the now for-profit psychiatrists will seize your sister physically, lock her in a facility, and pump her full of drugs until she signs any document you put in front of her. Like many of its other forms, this cruel privatization of the shattered detritus of the Soviet collapse is wholly spontaneous and serves no possible purpose of the central government, even if it leaves that government unfazed.
That's seriously grim.

But I'm not so impressed with one of Holmes' central points, in which he suggests that Bureaucracy is a huge part of what creates a sense that people don't control their politicians and that their views and needs are not adequately represented in government. It echoes a standard conservative gripe. No modern state can function without a substantial bureaucracy, especially in advanced countries. Making Bureaucracy an abstract bogeyman lets politicians that are bought and paid for by corporations - as the leading members of Germany's current Grand Coalition government look to be - way to easy. Bureaucracy in itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad. But it is necessary. And bureaucracies private or public can be run well or run poorly, with lots of variations in between. It's no excuse for elected officials not to do their jobs responsibly.

And he does get around to making a point about the corruption of democratic politics by big money:

... electoral accountability is a feeble method for aligning the interests of rulers with the interests of the ruled. This would still be true even if the public (counterfactually) was well-informed in real time about all of the government's actions. The reason is fairly well known and can most easily be explained by contrasting the anaemic responsiveness of politicians to voters with their heartfelt responsiveness to campaign contributors. Able to open or close at will the faucet of election funding for permanently campaigning members of Congress, a skilful lobbyist has a relatively easy time evaluating the promise-keeping of the elected officials he has suborned. He wants a yes or no vote on a specific bill and can verify easily whether such a vote is cast. The voter is in a much less advantageous position, having to evaluate the performance of his or her Congressman or Senator over a number of years on a wide range of unrelated issues and controversies. A single vote delivered on a single day every few years in an extremely crude tool for producing accountability for such a complex tangle of decisions. Capture of the legislative process by organized private interests is a pervasive feature of democratic politics everywhere today – without exception, which means in post-communist democracies as well. [my emphasis]
And he makes an intriguing point in the following, although it's not entirely clear if he's approving or disapproving President Obama's decision to give senior members of the Cheney-Bush Administration a free pass on prosecution for serious crimes, including torture:

A seventh source of dissatisfaction with democracy derives from one of democracy's essential preconditions. Adam Przeworski famously defined democracy as a system in which parties lose elections. But for incumbents to step down voluntarily after they lose an election it is obviously necessary that they do not expect to lose too much. This observation was illustrated dramatically in 2010-2011 when Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office after his rival, Alassane Ouattara, won a disputed election, thereby plunging the country into a bloody four-month standoff. In line with this principle, Obama's Department of Justice refused to prosecute criminally any of the war crimes committed during the Bush administration. Democracy will not work, he seems to have reasoned, unless electorally ousted incumbents can be guaranteed a soft landing. The problem with this "inter-temporal bargain" between rival parties alternating in power is that it drains meaning from democratic elections. L'alternance may be the essence of democracy; but reducing the stakes in the rotation of office-holders may also produce profound dissatisfaction among voters longing for "change". The problem is exacerbated because voters are usually urged to show up at the polls after being bombarded with competitive overpromising by candidates pleading for support.
But there is a huge difference between holding elected officials accountable to an established rule of law and starting a civil war. Without accountability before the law, the incentives for politicians to behave well or even obey the law are greatly reduced, as is their incentive to serve their actual constituents.

He acknowledges at the end of the piece that it is a notably pessimistic view that he takes. One that I would say at least borders on encouraging cynicism, which is the problem I have with a lot of Slavoj Žižek's popular articles. He tries to cushion his seeming negativity by offering in the last paragraph, "This ability of democracy to fill society with a sense of future possibility is one of its most precious side-effects."

But if the most democracy has to offer the majority of people is a vague sense of personal optimism for the distant future, that really is a grim message!

John Kenneth Galbraith, in his severely under-appreciated book The Culture of Contentment (1992) offered a look at the state of democracy in the immediate "post-communist" era that was sobering but nevertheless conveyed a sense that the discouraging conditions described were reason for concern and outrage and a demand for change. And he closed with a nominally pessimistic final paragraph that conveyed a very different sense than what Stephen Holmes does. Galbraith:

In the past, writers, on taking pen [a writing instrument once widely used], have assume that from the power of their talented prose must proceed the remedial action. No one would be more delighted than I were there similar hope from the present offering. Alas, however, there is not. Perhaps as a slight, not wholly inconsequential service, it can be said that we have here had the chance to see and in some small measure to understand the present discontent and dissonance and the not inconsiderable likelihood of an eventual shock to the contentment that is the cause.
Of course, since 1992 we've had quite a few shocks to the seemingly prevailing culture of contentment that Galbraith the elder was writing about then. George McGovern, another forever-unreconstructed New Dealer, wrote in a book published shortly before his death, What It Means To Be A Democrat (2011) reminded his American readers of what defeatism and complacency are not valid options:

But there is far too much at stake to waste a moment hand-wringing or complaining. Right now we have 14 million men and women without jobs, millions of families in bankruptcy and foreclosure, and some 50 million people without health insurance. We have families who cannot afford to send their children to preschool and others fretting over how to pay for college. We have Americans who go without enough to eat and others for whom nutritious food is simply not within reach. We have men and women in prison for drug use who should instead be in treatment. We have soldiers fighting in distant wars who should be at home with their families. We have immigrants who have traveled under horrific conditions in search of a better; life that still eludes them in our midst. Never in modern times have so many people needed a hand so desperately.
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