The Centre Can’t Save Democracy

The political centre sells itself as the answer to our democratic crisis, but it was their technocratic reforms that hollowed out politics – and facilitated the rise of the far-right.

It would be easy to imagine that the violence we saw at the US Capitol building in December, like the multiple white supremacist terrorist attacks that have taken place across the world in recent years, represented something out of the ordinary. If you look only at the surface, they could seem like random, abhorrent acts of violence, which reveal only banal lessons about the darkness lurking within human nature. Those who delve into the ideological leanings of the perpetrators, or analyse the social structures that facilitated their radicalisation, are often accused of ‘politicising’ a crisis.

Socialists take a different view. Our role is to delve below surface-level social relations and analyse the systems that lie beneath: to move, as Marx put it, from the ‘noisy sphere’ of exchange to the ‘hidden abode of production’. For a socialist witnessing acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated by right-wing extremists, the pertinent question is not ‘how could anyone do such a thing?’, but instead ‘what kind of social system is characterised by such frequent displays of nihilistic violence?’

American democracy did not suddenly find itself under threat on 6 January any more than its British equivalent the day Boris Johnson decided to prorogue Parliament. The truth is, Western democracies have been under threat for quite some time. Those who watched recent events with nothing but shock and surprise simply haven’t been paying attention.

Neoliberal Democracy

There has long been a debate among historians and political economists about the compatibility of neoliberalism and democracy. Academics like Peter Mair have argued that neoliberalism is fundamentally antithetical to democratic norms and institutions. His brilliant book Ruling the Void looks at the hollowing out of Western national and international political institutions, in which democracy has been replaced by a technocracy which appeals to ‘expertise’ in order to override any claims to democratic legitimacy.

The justification for the hollowing-out of democracy that has taken place in recent years was always that technocratic governance would support the efficient operation of the market. Central bank independence, for instance, would prevent the ‘politicisation’ of monetary policy by placing these decisions in the hands of independent economists. But this change has simply placed far more power in the hands of the ruling class — central bankers now heed the whims of financial lobbyists as much as politicians in their decision making.

Quinn Slobodian in his book Globalists argues that the early neoliberals were somewhat ambivalent on the question of democracy. Some, such as Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich Hayek, each of whom had their own flirtations with fascism, were hostile to democratic politics — but they were in the minority. Most realised that, as long as the real levers of economic power could be placed out of reach of the braying masses, free market capitalism could be safeguarded against the perils of majoritarian rule.

Slobodian points to the Schmittian distinction between imperium — rule over people — and dominium — rule over things — to explain the neoliberal attitude towards democracy. When it came to imperium, which can roughly be understood as the distinctively political realm supervised by the nation state, democracy was to be encouraged. A people should be free to decide upon the rules and laws to which to subject themselves in the realm of politics, culture, and society.

But when it came to the realm of dominium — that is, the realm of the economy, conceived as entirely separate from that of politics — the influence of the masses had to be limited. Democratic governance of the economy always generated the danger of ‘economic nationalism’, in which the narrow, short-term class interests of the masses would be placed above the general interest, which entailed constructing and maintaining an efficient and stable market system.

The solution for Slobodian’s neoliberals was ultimately the same as that described by Mair: they sought to separate politics from the economy, encouraging democracy in the former and strictly limiting it in the latter. The neoliberals achieved with technocracy what classical liberals had achieved with limited suffrage: insulating management of the economy from popular pressure.

The Void in Practice

The result of this widespread assault on democracy — which has taken place throughout the rich world — has been the erosion of the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Mair predicted back in the early 2000s that the depoliticisation of politics itself was creating mistrust amongst the electorate and reducing electoral participation. He wrote of a ‘growing popular indifference and distrust of parties, and of political institutions more generally.’

The evidence shows that he was right. In the UK, trust in our political and economic institutions has been falling steadily for decades: 60 per cent of Britons now agree with the statement ‘democracy is losing its effectiveness as a form of government’. According to the PR firm Edelman, the UK now has some of the lowest reported levels of trust in institutions in its history just one point below Russia in their league table.

But perhaps the most notable element of Edelman’s research is the eighteen-point gap the company finds in trust between the ‘informed’ public and the ‘mass population’, reinforcing Mair’s thesis that it is the working classes who have been most disenfranchised from the growing disconnect between politics and civil society.

In 2015, more than 50 per cent of people with low education and working-class jobs simply did not vote. When asked why they don’t vote, many responded that they don’t think voting makes a difference because politicians are ‘all the same’.

Similar trends could be observed in the US. This election was the first time since 1968 when voter turnout as a percentage of the voting age population exceeded 57 per cent (the unusually high figure achieved in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama). In other words, in the vast majority of recent elections, nearly half the eligible population has not bothered to vote.

Even in 2020, when a much higher proportion of the eligible population did cast their vote, 47 per cent of them did so for a man who had made his disdain for liberal democratic norms repeatedly clear, who proceeded to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire process only for his supporters to storm the Capitol building to express their contempt for their nation’s political institutions. Needless to say, this is not what a healthy democracy looks like.

The liberal response to these trends is predictable. The far right is seen as a set of bad, nasty people, rather than a symptom of a political system in decay — or one which has had white supremacy built into its very foundations. Meanwhile, the socialists who seek to address the deep crisis of legitimacy in our politics by fighting for economic and racial justice, and for the widest possible participation instead of elite decision-making, are often seen as just as much of a threat as the far right. All over the world, faith in democracy continues to decline.

Whether a politician is promising ‘hope’ or ‘jobs’, to ‘take back control’ or to ‘drain the swamp’, the stagnant pool of unfulfilled promises fills with each passing election, and the average voter becomes more and more convinced that there was never any point in casting their ballot in the first place. Why legitimise the careers of people who treat the average person with so much disdain?

The Economic and the Political

In the context of economic stability and growth, this disillusionment constitutes nothing more than an undercurrent of hostility towards politics in general. But in the face of stagnant wages, mounting inequality, and rising unemployment, it becomes a powder keg of unexploded rage.

In the period between 1990 and 2007, it was easy to imagine that — to paraphrase Tony Blair’s 1997 election song — things could only get better. Across most of the rich world, barring a few notable setbacks, economies grew. After skyrocketing in the 1980s, inequality seemed to have plateaued. And, perhaps most important of all, stock markets and house prices were ballooning even as it became easier than ever to invest and get a mortgage.

As I argue in my book Stolen, the economic model upon which these achievements were premised was highly unstable. Ever-increasing amounts of debt, facilitated by ever-increasing financial complexity and subterfuge, were required to prop up the relatively modest rates of growth seen before the financial crisis of 2008. And when the debt stopped rising, the whole edifice of finance-led growth came crashing down.

But it was not the Financial Crisis itself that brought us to the moment we find ourselves in today. Had the American and British economies returned immediately to high rates of growth and unemployment in the aftermath of 2008, the crisis may not have had such a profound impact on our politics.

Instead, the ten years that followed 2008 came to be known as the ‘lost decade’. In the UK, the recovery was slower than that which followed any other crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the US by 2018, the impact on wages was so severe that the average worker now earned the same amount in purchasing power parity terms that they did in 1979.

While quantitative easing sent the stock market — and in the UK, the housing market — soaring once more, this time only the wealthy were able to take advantage of the central bank-induced gravy train. Inequality between classes, generations, and regions began to soar.

The Chasm of Inequality

In the UK, while income inequality appeared to remain stable, the failure to account for capital gains meant that the headline figures were misleading. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics has shown that the Gini coefficient is now 2.4 percentage points higher than statistics had suggested.

The picture is no better when it comes to wealth inequality. In a report which merged official statistics with information from the Sunday Times Rich List, the Resolution Foundation found that the top 1 per cent is almost £800 billion wealthier than previous estimates suggested.

In the US, both wealth and income inequality have continued to increase by almost all measures in the period since 2008. The country has some of the highest levels of income inequality in the rich world; in 2018, half of all income in the US accrued to the top 20% richest households, and the top 5% took 23%.

Wealth inequality is even starker, with the top 10% of families owning 76% of the nation’s wealth, and the bottom 50% owning just 1% of the nation’s wealth. The racial wealth and income inequality gaps are also high, as are the gaps in health and education facing racialised minorities. Black families own just 3% of total household wealth, despite making up 15% of all households.

But it is generational and regional inequality that have become the most politically salient issues in recent years. The UK is one of the most regionally unequal countries in Europe. Some of its regions have output levels on a par with regions in Eastern Europe, while London screams ahead in the accumulation of wealth. In the US, the output of wealthy New York is around double that of poor Mississippi. These inequalities stem from the dynamics of uneven integration into the global economy and have unsurprisingly generated a ‘backlash’ against globalisation.

In the UK, millennials are set to become the first generation in modern history to be worse off than their parents. In the US, the average young family has even less wealth today than they did in 1989, while the average older family has substantially more: the gap between the two has risen from around $150,000 in 1989 to nearly $250,000 today.

These intergenerational inequalities are the result of the breakdown of finance-led growth. Older generations were more likely to benefit from the pre-Crash boom, which allowed them to acquire assets on the cheap, only to continue to benefit from the post-Crash rise in asset prices. Young people, meanwhile, are struggling to get on the housing ladder — let alone build up savings to invest in the stock market.

Reviving Democracy

Is it any wonder that our hollowed-out democratic institutions are struggling to contain the political contradictions generated by these astonishingly acute divisions?

Socialists work to build a collective consciousness amongst all those who experience exploitation and dispossession as a result of their class position, but the gaping wealth, income, racial, geographic, and intergenerational inequalities that exist within most societies in the rich world make that project extremely difficult. Liberals, meanwhile, cling to the idea that these inequalities can be absorbed by robust political institutions.

The trouble with the liberal view is that democratic institutions don’t float atop society — they both shape and are shaped by social relations. When the gaps in experience between different groups become too large, some groups will naturally come to feel — often correctly — that their interests are not being represented.

The question we face today is not whether the legitimacy of liberal institutions will continue to crumble in the coming years — that much is certain — it is what character the reaction to that erosion will take. Without a strong working-class movement, the far right will continue to sweep up the votes of discontented, encouraging them to enter into a Faustian bargain with their country’s elites.

The political centre has seen its fortunes revive both in Britain, with Keir Starmer, and more particularly in America, with Joe Biden, not because it has any particular answer to this dynamic — but because it persuades people that it can be ignored. Faced with the disaster of Boris Johnson and Trumpism, it does not promise to make things better, only to prevent them from getting worse. And this, for many people, is enough. But it cannot last in the long term.

Liberalism has ceased to be a living political philosophy, and has instead morphed into an ideological appendage of the status quo. It is the means by which conflict is suppressed but not assuaged, and contradictions subdued but not resolved. It allows the very same American corporate elite whose policies caused Donald Trump to celebrate his defeat — and proclaim their own virtuous role in bringing it about. But it will never force them to concede their power.

It is unlikely that this approach will do much to prevent the ongoing disintegration of our democracies. In the absence of solutions to the social problems which create the far right, liberals will simply seek to censor them — driving them off social media platforms with the support of their allies in Big Tech. This, of course, will become an ongoing game of whack-a-mole, and in the end will create new spaces for more hardline fascist organising, with far bigger audiences for extremists and potential for radicalisation than mainstream platforms.

For socialists, then, the task is to pick up the mantle of defending democracy which liberals will surely abandon. But this can only be done by tackling that which ails it: the capitalist system itself. The utility of fighting to protect democracy does not simply hinge on the very real imperative of resisting fascism, but also the need to shift the balance of power in society in favour of labour. What democratic rights exist in our societies have been fought for and won from below, which is why a technocratic and authoritarian political centre has such little desire to protect them.

In the UK, constitutional reform — from removing the House of Lords, to dissolving the City of London Corporation, to a substantive local and national devolution agenda — would amplify the voices of working people within the British state. Deepening economic democracy — by reviving the trade union movement, expanding democratic public ownership, and building new democratic, publicly-owned financial institutions — would assist organised labour in its struggle with capital and help us to mitigate the effects of climate breakdown.

Party reform is, of course, the sine qua non of this entire agenda. As long as social democratic parties continue to act as the voice of the liberal portion of the ruling class, and not of the working class, they will remain unable and unwilling to fix the deep divides that plague their societies. One of the biggest missed opportunities of Corbynism was the failure to democratise the Labour Party: that goal might be off the cards for now, but the Left needs to be fighting to defend the gains that were made and to prevent a further slide towards cartelisation.

Democracy is not a fashionable word among many on the Left. But there’s a reason the ruling classes have worked so hard for so many years to deny or restrict the political rights of working people: real democracy means empowering the majority, and most people want to live in an economy that works for the many, not the few.