We have to move beyond 'post-democracy'
The rise of Ukip and the parallel break-up of the Tory Party are part of a wider malaise across Europe that poses a threat to the established order. What happens next depends on whether we can get our act together in the face of growing reaction.
Ukip and the 5 Star Movement in Italy are just examples of the rise of populist, anti-politics. While these movements themselves are not fascist, their language, propaganda and nationalism has a threatening logic and opens the door to other forces. Nigel Farage rages against immigration and gay marriage, while Beppe Grillo is not hostile to Italy’s fascist past and is also anti-immigrant.
The swing to anti-politics – which can also take the form of not voting – coincides with and is driven by a rejection of austerity policies. Yet its origin actually predates the economic and financial crisis and is closely related to the globalisation process.
From the mid-1990s onwards, in Britain anyway, we entered a period which some refer to as “post-democracy”. Under this system, all the trappings of parliamentary democracy are retained, but the system is hollowed out. Corporate lobbyists and transnational, secretive, unaccountable agencies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation actually determine policy. Elections become meaningless because the mainstream parties have been integrated into this process.
Ukip’s fear of the rise of the European “super-state” is not without foundation. The European Council has assumed fantastic legislative powers, while the European Parliament is the only one in the Western world that does not have the power to propose legislation and can only amend it. The Council operates in secret with its own secretariat and in reality calls all the shots. Of course, this has nothing to do with any known concept of democracy. In a challenging article for the new Statewatch journal, which monitors the EU and civil liberties Leigh Phillips notes:
The legislative decision-making apparatus is not parliamentary but intergovernmental and takes place primarily between diplomats behind closed doors. In truth, this is a form of treaty making rather than legislating, a method that historically was the realm of war, peace-making, and espionage. Great swathes of policy areas have been taken out of the domain of public, contestatory parliaments and placed in the hands of diplomats and civil servants.
Unlike most observers and to his credit, Leigh does not throw up his hands in horror at the rise of the Golden Dawn, neo-Nazi movement in Greece or Hungary’s Jobbik, with its Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard) paramilitary association and what he describes as its “anti-Roma pogroms and unashamed Anti-Semitism”.
The question that he poses is what lies beyond “post-democracy”? We can’t return to the post-1945 social democratic consensus that lasted until the 1970s. That space is now occupied by the imperatives of corporate-driven globalisation. As Leigh says:
Depending on its particular flavour, anti-politics can exist as a cynical apathy that buttresses the neo-liberal post-democratic turn, or even wishes for an outright authoritarian turn with the arrival of a strongman saviour. But anti-politics can also be the germ of the overthrow of post-democracy if it embraces a progressive road that transforms anti-politics into the construction of (rather than just demand for) popular self-government.
Where his analysis falters, however, is in suggesting that “there is the possibility that the rejection of the political class transforms itself into a belief in self-government” and “a desire for a transcendence of liberal political and economic structures”. Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence to indicate that democratic advances on this scale can take place without some decisive, organised intervention against prevailing state forces. That’s our responsibility to build. Nevertheless, Leigh reveals the dialectic in the break-up of the old order and his article is well worth reading in full.
21 May 2013