How democracies perish

This review was published in The Weekend Australian in June 2020.


Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy After the Crises

Polity; $33.95; 187pp

A. C. Grayling, The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy

Oneworld; $34.99; 239pp

When Bob Hawke died in 2019, shortly before the May election, many commentators sprinkled their obituaries with reflections on how contemporary politicians fell short of the Silver Bodgie’s example. While Hawke, it was said, had managed to combine charisma with a genuine vision, the modern pollie was the helpless plaything of the pollsters and the image-makers, bereft of courage and vision alike. Hawke was a statesman, a national leader who bestrode the political scene like a colossus. By contrast, his successors were political pygmies, lost in the tall grass of short-term calculation and the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

There is something to be said for this analysis, but by focussing so narrowly on character it misses something fundamental about how Australia has changed since Hawke was in his pomp – an omission all the more ironic for the fact that it was Hawke himself who helped to frame the new conditions. For in ‘rationalising’ the Australian economy – i.e. in increasing the power of markets, internal and external, in national affairs – the Hawke and Keating governments, in common with governments across the West, simultaneously shrunk the power of politicians to bring about decisive change. That is the irony of the neoliberal ‘turn’: political skill and force of character were needed in order to effect the transition; but the world that has emerged as a consequence is one in which the global market outruns the attempts of politicians to control it.

The British sociologist Colin Crouch has a name for this phenomenon. He calls it ‘post-democracy’ and in Coping with Post-Democracy (2000), Post-Democracy (2003) and, now, Post-Democracy After the Crises has charted its progress from neoliberalism’s heyday to our current, highly unstable moment. In part a restatement of his original ideas, the new book is also an opportunity to make some running repairs to his thesis in the wake of the GFC and its political fallout. As it happens, his thesis stands up pretty well in the light of those developments, and can even be said to have explained them in advance, so it is a testament to Crouch’s seriousness that he has decided to make the focus of this book the weaknesses in his own position.

That position can be stated as follows. Since the economic globalisation that accompanied the neoliberal turn was not attended by any comparable globalisation of democratic oversight, its effect has been to undermine the ability of national governments to act in the interests of their own electorates. This situation is made much worse by the neoliberal policies pursued within the countries in question. From the privatisation of state-owned assets to the entangling of the public and private spheres, whole swathes of life have been cut off from any form of democratic control. Democracy has become a ‘formal shell’. Like a house being eaten from the inside by termites, it may appear to be structurally sound. But in the event of a major storm or earthquake it crumbles to so much rubble and dust.

It was the storm of the global financial crisis that gave credence to this argument, revealing as it did the weaknesses of democracy in the face of globalisation. But in Post-Democracy After the Crises, Crouch is less concerned with the GFC than he is with the crisis that flowed from it: the earthquake of rightwing populism. And it is here that a new note enters his argument. For whereas in his previous work he’s tended to see populism as a symptom of post-democracy, he now emphasises that rightwing populism is also, increasingly, a cause of it – one bent on destroying such democratic institutions as the neoliberal termites have yet to devour.

Of course, there is a direct relationship between the increasingly unrepresentative character of democratic institutions and the charge of rightwing populists that those institutions are elitist and self-serving, and if Crouch never quite succeeds in showing how one can strenuously oppose the latter without seeming to endorse the former, he does set out the key dilemmas in a way that demonstrates just what is at stake if these twin threats to democracy are not met. He also notes the emerging alliance between the two, in which ‘the alt-right offers neoliberalism a deal’: accept nationalistic restrictions on some of your activities, and the accompanying racism and xenophobia, ‘and the rest will be left free’. Thus the right, having partly split along its liberal-conservative axis, is now recombining in a way that fuses the worst elements of both traditions.

If Crouch’s argument will annoy the populists, then A. C. Grayling’s latest book could drive them to the brink of insanity. For in The Good State, Grayling not only mounts a strenuous defence of liberal democracy; he also suggests that the very notion of democracy leads logically to liberal outcomes. The concept of democracy, he writes, ‘is a prescriptive one, in virtue of what it means and entails’. And what it entails, it quickly becomes clear, is a worldview very close to the one held by a certain academic and author based in Central London, England.

Like Post-Democracy After the Crises, The Good State is an intellectual sequel – a follow-up to Democracy and Its Crisis, in which Grayling argued that representative democracy is the best system of government yet evolved. In The Good State, he reiterates that view, but also elaborates on the principles and practises liberal democracies need to follow in order to stay true to the ideal at their core. Like Crouch, he believes that democracy is threatened by both neoliberals and populists. But his book is less concerned with the external forces sucking the life out of democracy than with the institutional arrangements of democracy itself.

The argument at the heart of Grayling’s book is that for representative democracies to flourish there needs to be a separation of politics from government. Both of these phenomena, Grayling argues, are essential aspects of democracy, which demands that people are free to debate each other and to elect their own representatives, but also that those representatives govern in the interests of everyone, not a single faction or class, or even a majority. Once a government is elected, therefore, politics needs to be set to one side in the interests of competent, democratic governance. In the event that it isn’t, democracy suffers.

As with Democracy and Its Crisis, there is lots of interesting stuff in The Good State: as a guide to ideas, especially liberal ideas, Grayling is in a class of his own. But the book is marred by an elitist streak, all the more annoying for being dressed up as its opposite. For in attempting to circumvent the charge that government minus democracy equals technocracy, Grayling makes the ludicrous case that democracy necessitates policies on which rational people will tend to agree, so long as they are privy to ‘good information’. It is only when politics gets in the road that really bad decisions are taken, as when, for example, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Any sensible calculation would have concluded that such a policy would have been bad for the country, and, consequently, undemocratic!

So, having begun Democracy and Its Crisis with a nod to Plato’s argument that democracy leads to mob rule, Grayling ends The Good State seemingly flirting with Athenian’s solution: a republic run by philosophers. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but that is where you eventually end up when you say that democracy ‘entails’ certain outcomes.

Suffice it to say that if you can stomach that your constitution is more robust than mine.