Friday, November 28, 2008

Post Democracy: a Review

Colin Crouch's short and provocative work Post-democracy asks why and then suggests reasons for the departure of historic left-of-centre political parties across Europe from their traditional role of being political voices for those disadvantaged by unrestrained capitalism.

His analysis is rooted in 1) the rise of the global firm 2) the decline in the size of the manual working classes 3) the loss of confidence in the idea of a separate public sector distinct from the interests of business.

The analysis is broad in its scope - Professor Crouch's academic focus includes Europe-wide political behaviour - as well as memorable in its style. Good points are well made throughout the book, a work which has its roots in a number of papers produced for the Fabian Society and The Political Quarterly.

The book's central thesis is persuasively argued: that western nations have passed the historic high point of mass democratic action (which he locates in the mid-twentieth century) and have entered a phase in which many of the outward activities of democracy remain (universal suffrage, elected government, etc.) but in which direct political activity by large numbers of citizens has been replaced with government by elected elites.

This thesis stands in opposition to the idea that democracy in the Internet age is as strong as ever. While the proliferation of special interest groups is a fact of modern political life, Crouch argues that this atomising of the activity of citizens, at the expense of concerted party political action, actually confirms the reality of post-democracy. These individual groups are insufficient in their breadth of focus to achieve significant structural and legal changes to restrain the hegemony of global firms, with their well-resourced access through lobbies to the handles of governmental influence and power.

Commenting on the rise of global businesses run by elite professionals with limited loyalty (and tax obligations) to any specific nation state, Professor Crouch notes that,
"In many respects this resembles the situation in pre-Revolutionary France, where the monarchy and aristocracy were exempt from taxation but monopolized political power, while the middle classes and peasantry paid taxes but had no political rights."
The author's portrayal of the role of central government in the post-democratic age is as frightening as it is recognisable. The "ellipse" of government, which now includes lobby groups allied to large firms as well as public-private partnerships has, says Crouch, resulted in governments which are similar in their structure and nature to the business with which they allied, though paradoxically weaker as they have handed over large areas of activity and expertise to private firms.

Such governments increasingly outsource many of their traditional functions (education, health care, transport) and increasingly see their role as facilitating the operations of businesses within the economy.

Based at the European University Institute in Florence, Crouch cites the Belisconi regime as emblematic of the post-democratic government:

"In the early 1990s....Silvio Berlusconi...rapidly filled the [political] vacuum ... by pooling resources from his extensive network of enterprises ... television channels, a publishing house, a major football club, a financial empire, a leading supermarket chain... Initially, Forza Italia had no members or activists at all as such. Many of the functions normally filled by volunteers were carried out by the employees of Berlusconi's various enterprises.... Forza Italia is an example of a political party that ... is essentially a firm rather than an organisation of the classic party type; it did not emerge from any formulation of interests by social groups, but was a construction built up by parts of the existing political and financial elite."

Rather than being the voice of mass political empowerment, the mass media is portrayed by Professor Crouch as a specific type of global firm. Examples of the effect of the dependence of post-democratic governments upon the mass media abound:
"We have become accustomed to hear politicians not speaking like normal people, but presenting glib and finely honed statements which have a character all of their own."
"Advertising is not a form of rational dialogue... Its aim is not to engage in discussion but to persuade to buy. Adoption of its methods has helped politicians to cope with the problems of communicating to a mass public; but it has not served the cause of democracy itself."
"Promotion of the claimed charismatic qualities of a party leader, and pictures and film footage of his or her person striking appropriate poses, increasingly take the place of debate over issues and conflicting interests."
As a specific example of this trend, Crouch cites "The exceptional Californian gubernatorial election of 2003, when the film actor Arnold Schwarzenegger waged a successful campaign with no policy content."

Accustomed as we are to being told that the public interest is served when business thrives ( a new spin on the maxim that "What's good for General Motors is good for America") , Professor Crouch's book is a well-argued reminder that there are human (and indeed, environmental) interests that are not fully served by such "success" when it is narrowly defined as generating shareholder bonuses and when these successes are achieved by firms exercising disproportionate power over the political process.
The final chapter ("Where do we go from here?") is, in my mind, the weakest part of the book, as it understandably takes a macro view of this question in 20 pages, providing only the broadest of suggestions of how citizens in a post-democratic age could begin to reengage in the political process through discovering their shared identity and interests and expressing them through both political parties and special interest groups.

Overall, this is an important book that, to me at least, had the effect of putting together a number of observable economic and political trends which, until reading it, had appeared to me as separate developments.

At 135 pages, the book is readily digestible and is well referenced for further reading . It also forms part of a series published by Polity which includes such titles as War and Power in the 21st Century, Governing the World Economy and Surveillance after September 11. If the tone and style of these other titles is as good as Post-democracy, then I will have stumbled upon a useful resource.

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Steve Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Smith said...

Thank you for this Al. If this has been published over the last six months or so, I'm wondering if you have thought of submitting your review to one of the left leaning publications e.g. the New Internationalist?

atlanticwriter said...

Flattery will get you nowhere Steve.