The essence of crisis in democracy
Source: Futuristic Society/Flickr
The Increasing rates of attacks against human rights activists, the Spanish Constitutional crisis, the European Unions democratic deficit, the Democratic Unionist Party’s incredulous financing of a Brexit campaign. And so the cornucopia of instances in which democracy is seemingly in crisis could go on ad infinitum. Whilst I am aware that all of such examples carry with them different assumptions of what democracy is in theory and practice, the elicitation that democracy is in danger is easily won when one gives examples such as those mentioned previously.
Outside those disaggregate cases above, the idea that democracy is in crisis is increasingly prevalent. Freedom House, an institution premised upon being democracy’s watchdog, argues that throughout 2017 there has been the largest decrease of democratic governance in a decade. Although Freedom House continues to exist within the ideological dreamscape that is The End of History, and once suggested that globally, only two countries do not meet the criteria for being considered democratic, their most recent analysis does deserve some credit. It quite rightly documents the growing visibility of authoritarian practices within the likes of China, Turkey, and Russia. Of which the prospect that such developments may influence the course of other nations, especially the example of China which decouples the positive relationship between democracy and economic growth, is something we should all be wary of.
But does this all mean that democracy is in crisis? From here on in, I will argue that yes, democracy is in crisis. This relates not to any contemporary socio-political development mentioned above(although many have the capacity to exacerbate crisis). Instead, due to its constituent elements, crisis is an inherent, inescapable product of the democratic form. While this is not to say that democracy cannot exhibit stability. This should not be viewed as a negative assessment of democracy and is categorically not an argument against striving for a democratic ideal. Instead, being aware of the true nature of democracy, the frailty it must endure and the ambiguity which defines it are all important steps in being its advocate.
For the sake of analytical clarity, what is meant by ‘crisis’ must be laid bare. If one uses historical accounts of crisis to develop the idea on a theoretical level, it would be natural to understand it as an event or set of events followed by swift systemic change. For instance, both the fiscal crises of the 1930s and 1970s led to the introduction of Keynesianism and Neoliberalism. These were paradigmatic shifts in the realms of economic and political thought but my belief is that the idea of crisis built upon such historical changes falls prey to grandiosity. Crisis, is much subtler and does not pertain directly to transformation. My understanding of crisis is derived from Lockwood’s ‘system integration’ which seeks to highlight contradictions between different parts of social systems. Democracy and crisis are intimately linked due to the friction between the integral components of the democratic form.
Now, what are the constituent elements of democracy that mean it can never be disassociated with crisis?
Let’s start with the obvious; democracy has the capacity to create the conditions for its own destruction. A Democratic political organisation is unique in that it willingly provides a platform to those forces that wish to destroy it. The quintessential example of this being the rise of the NSADP in The Weimar Republic, which used its democratic mandate through the institutions of the Weimar to rise to power. Democide, as this property has been described, is premised upon self-determination. Summed up by Mark Chou, the democratic form contains within it an ‘anything goes mentality so long as it does not go against the possibility of continual questioning or self-institution’. If we understand democracy on the level of the Election, this functional necessity means the persistence of antidemocratic entities is inescapable.
The second constituent part that means democracy is contradictory at its very core, is how democratic governance is built upon an undemocratic foundation. This source of incongruity stems from the inability to democratically establish the political domain in which democracy operates. Although the composition of the democratic government is provided legitimately by ‘the people’, the composition of the people is not construed through any legitimate democratic procedure, with the boundaries of those who constitute ‘the people’ being determined by the forces of history. The illegitimate process that leads to legitimacy has been described by Thomas Nagel as “the cunning of history” of which he concludes that in practice this is the only way to achieve legitimacy.
From even just looking at these two elements, we can see how democracy has an inbuilt potential to develop in undemocratic ways. We can also see how these two contradictory forces can come to interact and fuel one another. Reference to the ‘the people’ in political discourse alludes to a social group whose existence is a priori to the experience of democracy, but it is also a reference whose usage outlines democracy’s political domain, constructing the boundaries for self-determination and therefore ‘Democide’. In this sense, democracy facilitates a continuity of the political relevance of pre-democratic social groups and it is when such relevance is perceived to be in decline, that the likelihood of Democide increases.
At this point you might be thinking; how can you argue that democracy is inherently prone to crisis without providing a definition of what democracy is Yet there is a reason why up until now, I have not outlined what is meant by the term democracy. The reason being that democracy is in essence open-ended, it is a form of social organisation that is not defined and therefore is in need of constant experimentation and innovation. It is a concept which retains no definitive definition of what it is and what it should entail. This is evidence in some of the most rudimentary ideas that very few would disassociate with democracy. For instance, freedom. Freedom on the conceptual level is not absolute, but relative in the sense that the freedoms one expects to have are not static but are forever widening. Therefore, how could democracy be defined by an ideal constantly in flux?
Even to use voting, elections and political parties to establish what democracy means is a flawed endeavour. For these are simply actions identified with democracy. No adequate definition of X can be solely determined by the actions X invokes, it must also spell out what X is. But lets, for argument’s sake, characterise democracy by its procedural traits. It may surprise people that, as the right to vote extends and the voter population grows, the utility of a single vote to affect the outcome decreases. The law of Diminishing Marginal Return means an individual’s democratic influence weakens as the collective electorate widens. You can see from this, that defining democracy by such traits is problematic. For if democracy facilitates the political expression of individuals, how can it be defined by an activity, whose extension ultimately comes to dilute the political influence of an individual?
I hope that by highlighting the inability to define democracy, either by procedural traits or abstract ideals, you see that it is deeply ambiguous. This ambiguity is an integral part of democracy because it allows for the constant experimentation needed to assert itself. To borrow the words of the German democrat, Walter Scheel, “democracy is always in the process of becoming. It is never finished”. The lack of finality and the never-ending process of becoming democratic, means that it is always open to the threat regression. But the unending process of the democratic strive also provides the room for continual improvement as a social system.
This brings us nicely back to the Lockwood’s system integration and the essence of crisis within democracy. As we have seen, democracy is structured in a manner which facilitates contradiction within its integral components. This contradiction exists on different levels with some, in my opinion, being more fatal than others. For instance, the detailed ambiguity of the democratic form allows for the experimentation necessary to develop a complex social system. I see the benefit of this trait outweighing any negatives that could stem from this. But the undemocratic political domain in which democracy operates is deeply troubling. This is not because I see any inherent wickedness in basing political identity upon socio-cultural trends that preceded democracy, but rather I have issues in regards to its interaction with elements of the social world exogenous to democracy. This being the reinforcing effect it plays upon the system of nation states which I see as deeply antiquated and problematic.
By Matthew Mckenna
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/mar/09/human-rights-activists-growing-risk- attacks-and- killings-study- claims
Diamond, L., (2008). Democratization in the Twenty-First Century: The Prospects for the Global Diffusion of Democracy. International Perspectives on Contemporary Democracy. pp.13-41.
Chou, M., (2012). Sowing the seeds of its own destruction: Democracy and democide in the Weimar Republic and beyond. Theoria, 59(133), pp. 41.
Näsström, S., (2007). The legitimacy of the people. Political Theory, 35(5), pp.624-658.
Nagel, T., (2005). The problem of global justice. Philosophy & public affairs, 33(2), pp. 147.
Brennan, Jason. The ethics of voting. Princeton University Press, 2012.