The end of the democratic era?

Is the stability and future of liberal democracy a more tenuous and even anomalous situation for a political system than we think? Indeed, if we examine recent trends in global politics, are indications under the surface of processes working against our long-term freedoms? Looking at the particular processes which underline modernisation, particularly the current type of modernity which we are experiencing, people will often declare that democratisation is an element of it.

If we study history, we find it impossible not to relate the advance of technology and economy with the parallel steady expansion of democratic governance. This is why many of us, perhaps subconsciously, feel that campaigns for democracy in Iran, and recent achievements such as elections Ghana or Indonesia, have an air of inevitability about them. But there is no automatic relationship, and in fact if we consider the three central tendencies of the modern world — globalisation, specialisation and the advance of technology and knowledge — each contain elements that may ultimately undermine democracy, even destroy it.

So how are these processes undermining democracy? Firstly, consider globalisation. The health of a political system rests on more than just directly political institutions. It also requires a cohesive community and forms of cultural exchange that coincide substantially with the political system. An example is the national press, but also, perhaps even more importantly, the conversations a person may have in their day-to-day existence. The consequence of globalisation has been to separate the determinants of community and cultural exchange from political boundaries. In economic terms, corporations become transnational and can control public policy rather than the other way round. If one state imposes regulations on these companies, they can simply move shop. But culturally also, we now spend increasing amounts of time following debates over which we have no control yet which increasingly effect us, such as the politics of the United States. The consequence of this is the expanding power of global dictatorships controlled by global multinationals and the US government. Areas of discourse stop relating to that which people actually control.

This is why the left has become politically devastated in Europe, as evident in the last European elections; with the result that political discourse has been reduced to meaningless concerns over image. Britain, which opened itself up to the brutal globalised capitalism of the City of London, is a perfect example of what is in store for the rest of us down the line; three clone parties with, once Brown is replaced by Miliband, three clone public-school-educated leaders, engaged in mock debates while the media becomes scandalised by meaningless stories about celebrities or half-truths about crime or immigration. Even short term victories are ultimately fruitless. Critics who say the Spain’s plan for higher taxes on the wealthy will create capital flight are right, it will. This is because private individuals and corporations with global power can control governments whose area of leverage is comparatively parochial.

Secondly, specialisation. This is a problem long-observed by some intellectuals such as the Frankfurt School. People’s areas of expertise deepen and narrow, and as a result we have to take an increasingly wide variety of things as matters of faith. Initially this concerned only the natural sciences. We trusted physicists when they said that time and space were relative, even though we couldn’t really understand it, and it didn’t much effect are lives. But as the social sciences become more sophisticated, expertise that we are expected to accept as a matter of faith becomes increasingly integral to our lives. When a select few have studied an issue for all their lives it is really difficult to contradict them no matter how hard you try. Consequently, accountability and open debate, absolutely central to the health of a democracy, are in grave danger. If the vast body of economists say that there is nothing wrong with the global credit bubble who are we to disagree with them? Even if they are then proven wrong as they have been, the terms of the debate remain very much in their hands.    

Thirdly, and related to the second issue, consider progress of technology and knowledge. This is a long-predicted nightmare scenario, central to Orwell’s prophesied dystopia in Nineteen-Eighty Four, and its failure to be realised yet is possibly the one of  main reasons why Orwell’s society has  not generally come to pass. But the central problem remains. Democracy arose, to cut a long story short, because the mass of the populace gained enough power, wealth and knowledge to pressurise the state apparatus and ruling elites for proper treatment. But what happens when the tables turn? The greatest amount of knowledge and technology at any time in history always resides within those at the top. Thus far in modern history this has not been enough to compensate for the knowledge and technology which diffused downward. But there has to be a tipping point somewhere. There must be a point when knowledge and technology become powerful enough to control the entire mass of a population. When real-life telescreens and Newspeak is powerful enough control our thoughts and actions. This a trend that is already in play in terms of knowledge, as PR becomes increasingly sophisticated and capable of controlling public attitudes, as we see in the case of the recent healthcare debate in America, where misinformation has become almost an art form.

Democracy, in short, may be a very exceptional and anomalous situation caused by specific historical conditions which will not only run out , since that is obvious, but sooner than we think. The final question that of course needs to be asked is that if this is true, can we do anything about it. The answer is that of course we can and we must. This is not a deterministic prediction but an observation of the perils of contemporary processes.  If we become aware of these processes we can fight against them; calling building new transnational forms of political discourse and decision-making, adopting a balanced approach of sceptical respect for expert opinion, and empowering ourselves to resist the more concentrated power of elites, for example by becoming more aware of the tools of PR.