Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Democracy, Gangnam Style

The New Statesman is celebrating its centenary. Showing that it has lost none of its feel for modern manners, it decided to ask various worthies to vox-pop in short-form on the question: "Did the Left win the twentieth century". No one actually tweeted an answer, but the results were predictably superficial, ranging from the partisan name-calling of Michael Gove to the fence-sitting of David Milliband (is he still here?) What was strange, in between the claims that the Nazis were leftwing and that the factory has been replaced as an organisational form by Facebook, was the almost complete absence of the word "democracy". The only one who mentioned it, and then only in passing, was the historian-cum-MP Tristram Hunt. Insofar as it is possible to agree what "left" and "right" mean, democracy is a triumph for the former (votes for all) rather than the latter (votes for the few).

The key political change of the 20th century was the introduction of universal adult suffrage. In the UK this only happened in 1928 when the vote was extended to all women over 21 (men got it in 1918). In most European countries universal male suffrage only came in after WW1, and in many it would go into a hiatus within 20 years that would last till the early 1990s. Looked at in historical terms, this fragility clearly reflects the degree of economic development, with the heartland of European democracy being the more advanced North West corner of the continent. As democracy expands, so too does plurality (the idea that multiple bases of power in society is a good thing) and tolerance (the acceptance of limits on majoritarianism). The expansion of democracy has followed industrialisation (not markets), often after decades of conservative resistance, notably to Southern Europe in the 70s and Eastern Europe in the 90s. The steps towards democracy in Turkey and the Maghreb are a continuation of this process.

Representative democracy was the product of the industrial revolution. The upheaval in society led to the concentration of labour (which facilitated collective action), growing demands for leisure and state protection from the vagaries of the market, plus a growing need for an educated workforce and thus buy-in to the social order. In all cases, electoral democracy was preceded by democratic practice among industrial workers. The social pressure for universal (male) suffrage came primarily from organised labour, not liberal reformers. If you've ever wondered why there is little democracy in the Gulf states, consider the absence of independent trades unions (this in turn reflects the deliberate apartheid of the oil industry, dependent on foreign workers and used by rentier conservative elites to maintain tribal society).

Fascism was a reactionary movement that attacked the "degeneracy" of democracy (i.e. giving votes to workers) in favour of an organic concept of nationhood (everyone knows their place and the nation has a destiny). It was doomed to failure because of its need for constant crisis as an organising principle and because industrialisation eventually dissolves borders. Not just in the sense of trade breaking down barriers, but in the pressure for labour and capital mobility. One of the many ironies (or internal contradictions) of Nazi rule was that it led to millions of "racially-inferior" foreign workers being forcibly imported to Germany, along with looted plant and equipment. The postwar European project is one of "constrained democracy", in which conservative elites, scarred by the experience of the 30s and 40s, sought to neutralise the threat of populism, and the economic volatility that could give rise to it, through constitutionalism, federalism and the social market. In the early 90s, the project was upgraded by neoliberals to manage democracy through a shadow state constructed through "post-democratic" and technocratic mechanisms such as the Euro/ECB and EU Commission, and by appeal to "market forces" and other hegemonic phenomena.

The 20th century can be seen as a series of conservative experiments to marry the volatile combination of industrialisation and anti-democracy, from Fascism through various shades of military-backed authoritarianism to the single-party, state-capitalism of East Asia. Only the last of these currently has legs. The post-1979 era in Europe can be interpreted in terms of the subversion and capture of democracy by anti-democratic interests, often inspired by the achievements of the LDP in Japan, Park Chung-hee in South Korea and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore. The difference between the two is that the East Asian model has sought to control the impact of industrialisation, while the European model has sought to exploit deindustrialisation and the weakening of organised labour. In Eastern Europe, the bureaucratic elites quickly oligopolised both economic and political power, but with more of an accent on security and nationalism than managerial competence (understandably). In the West, globalisation and the neoliberal turn has gradually normalised the idea that much of economic and social life is beyond the scope of democracy, which in turn leads to low expectations of politicians and the lionisation of successful businessmen.

The deindustrialisation of the UK has been mirrored by the erosion of pluralism. As well as the disempowering of local government and the introduction of anti-union laws, the last 30 years have seen the public sector circumscribed to a set of commodities (hence the disrespect shown to teachers who express an opinion on teaching) and public corporations dismissed as "elitist" and "unrepresentative" by unrepresentative elites (e.g. the Murdochs re the BBC). Tolerance has been reduced to a fiscal preference: you can buy a lifestyle (gay marriage), but you can't expect it for free (benefits). Democratic control, eroded by privatisation and self-regulation, has increasingly given way to calls for transparency (the fetish of the camera-phone) and accountability, which can be satisfied by a televised auto da fe in front of a parliamentary select committee. The ritual humiliation of a banker is neither systemic reform nor democratic engagement, but it's an effective trick for channelling popular anger that the East Asian regimes have long been wise to.

In a week when we're told how awful everything is in North Korea (not that I doubt it), it's easy to forget that the shining example of South Korea is a state where democracy is recent and fragile, and where the inter-connected elites of big business and the military ultimately call the shots. We shouldn't take democracy so much for granted.

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