Saturday, 14 September 2019

The Liberation of Politics

If the aim of the market is the liberation of the economy from democratic interference, then the aim of populist authoritarianism is the liberation of politics from institutional democracy. Many liberal commentators recognise the latter to be true, but few are prepared to accept that it is connected to the former: that the erosion of democratic institutions and norms is the direct consequence of the empowering of the market. Instead, the "assault on democracy" is presented either as a baffling malignancy that originates at both ends of the political spectrum or as a lack of virtue on the part of particular politicians. This leads to a fatuous bothersiderism in which, to pick a current example, Jeremy Corbyn's scrupulous observance of democratic norms, notably his belief that Labour should respect the referendum result, is held to be on a par with Boris Johnson's cavalier negligence and abuse of office.

For some, like Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, the recent events in Parliament are evidence of constitutional resilience and the "political courage" of Tory rebels (he grudgingly accepts that Labour played a part in defeating the government), which he compares unflatteringly to the US: "The Republicans in the US Congress have failed that test, refusing to do their duty by restraining a president bent on trampling on the constitution. In the last fortnight, Britain’s politicians – or enough of them – have shown their US counterparts how it’s done." You wonder what it will take to convince him that the Republicans are perfectly happy with Trump and consider their duty to their class to be paramount. Freedland's solution for the UK is a written constitution - "one that would spell out the limits on executive might" - but this simply limits democracy to the dynamics of Parliament. It ignores that wider field where democracy has been marginalised by the market.

If Jo Swinson's belief that neither Johnson nor Corbyn is "fit for office" has any objective foundation, it is in respect of their willingness to be constrained by institutions. The flaw in her reasoning can be seen by comparing the fact of Johnson's disregard for democratic restraint in his proroguing of Parliament and the track record of Corbyn in his adherence to Labour's own constitution. The latter caution has been a major reason why the progressive reform of the party has been painfully slow, despite his democratic mandate. The idea that such a man would, if he became a caretaker Prime Minister tasked with extending Article 50 and scheduling a referendum, then abuse the office for party or personal advantage is simply not plausible (nor is the idea that Seumas Milne would be a leftwing Dominic Cummings). Swinson's judgement has all the analytical rigour of a playground taunt.

Many self-styled defenders of democratic institutions are guilty of bad faith, often elevating the interests of one particular institution or another to the detriment of wider democratic practice. Remainers who currently bang on about parliamentary sovereignty vis-à-vis the executive but also advocate the cancellation of the 2016 referendum result, as Swinson does, are an obvious case in point. While the decision to hold that public vote has since set the cat among the constitutional pigeons, it doesn't follow that it was a mistake, whatever David Cameron may now think, and it certainly doesn't follow that the difficulty in absorbing the result into the constitutional framework should in any way invalidate it. The most ridiculous position adopted by that framework's liberal defenders is the attempt to reinvent the monarchy as a pillar of democracy. It simply shows the weakness of other institutions when the Queen throwing imaginary shade is presented as a symbol of defiance.

The decay of our democracy is not merely the result of an institutional rot from within - the preservation of antique forms, the venality of the political class etc - it is also the product of those external forces that have deliberately weakened our political institutions in the process of freeing the economy from democratic control. As more and more of the management of public affairs has been ceded to the market, so the institutions of the democratic state have been both reduced in their scope and weakened in their ability to carry out their residual duties of care. This means that among the chief culprits in the erosion of democracy are those liberals who now loudly lament its currently parlous state. The MPs who speak carelessly of "coups" and insist that they are protecting democratic rights are often the same ones who have cheered privatisation and the rolling back of the welfare state.

The same MPs have also been vocal in supporting the media's presentation of the working class as desiring a backward-looking communitarianism that is culturally at odds with the current Labour party. This is both exaggerated, through a focus on a very narrow definition of that class (essentially white, small town and elderly), and also misrepresented in its nature, thus the defence of the welfare state and the appetite for industrial investment is elbowed-out in favour of expressions of bigotry. The motivating force behind contemporary nationalism is clearly a defensive response to neoliberal globalisation and the incursion of the market. This is why it should be seen as nostalgia for the postwar nation state in the round, rather than just nostalgia for a more culturally homogeneous and socially conservative society, and thus potentially more supportive of Labour's shift to the left than antagonistic towards it (whether Labour should indulge this nostalgia is another matter).

This counter-movement has been hijacked by the political right in support of a populist authoritarianism that further erodes democratic accountability, but it has also been enabled by centrists for whom the market is blameless and the working class's lack of virtue is an easy excuse to ignore its more profound concerns. In the UK, the coincidence of nationalism and disaster capitalism is presented by the liberal media as little more than a criminal conspiracy and its advocates as opportunists. The emphasis placed on "dirty money" and social media manipulation since 2016 hasn't helped. This serves to distinguish the political centre from the right in terms of virtue, but in doing so it obscures the responsibility of modern capitalism for these social tides. It also distracts from the normalisation of authoritarianism since the 1990s by the political centre's eager adoption of rightwing attitudes, such as the division of society into deserving and undeserving.

Liberals are happy to highlight some of the sovereigntist ironies of Brexit - how taking back control has seen Parliament and the judiciary denigrated, how freedom from the EU means kowtowing to the US - but few have been prepared to acknowledge that these reflect tendencies towards the weakening of national political institutions that predated 2016 and were significantly enabled through membership of the European Union. The point here is not just the EU's well-known "democratic deficit", but the wider removal of national institutions from democratic oversight, such as the independence of central banks and the subservience of national economic policy to market confidence. In the long run, the liberation of politics from democracy has been advanced mainly from the political centre, not from the right, let alone the left.


  1. Are you coming out as a Lexiter?

    1. Not at all. If there's a 2nd referendum I'll probably vote remain again (though again with little enthusiasm).

      I'm just acknowledging a) that the 1st referendum was legitimate and b) that the leave vote was driven by concerns about the disappearance of the social democratic state as much as residual Thatcherism.