What comes after Democracy?

German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy are trying hard to reassure investors they can rely on Europe. They announced today their plans to rebuild the European Union. They’ll both meet up early next week to discuss their ideas about fiscal armonisation and budget austerity. A few weeks ago, Italy and Greece changed their leaders. Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos haven´t been victorious at any election, though. They belong to a new type of class: the technocrats. Spaniards did things differently… or kind of. Spain held elections on 20 November, when as expected the conservative PP got back to power after almost eight years in the opposition. Nonetheless, the PP and the then ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) reached an agreement to modify the Constitution in a matter of days in a desperate attempt to calm investors down (read our analysis here in Spanish). No public discussion and no referendum was considered necessary. A few months earlier, Portugal also had national elections in a quite hasty way. Conservatives refused to support former PM Socrates up until their arrival to power (our post). Then they applied the same harsh measures and some more. Portugal has thereby become ‘a case study in the politics of austerity

Europe is moving and there is little evidence that the fundamental changes we are witnessing correspond to truly democratic processes. José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, makes some very interesting points in a recent piece published in El País and Open Democracy:

While democracy (as the capacity to self-govern) evaporates on a national level, it doesn’t reappear anywhere else, and least of all where it ought to: in Europe. On the contrary: instead of reinforcing democracy in Europe, the crisis is bolstering technocracy on two levels: on the national level, putting into power technocrats with extensive experience in Europe, and on the European level, strengthening the ability of the technocrats, via the Central Bank or the European Commission, to supervise EU governments. (…)

We find ourselves in a situation unprecedented in the history of democracy. Historically, democracy has only existed on two levels: the Greek polis and the nation state. As we know, there was no transition from one to the other, nor any coexistence between the two forms: one disappeared and the other emerged centuries later. What we are faced with now is the troublesome jostling of democracy on a national level with the emergence, on a European level, of new centres of power, of new guidelines for decision-making that affect the central nucleus of democracy. The problem is that just as the mechanisms that made democracy function in city states were not adequate for governing nation states, representative democracies today are showing themselves incapable of managing, effectively and democratically, the system that is emerging in Europe.

The great achievement of Europe, its real legacy, is the creation of open societies run by governments in the service of citizens and subject to democratic rules. By definition, all rules are imperfect, as they are designed by fallible humans acting with only a limited awareness of a changing reality; and so these rules have been built up through hard work, with trial and error. Now, the maintaining of the essentially democratic nature of our societies depends on which rules of the game we impose on ourselves, at the European level, in order to resolve the crisis.

If the current trend continues any longer, Europe is heading towards a sort of post-democratic regime. Unless somebody convincingly proves otherwise, after democracy comes something pretty similar to pre-democracy, that is, authoritarianism and anything but rule of law and human rights. Democracy is costly, tiresome and difficult… At first, it doesn´t seem to suit the alleged efficiency of the markets. However, democracy is still the best political system we have ever been able to construct, or as Churchill famously noted, the ‘worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

Speaking of the devil, perhaps we should remind ourselves the lessons of the 20th century, as suggested by Jan-Werner Mueller in Project Syndicate:

It will not do simply to reaffirm the post-war European model of democracy, as if the only alternative were totalitarianism of one sort or another. But we should be clear about where we are coming from, and why – and that there was no golden age of European liberal democracy, whether before World War II, in the 1950’s, or at some other mythical point.

Ordinary Europeans long trusted elites with the business of democracy – and often even seemed to prefer unelected elites. If they now want to modify the social contract (and assuming that direct democracy remains impossible), change ought to be based on a clear, historically grounded sense of which innovations European democracy might really need – and of whom Europeans really trust to hold power. That discussion has barely begun.

Is democracy gone from Europe? If so, what do we have left? Some claim that in the current economic mess, we urgently need politicians who know how to play rough, who are familiar with the business, who don´t waste money in an unproductive way… in sum, technocrats who are willing and able to take tough decisions. Some also argue that this new type of politics is not forever. It is a temporal shift. We’ll keep it short. Democracy will be back as soon as the system is ‘ready’… and as long as voters show to be ready to choose the ‘right’ leaders. Let’s not kid ourselves. These are exactly the same arguments used by fascism not so many decades ago in our beloved Europe. Not in my name!

Koldo Casla



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