The eclipse of democracy

It strikes me that even the most basic democratic ideals are almost entirely missing from the mainstream public sphere. Rule by experts or markets or data has replaced the ideal of the people collectively making important decisions for itself. Democracy as collective power has given way to democracy as representation — as inclusiveness, diversity, a range of perspectives. Within this hegemonic view, democracy is a society in which individuals have the right to say what they want and make individual choices, and any power that would presume to limit that expression or choice is anti-democratic and oppressive. The ideal of collective deliberation about the shape of the political space itself — whether we’re talking about constitutional arrangements and the selection of representatives or questions of economic distribution that go beyond minor tweaks to capitalism — is so radically absent as to be unimaginable.

On the one hand, then, we have unaccountable “expert” elites (including our “representatives,” who in practice constitute a set of two competing, self-selecting elites), and on the other hand, we have politics as expressivity. Both have a moment of truth to them, particularly the latter. In a truly democratic society, all voices really would be heard, and greater progress toward that ideal is an unmitigated good. This is a point where I think a lot of leftists go wrong — they rightly point out that inclusiveness as such isn’t the answer, but then they draw the unwarranted inference that we shouldn’t care about inclusiveness or even that inclusiveness is a distraction. On the other side, it’s difficult to imagine any future society where everyone is equally knowledgeable about everything, and so having experts who are accountable to the people — with the latter setting the goals and assessing whether the expert recommendations have produced the desired result — is likely to be practically necessary until we all figure out how to plug into the Borg collective.

The problem isn’t with these two phenomena in themselves, but with the way they’ve been hollowed out in the absence of a robust democratic ideal. Indeed, both can be put forward as protections against democracy — because we all know that the people at large would select all the wrong policies and enthusiastically embrace exclusionary fascism if pure democracy were allowed to prevail, right? It’s telling the “populism” is so often a pejorative term (scary in the case of right-wing populists, charmingly though dangerously naive in its left-wing variant), because if you look at the structure of the word, it is literally synonymous with democracy!

I think we can see the depth of the challenge of restoring the democratic ideal when we look at the confused way that people talk about social media (here I draw on some Twitter exchanges with @mike_salter). On the one hand, it does promote the democratic ideal of greater inclusiveness and has undeniably been used for important democratic self-organization on the part of oppressed communities. Yet on the other hand, the architecture is corporate-owned and subject to arbitrary change with no input from users, and the same formal “inclusiveness” that produces its benefit has also made it an effective vehicle for reactionary campaigns of harrassment like #GamerGate.

By putting forth social media as per se democratic, we run the risk of mistaking the tools for the substance — the same mistake as when we assume that if the apparatus of parliamentary representation exists, democracy must exist as well. Social media may turn out to be an important technology for collective self-determination, in much the way that technologies like elections and parliamentary procedure advanced the cause of democratic rule in the past. But when we reflect that the Nazi party took power through electoral and constitutional means, we should realize the bankruptcy of the liberal proceduralism that substitutes the process for the result.

As typically happens, though, I have a lot of critique and very little idea of what should actually be done.

10 thoughts on “The eclipse of democracy

  1. That there is widespread public approval for things like minimum wage increases, real financial reform, etc. while they remain politically unlikely speaks to the absence of actual democracy and the extent to which the system is designed to thwart it.

  2. Of course, the American project in democracy is a moderate version: a democratic republic. The founding fathers were just as concerned with a tyranny of the mob as they were with a centralized tyranny. It never was the case of the exercise of “collective power” so nothing, really, “has given way to democracy as representation”: American democracy was always ‘representative’. Although I am uncertain that Adam does not mean ‘representation’ as Vorstellung, he directs some concern to ‘representatives’ of ideals such as inclusiveness and diversity. The ‘democracy to come’ awaits its own advent, and might be undone in the waiting, as ‘to come’ (as Caputo and Derrida might say) might very well crush ‘democracy’ under the pressure of the waiting.

    Democracy—Vorstellung. Yes, I agree.

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Adam.

  3. Neoliberalism. Decline of unions. Crushing of the hopes of the Civil Rights Movement and the 60s more generally. Etc., etc., etc. I’m pretty confident you could have come up with these examples on your own.

  4. not sure how unions and civil-rights movements weren’t/aren’t dependent on experts (especially when it came/comes to pursuing their agendas in representative governance) but thanks for the snark.

  5. If you read the post, I never say that democracy is incompatible with experts or the two are always diametrically opposed. Snark may have been unnecessary, but it’s a response to the low quality of your contribution.

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