It’s fashionable to announce the collapse of western democracy or at least its imminent demise. I guess the current turmoil does illustrate some of the failings of democratic government, in particular how it has become just another tool the powerful can use to protect their own interests but the confidence underlying some authors who think we can somehow avert a descent into another ugly period of human history seems problematic and neglects some basic ideas about power.
The first problem is the notion that somehow democracy was won by the masses some time in the distant past. Often this comes with utterances about the French revolution or the US version or perhaps even some developments in the UK. My problem with this is the narrative doesn’t really hold up. I’m not disputing there were violent upheavals that accompanied certain changes in government in some places, and in fact that is quite an illuminating fact in itself. No, what I dispute is the idea that democracy somehow ushered in a permanent change in power sharing within society, away from inherited wealth and towards a more egalitarian world for example. Certainly and until recently there have been some progress (say in terms of decades or centuries) in the degree and extent of poverty in the west but the current trajectory of wealth distribution is really turning back the clock at a very alarming rate. What seems to be emerging is the extent to which the fledgling democratic ideals were subverted over time by the rich and powerful. The masses may have won temporary battles in the past but their victories were tainted by conditions that permitted the rich and powerful to retreat and bide their time.
A case in point. The rise of communism in Russia was accompanied by an extremely bloody purge of the nobility. It gave birth to an aggressive socialism which had many deficiencies but perhaps the worst problem was how it entrenched even more deeply the power of violence to protect vested interests. Perhaps this validates the ideas of Derrida who once argued that any violent overthrowing of authority (or government) inexorably leads to a re-establishment of power and authority sustained by the capacity to do violence.
Not that Russia is alone. Western governments retain above all else the capacity to engage in violence both towards others and within its own sovereign borders. In other words they keep standing armies to defend the state from external threats and operate a police force to maintain law and order.
The other thread to this yarn is about the threat posed by technology.
I have frequently asserted that technology (or the application of known science) is in a sense socially neutral or even beneficial. Things like elimination of certain diseases or the distribution of electricity. However I think there is also an argument that can be made about how the wonders of technology are subverted by the capitalist model and tend to favour those who are already well off. Sure there are plenty of exceptions but overall the people who can most enjoy and benefit from new tech are the very same people who have always enjoyed the best of the best.
This too is becoming a pressing issue. The collapse in structural employment driven largely by the automation of routine production and the dominant profit motive will only become more extreme as robotics further invades to workplace. The economic optimism of jobs being magically created seems hard to sustain when you look at some of the numbers, such as 3.5 million truck drivers in the US threatened by self driving trucks or the millions of taxi drivers threatened by self driving ubers.
Some people take refuge in the idea of economic growth. Somehow this panacea seems to be the goto answer for every pessimistic critique of the status quo but when the proceeds of economic growth are increasingly winding up in the hands of fewer and fewer, the obvious rebuttal is the treadmill seems to heading in the wrong direction.
The economic problems posed by increasing inequity are compounded by the social problems posed by large scale unemployment. For most people, working is the only way to satisfy their material needs. Work is the way most people get access to the monetary system that controls the necessities of life but it also has a critical role to play in maintaining social order. Culturally the west has invested heavily in the politics of personal identity premised on productive worth. Furthermore there seems to be plenty of evidence supporting the idea that large scale unemployment leads to large scale social unrest. I think it is fair to say social stability is largely underwritten by a social economic contract, however it is not a contract between equals.
The current “crisis” in democracy is far more than just another problem with the various political system and probably represents just the tip of the iceberg. In short the economic growth scenario is floundering largely because it seems to have run its course. Without an overwhelming economic narrative, we are left looking for alternatives but it is grimly ironic that the very success of the west in dominating any viable alternative leaves us with almost no where else to go.
And that anyone can possibly imagine Trump is the answer is really all you need to know about how fucked we are.