Not the end of democracy – not so fast

Democracy is in crisis. So many believe. David Runciman’s recent book has the title, ‘How Democracy Ends’. He takes a very different approach from Yascha Mounk – see my last two posts.

Democracy it seems cannot survive on its own. It needs (Runciman suggests) the shock of war, or something akin. The coming together after war. It also needs targets: the widening of the franchise, a shared vision of a society where everyone has a vote, was one such.

A target readily becomes a vision, with optimism and even idealism wound in. Trade unions were the vehicle for the working man, the Workers Education Association for the middle classes extending a hand up to the working class.

Now we all have the vote. And, for older generations, they’ve seen no further advantages in wealth or status come their way. Arguably the reverse. No matter that in terms of comfort and lifestyle most of us score more heavily now. We’ve lost the vision. For younger generations there’s the perception that their parents’ generation had it better than they have. They’ve never had the vision.

Those in power, in business, in the City, and indeed in the cities, small ‘c’, those down south, especially the south-east – they have the status, and the wealth. And they flaunt it. (In past times the division of wealth might have been seen as part of the natural order – but no more.)

Older generations now sense that they’ve found a voice, calling out against change – wanting to return to the old safe areas. (The old borders, real and metaphorical.) The institutions of democracy take a hit, with some hefty encouragement from the media.

For younger generations it’s a different issue – they see themselves as outside the system, not so different from previous generations you might say. But they’re not indifferent: typically they are issue-driven, and social media have taken the insistence and passion of their beliefs to another level. To the extent that political scientists like Yascha Mounk are asking the question, ‘can liberal democracy survive social media?’

Not quite as alarmist as ‘How Democracy Ends’. Mounk is talking of liberal democracy, and survival, not an endgame.

Democracy has always been inadequate to the task. That’s written in to its unwritten constitution. So much is expected of it. So much more demanded than it can readily deliver. Incompetence is the other side of the coin: always there to a greater or lesser extent, and always will be. ‘The blunders of our government’ (to quote King and Crewe’s phrase) reflect back on democracy itself.

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Old-style deference, working to middle, middle to upper class is no more. We, the people, across all classes, have asserted ourselves. There are no ‘betters’. We the people call the tune, and there is indeed a specific ‘will of the people’, which can be identified – and if we can’t do it ourselves, then there are others who will do it for us.

We’re in a battle against a globalised world, against the City, against elites, and vast inequalities of pay, against real pay doing no more than hold its level over the last thirty years, against the EU, against immigration.

Democracy isn’t doing it for us. We don’t worry that it’s a lot to ask, we deem democracy to be in crisis.

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In David Runciman’s view it’s a mid-life crisis, and that assumes old age and death. He does argue in defence of democracy that unlike any other system it has inbuilt recovery mechanisms – but they may not be enough.

I think Runciman, and many another, have got it wrong.

Our focus should be on how democracy can best take on and deal with the challenges that society faces. The hard work, the argument, the big picture, the detail. Talk down the ability of a democratic society to make the right decisions, we make those decisions harder. Short cuts. Apparently easy answers. Looking back rather than forward. Fringe even extreme views gain currency.

This is where the distinction made by Mounk (see my last post) between liberal and illiberal democracy becomes key. Where is the vision if we reduce democracy to no more than a convenient and hitherto just-about-effective modus operandi? Or, worse, to a Trump-inspired transactional nationalism?

In our current Brexit context, how are we to deal with the worldwide and EU-wide immigration issue if all we can think to do is tighten our own border controls? How do we take on big business and big money, if we’re obliged for want of other allies to kow-tow to the USA? And just how much power might a free-trading ‘Anglosphere’ wield in a world out east driven by the Chinese Belt and Road initiative?

To borrow a phrase, liberal democracy needs to take back control.

Runciman puts up Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan and the sociologist Max Weber as proponents of a mechanistic de-humanised view of society, where we cede power to the state out of self-interest, defending ourselves against an innate tendency for society to descend into violence.

He is curiously shy when it comes to liberal democracy. (It doesn’t get a mention.) But he’s clear regarding representative democracy, which in its contemporary form is ‘tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffective’.  The more gloomy we are, the more old Hobbes comes to the fore. And characterised in this way, why bother to save it?

His shyness extends to the role of the individual, who hardly gets a mention. (Though he does appear as a depersonalised online unit.) Liberalism brought the individual into play – the individual finding expression in democracy, and democracy in the individual. We have rights and freedoms, as long as we do not trespass on those of others. Yes, it is a minefield, an almost impossible task, there is no ideal world, progress can only ever take us so far, and we will lose ground as well as gain it – but that, if you want, is the stuff of democracy.

Democracy is not, to use Churchill’s characterisation, the least worst form of government. It is a bloody miracle we’ve got this far: we are fools to disdain it.

What we have to be focusing on is making it more robust. And that of course means the liberal democracies, not the emerging illiberal democracies of Hungary, Brazil, Turkey. Venezuela. It is not democracy as a system that should be at issue, but rather the scale of the problems we’re faced with.

Democracy has to adjust to deal with many challenges – and that (taking one example) has required and will require ceding of power upward to supranational bodies, with the European Commission the most controversial example, but balanced by a devolving of greater responsibility to local levels. Democracy works best at multiple, and connected, levels. The debate should be about structures of accountability, from local to supranational. The transactional approach cheered on by Donald Trump, with self-interest and specifically national interest always paramount, throws the issue into sharp relief.

Denigrate democracy, treat it with disdain, or part of the problem, or at best as suffering a midlife crisis, then you open up the other possibilities which Runciman discusses in his book – oligarchies (specifically  epistocracies – see below), pragmatic authoritarianism (as realised in the Chinese model of state capitalism), and liberated technology (internet utopias and  accelerationism, whereby a liberated economy and liberated networks, ‘crack the future open’).

Epistocracy, government by the best, is considered (though ultimately dismissed) as a serious alternative to democracy. Runciman quotes the American philosopher, Jason Brennan author of ‘Against Democracy’ (2016): ‘Political participation is not valuable for most people. On the contrary it does most of us little good and instead tends to stultify and corrupt us. It turns us into civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another.’ Runciman acknowledges that attaching power to knowledge can create monsters, but he leaves us in no doubt that he has some sympathy with Brennan’s direction of travel.

His conclusions – ‘Mature, Western democracy is over the hill …(it) will almost certainly have a drawn-out demise … democracy is not us. The demise of democracy is not our demise …’ I could continue, but I will desist.

Above all, what we miss in Runciman, as we do in Hobbes, and in the cheerless bunch of prophets he enlists to make his case, is any role for the positive aspects of human nature, for enterprise and compassion working together, for vision, ideals and aspirations – for new goals, for coming together rather than falling apart, for instinctively supporting rather than denigrating. For notions of liberty and responsibility. For any evidence that he’s taken on board any of that great liberal tradition from John Stuart Mill, and his precursors, to John Rawls, Amartya Sen and beyond.

The challenges facing society are terrible and wonderful, depressing if we wish them to be, exciting if we will ourselves to see them that way. We need champions not purveyors of doom, optimists not nay-sayers, a little bit of joy to put up against the gloom.

Connected, need I say, to a hard pragmatism. There need be no end to democracy, any more than there as been (pace Fukuyama) or ever will be an ultimate triumph.

‘Yes we can,’ was only ten years ago.

That bloody liberal establishment …

I took in the newspaper headlines in the supermarket yesterday. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) caught my eye, snugged in near the Daily Mail. I bought a copy and over lunch read up on a recent biography of Descartes and the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casares, celebrated author and the most celebrated French (though born in Spain) actress of her time. I was taken down back alleys which intrigue in themselves, and also have resonances with the here and now. Descartes escaping to the Netherlands to be free to explore his ideas on the primacy of human reason, away from the frivolities and scepticism of the Richelieu-dominated court. Camus and Casares: a correspondence that’s so distinctively French – could there be an English equivalent, and a bestseller to boot?

I’ve not found such byways of the intellect so rewarding recently. They belong to the old certainties, and the old certainties have faced a pretty ruthless challenge.

We had crises in politics ten years ago, indeed the biggest financial crisis for eighty years, but reason and rational debate were still the order of the day. That curious liberal idea of progress, however intermittent, however blighted, still underlay our attitudes, incremental, one step forward, one back – but we had a direction of travel. The House of Commons took a big hit with the expenses scandal, and austerity divided the nation in the years that followed, but debate still followed the traditional course in parliament, the media sniped and panicked, but didn’t dominate. Likewise the Tory right with their psychodramatic skills: they were kept on the periphery.

Post-referendum, the idea of a perverse ‘liberal establishment’ has taken hold, with all the anger toward and alienation from the ‘establishment’ now pinned on a  supposed liberal elite. Thinkers like David Goodhart have not helped, recusing themselves from a ‘liberal establishment’ (overly fond of smart dinner parties) of which they claim to have been a part.

Now we find liberal democracy ‘fighting for its life’. There’s a Times (newspaper) debate at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled ‘Is Liberal Democracy Dying?’.  The Economist has just launched, as a counter-punch to doubters, a series of articles on great liberal thinkers, beginning with John Stuart Mill.

In much of the media the word ‘liberal’ is pitched against the ‘will of the people’, expertise against an instinct for change regardless of where change might take us. A new establishment, which has pulled strings covertly for many a year, asserts itself, funded by billionaires, pursuing apparently simple solutions to intractable problems, and supporting leaders who they think might enact those solutions.

How does this connect back to the two Frenchmen, Descartes and Camus? Simply that intellectual debate, and the pursuit of intellect byways as well as highways, is the very substance of our humanity. We might hide from it, in front of the TV many an evening, we may affect to scorn intellectuals and highbrow pursuits. The Economist quotes the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, ‘who thought that pushpin, a board game, was  “of equal value … with poetry”’.’

The intellectual life, as well as cultural life, is about sustained thought, sustained engagement, about expertise, about the ability to argue and debate, and change and challenge. It’s all about imagination, but not about dreams or fantasies. (Though they have their place.) Deeper pleasures build on themselves, take us in new directions. Simple pleasures endlessly repeat. There should be no snobbery here, but it’s too easy to paint intellectual life that way.

Taking John Stuart Mill as an exemplar, in The Economist’s words: ‘He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.’

I don’t want to see this country ruled by a liberal establishment, or a media establishment. But I do hold to liberal ideas of openness and debate, and to the belief that intellectual life should be part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and not an adjunct hived off to universities.

That’s a tall order of course. But what if we re-define ‘intellectual life’ and take it out of its ivory tower. To quote the Economist on Mill again: ‘[He] wanted [people] to be exposed to as wide a range of opinion as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress.’

And it allows us to re-define intellectual life, as the life of the mind.

Holding to that definition, we won’t suddenly solve the world’s problems. But we will at least be opening doors, rather than closing them, and that is the first pre-requisite of progress.

Political dream worlds – the case of Daniel Hannan

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …

WB Yeats was writing about love… but I’m thinking here of shattered political dreams. Dreams of love, yes, they drive our lives, and they are, just occasionally, fulfilled. But they are personal, one to one. And we accept and expect the risk.

But do not transfer the world of dreams to politics. Aspirations, yes. Not dreams.

Why do some people who are trained as historians not act like them? Bring the rigour that history requires to argument? One reason is that they see history as story, they’re story-tellers, conjurers of dream worlds, they fit the realities to the story and they come to believe the story. Another is that they engage in hypotheses, and parade them as fact, without the rigour of peer-review that we get in scientific disciplines. Story and hypotheses can of course inspire each other.

Why would, for example, the arch-Brexiteer and free-trader Daniel Hannan (and Oxford-educated historian) miss the mark by such a margin? Brexit, he wrote on the Conservative Home website back in May, isn’t working out as he thought it would. I remember a piece he wrote in the Daily Telegraph before the referendum vote about how a post-Brexit Britain would look in ten years’ time. He imagined the future – or rather, a future, anticipated it as if truth and certainty were engrained within it, which no trained historian should do. He believed his own imaginings. Hope became a certain future reality.

He fooled himself, and he gave substance to the visions of others.

The past is full of accidents, wrong turnings, expectations which are never realised, impossible to realise, based on dreams and imaginings. We have no choice but to have radical ideas, our world requires it, on the way the world economy functions, disparities of wealth, population growth and movements, the poverty of much of mass-culture, climate change – Christ, yes! – be radical. But pursue change incrementally. Avoid the sudden turnings.

The NHS, which we are busy celebrating, came about and has survived over seventy years, because it was of its time, it was a logical and necessary step. It may seem to us, with our hindsights, like the fulfilment of a dream, but it was anything but.  It came out of the hard necessities of its time.

Spring, Michele Hanson, Pinker, Kahneman, Brexit, Ursula LeGuin – a few one-sentence blogs

Time is pressing and I’m off on holiday to an island where I’ll face south across the ocean and follow the sun, and climb up to the cloud forest behind. But there are blogs that I’ve wanted to write. So I thought – how about a blog of single sentence. (Max two, but you’ll see how this expands.)

Brexit: in his speech to his party’s spring conference yesterday, LibDem leader Vince Cable argued that “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit. In response to the uproar from some in the Tory ranks I’d simply say that some truths are self-evident – and add the reminder that without anti-immigrant sentiment Brexit would have been decisively defeated.

Michele Hanson: the Guardian columnist died a few days ago, after 34 years (I think) of writing a column for the Guardian. I knew her a little back in the 70s, we had mutual friends, and I’ve caught up today with a few of the columns I didn’t read, and found them both downbeat and upbeat, wise, warm and rather wonderful – whether she’s writing on care homes, dogs, family, personal hygiene – she engaged so many people with moments and issues in life they could connect with.

At the other extreme my old bete noir, the fluffy-white-haired guru Steven Pinker, paired in this instance with the 18th century Scottish genius-philosopher, David Hume, whom Pinker neglects to mention when talking about the enlightenment – and who stated clearly and succinctly that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. In other words, don’t give reason space which it oughtn’t to have – give it, I’d argue, shared space, let one inform the other, and take both out beyond our private lives into the public sphere.

Thoughts from Tim Harford in the FT, quoting Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” In the case of the referendum the difficult question being “Should the UK remain in the EU”, and the easier substitution “Do I like the way this country is going”.

The last item was two sentences – so I’m adding a third from Harford as a separate item – a rather obvious cheat. “No voter can master every issue … referendums instead invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlars an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly-focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results.” Right on.

For something completely different … Alexander Harris in the Tate Etc Magazine: “So I became a collector of early autumn evenings. In the ancient analogy … the time of youth is spring. But I remember only one or two spring days from my childhood – it is all autumn: the orange of the late crocosmia flowers meets the spotted yellow fringes of hawthorn leaves; blue skies deepen above glowing stone walls, and then it all softens to a yellowy grey haze…” That set me thinking, and I only half-agree, and maybe that’s because my pre-eminent spring memory is of a day in May walking in the Cheshire hills with my first girlfriend, and spring was suffused with birdsong and a funny feeling of elation, of walking on air, that I’ve never quite recaptured …

(Treating Alexander Harris’ quote as one sentence …)

A quote from Neil Collins, an old-friend from the 70s who I haven’t seen in maybe forty years, in the FT, in the context of the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplins: “Is yours a zombie company… [zombie being] defined as a company that has failed to earn its interest cost for two consecutive years and is valued at less than three times sales. …[The Deutsche Bank] comprehensive analysis of the world’s 3000 biggest businesses implies that more of them [this year than last] have discovered a strategy for survival – [instead of just] clinging on, merely waiting a mercy killing from rising interest rates.” Two reasons for including: one, a reminder to me and anyone who enjoys abstruse speculation that there’s a hard business world out there, and if we choose to rant against capitalism we have to remember how bloody hard and ruthless the business world is  … and, two, whatever’s happening in High Street retail, things are getting slightly better – are they???

Rediscovering Ursula LeGuin, someone else who’s died recently: there’s a new book which collects together her non-fiction, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’. She had Taoist beliefs … that established an instant bond – the Tao, or Dao, the way, is the wisest, simplest yet most all-encompassing of notions; and she admired Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Twain, Tolstoy and Tolkien. And how about: “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think that imitation is superior to invention.” I’ll add my own comment – never curtail that sense of wonder, of fantasy and myth – walk on the wild as well as the wise side.

Four sentences. Time to exit.