Liberal democracy, according to the ruling classes’ new narrative, is under threat from the aggressive axis of autocrats in the East and the populist movements they sponsor across the West. As proof, they point either to Moscow’s propagandist cyber-campaign and funding for far-Right parties, or China’s efforts to play European countries off against each other by offering lucrative deals as part of its One Belt One Road global infrastructure project.
Undoubtedly, there has been Russian meddling in democratic elections and Chinese economic pressure – but neither of these can explain the scale and depth of popular discontent. In fact, our age of anger has its origins in the moral bankruptcy afflicting economic liberalism, and the rapid cultural change brought about by social liberalism. Establishment parties seem to be struggling to understand this.
Worse, though, is their failure to recognise why liberal democracy is under strain from within. Since Antiquity, philosophers from Plato via Aristotle to Cicero have warned against the slide of democracy into autocracy. Today this warning applies to liberalism and the way it unleashes democracy’s demons – oligarchy, demagogy, anarchy and tyranny.
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Liberals today, instead of defending open markets, promote existing cartels and new monopolies. As a result, more than a decade after the financial crash, the banking behemoths that rule global finance are still ‘too big to fail’. Our everyday economy is dominated by the Frightful Five – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google. By controlling access to information, these tech monopolies restrict not just economic competition but also free speech. Their plutocratic power undermines both open markets and democratic debate.
In turn, this oligarchic control reinforces the drift towards demagogic politics, as both establishment liberals and populist insurgents exploit popular fears about economic and cultural insecurity. Democracy is, as a result, caught between technocratic facts and the ‘post-truth’ of anti-elite challengers. Neither upholds common sense and what George Orwell called ‘common decency’, including respect for political opponents. Instead, they demonise each other and practise a politics of ideological purity and the closing down of robust yet civilised debate.
The demons of oligarchy and demagogy reinforce anarchy, in the sense of social fragmentation, and as a result societies are increasingly balkanised. The social capital involved in interpersonal trust and cooperation has declined significantly. Civic ties are weaker just when public trust in our main public institutions is substantially lower. Loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic with around 9 million people in Britain being socially isolated. All this feeds a strong sense of powerlessness.
Oligarchy, demagogy and anarchy also exacerbate what Alexis de Tocqueville called in Democracy in America the ‘tyranny of voluntary servitude’ – a “kind of servitude, ordered, mild and peaceable, a singular power, tutelary, all-encompassing”. This applies to the surveillance capitalism of the tech monopolies, which extract data from their users and use it to manipulate their behaviour for maximum profit. In the name of choice and emancipation, personal autonomy is usurped by permanent monitoring and free will is subverted. We voluntarily hand over our humanity without realising it.
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But these three irrepressible demons of liberal democracy can be tamed. The alternative to an ever-greater oligarchic concentration of wealth and power is not simply better regulation but a much more fundamental change of ownership to transform the rentier economy that extracts excessive profits, as with the tech platforms.
The radical move would be to downsize incumbents by breaking them up and introducing limits on ownership concentration – not simply send them off with a fine. Anti-monopoly regulators in the US and Europe should force monopolies to spin off recently acquired business lines, so that there is a structural separation of the core business from new activities.
Facebook would have to sell off its acquired image and messaging services Instagram and WhatsApp. Google should relinquish ownership of YouTube that provides a rich data mine with end-to-end control, from email via web browsing to operating systems and advertising platforms such as Chrome or Android. And Amazon should be compelled to separate its e-commerce platform from its offline retail operation.
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Those who object on grounds of market freedom have to be reminded that it is the ‘robber barons’ who replace open and competitive markets with closed corporate monopolies. There is a noble tradition of enforcing anti-trust laws, as with Theodore Roosevelt deciding to smash the monopoly of Standard Oil in 1911, and it needs to be renewed. Politicians and regulators should hold Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg to his word: “Move fast and break things.”
Splitting up the tech platforms is also an important element in tackling the demon of demagogy. Facebook and Google have to be treated as media corporations and subject to the same rules and regulations. The regulators should be given powers to hand out fines to all new media found to produce or distribute bogus stories in an attempt to attract attention and advertising. That includes those click-hungry mainstream media outlets which persistently feature falsehoods by embedding links to lies on their websites. Printing insincere apologies on page 19 will not do.
Persistent misinformation in all media should lead to the loss of their legal licence. Where individuals or groups are explicitly targeted, the ‘right to reply’ should be extended in a spirit of free yet fair argument.
The fundamental task for both media and politics is to nurture a commitment to truthfulness that can once again inspire popular trust. What is required is a new ethos in public discourse. This would involve informal norms such as the defence of robust debate, viewing your opponents as legitimate instead of demonising them as ‘traitors’, and a joint concern for mutual flourishing rather than merely personal advancement at the expense of others. Without such a shared ethos and some common norms liberal democracy will continue its slide into the anarchy of social fragmentation.
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To rebuild civic ties, a genuine democracy needs to pluralise the state, not just by devolving political authority and central bureaucracy to lower levels according to the principle of subsidiarity. It also has to encompass a much greater participation of groups and associations in the public sector.
For example, associations could provide a wide range of public services by forming cooperatives and mutuals that use state funding to deliver education, health care or welfare. By contrast with free-market managerialism or bureaucratic statism, such associations would focus on members – funders such as local government, but especially workers and users.
Moreover, the pluralisation of the state can extend to utilities by establishing public-interest and community-interest companies. Like cooperatives or employee-owned businesses, such companies operate on the basis of mutualist principles that involve in their governance owners, workers and users. Public- or community-interest companies pursue not just private profit but also a social purpose by reinvesting their profits in the business and in the community instead of simply enriching the top management or institutional shareholders. The building of an associative democracy is an alternative to oligarchy and anarchy.
Can social democracy survive?
Taming democracy’s demons is especially urgent at a time when both liberal elites and anti-establishment insurgents are undermining parliamentary democracy and are silent about what binds people together as members of national communities. Both polarise politics just when democracy needs a transcendent conversation about how, in a context of plural values, we can forge a common life.
This will require far more than restating liberal democracy’s founding values of liberty and equality or delivering on the promise of prosperity and peace. Rather, democracy requires a renewed civic covenant – what Edmund Burke called “partnership … not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.
This emphasis on covenantal ties among generations can help us address the growing economic injustice between young and old today. Society is not a contract of individuals but a partnership between the generations that balances individual rights with mutual obligations and contributions with rewards. Without a commitment to civic covenant, democracy will continue to disintegrate.
Adrian Pabst is the author of The Demons of Liberal Democracy