Social Europe is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is supposed to restore confidence in democracy – which since the bailout of the failing banks and the ensuing politics of austerity can hardly be regarded as a plausible promise anymore and which, anyway, at EU-level is known primarily for its absence. But we know that democracy is really the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried over the time (Churchill).
Ever since Plato’s allegory of the ship and Rousseau’s inability to supplement his demand for popular sovereignty with a plausible explanation of the general will we have been aware of the profound weaknesses of democracy. And ever since Lenin we’ve known that democracy, rather than securing social justice and self-determination, is but the best political shell for capitalism. So restoring confidence in democracy, especially in the face of austerity, is not only a very demanding task, but a rather questionable one, too.
Set against the background of fascism, violence, war and utter poverty, democracy once appeared as the Promised Land. Throughout decades of rapid economic growth it provided freedom, peace, wealth and wellbeing to larger sections of Western societies than ever before. In the 1970s, when the economic downturn, the re-emergence of mass unemployment and the spiralling costs of the redistributive welfare state first signalled that, in the long run, democracy might become unable to deliver on its promise of material security and equality, a shift of emphasis towards post-materialist concerns of identity diverted attention and further strengthened confidence in democracy. The new social movements insisted that genuine democracy was yet to be achieved and that their new politics would deliver not only on matters of social emancipation but at the same time also secure freedom and integrity for society’s natural environment.
The challenge for Social Europe, in today’s post-growth economies – whose distinctive feature is not, of course, that the dogma of economic growth has been abandoned, but the factual absence and apparent unachievability of any significant growth – these democratic dreams have been shattered. The so-called trickle-down effect has dried up and been replaced by a suck-out effect, whereby the ever stronger squeeze of the swelling numbers of the precariat and have-nots secures at least some degree of further growth for the haves, thus sustaining the democratic promise at least for them. Austerity – quite evidently not just a temporary measure – is but the latest manifestation of this logic, which spells disaster not only in social but also in ecological terms, and has given rise to a legitimation crisis of democracy more serious than ever before.
In the 1970s, intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas and Claus Offe still conceptualised the then perceived crisis of democracy as a legitimation crisis of capitalism. They assumed that capitalism, being unable to reconcile its logic of profit maximisation with the democratic pressure for social justice, participation and inclusion, would – by draining the redistributive welfare state of resources – incrementally destroy its own basis of social legitimation and eventually collapse. Proclaiming that the finiteness of natural resources sets non-negotiable limits to growth and thus to the sustainability of capitalism, environmental movements added a second dimension to this argument. Just like Habermas and Offe, their reasoning was based on the assumption that the logic of capitalism would, eventually, be reined in by a more powerful logic – that of social emancipation, of ecological limits, or a combination of both. The thinking of the new left as well as ecologists was based on the dualistic distinction between the capitalist system and the norm of the autonomous subject, or between the capitalist system and the carrying capacity of the environment, or indeed a mixture of the two. Both were convinced that either the state or civil society would eventually – have to – enforce the supremacy of the logic of social efficiency and ecological sustainability over that of capitalist profitability and discounting, to institutionalise the primacy of politics over economics, and to set hard non-negotiable rules for economic conduct. Yet their dualistic model of thinking has been proved wrong.
Whilst a legitimation crisis has now indeed occurred, it materialises not so much as a legitimation crisis of capitalism but one of democracy. Whilst disembedded capitalism (Polanyi) seems to have emancipated itself from the need for political legitimation, democracy – be it in its social or its ecological variety – is seen to have comprehensively failed to tame and domesticate capitalism, to tie it to any social or ecological objectives. Even worse, capitalism has co-opted and fully incorporated democracy (Wolin). It has embraced the language of participation, inclusion, justice and sustainability so tightly that it has become virtually impossible to articulate – even to think – social and ecological concerns in terms other than those set by neo-liberal policies of widening the range of consumer choices, increasing labour market inclusion, trading emission certificates and realising potentials for green growth. Rather than democracy setting hard social and ecological benchmarks for legitimate economic conduct, hegemonic neo-liberalism rigorously imposes the ways in which legitimate social and ecological concerns have to be framed. Bursting with self-confidence it urges citizens to participate – Let’s Talk! – and sets the terms of engagement so as to maximise its gains for market research and customer satisfaction of those still included. Just like the Nazis once noted gleefully that democracy of all systems had provided the legitimation for their seizure of power, today’s neoliberals may ridicule democracy for legitimating their agenda of insatiable greed and social cum ecological destruction. That, too, will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy (Goebbels).
So democracy has become structurally unable to deliver on the social and ecological promises it had once been invested with and is now little more than a façade for the reproduction of capitalism. Social Democrats, painfully aware that the Third Way has sold them out to the market-liberal agenda, respond to democracy’s legitimation crisis by trying to devise new visions for the Good Society (Meyer) and a Social Europe. Green Parties, whose techno-managerial agenda of Green Industrial Politics and the Green New Deal has plunged them into an equally serious identity-crisis are struggling to engineer The Green Democratic Reboot (Green European Journal). Neo-authoritarians believe the evident inability of democracy to tackle the evolving social and ecological emergency calls for the suspension of democratic rights and necessitates courageous action by the doctors of the intensive care unit. The populist right promises to re-empower the people by curtailing immigration, tightening border-controls and repatriating decision-making powers from Brussels to national parliaments. The intellectual left devises neo-radical models of deliberative (Habermas) or agonistic (Mouffe) democracy and hold on to narratives of a massive escalation of truly disruptive action (Crouch) that, empowered by the new social media, will soon change everything (Klein). And the most disenfranchised, unless they withdraw from politics altogether, turn to new radicalised movements which, in contrast to the ideological fundamentalists of earlier decades, now tend to be religious-fundamentalist.
What these different responses to the profound legitimation crisis of democracy, except the last one, have in common is that they all talk of democratic deficits and the erosion of democracy but adamantly refuse to acknowledge its exhaustion. In one way or another they all subscribe to the diagnosis of post-democracy (Crouch) which fully acknowledges that democracy has degenerated into a mere ritual that no longer offers any perspective of social emancipation and equality, but they all assume – as does Crouch – that democracy can still be resuscitated. They all hold on to some, or even all, of the categories which are constitutive to the idea of democracy: the people, the nation state, civil society, sovereignty, the general will and so forth. But none of them dares to even consider that democracy may have run its course. Yet, the truth is, neither socially nor ecologically democracy retains any capacity to challenge, limit or domesticate capitalism. Neither social nor ecological democracy has managed to specify any norm that can restore the primacy of politics over the logic of capitalism.
And the reason for this is not simply that neo-liberal elites have taken over our language, our ideals, thereby destroying our capacity to say what we want, to know what we want, even to dream something else (Dean). But beyond this, the ongoing process of modernisation – which has always also been a process of ongoing emancipation – has incrementally melted away those categories mentioned above and thus the very foundations on which the ideal of democracy indispensably relied. Most importantly, perhaps, it has increased the empty space (Lefort) at the very centre of democratic thought, which already Rousseau had closed rather unconvincingly with his notions of the people and its general will, to the size of an abyss. Under conditions of globalisation and liquid modernity (Bauman) there is no realistic prospect that this abyss may somehow be filled. Hence, the prevailing responses to the legitimation crisis of democracy are merely what elsewhere I have conceptualised as exercises of simulation. They pursue the discursive regeneration of categories which for contemporary citizens and their lifestyles have become far too narrow and restrictive but which remain, nevertheless, constitutive of their self-perception, of Western society’s self-descriptions, and indispensable for the maintenance of social peace.
Yet, simulative democracy is just an interim phenomenon. For the time being, it seems able to keep a lid on social conflict, but its days are numbered. As social tensions and ecological disaster continue to unfold, we will eventually be forced to recognise that democracy is not just eroded but exhausted, unsustainable, indeed destructive. For when democracy appears as both the condition of politics and the solution to the political condition, then neoliberalism can’t appear as the violence it is (Dean). Acknowledging this is a first and very important step. On its own, it does not get us beyond the Churchill hypothesis, yet it pushes us from trying to reform, resuscitate and re-appropriate democracy towards challenging it. Indeed, the left’s failure to challenge democracy, its unwillingness to reinvent its modes of dreaming (Dean) is the very crux.
But the Weimar experience and today’s relapses into religious fundamentalism remind us that challenging democracy is extremely dangerous. And since its neo-liberal incorporation it is also extremely difficult, for we live in an era where we can discuss everything; with one exception: Democracy (Saramago). Any challenge to democracy, is immediately portrayed and attacked as authoritarian – the reverse implication of neo-liberal authoritarianism having claimed the emancipatory language of freedom, equality and inclusion for itself. Such ostracization is justified where the challenge to existing institutions – as in the case of the populist right and neoliberalism itself – is based on constructions of the people, sovereignty and the general will which are chauvinist, exclusive, anti-egalitarian and inciting conflict. But the mainstream responses to the populist right demonstrate just how adamantly any repoliticisation of the hegemonic order is being resisted and how powerfully it is discursively policed. Still, a democratic order that is inherently unable to challenge, and instead only serves to sustain, the prevailing politics of social injustice and ecological destruction is exhausted, has become reactionary, and must be replaced.
In our efforts to construct a viable successor we must recognise, firstly, that democracy cannot be recouped from its embrace by the elites and will never deliver on its social and ecological promise. Secondly, we must take account of the fact that the problem is not just the neo-liberal right, but that the process of modernisation has irreversibly moved us beyond not only the nation state and national sovereignty but also beyond traditional notions of the critical citizen (Norris) and engaged citizenship (Dalton), which are being superseded by digital, i.e. spatially and temporally disembedded, consumer citizens with liquid identities (Bauman). Thirdly, we need to acknowledge the realities of the post-growth economy and the sustainability crisis, i.e. we need to move beyond political constructions which inherently depend – as democracy does – on continued growth, for example, to reconcile conflicting constitutive principles such as individual freedom and social equality. Such a new political order might appear utopian, and what exactly it might look like remains uncertain. But that does not render the prevailing order of hegemonic authoritarian neo-liberalism any more tolerable or, indeed, sustainable.
If only to create more time and maintain a discursive space for negotiating an alternative, it may make sense to try and restore some confidence in democracy. Perhaps this can be an interim strategy. This would imply fighting the further spread of neo-liberal market-authoritarianism on the one hand and neo-populist national-authoritarianism on the other. It would mean pushing the EU towards institutional reforms which address its democratic deficit and campaigning for a shift in EU policy from the current emphasis on neo-liberal objectives towards a social and ecological agenda. Under the conditions of liquid modernity the prospects such endeavours being successful and of democratic movements being able to set social and ecological limits to economic conduct are less hopeful than ever before. But while we are thinking, there is no viable alternative to re-arranging the proverbial deck-chairs. This, I’m afraid, is what Social Europe is all about. Social Europe is stuck between a rock and a hard place.