The present debate between the Greek government led by Alexis Tsipras and the Eurogroup is not just about austerity measures, reforms, or repayments. Behind this Greek tragedy also lies a growing tension between a sharpened democratic norm of giving citizens a greater say in the formulation of governmental policies on the one hand, and a growing administrative practice of making important political decisions without a clear mandate from the voters, on the other. This tension is related to different concepts of democracy; it begs the question of the exact democratic legitimacy of political decisions taken at the national level, but even more so at the European level. Social democrats cannot ignore this question, because it directly impacts on the possibilities of engaging in social policies.
A few years ago, the political scientist Peter Mair observed a widening gap between what he called representative and responsible government. A balance between these types of government is essential for the good functioning of democracy. But this balance is distorted. Owing to changes in the electoral environment of parties and in the way that governments rule, political parties have moved towards the state. Their intermediary role between citizens and politics has weakened. This is especially true for the mainstream parties. In the past, mass-integration parties both provided the electoral channel through which the voice of the people could be expressed, and the recruitment pool for politicians to engage in responsible government. Nowadays, mainstream political parties are absorbed by governing tasks to such an extent that their representative role has been downplayed. This is also true for mainstream parties in opposition: not only are they more and more engaged in co-government, their attitude is adapted as much as that of the governing parties to the increased complexity of governing in an ever more internationalized and Europeanized context. That very complexity asks for specific expertise, resulting in a growing influence of technocrats on political decision-making. Mair goes so far as to speak about the hollowing out of democracy: the mutual withdrawal of citizens and politicians from the representative process.
Although not all scholars agree with Mair’s rather sombre analysis, the permanent character of the tension between the two conceptions of democracy indicates that it is difficult to solve. Representative or responsive politics on the one hand, and responsible politics on the other, are closely related to the eternal question of how to combine influence by the people with the need for the government of the city or the country to be in capable hands. Already in the classical democracy in the Athens of the BC period, which later on would be cited very often as the example of a truly democratic society, critical comments were made. Plato stated that the polis should be governed by people who had received a long and special training for that purpose: the philosopher-kings. And in his famous classification of political systems, Aristotle put democracy on the side of systems not to be desired. The greediness of the masses made them unfit to rule. He made a plea for a mixed system of aristocracy and rule by the masses (the ‘politeia’) . Much later, a similar approach was taken during the 1930s by the Dutch scholar and social democrat Bonger, who defended democracy both against those demanding a ‘strong man’ and those who equated democracy with the will of the masses. According to him democracy could only survive when it was able to select the best people as politicians. ‘Democracy shall be selective, or it shall not be!’, he famously said.
Different Definitions Of Democracy
After the Second World War, the debate continued. In the first few decades Schumpeter’s definition of democracy as the competition between politicians for the people’s vote was predominant. The economist and political philosopher Schumpeter was fiercely against the ‘classical’ conception of democracy, as it had been heralded by Rousseau in the 18th century. Hence, Schumpeter’s pluralist conception of democracy did not include direct democracy, not even indirect democracy in the sense that representatives are agents of the voters, but was about an institutional arrangement for reaching political decisions and these were made by politicians who had acquired power by means of competition for the votes of the citizens. This so-called ‘pluralist’ approach was criticized in the 1960s by ‘neo-democrats’ as being much too elitist. Not only was it considered not inclusive enough (in the United States, for example, the Afro-American inhabitants were still fighting to be fully recognized as citizens), it was also seen as not pluralist enough. Elites were engaged in electoral competition under different party labels, but in fact these elites all belonged to the same upper class. Or as the political scientist Schattschneider stated in 1960: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent.”
Democracy had to become much more inclusive. From the 1960s onwards, the term ‘participatory democracy’ became the guiding phrase for democratic renewal. However, reality was harsh. The majority of citizens appeared to participate far less than was expected or hoped for. That is why one began to speak about ‘audience democracy’ and about ‘monitoring citizens’. But what remained was a sharpened democratic norm: democracy should be more inclusive, more responsive, more extensive, and sometimes more direct. Although it was realized that the ideal of government by the people was not (completely) attainable, all debates about legitimacy crises and gaps between people and politics ended in a plea for more democracy. In contrast to the 1930s, to date almost nobody in western democracies is asking for less democracy. The sharpened democratic norm, or in other words, the demand for democratic legitimacy, is embraced across the board.
However, the reality of political administration shows a different picture. The complexity of government has not only fostered the professionalization of politics. More than ever, political professionals rely on the help of non-political experts. This has lead to the ‘technocratization’ of politics. The discourse of professional politicians tends to be dominated by a financial-administrative logic. Moreover, a shift can be observed to put more political power into the hands of non-politicians. Of course, in a democracy there will always be domains that are not subject to democratic but to technocratic scrutiny. For example, in a democratic Rechtsstaat (rights-based state) the power to decide about how the law should be applied in individual cases is in the hand of independent experts: the judiciary.
The Rise Of The Powerful Experts
But during the last few decades there has been a growing tendency to put more and more power into the hands of (organizations of) experts without any voters’ mandate. The expert in European governance, Giandomenico Majone, has highlighted the time dimension in order to explain the growth of these non-majoritarian institutions. Politicians may speak about a bright future but, in practice, their time horizon is limited to the period of their electoral mandate. After this period, a change in the composition of government may occur, leading to alternative policies. That’s democracy. The problem is that the world is changing, in that national borders have become porous. Because of globalization and Europeanization, national governments have become more dependent on the outer world when trying to achieve their policy goals. The modus operandi of states has changed as well: whereas policy goals could previously be attained by the use of coercion, nowadays the interdependency of states forces national governments to delegate political power to other institutions in order to be able to achieve long-term political goals.
The shift of political power to non-majoritarian institutions (the Greek Troika of the European Commission, the IMF and the ECB is just one example) is at odds with the growing demand of democratic legitimacy, mentioned above. This explains why the narrative of political legitimacy has changed. Modern democracy cannot do without some legitimacy. In the search for this, various types of legitimacy have been proposed. And very often the implicit suggestion is that the loss of one type of legitimacy can be compensated for by another type. Thus, input legitimacy (the wishes of citizens are translated into government policies) was distinguished from output legitimacy (the results of government policies are appreciated by the citizens). Because of growing Europeanization, more and more emphasis has been put on output legitimacy. Input legitimacy at the European level is almost non-existent. The powers of the European Parliament may have increased; a real government-opposition dynamic, which is crucial for the good functioning of democracy, is, however, absent in the European Union.
Because of the low level of input legitimacy in the EU, the emphasis is on output legitimacy. This development reinforces the shift from representative to responsible government, as argued by Mair. The more powers are given to the European level (budget rules, for examples), the more decision-making belongs to the category of ‘responsible’ politics. The Greek tragedy is a case in point.
Putting all other things to one side, the rise of the Syriza movement in Greece can be considered as a consequence of the growing tension between the democratic norm and the technocratic practice. ‘Representative politics’ seems to be losing to ‘responsible government’. The fact that the French prime minister Valls was able to hand over a reform package to the European Commission only by circumventing the French parliament buttresses this idea. Is the unelected Eurocrat becoming the modern philosopher-king?
During the talks between the Syriza government on the one hand and the other members of the Eurogroup and the Troika on the other, the Greek approach has been described as ‘irresponsible’ (by German finance minister Schäuble). The Greeks have been told to put their ‘election rhetoric’ to one side. Whatever can be said about the naivety or arrogance of the Greek government during the talks, one thing is clear: its approach has been an outstanding example of ‘representative politics’ and input legitimacy. But apparently the Greeks have had to be ‘water-boarded’, humiliated or whatever to prevent them from obtaining an aura of success. Such a success could spill over to other countries and be electorally advantageous for movements like Podemos in Spain, and that has to be prevented.
Such a harsh strategy, however, may prove counterproductive. It ignores the need for a balance between input legitimacy and output legitimacy in a well-functioning democracy. This balance is coming under heavy pressure in various European countries. Movements like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France or the PVV of Wilders in the Netherlands, however different, share the characteristic that they do not belong to the mainstream parties, they are intensely opposed to the policies of those mainstream parties and they are strongly ‘eurocritical.’ Their rise is a signal that should be taken seriously; it cannot simply be ascribed to election rhetoric. Does the strength of Europe not lie in the defence of both democracy and the rule of law?
A New Approach To Greece – And Syriza
Another approach towards Syriza is necessary. An approach in which input and output legitimacy are more in balance. That does not necessarily mean that all demands of the Greek government should be met, but it does mean that the Greek government has to be taken seriously as one formed on the basis of democratic elections. The Greek government for its part should be receptive to the concerns of politicians from other countries, who have to deal with their own voters. A collision between the opinions of different electoral constituencies (‘The Greeks should pay every Euro back!’ versus ‘No more austerity measures that destroy Greek society!’) can only be overcome by serious efforts by all politicians involved to look for honest, creative compromises. There will always be political compromises, to be defended by politicians who do not hide behind the back of technocrats. Expertise by non-majoritarian institutions can be called in but it cannot replace the role of politicians. Unless one accepts ‘Grexit’, the result in the Greek case cannot be anything other than a (partial) remittance of the loans together with structural reforms that leave some room for the Greek government to meet their electoral promises when implementing these.
In the long run a debate should be held in all member states, but especially in the EU as a whole, about whether the trend towards technocratically dominated ‘responsible’ politics at the cost of electorally driven ‘representative or responsive ‘ politics has gone too far.
This is of special importance for social democrats. Majone has underlined that non-majoritarian institutions function well with respect to ‘efficiency policies’, but much less so with ‘redistributive policies’. That makes the EU in its present form pretty unfit for real redistribution of wealth. For social democrats solidarity within and between countries is important, as is the efficiency of government spending. That explains their uneasiness with the EU. They are convinced that European collaboration is necessary for reasons of security and prosperity, but they observe that the one-sided emphasis on efficiency bolsters the neoliberal agenda. Transfer of national powers to the EU means less freedom in national welfare state arrangements. At the same time, this loss is not compensated for (enough) by European distributive politics. Thus, European cooperation may result in the growth of the GNP of a member state, but also in a growing gap between rich and poor in that same country.
For neoliberals this is not a problem; for social democrats much more so. The latter are faced with the challenge of keeping alive the possibility of redistributive politics without losing out on efficiency. The trend towards the growing importance of non-majoritarian institutions should therefore be critically scrutinized in order to avoid being dragged into a technocratic logic that reinforces the neoliberal agenda. Strengthening the grip of both the European Parliament on the European Commission and of national parliaments on national governments seems to be a first necessary step – not only to avoid a shift towards a Singapore model (more prosperity, less democracy), but also to maintain and create space for the redistributive politics that enables provisions within the (national) welfare state.
Just as social democracy around a century ago no longer opposed the state but tried to conquer it instead, so European social democracy today should not reject the EU, but should try to determine its course. For instance, by making employment as important an EU goal as balancing the budget. Measures that reduce the budget deficit but do not help to create employment should not automatically prevail. This is a goal worth struggling for. But it can only be reached successfully when social democrats can convince the voters that their votes are taken seriously.
Thus, the Greek crisis can help to make us rethink the technocratic temptation within too much ‘responsible politics’ that has become widespread since the advent of neoliberalism. Even if Greece cannot avoid profound reforms, this rethinking would be the major gain from this crisis – for the Geek population itself but also for democracy at large.