How the EU oligarchy has downsized democracy

ESSAY: So-called liberals and leftists have become obsessed with constructing a political firewall between the elite and the multitude.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Over the past month, it has become clear that the European Union doesn’t simply suffer from a democratic deficit; rather, it has decided that in the current climate of crisis and uncertainty, the institutions of government must be insulated and protected from public pressure. In Brussels, and among an influential coterie of European opinion-makers, the idea that ordinary people have the capacity to self-govern is dismissed as at best a naive prejudice, and at worst a marker for right-wing populism.

As we shall see, this desire to renounce the politics of representation is by no means confined to EU technocrats. To no one’s surprise, many businesspeople and bankers also prefer the new unelected governments of Greece and Italy to regimes that are accountable to their electorates. And such elitist disdain for nations’ democratic representative institutions is also shared by sections of the left and the intelligentsia, too. So in his contribution on the crisis of democracy, Jürgen Habermas, the leading leftist German philosopher, writes off national electorates as ‘the preserve of right-wing populism’ and condemns them as ‘the caricature of national macrosubjects shutting themselves off from each other’.

Indeed, it isn’t the old-fashioned conservative detractors of the multitude who are at the forefront of the current cultural turn against democratic will-formation – no, it is liberal advocates of expert-driven technocratic rule who are now the most explicit denouncers of democracy. The current political attack on the principles of representative democracy is founded on three propositions. First it is claimed that the people cannot be trusted to support policies that are necessary for the preservation and improvement of society. Secondly, it is suggested that there is an important trade-off to be made between democracy and efficiency, and that in a time of crisis the latter must prevail over the former. And finally, anti-democratic ideologues believe that governments, especially democratic governments, have lost the capacity to deal with the key problems facing societies in today’s globalised world.

The inconvenience of democratic accountability

Governments across Europe fear talking openly to their electorates about the scale of the problems in their societies. They believe that if they introduce the punitive austerity measures required to stave off the disintegration of the economy, their people will turn against them. Consequently, their principal objective is to insulate themselves from public pressure.

Numerous commentators have mistakenly argued that this project of constructing a political firewall between the people and the institutions of government is simply a response to the pressures of market forces. So, the soft technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have been attributed to ‘neo-liberalism’ and the global markets. ‘The world’s statesmen no longer shape events but merely respond to them, in thrall of market forces’, says a columnist for the Observer. In the same vein, the Independent’s Paul Vallely wrote of a ‘market coup’, which has ‘suspended, if not overthrown, democracy in Greece’. No doubt the financial markets placed tremendous pressure on the governing institutions of Greece and Italy. But the EU’s political elites did not need to be ‘dictated’ to by the markets; they were more than happy to evade their responsibilities by hiding behind technocrats and experts.

As usual, it was the European Commission president José Manuel Barroso who explained the necessity for technocratic, insulated decision-making. He explained that the non-democratically appointed governments of Italy and Greece have been installed ‘not just because they’re technocrats, but because it [is] easier to ask independent personalities to construct political consensus’. Barroso did not need to spell out what these ‘personalities’ were independent of, because it is pretty evident that their main virtue is that they are independent of the electorate. For Barroso, effective policymaking means getting rid of the distractions thrown up by the process of public accountability.

The tendency to depict democratic accountability as a deeply flawed, unpredictable thing is based on the belief that ordinary people lack the intellectual resources to deal with the complicated challenges facing policymakers. According to the traditional aristocratic version of this argument, since people will inevitably react against taking difficult decisions, it makes far more sense simply for someone else to take those decisions on their behalf.

In recent decades, this claim has been supplemented by a new thesis: that ordinary people are so misguided by the media or the church or some other institution that they simply do not know what is in their best interests anymore. ‘People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about’, asserted Thomas Frank in his influential US bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. If this wasn’t the case, Frank says, then why on earth would they vote for the Republicans?

Contempt for the intellectual and moral capacities of the multitude invariably leads many self-proclaimed ‘enlightened’ commentators to distrust the public. Such anti-public sentiments are often expressed by environmentalists, who regard ordinary folk as far too selfish or too in thrall to consumerism to vote for policies that will require them to make the kind of sacrifices that might ‘save the planet’. So Australian academic Clive Hamilton has argued that the ‘practices of democracy at times do not sit comfortably with the best advice of those most qualified and knowledgeable’. As someone who considers himself to be among the ‘most qualified and knowledgeable’, Hamilton feels concerned ‘about the corpses of science, reason and expertise that democracy is leaving in its wake’.

Upholding the authority of the ‘most qualified and knowledgeable’ invariably leads to the downsizing of democratic authority. One advocate of soft coercion of the people, the green journalist Johann Hari, has argued that since ‘we’ll save the planet only if we’re forced to’, coercion is necessary in order to make us behave. He justifies the use of compulsion on the grounds that the issue of the environment is far too important to be decided through the unpredictable institutions of democracy. ‘[E]ven the most hardcore libertarians agree that your personal liberty ends where you actively harm the liberty of another person’, argued Hari in defence of compelling people to adopt a green lifestyle.

Disappointment with the intellectual and moral resources of ordinary people doesn’t mean that Thomas Frank or Clive Hamilton is an anti-democratic ideologue. But what their loss of faith in democracy expresses is a pragmatic and unprincipled attitude towards the ideal of political representation. Like bankers and EU policymakers, they have greater faith in technocrats and experts than in the electorate. The instinct to restrain the influence of popular will is even expressed by Anthony Barnett, editor of openDemocracy, who is uncomfortable with the idea of the UK parliament taking a decision on the death penalty. He feels reassured that Britain’s elected parliament ‘may debate but it cannot in fact introduce the death penalty’, because the European Court of Human Rights has ‘ruled that the death penalty does in fact contravene the European Convention [on Human Rights]’. The only difference between Barroso, Barnett and Hamilton is which expert institution they uphold as being preferable to the institutions of democratic accountability.

When it comes to making a decision about economic austerity, the environment or the death penalty, apparently the views of the electorate must now give way to the views of the ‘most qualified and knowledgeable’.

The democracy/efficiency trade off

Thinkers who argue against democratic political accountability often assert that representatives of the people are far less able to deal with complex issues, certainly in comparison with technocrats and experts. Of course, every modern political institution requires and depends upon the advice and input of scientists, engineers and experts. But what the advocates of the current technocratic turn demand is not simply that politicians consider such advice, but that they defer to it, that they bow before the wisdom of the expert. In its more caricatured form, this technocratic turn assumes the character of an expert-dominated polity. So Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister and grand old man of the Green Party, has talked about the need for an ‘avant garde of the United States of Europe’.

Fisher’s avant garde would consist of 17 leaders of Eurozone countries who would de facto constitute a government of Europe. The main accomplishment of this scheme would be that ‘parliamentary powers of control would be taken along to Brussels from the European capitals’. In this way, the pretence of national accountability could be maintained while the brave 17 could govern Europe without the hassle of having to deal with political arguments and pressure. This proposed model of insulated decision-making is probably at the top of every EU technocrats’ wish list.

The promotion of technocracy is frequently justified on the basis that, especially during crisis situations, the dictates of efficiency outweigh the need for political accountability. So one recent defence of technocracy stated that ‘it might just be worth considering that temporary technocrat rule may well be an acceptable, perhaps necessary process at times of crisis’. The almost imperceptible conceptual leap from ‘acceptable’ to ‘necessary’ indicates that once democracy becomes a commodity to be traded in exchange for efficiency, Greece and Italy can become models for the future.

Historically, the idea of a democracy and efficiency trade-off led to the apology that at least in Italy under Mussolini the trains ran on time. Perhaps they did. But the real issue at stake is whether legitimacy based on popular consent is a luxury that can be dispensed with when a society is put to the test. The truth is that, rather than undermining effective government, democratic legitimacy is the indispensable foundation of effective government. The attempt to convert political problems into administrative ones, through technocratic rule, only stores up problems for the future. An unrepresentative government always acts as an invitation to political instability and unrest.

The downsizing of government

Technocracy expresses an active mistrust of representative government. Last year, Barroso justified his disdain for the idea of any referendum on EU matters and for democratic accountability more broadly by reminding people that ‘governments are not always right’. He added that ‘if governments were always right, we would not have the situation that we have today’ and that the ‘decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong’. Here, the otherwise non-contentious point that governments are not always right serves as a prelude for the proposition that it would be better to limit the harm they cause by giving greater power to the European Commission. The subtext of Barroso’s statement is that, unlike governments, non-elected technocrats are far more likely to take the right decisions.

Others claim that governments do not so much fail to get things right as they are irrelevant in the contemporary globalised world. The argument that governments are irrelevant is a roundabout way of claiming that popular sovereignty is irrelevant. These days, advocates of technocracy claim that representative governments have become outdated vestiges of the old era of the nation state. As far as Jürgen Habermas is concerned, the boundaries separating nations has become a political fiction. ‘The difference between domestic and foreign is beginning to blur’, he has stated.

From the lofty heights of Habermas’s elitist ivory tower, the European nation state and the consciousness of belonging to a national community is a populist fantasy. ‘After half a century of labour migration, even the European peoples, given their growing ethnic, linguistic and religious pluralism, can no longer be conceived as culturally homogeneous entities’, he wrote. Habermas may find it difficult to conceive of communities and nations providing their citizens with a sense of belonging, but many ordinary people have no difficulty in feeling at home in their culturally pluralistic environments. The attempt to undermine people’s existing loyalties and affiliations through the construction of what Habermas calls a ‘transnational democracy’ would simply diminish the prevailing forms of popular representation in favour of technocratic domination.

The demotion of the role of national government is often presented as an enlightened and progressive thing, a way of challenging outdated and decrepit institutions. However, it is important to understand that the denunciation of the institutions of national government is not simply an attack on national but also on popular sovereignty. The claim that governments do not work is another way of saying that democratic representation within the context of a nation state does not work. The alternative that is proposed is invariably to have less democracy, not more. Habermas’s transnational democracy represents the institutionalisation of the rule of a cosmopolitan elite, which is merely a variant of the technocratic oligarchy that has recently been imposed upon the peoples of Greece and Italy.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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