Post-democracy

By the standard model of democracy, I mean the peculiar combination, as had come to be considered normal in OECD capitalism after 1945, of reasonably free elections, govern­ment by established mass parties, ideally one of the Right and one of the Left, and strong trade unions and employer associations under a firmly institutionalized collective bargaining regime, with legal rights to strike and, sometimes, lock-out. This model reached its peak in the 1970s, after which it began to disintegrate. The advance of neoliberalism coincided with steadily declining electoral turnout in all countries, rare and short-lived exceptions not­with­standing. The shrinking of the electorate was, moreover, highly asymmetrical: those that dropped out of electoral politics came overwhelmingly from the lower end of the income scale – ironically where the need for egalitarian democracy is greatest. Party membership declined as well, in some countries dramatically; party systems fragmented; and voting became volatile and often erratic. In a rising number of countries, the gaps in the electorate have begun to be filled in part by so-called ‘populist’ parties, mostly of the Right but lately also from the Left, who mobilize marginalized groups for protest against ‘the system’ and its ‘elites’. Also declining is trade-union membership – a trend reflected in an almost complete disappearance of strikes, which like elections have long served as a recognized channel of democratic participation.

The demise of standard post-war democracy was and is of the highest significance. Coupled to state-managed capitalism, democracy functioned as an engine of economic and social progress. By redistributing parts of the proceeds of the capitalist market economy downward, through both industrial relations and social policy, democracy provided for rising standards of living among ordinary people and thereby procured legitimacy for a capitalist market economy; at the same time it stimulated economic growth by securing a sufficient level of aggregate demand. This twofold role was essential for Keynesian politics-cum-policies, which turned the political and economic power of organized labour into a productive force and assigned democracy a positive economic function. The problem was that the viability of that model was contingent on labour mobilizing a sufficient amount of political and economic power, which it could do in the more or less closed national economies of the post-war era. Inside these, capital had to content itself with low profits and confinement in a strictly delimited economic sphere, a condition it accepted in exchange for economic stability and social peace as long as it saw no way out of the national containers within which its hunting licence had been conditionally renewed after 1945. With the end of post-war growth, however, as distributional margins shrunk, the profit-dependent classes began to look for an alternative to serving as an infrastructure of social democracy, and found it in de-nationalization, also known as ‘globalization’. As capital and capitalist markets began to outgrow national borders, with the help of international trade agreements and assisted by new transporta­tion and communication technologies, the power of labour, inevitably locally based, weakened, and capital was able to press for a shift to a new growth model, one that works by redistributing from the bottom to the top. This was when the march into neoliberalism began, as a rebellion of capital against Keynesianism, with the aim of enthroning the Hayekian model in its place. Thus the threat of unemployment returned, together with its reality, gradually replacing political legitimacy with economic discipline. Lower growth rates were acceptable for the new powers as long as they were compensated by higher profit rates and an increasingly inegalitarian distribution. Democracy ceased to be functional for economic growth and in fact became a threat to the performance of the new growth model; it therefore had to be decoupled from the political economy. This was when ‘post-democracy’ was born.

—Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, (London: Verso, 2016), 21-22.

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