Re­think­ing the end of his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Remy Dav­i­son

DEMOC­RACY,’’ said Ben­ito Mus­solini, ‘‘ is beau­ti­ful in the­ory, but a fal­lacy in prac­tice.’’ Il Duce was re­fer­ring to the US, but his words might ap­ply equally to the world’s old­est democ­ra­cies, many of which have passed from child­hood to se­nil­ity without ever hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced ado­les­cence.

Who or what threat­ens democ­racy? The list of vil­lains is long: multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions who ‘‘ stalk the globe’’; plu­to­crats such as Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni ( a favourite tar­get of Gins­borg, who wrote a pen­e­trat­ing bi­og­ra­phy of the three- times Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter); and, yes, even the pub­lisher of this news­pa­per does not es­cape un­scathed. The open­ing mise en scene in Paul Gins­borg’s Democ­racy takes us to Lon­don in spring, 1873. Over port, two of the 19th cen­tury’s great­est the­o­rists — John Stu­art Mill and Karl Marx — ru­mi­nate over the 1871 Paris Com­mune, cap­i­tal and the role of the state. Mill was to die a month later; Marx re­turned to his labours, never quite com­plet­ing the third vol­ume of Das Kap­i­tal. In Democ­racy ’ s epi­logue, set in 2008, the ghosts of Mill and Marx cast their dis­ap­prov­ing gazes down from heaven upon the lat­ter- day Napoleons of mod­ern Europe: Sarkozy, Ber­lus­coni, Brown and Putin.

This con­vivial din­ner be­tween Mill and Marx never took place. But it is fas­ci­nat­ing to spec­u­late on how th­ese two grand old men of Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy — one a life­long lib­eral, the other com­mit­ted to the pro­le­tar­ian democ­racy — could dis­agree so markedly in print, yet share many of the same con­vic­tions.

Circa 2008, mod­ern lib­er­al­ism and neoMarx­ism have lit­tle in com­mon. The clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism of Mill has given way to an eco­nomic neo- lib­er­al­ism that has lit­tle or noth­ing to do with democ­racy or in­di­vid­ual free­dom, which would have hor­ri­fied Mill. Marx­ism, which once gov­erned more peo­ples than the world’s democ­ra­cies com­bined, re­mains for­ever tainted by its as­so­ci­a­tion with Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. For those who suf­fered un­der com­mu­nism, Marx was in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for erect­ing the Berlin Wall; for lib­er­tar­i­ans, Mill must take at least par­tial credit for tear­ing it down.

Nev­er­the­less, Marx has ex­pe­ri­enced a resur­gence in re­cent years, ev­i­denced by the se­ri­ous­ness ac­corded him by Gins­borg in this book. As fi­nan­cial crises wracked Asia and Rus­sia in 1997- 78 ( iron­i­cally, bring­ing tran­si­tional democ­racy to In­done­sia, while end­ing it in Rus­sia), Lon­don’s Fi­nan­cial Times blared ‘‘ Das Kap­i­tal re­vis­ited.’’

Al­though 1989 in­au­gu­rated, in Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash’s phrase, a se­ries of ‘‘ vel­vet rev­o­lu­tions’’ in east­ern Europe and the Soviet re­publics, democ­racy has been on the de­cline ever since. Fran­cis Fukuyama pro­claimed the ‘‘ end of his­tory’’ in 1989, but Gins­borg ar­gues force­fully that we are dan­ger­ously close to the end of democ­racy, or at least any form worth hav­ing.

For Gins­borg, it is not the quan­tity of democ­ra­cies that is at is­sue; af­ter all, tran­si­tional, al­beit vul­ner­a­ble, democ­ra­cies have emerged in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Ti­mor. More ac­cu­rately, it is the qual­ity of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy that has been ‘‘ hol­lowed out’’.

Voter turnout in both es­tab­lished and nascent democ­ra­cies is fall­ing: wit­ness the com­plete lack of in­ter­est of vot­ers in Euro­pean Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. Ap­a­thy rules. Democ­ra­cies have been in­fil­trated by spin- doc­tor­ing politi­cians, state­less cor­po­ra­tions and me­dia moguls. And West­ern democ­racy, par­tic­u­larly the An­glo- Saxon edi­tion, is fre­quently char­ac­terised by what po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Gio­vanni Sar­tori de­scribes as ‘‘ po­larised plu­ral­ism’’: mul­ti­ple par­ties con­test elec­tions, but only one of two ma­jor par­ties has any re­al­is­tic chance of winning gov­ern­ment.

‘‘ What, then, is to be done?’’ Gins­borg asks, para­phras­ing Lenin. Re­gard­less of his cau­tious ad­mi­ra­tion for Marx’s think­ing, it is Mill, Gins­borg ar­gues, who pro­vides the so­lu­tion for re- es­tab­lish­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ism, civil so­ci­ety and democ­racy. Hy­per­ac­tivism, Ja­cobin­ism and state cen­trism can­not pro­vide the foun­da­tions for mod­ern democ­racy. Rather, Gins­borg can­vasses the no­tion of the ‘‘ ac­tive ci­ti­zen’’. Mill’s con­cep­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy — in­volv­ing mass voter turnout for gen­eral elec­tions ev­ery three, four or five years — is sim­ply in­suf­fi­cient. In­stead, peo­ple have to be con­vinced that it is worth giv­ing up their time for democ­racy. Not that this will be easy, the au­thor adds. Peo­ple are locked into a ‘‘ work and spend’’ mode, leav­ing lit­tle time for grass­roots ac­tivism.

Gins­borg finds so­lace in French so­ci­ol­o­gist Alexis de Toc­queville’s Democ­racy in Amer­ica ( 1835), a clas­sic de­scrip­tion of par­tic­i­pa­tive democ­racy in action. Toc­queville saw town- hall meet­ings and in­ter­est groups as the ba­sis for a democ­racy in which states were en­trusted to gov­ern­ments, and gov­ern­ments, in turn, re­sponded to pub­lic opin­ion and ini­tia­tives. Travel to Porto Ale­gre in south­ern Brazil and you will wit­ness par­tic­i­pa­tive democ­racy in action. The Work­ers’ Party in­tro­duced reg­u­lar town- hall meet­ings in which thou­sands of lo­cals par­tic­i­pated. The out­come was an open elec­tion for a bud­get com­mit­tee, paving the way for a trans­par­ent, ac­count­able bud­getary process.

There is a small but grow­ing num­ber of sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives sprout­ing in ma­ture democ­ra­cies. In Bri­tain, 300 vot­ers de­ter­mined the pri­or­i­ties of Har­row Coun­cil’s 2006- 07 bud­get.

In Aus­tralia, the US, Den­mark and Ger­many, ‘‘ ci­ti­zen ju­ries’’ present non- bind­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to gov­ern­ments.

Af­ter the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror at­tacks, more than 5000 New York­ers gath­ered for a town- hall meet­ing to de­lib­er­ate on the fu­ture of Ground Zero. At least some of the meet­ing’s ini­tia­tives found their way into the Free­dom Tower plans. Even more am­bi­tious at­tempts at ‘‘ de­lib­er­a­tive democ­racy’’ in­volve ‘‘ elec­tronic town meet­ings’’. The demo­cratic equiv­a­lent of speed­dat­ing, they in­volve fast and fu­ri­ous brain­storm­ing around ta­bles, with ideas be­ing fed to a cen­tral data­base, where they are fur­ther re­fined by a ‘‘ theme team’’, be­fore be­ing pre­sented back to the whole town meet­ing at the end of day. Di­ver­sity is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of th­ese meet­ings, which bring to­gether par­tic­i­pants from a range of back­grounds, age groups and eth­nic­i­ties.

If all of this sounds oddly fa­mil­iar, cast your mind back to Kevin Rudd’s di­rigiste pub­li­cre­la­tions ex­er­cise known as the 2020 Sum­mit. Not, adds Gins­borg, that this kind of democ­racy — even the Rud­dite vari­a­tion — comes cheaply. A size­able town meet­ing costs real money: more than $ 400,000, to be pre­cise. Ci­ti­zen ju­rists in the US re­ceive $ 150 per day, while assem­bling ju­ries costs up to $ 60,000. If we want real democ­racy, we’re go­ing to have to pay for it.

In his con­clu­sions, Gins­borg places lit­tle faith in in­sti­tu­tions such as the EU, an elite, un­elected, un­ac­count­able or­gan­i­sa­tion mired in bu­reau­cratic wran­gling. If the EU is to ful­fil its po­ten­tial, democ­racy has to re­turn to its grass roots, with a re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion at the lo­cal level.

In­deed, Gins­borg as­serts, the EU needs to em­brace so- called par­tic­i­pa­tive democ­racy, which in­te­grates el­e­ments of par­tic­i­pa­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It in­volves, as Mill wrote, ‘‘ re­turn­ing to first prin­ci­ples’’. Remy Dav­i­son is as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the Monash Euro­pean and EU Cen­tre and the au­thor of For­eign Poli­cies of the Great and Emerg­ing Pow­ers, pub­lished this year.

Rise and fall: Paul Gins­borg looks to the foun­da­tions of democ­racy and ru­mi­nates on its fu­ture in Democ­racy: Cri­sis and Re­newal

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