Rethinking the end of history
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