Image for The Age of Post-Democracy

*Pic: Image from here

There are increasing signs that what we know as the Western democratic world is entering an era which I think can best be described as post-democratic.

Political systems have always reflected, in fact been brought about by, their underlying economic systems.  Feudal economic structures naturally produced hierarchical societies ultimately ruled by monarchs and emperors.  As capitalism developed, so too did representative democracy, with the push for universal franchise driven first by working men and then by women.

Today we are enmeshed in a neo-liberal economy, and the traditional (albeit only about a century old) democratic structures and processes are seen to stand in the way of the complete success of capitalism in its new form.  People, when allowed to express their desires through a ballot box, tend to opt for policies which suit the majority, not the few at the top. 

This can be, and usually has been, overcome by propaganda through the mainstream media, by rallying the masses behind a phony war or security scare, or by controlling the policies of all major political parties so that any electoral outcome is acceptable.  There are growing problems with these approaches. 

First, the mainstream media are losing influence compared to social media, which are less predictable.  Secondly, both propaganda and war are becoming more expensive, and capital always seeks to maximise return on investment.  Thirdly, the ideological convergence of major political parties creates a vacuum which might be filled by less controllable forces.  There is, therefore, a need (from the point of view of capital) for these structures to be dismantled and these processes to be discontinued.

This is already under way.  Two familiar examples are the lack of transparency around public-private partnerships to develop infrastructure (because of so-called “commercial-in-confidence” matters) and the lack of participation by ordinary people or their elected representatives in so-called free trade agreements.  The equation of information and power is universally recognised now and we who lack information concerning these two kinds of project are rendered powerless.

The free trade agreements, through the inclusion of Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses, actually make elected governments subservient to big corporations.  One might say that most governments are like that anyhow, but the fact that a law passed by a parliament which is in the interests of the majority of the population can be overturned by the decision of an international tribunal set up by corporate interests adds a new impenetrable layer between what people want and what we get.

On the other side of the coin, if lack of information means lack of power, then the increased gathering of information about us by government authorities and corporate interests further shifts the balance of power against ordinary citizens.

There have been, in the decades since capitalism started developing into its current form, many examples of democratically elected governments being overthrown because they were threatening the interests of capital.  Chile in 1973 was perhaps the best known.  The USA’s attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 failed, and NATO’s intervention against the Ukraine government in 2013/14 has produced a less than decisive outcome, but thousands of people have died or suffered as a result.

But acts like this are discrete direct attacks on democracy.  What is worse in the long term is that, before it has even been established in much of the world, democracy is becoming obsolete.  It stands in the way of the unfettered profitability, and therefore of the growth, of capital. 

The horror of two world wars ...

The nation state was the building block of the kind of world which, after the horror of two world wars, established the United Nations with its idealism and its practical programs in such fields as health, education, labour rights, cultural exchange and so on.  The nation state is becoming subservient to the corporate entity, and so the democracy which is fundamental to a healthy nation is becoming irrelevant.  As we saw during the Iraq War, even some of the world’s largest armies are owned by the corporate sector.

In Australia in recent months we have seen some of the Abbott government’s budget proposals stalled or amended in the Senate.  It is instructive to contrast the response by Abbott to that by Paul Keating when he as PM was unable to get his way with the Senate.  Keating famously called the senators “unrepresentative swill.”.  His argument was that the Upper House was less democratic and therefore should not have the influence it has,  Abbott has not couched his frustration with the Senate in such terms.  To his mind, the non-government senators, in standing up against some of the worst excesses of Abbott’s far right agenda, are actually too democratic, too responsive to the interests of the people who elected them. 

We are used to large corporations using their wealth to lobby governments, but in the post-democratic age they will merely bypass government and have direct control over matters that affect our lives.  We on the Left are used to fighting the excesses and the cruelties of capital through the ballot box, through petitions to governments and through lobbying individual politicians. 

Street demonstrations and direct actions have historically been resorted to when these more “acceptable” means have failed.  In the age of post-democracy it will be pointless to fight within the political system.  The “withering away of the state” will have taken place not, as Marx predicted, because of the triumph of the proletariat, but because the state has become redundant for the forces of capital.

We must devise ways of restoring to the populace at large, and to those who are oppressed or marginalised in particular, the ability to shape our lives free from the forces that would control them in the interests of capital.  I believe that the SEARCH Foundation has a role to play in helping to develop networks and information channels which will facilitate discussion about how this is to happen, first among the existing progressive bodies and structures, and eventually as part of a global mass movement.

Overseas examples of resistance to the extreme measures enforced by predatory capital, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, can be useful to those of us elsewhere in the world who have not yet had to deal with the worst of selective austerity.  These two movements, and others which have not yet achieved the same breadth of popular acceptance, are providing radically alternative policies within the framework of democratic political structures. 

But it is valuable to look at them, not merely in terms of electoral success, but in terms of how they have developed, what community, labour, environmental etc organisations and networks they started from or attracted, and how they coordinated and enhanced those groups’ various programs and aims.  It is these aspects of the work of the Left that will be needed in a post-democratic future.  In fact, they are needed now, so that we can be ready. 

*Tim Thorne is a former columnist for the Hobart Mercury and the author of 14 collections of poetry.  He is currently the President of TAP Into a Better Tasmania and of the SEARCH (Social Education, Action and Research Concerned with Humanity) Foundation.