‘Post-democracy’ has come in the past decade to describe governance which subscribes to democratic rule, but where power and application have become progressively limited, concentrated in the hands of elite government officials, police, civil servants, bankers or media-brokers, most of whom are indifferent to public opinion, determine their own salaries and pensions and are separated from those they ‘serve’.
Different Commentators, Varied Views
British commentator, Peter Oborne, believes current political disenchantment is a postmodern design of agendas and programmes that deny ‘independent reality, where truth gives way to mere credibility, a narrative is created for events and claims of acting in good faith within rules that allow multi interpretations’. In a lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in March 2009, he blamed the then Labour government for driving this.
Oborne is a right-of-centre conservative commentator, and his book The Rise of Political Lying (2005) is comprehensively analysed by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper’s Michael White as ‘a rebuttal of John Lloyd’s What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004) which blamed a cynical and over-mighty estate for corrupting politics and its relationship with an increasingly disaffected electorate.’ Frank Kane in the Observer, summarised Lloyd’s point as ‘unsatisfying’ as it argued journalists and broadcasters in Britain, Europe and the US have become self-serving, power-crazed hypocrites who exaggerate, sensationalise and distort the news.
In Post-Democracy: Themes for the 21st Century (2004), Colin Crouch suggests the decline of social classes involved in mass politics combined with global capitalism has produced a self-referential political class, which is what post-democracy is, but he offers hope of revival of more democratic politics.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Post-democrcy.org is mobilising thinking against perceived right-wing monopoly of democracy’s language to justify war and aggression. It says all parties urge more democracy, through invasion/war or economics, but a new radical movement is needed that supports local self-determination, not the devalued term ‘democracy’. It wants ‘post-democratic’ to identify this theory.
Postmodern Theory and Practice
Postmodernism in the arts has been around and understood since the 1960s; it rejects previously accepted objective truths, stressing language, redefining absolute definitions and boundaries. It merges black/white, present/past, and opposites/differences. It absorbs diverse times and cultures in a cross-genre world, mixing and sampling everything. It followed modernism in the arts and culture.
Is that the new politics? Jeremy Gilbert, Reader in Cultural Studies at Britain’s University of East London, writing for Open Democracy used the 2009 expenses abuse scandals by Members of Parliament and the House of Lords to highlight the depth of crisis in parliamentary democracy, which electoral reform alone will not solve. He said it should have been the major news story at least five years earlier, but democratic dimensions were overlooked and ignored, as they were, despite moral-outrage demonstrations against the 2003 Iraq and later Afghanistan wars.
Gilbert argued the same principle applied against Britain’s 1980s’ privatisations and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. Whatever a large minority thought, the elite stuck to their guns, quite literally. Spurious, drummed-up or real claims of weapons of mass destruction, war on terror or global warming, allow democratic-legitimacy to be suppressed/manipulated in the name of the governing few, he said, with media complicity.
He further argued most institutions are not fit for today’s complex society, and the gulf between public expectation and Parliamentary reality is symptomatic of the mismatch in the roles of elected representatives and their function within the circuits of power. They are junior partners of ‘a technocratic, managerial elite whose most exalted members were, until recently, the merchant princes of finance capital’, proved he said, when both US and UK governments almost bankrupted taxpayers to rescue them from the fate they brought upon themselves.
The burden of this argument, drawing on the work of what Jean-Francois Lyotard called ‘the postmodern condition’ in 1979, is that following the post-war political settlements, this century has dawned in the face of ever-deepening global capitalism, where individual governments deal with their impotence by taking action on micro-manageable policies with increasing vehemence. He cites the one-time dream of the European Union as a supranational body fostering universal well-being reflecting democratic will converging in ever-closer consensus.
He says the economic crisis of 2008-present, has shattered that illusion. Society now harbours diversity of personal lives, public views unthinkable a generation ago. Modern governmental institutions ‘seem incapable of exercising control over the material, social and cultural changes which capitalism continues to unleash upon us’. Is the future: party political system replaced by ‘enlightened technocrats using focus groups and market research to find out what would make people happy’? Isn’t that Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, foreshadowed in 1931 and 1948 respectively?
Writers and political thinkers, such as Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe (conflict- proliferation will radicalise democracy), and Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt (power of collective multitudes), see these postmodern times as an opportunity when democracy might finally break free. Election of individuals rather than parties, coalitions, voting system changes, recalling poor MPs, electing local officials: all may be the start of this process, democracy’s long revolution.
In the meantime, untraceably funded, closed cabals, unaccountable agencies, organisations, security services, financial empires, law, order, education and health deliveries still work to unknown agendas. Perhaps the real question is: what comes after post-democracy and postmodernism, if such movements are commonly described as ‘the end of history’?
First published on Suite 101, 20 July 2010.
Photo: Despite Democratic Protest, War Goes Ahead – CharlieTPhotographic