DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE?

“The quality of democracy in the OECD and EU has declined in recent years. At the same time, growing political polarization has made the day-to-day work of governance and thus member states’ capacity to reform more difficult. Related to this is the fact that many governments are less inclined to engage in the broad-based consultation of societal actors during the planning phase of reforms. Governments’ communication abilities and implementation efficiency are also on the decline.

The current issue of the Sustainable Governance Indicators shows some very worrying trends within OECD and EU countries which, given the major policy challenges ahead, may seriously burden them in the future.”

These are the headline conclusions of the 2018 report on “sustainable governance” of the German Bertelsmann Stiftung. This foundation has been running its sustainable governance project since 2011, producing annual measurements of democratic quality, governance and policy performance in 41 advanced democracies (OECD and EU countries). Data is compiled on about 70 indicators for each country, drawing on the best available international statistics and expert assessment. The research team consist of about 100 country and regional experts and six in-house analysts, under the oversight of an international Advisory Board. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the research team.)

Read the full report here.

WHAT’S RUSSIA UP TO?

Last week, British, Dutch and American authorities made public a detailed expose of misdeeds around by the Russian state. Here is an extract from a recent review article on some relevant literature:

Vladimir Putin’s presidency falls in two parts. The first period could be seen as an attempt to impose some kind of order in the Russian state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But by 2014, the man who had wanted (or so he said) to be a liberal European president had turned against Europe and “the West.”

The oligarchic economy of Putin’s early period was one of competing clans and gangs in a system that left the state with little control. Putin took on this system and by the end of his first period, the Russian oligarchy was consolidated as the kleptocratic control of the state by a single oligarchical clan under Putin.

His Russian state has essentially three resources available to it. The first one is inequality. The nation’s wealth, which is not great, is in the hands of the Putin oligarchy. The second resource is the use of cyber capacity for propagandistic and manipulative purposes. This is a weapon with two advantages: it is cheap and it is effective. And the third resource is ruthless determination.

As seen from the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the collapse of Communist dictatorship. As seen from Russia, it was the collapse of the Russian empire. The loss of empire, dignity and respect created fertile soil for nationalistic-fascistic ideas of an alternative Russia.

The relevant ideas draw in part on religious-historical mysticism. “Russia” has evolved from the Kyivan Rus with origins more than a thousand years back in history and from the tradition of Russian orthodox Christianity. That empire was geographical but it was even more to be understood as spiritual, an empire of virtue. Technically the empire has collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives. This, for example, is why the Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia.

The long-term aim is the reconstitution of the physical empire. The short-term aim is to weaken its here-and-now enemies: the European Union, America, Western liberalism, democracy. Since the purpose is noble, noting is forbidden in action: destroying Ukrainian autonomy, undermining the credibility of the European Union, destabilizing the workings of electoral democracy in America, undertaking assassinations on British soil, brutalizing the conduct of war in Syria. Lies and denials are standard.

The Russian state has behind it a weak and unsophisticated economy and a population poor in education and health. Therefore, since Russia cannot be strong, its foreign must be make others weaker. Russia cannot be a builder – so it must be a wrecker.

Read the review article in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy here.

 

TOTALITARIANISM: A LETTER TO FELLOW CHINA ANALYSTS

Dear friends,

The time has come that we set our work straight in language. The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state. Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not “an authoritarian system,” it is “a totalitarian state.”

The final straw has been the imposition of outright tyranny in Xinjiang, with extremes of surveillance, heavily intrusive thought-work, and mass detentions in “re-education” facilities. But also the relentless tightening of dictatorship during Xi Jinping’s reign, culminating in the decimation of the community of human rights lawyers that has stood as a bastion of courage and civility.

The characteristics of totalitarianism are

  • that rule is upheld by terror
  • that rule reaches into the regulation of natural human bonds in private spheres
  • that rule is exercised through an extensive and impersonal bureaucracy
  • that the state operates under the authority of a commanding ideology.

The proof of terror is now in Xinjiang. Where the regime sees it to be necessary, its footprint is tyranny. The state is deep into the regulation of private lives, now intensified in the “social credit system” by which rewards and punishments are distributed in the population according to patterns of private behaviour. There has never been bureaucracy like the PRC bureaucracies. Xi has cast off pragmatism and clad his reign in the omnipresent China Dream ideology of nationalism and chauvinism.

The result of totalitarian patterns of state rule is that social life is atomised and community crushed. Many Chinese can now live their daily lives much as they want, and in comfort. But there is no freedom of assembly, association, information or deliberation.

I know that there is honest reluctance in our own community to adopting the language of totalitarianism. There has been hope and expectation of opening up. But in political life and civil society it is not happening. Far from it, the direction of travel is to shutting down. We should now recognise this in the language we use.

Yours respectfully,

Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy, King’s College London

 

DEMOCRACY – A GOOD WORD FOR THE GOOD OLD WAY

Amidst the scramble for new-fangled forms of democracy, spare a thought for the excellence of the good old way.

Citizens elect representatives to make laws and oversee governance on their behalf. The simple design of representation by election is in fact a very smart arrangement, much smarter than is often appreciated. Is solves three problems in one go: a problem of power, a problem of size and a problem of quality.

Power. Since representatives are elected by citizens and can be deselected by them at the next election, they govern under popular control. We have one of the requirements of democracy: safe government. The problem of power is solved. The people hold power over those who exercise power over them.

Size. When the American republic was created, a way needed to be found to govern a large territory with the consent of the people who lived dispersed over that territory. The previous republican experience was that of cities governing themselves, such as in the Italian city states of the Renaissance. The previous democratic experience was that of direct democracy. Some of this could be replicated in America on the local level (and there was experience of direct town democracy before the consolidation of the federation) but a new model was needed for national (and state) government. The Founding Fathers settled for localities sending representatives to the capital to manage public affairs in the place of citizens themselves. The method of representation by election is an invention of the American Constitution. Without this invention we could not have had national democracies.

Quality. Governance should be safe but also effective. The representative method puts decision-making in good hands, which the direct democracy does not, and delegates the responsibility of decision-making to an assembly, which the autocratic method does not. One purpose of elections is to give us the opportunity to appoint those among us who are the more qualified to do the job. The advantage of decision-making by assembly is that it enables the institutionalisation of rules and procedures of good decision-making and that it offers the chance for proper deliberation. In an assembly of representatives who are more numerous than a small committee of like-minded apparatchiks, who are from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds and who are elected on different political platforms, there is a good chance that decisions will be tested by robust debate.

Although we must make the qualification that democracies always work imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly, these are real benefits in the method of representation by election. That is a method we should not easily give up on, and one we should probably value more than we do.

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN – YET AGAIN

The fog is lifting. The plot is thickening. Minds are being concentrated. Brexit has turned out to be a national nightmare.

The UK-EU negotiations are clarifying the choices. Per now, August 2018, the British people and their Parliament have in front of them a menu with three options.

  • Alternative 1: There will be a deal along the lines of the government’s Chequers agreement.
  • Alternative 2: Britain leaves the EU without a comprehensive future trade deal and on World Trade Organisation terms.
  • Alternative 3: Brexit is suspended and Britain remains a member of the EU.

These are the only available options. A deal may be struck along the lines now under discussion. The government has concluded that this is the only kind of deal that is available, and a deal of this kind might be acceptable to the EU. Britain leaving on WTO terms is undesirable, but could happen. The government is making contingency plans for this eventuality. Britain remaining in the EU could happen if there were a change of mind.

The problem, however, is that all three available outcomes are impossible, not one or two of them but all three.

  • Alternative 1 is impossible because it implies Britain making itself a rule-taker of rules it has had no say in making. That is impossible for one of Europe’s big powers. A small country like Norway can live as a rule-taker, but not a big power. A vote ostensibly to take back sovereignty cannot result in the country diminishing itself to obeying other people’s rules.
  • Alternative 2 is impossible because it would risk the disintegration of the United Kingdom and come with other costs. It would give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to enforce and win another independence referendum, and put Irish unification back on the agenda. The economic costs, and costs to other forms of European collaboration, would be unacceptable.
  • Alternative 3 is impossible because Parliament has put the question of EU membership to a referendum and the referendum has decided that Britain will end its membership.

There are no good options available. In the end, Parliament must decide. Somehow, Parliament must cut through and choose between outcomes that all have their own impossibilities.

The ongoing negotiations will reduce the menu from three to two choices. If there is a deal, the choice will be between Alternatives 1 and 3. If there is not deal, it will be between Alternatives 2 and 3. In the first case, will Parliament reduce Britain to the status of rule-taker? Impossible. In the second case, will Parliament put the Union itself at risk? Impossible.

These matters will come to a head in Parliament later this year, or early next year. Neither Alternative 1 nor Alternative 2 will command a majority. The government will fall. There will have to be either another government, possibly a broad coalition under fresh leadership, or a new election, or a second referendum, or some combination of these.

 

DICTATORSHIP AGAINST DEMOCRACY

The story of democracy, in the title of John Keane’s grand history, is one of life and death. It is not a glorious story. Death has been more prevalent than life.

The Greeks invented, says S.E. Finer, two of the most potent political features of our present age: they invented the very idea of citizen, as opposed to subject, and they invented democracy. But it did not last. Democracy emerged, haltingly, in the fifth century BC and collapsed with the end of Athenian independence less than 300 years later, having suffered several fits of near death in the process.

After that, the world forgot about democracy for 2000 years, until it was reinvented in the American Constitution of 1787. Whereas Athenian democracy had been direct – decision-making collectively by assembly to which all citizens had access – the Americans invented representative democracy. Now, citizens would elect representatives to the national and local congresses that would take charge of decision-making on their behalf.

Although the Athenians invented the idea of the citizen, the inclusive concept of citizenship and of universal suffrage took hold only in the twentieth century. In the latter part of that century, this form of government expanded from a minority to a majority of countries and territories. At the entry into our century, 140 of about 190 countries in the world had functioning multiparty elections. If, finally, there has been glory in the story of democracy, that has come only recently. And even so, the lesson to be drawn from history is that democracy is not a natural form of rule. It must be wanted, it must be created, recreated and nurtured, and it is inevitably exposed and in danger.

This mini-history introduces a review, in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, of various recent works of the contemporary authoritarian challenge to democracy from Russia and China, and the democratic response, such as it is.

Read the review here.

DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

So what else is new?