The Democratic Deficit

March 26, 2007 at 9:02 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment


Some weeks ago, Vincent Browne in The Irish Times argued that the issue of democracy was not receiving due attention in the upcoming election. This is indeed an important question. Let me repeat some ideas I wrote about in The Feasta Review 2 a couple of years ago.

It has been apparent for many years that a significant number of citizens believe that there is a serious democratic deficit throughout the western liberal States. While this is intrinsically worrying it is even more so given the strain these States are under to address the profound structural challenges posed by environmental decline. For these challenges to be met we require the State to be competent and smart and that is best achieved through a deep and engaged democracy.

But what we appear to be experiencing is a decaying of democracy occurring at both poles of the democratic process the quality of representation (supply) and the engagement of citizens (demand).


At the supply end of the equation, three features can be identified as responsible for the process of de-democratisation. The first, and most important, is the dominance in public discourse of a certain version of economic rationality. This rationality elevates the functioning of a theoretically imagined free market economy to be the epitome of sound social behaviour. Concepts such as competition, efficiency, free choice, privatisation and many others have been elevated to a non-problematic status as guarantors of prolonged economic growth and social well-being.


The logic of the free-market is asserted to be the most rational logic available anything else becomes, ipso facto, irrational and potentially dysfunctional. The claim made is that each individual pursuing his or her own maximum utility results in optimum social well-being. The States role is merely to ensure the best environment within which this rationality can proceed. The consequence however is that the concepts of a particular economic language game have overwhelmed our ability to speak politically in any other credible way. Those who attempt to do so can be charged with being unreasonable, unrealistic, and even dangerous. The effect on public discourse of this ascendancy has been to close down the capacity of public representatives to speak credibly in any other categories. They have become caught in an intellectual box beyond which they cannot manoeuvre.


But, even more alarming, this box is not just a theoretical construction. The second factor degrading democratic responsiveness is that power has effectively shifted from visible, accountable persons and institutions to invisible, globally diffused sites and systems. The control exercised by global corporations and financial services over the increasingly inter-dependant national economies has resulted in power being based upon the ability to control financial resources. Capital flows, investment decisions, currency speculations, and other choices exercised by large corporations, directly affect employment levels and wealth levels in individual nation States. It is this power that keeps the box in place. But rather than resist this de facto ceding of domestic control, nation-States have accelerated this process through the creation of international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, which legally binds States into the regime of free trade. The result is that irrespective of who is elected to de jure leadership positions within States, they effectively can do little substantive policy making, i.e. nothing outside the limits of the box and certainly nothing on the scale required by the ecological demands of this time.


Finally, elected representatives have presided over the dismantling of the States domain of concern in the last couple of decades, voluntarily so in the West, often compulsorily elsewhere as conditions of international loans or in consequence of military interventions. This has occurred in two directions. First has been the deregulation and privatisation of large areas of the economy that were formerly publicly owned – such as transport and electricity provision. Secondly, the State has increasingly devolved decision-making powers from democratic institutions to a variety of administrative bodies. Nowhere is this latter tendency more apparent than in the environmental policy-making area where questions of environmental impact have been determined by pollution control agencies, environmental impact assessment procedures and scientifically grounded risk assessments. Environmental concerns have become shunted away from political forums and instead rendered into a series of technical problems to be processed by administrative bodies. The result in this case has been the reduction, de-politicisation and domestication of environmental issues.


This supply contraction has met with, and in large part has itself influenced, a corresponding decline in the demand for representation from electorates. This contraction is an understandable response to the realisation of the limits of representative effectiveness. The growing loss of belief in liberal democracy is summed up in commonly occurring phrases such as It makes no difference who you vote for, They are all the same, They are all puppets who can do nothing anyway. This assessment by electorates is accentuated by revelations of political corruption, which have swept many Western States in recent years, our own included. As a result it has become apparent that the formal channel of exercising democratic power grounded on votes exercised by citizens has become outflanked by informal channels of influence, resting on financial power and political funding (licit and illicit), by the corporate few.


The consequence has been a further significant impetus to the de-politicisation of the public sphere, with the category of citizen being progressively replaced by that of consumer. The drama of politics has degenerated into a theatre of the absurd as largely powerless and homogeneous political representatives seek to cajole votes from disengaged, atomised individuals whose focus has become increasingly centred on the domain of their own personal autonomy. The electorates of the West now largely expect nothing from the political system, least of all the possibility of a vision of social transformation being translated into a politically realisable project. In the context of the grave environmental challenges facing us, this is a serious deficit indeed. This is because if we are to manage and regulate business and society in order to achieve social and ecological sustainability we will need highly democratised and effective policy instruments wielded by confidant and accountable States that can hold the trust of their citizens.



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