Is modern democracy in its average American-European way a final step of social and political evolution? Political class of the West is confident of it. American philosopher Francis Fukuyama put this thesis as the title of his famous book. He concluded that “the twin crises of authoritarianism and socialist central planning have left only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity: liberal democracy”.
In the 90’s of the 20th century, attempts to dispute such views appeared to be marginal. However, the aggravating migration crisis in Europe and the administration crisis in the US show once again that liberal model is not a perfectly balanced construction that needs no further advance. These days, its most canonical adherents also refuse to admit that the crisis is of systemic nature. They see the essence of the problem in prone to populism and authoritarian politicians who disrupt democratic institutions.
Meanwhile, the situation concerning migrants was created not by a retreat from the liberal theory and practice, but by excessive dedication to them contrary to real capabilities of the European Union and its member-states. Discrepancy between ideology and the existing social and political model is undeniably indicative of a crisis. The same goes for the growing breakaway of the U.S. political class from concerns, values and aspiration of the rest of the nation, which has been expressed as the inability of the elite to respect the legit choice of American electors, i.e. Donald Trump and his political agenda.
Stubborn denial by liberal democracy ideologists of the very need to change something in it gives rise to concern to an even greater degree than certain crisis developments. This may testify to a failure of the error-correcting system that helps a viable social and political structure adapt to new challenges. When various institutions and forms of ideology stop being usable tools and turn into objects of cult, they cease progressing. This is what we are witnessing nowadays.
However, democracy as an unavoidably evolving system is used to coping with narrow-mindedness of persons who call themselves democrats during some epoch or other. These days it has institutions and ideology different from the political forms which were not considered to be fully democratic but still they paved the way for democracy’s current state. They were accepted by the Republicans in France during the Revolution and by the U.S. Founding Fathers. There are also no reasons to expect that democracy’s evolution will suddenly stop in early 21st century.
Despite the historic approach, disciples of democratic religion are inclined to consider this political regime and the related value system as primordial gift of God, an everlasting and permanent one, which the humankind sometimes used to back away from due to its natural sinfulness. Such view in less controversial form is embodied in the conception of optimum shape of political organization achieved by progressive societies at varying times. This is where popular in the West identification of modern democracy with the one that used to exist in the birthplace of this term – Ancient Greece – takes its roots. This artificial continuity disregards the significant peculiarity of a Greek polis, even a most democratic one like Athens, which is no wonder because informal exploring the subject would definitely drive PC activists into hysteria.
Though it had many great gains, Athens’ democracy was purely local (covered very small territory), it was non-professional (considering that there were no regular officials), slave-owning system (needs no comments), imperialistic (it pumped out resources from dependent nations), xenophobic (max inhibiting access of outsiders to civic society) and parasitic on the whole (it represented itself as privileged oligarchy in relation to the rest of the world). On the other hand, unlike most modern democracies, it was a direct one (with direct involvement of all citizens in debating absolutely all matters), community-focused (due to blatantly non-symmetrical assignment of state support and responsibilities among the poor and the rich), transparent (because of absence of bureaucratic apparatus and total accountability of elected officials to popular assembly). In other words, being not a pronounced but a real form of political supremacy of sovereign nation – Demos with the proviso that this Demos, which is a few dozens of thousands of adult males, who stood for privileged minority with regard to women, slaves, non-residents (metics) and vassal allies.
There is one feature that actually gives a common ground to America and Athens which stood in the list of superpowers of antiquity during the period of growth of its sea power notwithstanding its relatively small size (by today’s standards). However, this feature is not at all the one that liberal historiography opts to refer to. That is parasitism upon external lands. A real democracy is a very costly affair. Enormous sums are needed to guarantee material and educational minimum of the entire civil community. Without that, democratic institutions fail to function full-rate. Even most wealthy states always tried to pass part of expenses for internal advances on some third party.
Athens provided material basis of democracy via non-economic methods – political and military ones. Nowadays, heritage of colonial epoch can be seen in system-related milking of developing states by leading economies of the Golden Billion with the help of the rules for international trade and global specialization of labor established by leading economies themselves. Being embodied in transnational political and financial structures, these rules entrench global economic inequality set by exploitation of colonies, unequal exchange, gun-boat diplomacy and transatlantic slave trading. Temporal pittance under humanitarian assistance does not compensate constant decrease in well-being in favor of conceited democracies. As for delegates of the “Third World”, their frequent accusations of lack of democracy turn out to be a high-level mockery, for they use resources taken from the outlands to act democrats (a reverse propaganda slogan “be a democrat to prosper” does not work unfortunately).
On the other hand, indispensable in antiquity seclusiveness, xenophobia and isolationism are less common in modern democracies. At least, when it comes to officially declared ideology. However, this is mostly not the merit of democratic systems. Political and cultural effects of the polis’s exclusiveness were overcome under universal traditions of Hellenistic monarchies, the Roman Empire, medieval over-ethnic church and secular structures and cosmopolitan dynastical states of the early modern period. This historical choice predetermined messianic motivation of the Enlightenment and the French revolution. All its modern successors obtained sociability and universalism as a free ideological supplement to basic civilizational values.
Therefore, many essential features of modern liberal democracy maturated within the confines of other political entities that were neither liberal nor democratic. Just the same, every democracy, whether ancient or modern, contains elements that could never be considered democratic by the antique political theory. Since the era of Aristotle, it has been commonly believed that every real form of political structure combines democratic, oligarchical and monarchical features. Their ratio determines the essence of polity. For example, in modern democracies, only institution of referendum could be regarded as democratic by the sophists of Ancient Greece. Selection of officials not by lot but via election would seem as flagrant oligarchical institution for the ancient Greeks, because nobody would vote for an ordinary representative of the democratic majority (who is plainly not known to anybody!). People vote for famous persons who as a rule are quite wealthy (since they can afford going into politics), that is they belong to relatively small political class. Absolute assignment of all administration matters to a representative body is pure and unadulterated oligarchy. At the same time, strong executive body would be considered as autocracy.
The divide between modern and antique approach to the determination of essential attributes of democracy stems from multiple growth of employment of democratic practical aspects and general complication of social and political life. What was good for a small polis is extremely hard to bring to life in a huge country with multi-million population. This is why representative government was invented. But it’s still a matter of argument whether this form deserves to be named democracy. Separated from the rest of the nation, professional politicians who de facto co-opt new members without election process, have their own corporate interests, cooperation traditions and internal ties that are closer than the external ones leading to formally sovereign nation – all that makes you speak about oligarchy not only in the terms of antiquity. Let us add here merging of political class with big business – that’s what is happening far and wide, inheritability of the status, which these days manifests itself in the appearance of overt and concealed political dynasties, all that leaves no chance for impartial political theory to discover even the slightest hint at democracy here.
Of course, there are instruments for feedback communication between politicians and their electors, there has got to be competing political programs and parties that represent them. But hasty growth of marginal forces’ popularity that deny neoliberal consensus and are rejected by respectable political class is the testimony to the fact that constantly growing masses of people have no faith in ability of any traditional party to clench matters that are of real concern of common members of the public (or at least deal with them). They see no difference between formally competing political programs and tend to turn their back to traditional elite in general.
A common reaction of liberal politicians to the described problem is that populism is the core of it. They say there are some reckless persons who do baby kissing with voters and tell them what they want to hear. Having in service all the determinations and values of liberal democracy, one would ask them, why aren’t you doing the same? Why aren’t you populists?! Granted that there are certain subjects that worry the nation, why aren’t they worrying the same way the ones who represent the people? Perhaps, that’s you who do not want to hear your fellow nationals and thus are generally unable to speak about anything else except what is written on your agenda that you copy from each other, especially when what is written there and the moods of sovereign democratic majority are mutually exclusive.
As distinguished from Athenian democrats, modern elite goes beyond representing interests of the nation. It uses all available means of the informational era to form a nation’s proper concept of its interests (which is the congruent with the elite’s own interests). Given the experience, knowledge and leverages the political class wields, the approach often helped in the past to save impulsive and less competent majority from various tragic mistakes. For Heaven’s sake! There is every reason to believe that influence of every government – even the most liberal one – on the “free choice” of people will only be increasing as the time goes by. Just don’t give the name of democracy to a resulting regime and don’t call “authoritarian” every system indiscriminately that resolves the matter of interoperation between administration and population otherwise than it is customary in Western “democratic society”.
Growth of specialization under the conditions of constantly progressing world is an absolutely natural and inevitable process not only in politics but in other spheres as well. In fact, when democratic majority is satisfied with what is happening around, it gladly sub-delegates government matters to politicians and retires to the sphere of private life and professional interests. Steep rise of political nature of the populace is on the contrary speaking for deep dissatisfaction with the activity or inactivity of the elite. At the present time, this is extremely aggressive and absurdly formalized pseudo-tolerance that mostly discredits values it proclaims in word. It transformed noble cause of protection of the rights of racial, religious, national, sexual and any other minorities into the suicidal offensive against cultural self-identity, historic memory, aesthetic favors and merely everyday behavior of democratic majority. Exactly in this form it became a religion of political elite of the West and caused unavoidable opposition of the society. This is what promotes growth of far-right forces’ popularity, migration crisis and radicalization of various forms of responses to it.
Current situation looks much like the indignation of Russian society in early 20th century about extremely rapid development of capitalistic relations and imposing of the relevant ideology that gave it into hands of Bolsheviks. It also resembles Germany of the 30’s in the same century that chose an all-out war against all non-Germans instead of politically correct forgiveness of the ones to be blamed for the nation’s humiliation. Historical alternatives of liberal democracy that appeared in both cases and denied both democracy itself and each other as well died away not because of their inviability but because they lost a war (world war or cold war) to an enemy with far greater reserves of various resources.
From the mid 20th century, as conclusions of the experience of democratic rise to power of basically anti-democratic forces and as means of counteraction to expansion of competing ideologies, Western democracy started to put a rigid system of ideas and regulations into daily use that formed the basis of modern “liberal values”. For 70 years, a matter whether some idea, activity or institution should be considered as democratic was settled not on the ground of essential characteristics of the very phenomenon but judging from its presence or absence in liberal “canon”. This allowed for preserving technically democratic political model without fear of a free choice of democratic majority of some form of authoritarianism, religious, national or class extremism, which time and again happened in various eras.
However, “liberal values” have become a vehicle for the split of Western society these days. Over the past time they became absolutely inflexible, not subject to criticism and not following the changing realities. They became totalitarian in the full sense of the word. The overwhelming majority of their adherents perceive them as the last revelation and they demolish memorials, interdict books and launch missile attacks for their sake. Herewith, pretty often the very essence of the postulates in liberal catechesis gets violated just for nothing. E.g., diverse opinion gives reason for a “witch hunt”, declarative protection of various minorities (often contrary to their own views and will) is conducted with flagrant disregard of foundational rights of the majority.
In the past, when ideology began to contradict with demands of the society and objective needs of the era in such an unacceptable manner, some elite fraction always would come up with a proposal of an alternative. However, representatives of modern political class seem to be unable to create such an alternative. Negation of “liberal values” in the West and the rest of the world most often result in doomed to failure attempts to revive moth-eaten, nonviable, absolutely non-evolving ideological systems and social and political models. Marginality of criticism of liberal and democratic paradigm tightens the split of society and encourages the triumph of ultra-radical elements in both ideological camps.
The reason for the democratic system failure is apparently the absence of real sphere of application of political elite and its ideology under current conditions. Politicians have long ago ceased functioning as representatives and turned into a corporation separate from society with its own goals and life activity principals. Now they are also rapidly losing the self-sufficient sphere of professional differentiation. Modern world is getting increasingly complicated, which demands enlisting the services of high-performance professionals for resolving economic, legal, diplomatic, military and many other matters. Politicians as such, not being indispensable experts in certain cases, are only left to whip up by all means the myth of importance of their role in sacred and inviolable liberal democracy in order to live up to their existence.
Meanwhile, the same way as it used to happen with other forms of government, representative democracy gave birth to other more viable systems, mostly with technocratic features. In modern world, professionals are all-important. How to oppose monopolization of certain social orders by some groups of experts, prevent transformation of these societies into new oligarchies, organize competition among them – all that has to be up for debates, try-outs and pilot tests. However, successful growth of social and political forms is hindered by liberal dogma, while its adherents snap into making a bonfire of potential heretics, both from within and from without, once there is a talk about advancing to a new level of political evolution.
As a result, instead of positive competition of technocrats in issues vital for the planet, we keep seeing ever more cartoonish competition of professional politicians because of affection of unskilled majority (that can be easily stolen by every clown in the West or a religion leader in Islamic world) and the right to tell professionals how their work should be done. The after-effect is the most severe crisis of competence that came over governments of leading states in early 21st century. People who mix up slogans with reality happen to be in the lead of nuclear-armed powers (that has no connection to the US election 2016!). For these people, “liberal values” not subject to criticism replace informal history knowledge of their own nation and other nations, understanding the inner essence of political developments, as well as respect for international diplomatic practice.
Like in many foregoing situations, that is most likely “developmental disease”. No out-of-date elite leaves willingly. No dominant paradigm changes without a hitch. However, objective conditions of development of modern society ensure growth of importance of technocratic elements in existing (hybrid) political systems. The more insistently a nation puts up its efforts and resources in imitating efficiency of fancy democratic institutions, the slower it travels the path of real, but not dogmatically confined liberal modernization.
However, this does not mean a final farewell to democracy. Over the course of history, political forms never vanished entirely. Time and time again, they reappeared on a new swing of society’s evolution imbibed with new contents. Being a natural form of interaction between peer (first of all, in terms of intellect and education) members of society, democracy will have a new life as soon as technological and social progress allows overcoming informational isolation of narrowly focused specialists, who are in majority these days. Superior training and information transmission systems, being perhaps successors to the Internet, will allow forming a competent majority once again (on a national or global scale) able to effectively select viable alternatives within the confines of wide range of politically important issues.