17 May 2017

Moving Towards Post-Democracy? – Editorial Note

"What we see in France and Britain are two responses to this situation. In France Macron represents the decision of the political establishment to reject any compromise with populism, to keep it from power, even to demonise it. In Britain Theresa May represents a decision to draw populism into the main democratic debate, to subject it to the conventions of democratic government, and to draw it into respectability."


One of the oddities of the modern world is that the same people will greet the same statement with either applause or excoriation depending on who is making it. If Viktor Orbán (for instance) were to say: “in the new order, socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society”, he would be understood as opposing these developments. Whereupon he would be immediately ridiculed and denounced by the media and progressive opinion as an absurd conspiracy theorist and paranoid alarmist who had lost touch with reality. If it were then explained that these words were actual proposals to the infant Communist movement on how to revolutionise society without violence from the great (yes, great, albeit profoundly mistaken) Antonio Gramsci, the same voices that had condemned alarmism and paranoia before would instantly hear wisdom and power in them.

One might expect that these different reactions would gradually merge as Gramsci’s insights moved from analysis to prescription to implementation to entrenched reality as in, for instance, the run-of-the-mill liberal US arts college where reasoned criticism of progressive opinion is commonly treated by administrators as a form of violence against which students have to be protected. Not at all. Critics and opponents of the kind of “Cultural Marxism” that Gramsci preached continue to be treated as cranks, sometimes as dangerous cranks, while colleges set up “safe spaces” where there is absolutely no risk that their arguments will be heard, or if heard, understood. My Gramsci quotation above is taken from the article, “Making the Family Great Again” by Larry Jacobs, one of four important articles on the family that mark this month’s World Congress of the Family in Budapest. May I commend all four to our readers – with one modest qualification below. In this context, however, Gramsci’s words were unusually significant and even sinister. The transformation of serious drama into a cardboard world of left-wing stereotypes – The Resistible Rise of Berthold Brecht, perhaps – is a cultural loss and a tragedy for those who love theatre. But it does not translate quickly into wider social problems from drug deaths to domestic violence to abandoned children. The lies of Cultural Marxism, when applied to family life, do exactly that as the statistics for all kinds of social breakdown in the advanced Western world testify – and as Jacobs and Jaime Mayor Oreja detail in their articles.

Secondly, I must confess it was news to me that the cultural assault on the family had been launched first in Hungary by György Lukács, Gramsci’s fellow Marxistphilosopher, during the short-lived Béla Kun regime. (If pressed, I would have suggested Sweden as the fountain of these sexually progressive notions.) In twelve short months he managed to launch an educational programme to instruct young people in free love, rejection of monogamy, opposition to religion, and resistance to parental authority. That programme lapsed when Lukács fled to Moscow, but it has since been revived throughout post-Cold War Europe and the wider world. As Jacobs writes, “for the first time in global history, most modern nations are a society of mostly single, non-family households instead of married-parent households with children”. And among the results of that are fewer children of whom more are in single-parent homes or in the care of the state. It would be unfair to blame all this on Hungary, but there is some historical justice in the fact that Hungary is now a “family-friendly nation”, a leader in the family cause, and the host of the World Congress.

Our other great topic in this issue is the future of Europe and the European Union after Brexit. Both Zsolt Németh and János Martonyi have good practical advice to give both London and Brussels in their articles. It is hard to summarise such very subtle and detailed arguments – and Mr Martonyi is to return in out next issue to complete his analysis – but they both recognise that too great an emphasis on uniform arrangements has been one of the besetting problems of the EU. It was a factor in the British decision to depart; and it creates divisions in the rest of the EU, notably divisions between Central Europe (meaning the EU bureaucracy and Germany) and Brussels over refugee policy and between Mediterranean Europe and Brussels over the financial consequences of the euro. And these will have to be resolved creatively by Europe, presumably by some combination of “more Europe” with more subsidiarity.

For these political disagreements, when left without apparent remedy for long periods, have produced a series of ills that go collectively under the name of “populism”. Both Mr Martonyi and Gergely Egedy (in his pioneering article on the Anglosphere as a potential UK strategy after Brexit) reject the idea that a simple populism was the cause of Brexit. Similar emotions to those expressed in Europe’s various populisms were doubtless implicated in the Brexit campaign, but as both authors point out, there was a deeper and long-established tendency in British politics to favour “the open sea”. It is unlikely now to change – indeed, Theresa May’s likely victory in the forthcoming election will entrench it as the new conventional wisdom of British politics. How it will work out remains to be seen. But we still need to explain the rise of populism more generally. What called forth these spirits from the vasty deep? Is it a cure to moral relativism every bit as bad as the disease itself as Mr Oreja argues? Or something deeper?

As I have argued elsewhere, the answer seems to be that populism emerged through the growing tension in liberal democracy, which is what we call the broad Western system of government, between democracy and liberalism. Liberal democracy works as follows: at elections, majoritarian democracy produces a governing majority in parliaments and congresses; and between elections, liberal institutions such as courts and constitutional bills of rights are on hand to restrain a majority government from abusing its authority. As the post-war world wore on, however, power drained from elected bodies like parliaments to non-accountable institutions such as courts and, since the end of the Cold War, to transnational and global organisations. As they became more powerful, moreover, the nonaccountable liberal institutions became more ambitious, not merely restraining the majority but increasingly dictating law and policy to it on everything from same-sex marriage to the rules of war.

The result is the recent eruption of “populist” uprisings across the advanced world. A political sociologist could plot these changes along a single line in one of those fashionable social-science diagrams. At the left extreme of the spectrum is what Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte calls post-democracy; at the right extreme, populism; in the centre lies simple majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move toward post-democracy; and they equally decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more that power has shifted to liberal institutions and the weaker that democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more that populism is likely to demand the removal of obstacles to the will of the people. Equally, the more that majority rule is the driving force of democracy, the more populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate.

What we see in France and Britain are two responses to this situation. In France Macron represents the decision of the political establishment to reject any compromise with populism, to keep it from power, even to demonise it. In Britain Theresa May represents a decision to draw populism into the main democratic debate, to subject it to the conventions of democratic government, and to draw it into respectability.

In its search for post-Brexit solutions to its own problems, Europe should watch to see which turns out to be the better approach.




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