"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Living in the End Times

John Fanning

The People Vs Democracy: Why our Freedom is In Danger and How to Save It, by Yascha Mounk, Harvard University Press, 328 pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0674976825

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, by Paul Collier, Allen Lane, 256 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241333884

Twenty years ago a former Belgian prime minister, Mark Eyskens, presented a paper to an international conference of university presidents warning them of the coming unprecedented level of disruption that would be caused by the information age. Before 9/11, the Iraq war, social media, the 2008 Great Recession and Trump and Brexit, he predicted that we were entering an age which would be a complete break from the past, adding: the past provides no examples, the present offers no guarantees, the future generates no confidence.

It’s hard to believe that Mr Eyskens could have known how prescient he was being, but that’s how it has turned out as today’s media vie with each other in an orgy of apocalyptic editorials and comment. The only beneficiary seems to be the book trade, making an unexpected and welcome comeback from death by digital with a flood of doom-laden titles: New Dark Age, How Democracy Ends, How Democracies Die, The People Vs. Democracy, The Fate of the West, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, The Age of Anger, How Will Capitalism End?, PostCapitalism and Democracy on Trial. These titles make it clear we are living in extraordinary times and no one has managed to make complete sense of where we are, let alone where we might be heading. Two recent books, however, manage to illuminate different aspects of our predicament.

Among the many uncertainties one thing is clear: democracy, which seemed unstoppable and triumphant in the 1990s, is in retreat. Yascha Mounk’s The People Vs Democracy (2018) is one of the most lucid accounts of how democracy is being undermined in the twenty-first century. Mounk, a political science lecturer at Harvard, has collected some disturbing survey results to make his case, indicating a growing lack of commitment to democracy among younger age groups in America, where only one third of millennials believe it is important to live in a democracy, compared to over two-thirds of older age cohorts. Similarly, in 1995, only around 6 per cent of Americans believed military rule would be a good thing whereas now the numbers have now grown to 17 per cent and among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, 25 per cent. Mounk suggests that part of the reason is that most Americans have never witnessed an alternative to democracy and have no recollection of the fight against fascism in the 1930s and ’40s, but he places most of the blame on more recent economic, technological and social development. In common with most commentators he believes that lack of economic growth bears the main responsibility for the present discontent. The most worrying outcome of the decline in economic growth is the widely quoted belief that most people in developed economies now believe that their children’s standard of living will be lower than their own. The resulting discontent is fuelled by a belief that the fruits of whatever growth occurs will accrue to a small elite minority; “the 1 per cent”.

The natural reaction to all this is to demand some form of kickstart to economic growth, but here we encounter far more serious issues. First our chronic lack of historical perspective blinds us to the fact that constant economic growth is not necessarily the natural order. Mounk points out that economically the last three hundred years have been an aberration: for most of history there has been little or no economic growth and there’s no reason why we wouldn’t revert to the previous norm, just as for most of recorded history China was the world’s most powerful economy and after three hundred years we seem to be reverting to that norm.

The second issue is that even if we could find a way to reboot economic growth it would create an environmental catastrophe that would destroy the planet and ourselves into the bargain. The alternative might be to strive for some form of “steady state” economic position, but Mounk believes there would still be three major problems to be tackled if democracy is to survive. The first is inequality; “a more equitable distribution of economic growth is not just a question of distributive justice, it is a question of political stability”. He points out that inequality was dangerously high in the early years of the twentieth century when the richest 1 per cent captured up to 20 per cent of the wealth in most developed countries. This eventually resulted in progressive politicians introducing a rage of redistributive tax reforms and welfare programmes, so that by 1960 the 1 per cent had only 10 per cent of total wealth. But in the last thirty years the so-called Thatcher and Reagan revolutions have reversed this process and inequality has been rising steadily to the extent that the very rich, especially in America, are now exerting undue influence on the democratic process through control of the media, think tanks and political parties. In one year, 2012, one wealthy libertarian American family, the Kochs, spent $400m in political donations of one kind or another. Allied to the enormous growth in public relations lobbying by powerful business corporations and the revolving door between politicians and PR firms it is clear that urgent reforms are needed if trust between the electorate and democracy is to restored.

The second issue raised in this book is that we may need to rethink what membership and belonging to a democratic state entails, that is to consider a renewal of our democratic vows. In most countries when democracy was introduced there was a huge institutional commitment to educating citizens in explaining and defending the virtues of this political system. A critical aim of Mounk’s book is to point out that liberal democracy is starting to decompose, giving rise to illiberal democracy in some countries and to undemocratic liberalism in others. People are justifiably angry at what is happening and angry people can misbehave, though categorising them as “deplorables” is not the answer. We need a combination of reform and civic education and, as the author suggests, “countries will have to do more to facilitate a real sense of community and inclusive patriotism among all citizens”. We cannot take democracy for granted. Mounk doesn’t shirk the impact of migration and how it can foster economic resentment and weaken the cohesion of democracies. But he believes that we have no alternative but to accept a multi-ethnic democracy, which will require a further commitment to education and the instilling of civic values: we cannot exempt members of minority communities from basic civic duties.

The third issue is how to cope with the transformative and as yet not fully recognised effects of the digital revolution and in particular the rise of social media platforms and their threat to the traditional role of the media in a democracy. Once again this is a subject we haven’t fully come to terms with and since it has been described as “the largest, most powerful and most centralised infrastructure for shaping human thought and behaviour in human history”, this is hardly surprising. It is also unsurprising that democracy is in trouble when one of its essential pillars, the fourth estate, has been so severely disrupted. Mounk argues that there are parallels between the digital revolution and the invention of the printing press, with one-to-many communication replaced by many-to-many. One would think that this dramatic increase in communication would lead to a better informed electorate but it would appear that the opposite has happened, partly because the logic of the technology platform’s algorithms means that people are subjected to more extreme views which reflect their pre-existing prejudices and partly because the exponential increase in information creates what Herbert Simon has referred to as a “poverty of attention”.

The main conclusion from Mounk’s book is that society’s preoccupation with economic growth, accompanied by the deathless mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” may be blinding us to the erosion of democratic commitment. Perhaps we need to consider the notion that “it’s the democracy stupid”.

Another book which makes an essential contribution to understanding the times we live in is Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism (2018). Collier, an economics professor, argues that business and the economy needs to be radically reformed if we are to avoid societal breakdown. He also echoes many of the central themes of Mounk’s work on democracy, in particular the fact that the promise of steadily growing living standards is not being fulfilled. He believes we need a more ethical state, more ethical businesses and more ethical world institutions. The book argues for a more interventionist state, believing that the neo-liberal reforms of the late 1970s and ’80s have gone too far, creating an unacceptable level of inequality, not just between individuals but between the metropolitan centres and the regions; metro versus retro. A key theme of the book is the growing divide between the well-educated and the less-well-educated who feel left behind by globalisation. Collier implies that none of these problems are being acknowledged, let alone dealt with, by a ruling elite which is in thrall to neo-liberal ideals. Collier wants more Keynes and less Hayek. Like many other writers on this theme he laments the lack of a coherent alternative to the individualist, libertarian narrative that has been dominant since the late 1970s. From that time, he argues, the Western left abandoned the politics of solidarity and co-operation to pursue a politics of identity and personal liberation. Citing Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, which in the 1960s attempted to present the case for a left free from the dogma of nationalisation he argues the case for an intellectual reboot of social democracy. However he acknowledges that forty years of neo-liberalism have weakened a sense of shared identity across society, in particular any obligation that might be felt by the fortunate for the less fortunate. He is particularly scathing about the financial services sector with what he sees as it its patronising and dismissive attitude to the “suckers” on the outside. We had our own dramatic example of this tendency with the publication of the Anglo-Irish transcripts in 2011. Coming from the North of England, Collier places particular value on the sense of solidarity once fostered by the close-knit mining and steel industries of that region characterised by the Co-Op and the Worker’s Education movements. What, he asks, might be the twenty-first century equivalent? The rest of the book is an attempt to answer this question.

His proposals for a more ethical state range from the specific ‑ compensation to those who suffer because of “creative disruption”, especially from the digital revolution and the resulting gig economy ‑ to the more ambitious concept of social maternalism. However he doesn’t define the concept in much detail apart from a definitive recommendation to restrain the powerful from appropriating gains they do not deserve, especially property value appreciation. Simply to own capital at a time when return on capital is rising faster than economic growth is to benefit financially through no effort of one’s own. Collier also makes a more tentative proposal that the social welfare system should be reformed to take account of the fact that because the seeds of inequality begin from birth new forms of state intervention ‑ social maternalism ‑ may need to be developed to compensate. He makes the telling point that the children of the educated are more inclined to use the internet to expand their knowledge while poorer children use it for distraction.

Collier is perhaps on more solid ground when dealing with the concept of the ethical firm. He accepts that capitalism is by far the most efficient method of increasing prosperity but also argues that “it is morally bankrupt and on course for tragedy”. Two problems in particular are identified. The first is the increasing dominance in the business world of the financial sector and the Silicon Valley-based tech businesses. The rootless, and inherently ruthless, nature of the financial sector is as far removed from a shared sense of community, belonging and solidarity as it is possible to be. Collier cites the example of the “vampire squid”, still dominant all over the world, as being “renowned for financial acumen rather than exceptional decency”. In commenting on the tech businesses he quotes from the infamous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace: “governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, leave us alone”. Here the tech businesses are positioned outside the remit of all governments, immune from all taxes or social obligations. The second problem is how the nature of capitalism has changed radically since the nineteenth century when the concept of the joint stock business was introduced. The original rationale of capitalism was that those who took the greatest risk should get the greatest rewards. Because of the way publicly owned businesses have developed, especially since the rise of globalisation, shareholders today have very little commitment to the companies they are supposed to own. As Will Hutton has written, shares are “casino chips to be traded in the immediate future”. Attempts have been made to limit these excesses but Collier points out that the lack of a sufficiently strong moral ethos in business means that “every regulation can be subverted by clever box-ticking and every tax can be reduced by clever accounting”.

He is also pessimistic about the decline of the postwar institutions put in place to create a more ethical world following the catastrophe of the Second World War: the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, the WTO, the UN and ultimately the EU. Recent political developments in the US and Russia have served to further undermine these institutions and the author argues that they must be strengthened if there is to be a more civilised world, but he seems to be at a loss to suggest how this might happen.

Like Mounk’s account of the problems facing democracy, Collier’s equally enlightening survey of the problems facing capitalism concludes without giving the impression that the author is all that confident of an immediate solution. Reviewing Collier’s book in the Financial Times, economics correspondent Martin Wolf concluded that “it is easier to understand the source of our woes than to be confident of any solutions”. But lurking under the surface of both books, and in many of the other titles mentioned above, are some clues that could suggest a way out of our current impasse. The philosophical tradition of civic republicanism is not mentioned directly but both authors appear to be heading, however tentatively, in that direction. Mounk’s core theme is that we need to renew our democratic vows, which we have allowed to weaken as memories fade of the sacrifice people in different nations often had to make to establish democracy in the first place. Collier’s core theme is the need to re-establish a sense of reciprocal obligations among citizens to replace the dominant individualistic ethos of the last forty years, which is inimical to the spirit of democracy. A better understanding of civic republicanism would facilitate both ambitions. This philosophical tradition has its roots in Aristotle and the Greek polis. It went out of fashion for a long time, was revived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the works of among others Machiavelli and Harrington, languished again and was revived by Hannah Arendt and others in the mid-twentieth century. It is now attracting renewed interest because of the problems outlined in these books. The key strands of civic republican thinking revolve around the active involvement of citizens in maintaining a civilised society ‑ that all citizens should show concern and take some responsibility for the common good. This would fit well with Mounk’s belief that we need to re-establish our belief and commitment to democracy. Another core principle of civic republicanism is the need for greater awareness of our interdependence, which often leads to calls for citizens to spend some time engaging in social, educational or environmental causes or projects. This would align with Collier’s call for reciprocal obligations. The emphasis on acting together as a community would also be a useful corrective to the libertarian ethos, which has been all-pervasive since the late 1970s.

Writers on civic republicanism usually offer the health warning that although an attractive alternative to our current discontent it is hard work. Oscar Wilde’s objection to socialism – “too many meetings” – is often quoted. Both these books make it clear that if democracy is to be saved, capitalism tamed and society civilised we may indeed have to go to more meetings.

Postscript 1: Absence Makes Democracy Grow Fonder ‑ According to a report in The New Yorker (10/12/2018), in 2017 the residents of Saraqib, a town of 300,000 people in the province of Idlib in northern Syria, under siege from Russian and Syrian jets, decided to seize control of their future and hold free elections for a local council for the first time since the 1950s. Following a debate between five candidates, live-streamed on Facebook, thousands of voters registered and a turnout of 55 per cent was achieved.
Postscript 2: Civic Republicanism en Marche ‑ In an attempt to counter the disruption caused by the gilets jaunes movement President Macron has started a national debate in France. Over 400 town hall meetings have been organised, an online questionnaire has drawn 700,000 responses and a recent town hall meeting moderated by Macron lasted over six hours. His approval ratings have started to rise.

1/5/2019

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School in Dublin.

Categories