Democracy in the 21st Century: Can the Electorate Become the People Again?

It is essential to remember that democracy is not just a technique of governance with certain attributes whose existence and quality is often used to gauge the extent of democratism as well as the capacity to act in the interests of the majority of the people, believes Russian philosopher and expert of the Valdai Club Boris Kapustin.

To discuss the crisis of democracy in our time, we should start by defining terms. If we are defining democracy as a particular method of forming representative bodies of power and nothing else – in line with the minimalist concept of Adam Przeworski – it cannot be in crisis as long as the procedures of this method are observed. The character and content of decisions made by the bodies of power elected in this way do not matter at all. Joseph Schumpeter is right that “good” or “bad” consequences of these decisions in the opinion of society are merely side effects of democracy as a method. They are incidental in the same sense as the ability or failure to meet specific needs of people is incidental to the capitalist method of capital accumulation.

To think otherwise and ascribe to democracy as a method a capacity to produce only good results and then, invoking the “sickness of democracy” (Pierre Rosanvallon), to express disappointment that it produces such results far from often is a modern paraphrase of the famous idea by Jeremy Bentham: The more enlightened we are the more well-disposed we will be. Now it sounds tragicomic because one of the results of Enlightenment was the extermination of people on a scale unprecedented in human history.

It is no doubt fair to say that as a specific method, democracy is limited in its ability to solve social problems. Walter Lippmann was probably right to think that these limits were determined by conflicts of interest, while conflicts over values, identities or foundations of social life were obviously beyond its capacity. It is important to keep this in mind when pondering the ability of democracy to cope with the new challenges of our world. A failure to recognize the limits of democracy’s efficiency and applicability to resolving social problems characterizes those whom Lippmann called “mystic democrats.” They are currently the dominant force among those who write about democracy.

However, even within the limits of its competence, democracy produces “good” or “bad” results depending on who is using it, how and for what purposes. Whether democracy is beneficial for society or not is determined not by its immanent essence, which it does not have, but by how it works in a given socio-historical context and what problems (arising from conflicts of interest) it is capable or incapable of resolving.

Thus, it became clear that during the so-called financialization of capitalism that followed the stagflation of the 1970s, democracy was unable to prevent the deepening gap between the rich and the poor, the stagnation of men’s salaries in the United States since the 1960s, the decline of the welfare state and the growth of the debt bondage of households. Financialized capitalism confines democracy within strict limits and determines what it can or cannot do, and where democratic politics can or cannot be applied. The same is happening in modern Russia albeit in a cruder form.

The irrelevancy of democracy to resolving society’s urgent problems compels its ideologists to portray it as a “value” – something that deserves approval and support per se. This ideological twist proved to be highly successful in many countries, especially in the West. Since democracy remains a “value” (in the public mentality), any criticism of capitalist democracy with potential political impact becomes impossible and democracy continues to function as the foundation for legitimizing the existent patterns of domination.

The same purpose is served by the propaganda of the idea that there is no alternative to democracy, in the style of Winston Churchill’s definition of democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Such propaganda obscures the difference of principle between democracy as a technique or method of governance and democracy as the capacity to act in the interests of the majority, i.e. what can be called the institutionalization of the body politic. The lack of alternatives to democracy as a democratic technique of governance does not mean that there is no alternative to the specific method of its application in a given historical situation. i.e. the way a body politic is institutionalized in this case.

In terms of its own legitimacy, democracy is unstable and racked by internal contradictions. One component of this legitimacy is the method. The “cleaner” it is, the more it corresponds to laws, the greater the legitimacy of democracy. The main point here is the orderliness of the masses, their readiness to follow the established rituals of political conduct. The masses are supposed to perform certain procedures. They are “the electorate” rather than “the people” if this term retains the same sense of subjectness inherent in classic philosophy, i.e. an ability to be a subject of independent action that institutionalizes “our world.”

Paradoxically, though, modern democracy cannot do without this seemingly obsolete meaning of people as a sovereign and subject of “fundamental” actions. Without them democracy will turn into a bad joke. A Solomonic decision would be to stop talking about the ratio of “the electorate” and “the people,” to destroy these terms as theoretical notions by turning them into interchangeable terms.

But words are not the main point. Even in the most “minimalistic” democracy it is impossible to completely remove tensions between its “constitutional” component (democracy as the procedure and technique of maintaining stability) and its “rebellious” component (democracy as sovereign self-determination of the people above all written laws). The Occupy Wall Street protests marked a feeble surge of this “rebellious” component of democracy but it showed that this sovereign principle of democracy may survive even under the steamroller of financialized capitalism. Therefore, democracy may still become something more meaningful than a “clean method” and do something more than simply legitimize dominance.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.