How not to turn democracy into a neoliberal fantasy

Ideas of citizen participation, of civil society involvement, of democratic innovation – in short, the quest for reclaiming democracy – has been irrevocably on the rise.

Most recently, the European Council gave its blessing to getting citizens involved in a wide-ranging debate on the direction the European Union should be taking within the Conference on the Future of Europe, in a laudable attempt to democratize the European Union.

Calls for deepening, radicalizing or rescuing democracy have proliferated in the decade following the financial meltdown of 2008. The European Left has been mobilizing behind a Manifesto for the democratisation of Europe – the so-called “Piketty Plan” – which includes a Democratization Treaty for Europe.

A year ago French President Emmanuel Macron launched the idea of a European agency dedicated to defending democracy, which would send experts to each EU country to “protect electoral process” against cyber attacks and manipulation. Thus, a broad coalition of progressive forces seems to be emerging, across the left and right ideological divide, united behind democratic renewal. This is to be celebrated. Or is it?

The devil is in the detail

Much as the idea of participatory democracy merits a broad public endorsement, its uncritical celebration is dangerous – it is easy to deploy the ideal of democracy for nefarious ends by burdening it with tasks it cannot carry out.

This is a trick our political elites have mastered as a way of getting rid of their own social responsibility, thereby deepening the injustices that spurred calls for more democracy in the first place. This tendency was noted by the Marxist historian Erik Hobsbawm in his panoramic study of the history of capitalism: who observed that by the end of the nineteenth century the rulers of Europe and the Unites States had reached the conclusion that democracy was inevitable, and that “it would probably be a nuisance but politically harmless”.

Once the personal destiny of the workers became firmly entangled, through employment, in the wellbeing of capitalism, democratic devices would not fail to translate that short-term preference of ordinary people into policy. Those elites understood that, as long as people’s livelihoods were dependent on the wellbeing of capitalism (say, through employment on which personal livelihoods depended), democracy can actually be a powerful tool in defense of capitalism. History is repeating itself now with democracy becoming dangerously fashionable.

Capitalism’s grip

The difficulty of freeing democracy from the grip of capitalism in the European Union is even greater, for structural reasons – that is, reasons having to do with the very raison d’etre of the Union and the manner in which that constitutive logic of the union is embodied in the division of policy competencies.

The European Union was conceived some 70 years ago, in the aftermath of the second world war, as a peace-building project. Market integration was the main tool for achieving lasting peace, as it entangled the economic well-being of Europeans and their governments.

The idea of market integration was enshrined in the European Union treaties, and, through the norm of the supremacy of EU law and its direct effect in national law, the logic of economic integration began to reign supreme over other policies that were left to national governments – such as public health and education.

The integration of the European economic space was pursued through a policy focus on growth, market efficiency, and competitiveness and entailed things like slashing public spending and eliminating job security, alongside privatization of public assets and maintaining balanced budgets.

This turned out to be a very successful tool for peace-building indeed. Ironically, this commercial logic has weakened European societies even as it has made them wealthier; the result was a fragile economic structure, marked by precarity and primed for collapse.

The vast economic and social fallout triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is a result of this fragility; both the pandemic and the economic collapse of Europe is the painfully visible symptom of this social and economic precarity, which is affecting everyone, but especially the poor. It is this precarity which is the driver of the protofascist mobilisations that have been emerging.

The limits of citizens in discussion

As we are now embarking on rebuilding our economies, we must remember that this fragility is the fruit of specific policies and ideologies that prioritized short-term market efficiency over long-term societal wellbeing – a policy practice that preceded the financial meltdown of 2008.

It is time therefore, for a radical shift – we must rethink the European project as a pursuit of collective social wellbeing, not just of wealth across nations. To achieve this, we need to fortify the commons – healthcare, education, culture, science, the environment — by direct public investment at EU level and by making everyone’s survival less dependent on the production of profit.

For this to happen it would not be enough to launch a wide citizens discussion. To the extent that people’s personal livelihoods are dependent on pursuing short-term objectives of growth, democracy will remain entrapped in this perilous commercial logic.

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