Liberal parliamentary democracy is in crisis. The social-democratic pact of the twentieth century is slipping. Governments are increasingly and obviously slipping back into the control of elites while egalitarian causes are weakening in the face of the increasingly uphill battle.
The rise of the international capitalist class and financialisation has driven a huge wedge between the elite controllers of capital and labour. People are getting paid less; labour is becoming more casualised, creating more job precarity; wealth gaps are increasing. All are characteristics of what looks like a failure of liberal democracy to give just representation. Moreover, liberal representative democracy is unable to deal with the big issues we face, such as climate change and refugees.
The social versus political retraction is twofold: the population is retracting from parliamentary politics as parliamentary politics retracts from them. Take this exchange from the 7:30 Report last week:
LEIGH SALES: But I think people watching this also want to know that you’re listening to them and what those polls tell you is that there’s something that you’re doing which they don’t like.
MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well why don’t you ask me a question about it?
LEIGH SALES: Well, I am asking you a question about it. What do you think – what do you think – what do you think has happened that you have lost that ginormous chunk of approval?
MALCOLM TURNBULL: Leigh, I am not going to be drawn into that kind of introspection.
The disconnect is obvious. Rather than this leading to a working-class uprising, we are seeing a crisis of authority, in which the social classes have become detached from traditional parties and support for parliamentary politics has slumped. According to the Lowy Insitute just 60 per cent of Australian voters prefer democracy over other forms of government. And only 53 per cent would prefer a good democracy to a strong economy. This either means Australians are willing to accept a one-party communist state – or they hold the current system in low regard.
Parliamentary indifference is by no means confined to Australia. The late Peter Mair documented the phenomena very well in his book Ruling the Void, which confirmed dwindling support for traditional parties, their membership and general parliamentary representation. Yanis Varoufakis has gone as far to say that Europe and the United States are ungovernable.
The rot can be traced back decades, to when the inner life of the state was rearranged alongside market, rather than class, lines; for Australia, that moment can be found in the Hawke/Keating era. Party politics has increasingly become the business of electoral-professionals, pollsters, spin-doctors.
The hollowing out of representative politics is plain to see. Party memberships are down, voter allegiance is weakening, affiliated organisations (such as trade unions) are deteriorating, and we are witnessing overall negative social attitudes toward politics and politicians – all of which is often misdiagnosed as apathy. But the mass representative political structures, with relatively stable bases and defined differences, that have dominated Australia and many other Western nations for the past century are decomposing.
The change signifies a more antagonistic but also a weaker relationship between the social and political spheres. The population’s slow retreat from representative politics is not the result of apathy, youth, or modernity, but more likely a rational appraisal of the existing state of things. Why would anyone legitimise a system that simply ignores (or tries to ignore) the majority of the population? In fact, the reverse could be argued: that many are drawing carefully reasoned conclusions about the limits of our elite-driven representative system.
To put it another way, there is a tension between the ideology of democracy itself (the power of the people) and how it really functions (the control of the elites). And that this is actually related to a deeper tension – that between liberal capitalism and democracy. Can a modern capitalist society which has at its centre a state being given orders by large capital continue to appear to be representative in a time when inequality, wage stagnation and unemployment is increasing?
For many people, it is clear that the electoral game is a spectacle, with the real politics happening in private interactions between elected representatives and business interests representatives. Even the man behind liberalism Edmund Burke saw this day coming:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
In other nations, we have witnessed the rise of new political players who use this popular disdain for the old political class to their own political advantage. When the representative link, in which ‘the people’ and their aggregate wills (supposedly mirrored in the parliamentary apparatus) breaks down, the terrain is ripe for populist insurgency. Indeed, the rise of Donald Trump et al might be defined as a populist backlash: the result of the lack of perceived or actual representation from elected leaders. It is not simply racism that drives support of Trump or Le Pen – or the drive for communism with an Iglesias, Tsipras or Sanders – but more that people are looking for representation, someone who appears to understand their problems.
Far from being an anomaly, populism is an inbuilt feature of contemporary representative democracy. Populism is a response, often illiberal but still democratic, to the democratic deficit of liberalism. It opportunistically arises during crises to criticise the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda, re-politicising the body politic.
Why, then, has Australia not seen its populist moment? It is probably true that the dissatisfaction with the parliamentary system is not as pronounced as in some countries, the dislike of politicians not as strong. Murray Goot has shown that while public standing of politicians and politics has fallen here, that opinion started at an already-low base. Australian political engagement was equally as low in the 1960s.
Further, Australian populism occupies a different space. Rather than being marked by new leaders and entities (though the Hanson/Palmer examples are two smaller exceptions), traditional parties absorb the demands by not staking out explicit positions, but rather attempt to outdo each other in responding to and narrowly shaping the public mood thereby denying breathing room for populism. John Howard was particularly good at it.
Our two-party (plus the Greens as a pressure) system has shown resilience in the face of the decline of liberal democracy. But that doesn’t mean the political class are doing well, or that the rot won’t continue. The best our political class can hope for is coming across some kind of new configuration that releases it from the hollowed-out party structures of the twentieth century. The best we can hope for is a new pressure configuration that breaks them or that allows space for a Corbyn-like character.
Globally speaking, the populist response is probably not ideal long-term, and certainly not revolutionary, but at least populist leaders have provided an outlet – an opportunity to avoid the ongoing political stagnation in which the traditional parties have failed the majority.
Unless there is a large-scale social crisis or the creation of mass struggles, the most likely outcome in Australia is, sadly, that the continuing dysfunction of representative politics will be with us for some time.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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