Mourning democracy

One after another, democratic rights and entitlements appear to be slipping through our fingers. The contours of democratic regimes are gradually transforming, taking increasingly authoritarian shapes. New laws, institutions and ideologies replace old ones as we grope our way through the changes, naively using old concepts as if they still held their meaning. In truth, democratic talk is becoming an empty discourse, one devoid of substance. The liberal democratic regimes that were assembled during the twentieth century are being gradually dismantled. The Left’s anguish over these developments appears in a quasi-comic light, for we mourn a lost object that we never desired, nor ever really possessed.

We are now witness to what would have seemed strange a generation ago – the Left running to the barricades of liberalism: formal equality, human rights, the rule of law and so on. Sustained criticisms of liberalism as a white, masculine, bourgeois ideology have fallen away; it is no longer interrogated as a false universal that masks real social inequalities. Instead, it is as though the best that can be hoped for in the current political climate is the maintenance of a minimum wage, a moratorium on welfare cuts and for our national government to stop torturing and killing non-citizens. The broader vision of a struggle for a more just and egalitarian society – the fight against capitalism and the state – has largely disappeared. Now, it is those on the Left who dig their heels in and say ‘No!’, while those on the Right gleefully tout themselves as the true ‘agents of change’ and contentedly ride out the current wave of transformations.

It can be tempting to look at recent trends and compare them to some of the most horrifying developments in modern politics. But Abbott is not about to burn down parliament and declare himself chancellor. The charge of fascism is not helpful in identifying or criticising the emerging political paradigm. A much more real and insidious possibility is not that liberal democracy is going to devolve into fascism but that it is already on the path to a yet unknown form of governance.

Political theorists, such as Wendy Brown and Mitchell Dean, have offered terms for what is emerging: concepts such as neoliberalism, governmentality and societies of control, to name a few. But the real problem is not the emergence of a new contender for the political legitimacy that democracy currently commands. On the contrary, the idea of democracy still holds a hegemonic position in our political imagination. The issue is that democracy is increasingly evoked as a screen for implementing its opposite. It is in the name of democracy that we close our borders, reduce civil liberties, increase welfare restrictions and deregulate corporations. Democracy is being stripped of its deeper significance of substantive equality, freedom and participation, and is being replaced by an empty husk of market rationality.

Could it be the case that future generations will distinguish between twentieth- and twenty-first-century conceptions of democracy – one based on civil liberties, public opinion channelled through political parties and the framework of the welfare state; the other on national security, top-down management and privatisation?

The meaning of democracy is currently undergoing a transformation. But, to be clear, there has never been a single conception of democracy, and the point is not to denounce current trends in the name of an imagined golden era. The Left’s fascination with the social democracies of their childhood (the Whitlam days or, for some, perhaps more deluded, the Hawke-Keating era) is largely a phantom construction, a placeholder for our current impotence and powerlessness.

No actually existing democracy has ever fully lived up to its ideals; democracies have always been undermined by different forces, from slavery and white supremacy to patriarchy and corporate power. Australian democracy is different from the Scandinavian, French and American models, and our political culture is vastly altered from that of the 1960s. In fact, our societies have always been shifting and evolving, often in ways that only become apparent after large-scale transformations have already taken place.

There are a number of concrete ways in which democracies have been changing across the globe over the past thirty years. My focus is on Australia, but many of the examples discussed here mirror changes occurring around the world. The main principle under attack is the idea that democracy has something to do with self-rule, self-governance or the actual participation of ordinary citizens in governing the state. The concept of public life, or the commons, has been gradually sidelined and replaced by a view of the government as a regulator of the economy, and of individual citizens as rational, self-interested entrepreneurs seeking to maximise their investments and minimise their risks. Politics as a discourse has shifted from a deliberation over the common good into the domains of morality and economics. On the one hand, poverty and economic inequalities are presented as inevitabilities caused by individuals’ moral failures and lack of industriousness, determination and ingenuity. On the other, structural political problems are seen as having technical or market-based solutions through which government responsibility is dispersed out to corporations and individual consumers. The result is the growth of a regime of management and control in which civil rights are provisional, information is controlled, dissent is managed and citizens are figured as passive recipients of government and corporate services, rather than as active political subjects.

This has occurred in four crucial domains.

First, the liberal principle of fundamental civil rights has been undermined by a security culture that restricts liberties in the name of a more secure democracy. The evocation of a complex security-freedom nexus has resulted in the paradoxical formulation of political freedoms that require the implementation of a more stringent security regime. Rights are now provisional, flexible and dependent on a utilitarian calculation of how costly or inconvenient upholding them will be for those in power. The most dramatic shift occurred in Australia in the early 2000s when the government used the September 11 attacks to introduce new executive and exceptional powers that reduce civil liberties through the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 (Cth).

The identification of a perceived enemy and the justification of community safety have been used to introduce of a whole range of anti-democratic laws throughout Australia. While in Queensland and New South Wales anti-terrorism, ‘anti-bikie’ and G20 security legislation deserve to be mentioned, I want to focus on the recently introduced ‘anti-protest’ laws in Victoria. The Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Act (Vic), which was debated in parliament in March 2014, removes the former restriction of political protests and pickets from police ‘move-on’ powers, making community protests extremely vulnerable to being shut down. Police powers to direct people to leave a public place have been extended to include anybody who is causing an ‘undue obstruction’ or ‘impeding another person from lawfully entering of leaving premises’.

The laws are targeted at unions and political protesters in a bid to outlaw and delegitimise pickets, one of the most effective tactics of the union movement. Protestors are liable for a fine of $720 for disobeying a move-on order and a possible two-year jail term for breaching an exclusion order following multiple move-on directions. One of the most anti-liberal aspects of the law is that it applies to future possible conduct – that is, when a police officer has a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a person may engage in illegal activity. Move-on orders may now also be given to entire groups of people, meaning that if a small scuffle breaks out between an individual and an officer at a protest, the entire group could be subject to enforcement mechanisms.

The laws are designed to give greater powers to the government to break up political protests, a fundamental denial of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. For the right to protest to be meaningful, it has to extend beyond times and places that are convenient for those in power and must include protests about controversial and politically sensitive issues. There is an important place in a democracy for what I will call expressive/disruptive discourse: speech and acts that are designed to highlight injustices, call those in power to account and demand redress. The critic plays an essential role in a strong and robust democracy. Difficult, hard-to-swallow and obtrusive statements or acts, particularly those that interrupt the everyday business of government, are important elements of political discourse.

Disruptive forms of protest are a tactic employed by political actors outside traditional structures of power, especially those who are unable to rely upon more official channels to have their voices heard. Acts of resistance and civil disobedience are also employed to draw attention to issues that fail to gain political visibility or that fall outside of the existing political landscape. The important aspects of free speech are not primarily concerned with powerful white men expressing themselves in widely read publications; they involve the ability of the oppressed and marginalised to speak out about their oppression and to resist acts targeted against them. These new laws aim to disempower those actors and further entrench social and economic hierarchies.

In addition to the weakening of civil rights, there has also been an erosion of some of the fundamental institutions of representative democracy: parliaments, political parties, civic groups and so on. Real decision-making power has moved from deliberative parliamentary institutions to the executive arm of government. Legislatures are frequently reduced to a mere rubber stamp for policies developed and enacted by executives. Studies, such as those cited by James Walter and Paul Strangio in No, Prime Minister: Reclaiming Politics from Leaders, have shown that an intensification of media attention on the leader has led to a centralisation of power in the office of the Prime Minister and a growth in the resources available to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, thus reducing the role of independent public servants in formulating and carrying out policy. The Abbott government has, for instance, reached new heights of secrecy with its immigration policy, Operation Sovereign Borders, which relies on war-time tropes as a cloak for government concealment and a lack of accountability.

Due to a decline in membership and legitimacy, political parties no longer effectively channel public opinion into coherent policy initiatives. Rather than providing spaces for citizen engagement, they now serve as vehicles for seeking office, having replaced meaningful discourse with power-blocs through which elites compete. In a recent Scanlon Foundation study, only 2.9 per cent of those surveyed responded that they had ‘a lot of trust’ in political parties, while those who thought that the government in Canberra could ‘do the right thing for the Australian people’ fell from 48 per cent in 2009 to only 27 per cent in 2013. Party membership peaked mid-century with around 350,000 members of both major parties. Today, the ALP has fewer than 40,000 and the Liberals around 50,000, totalling a mere 1.3 per cent of the Australian population, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.

The lack of mediating institutions between citizens and their government leads to a growth in cynicism and alienation, which results in a vicious cycle of lower expectations placed on politicians and a decrease in government responsiveness and accountability.

The media’s role as an objective and impartial fourth pillar of democracy has also been undercut. Theoretically, the media should be a major force in shaping public opinion by raising awareness of social issues and spreading information that holds governments accountable for their actions. While it is certainly the case that the media has always defended big business under capitalism, recent years have seen an obvious increase in bias and subjectivity. The concerted efforts of daily papers owned by News Corp in campaigning against the Rudd government in the 2013 election are a recent example of the lack of standards of fairness and balance.

Tony Abbott’s unprecedented criticisms of the ABC, rumours of privatisation and a relaxation of media ownership laws provide further evidence of a shift to the Right. Even formal lip-service to the idea of the media as an important pillar of democracy is fading away, as all parties now recognise media outlets as private businesses that are permitted to do whatever it takes to increase sales, regardless of the public interest.

There are other aspects of the functioning of the media within Australia that have remained consistently unfavourable for democracy. Media ownership is one of the most concentrated in the world, with only a handful of individuals and networks controlling most of the country’s media outlets. The two largest owners, News Corp and Fairfax Media, made 86 per cent of newspaper sales in 2011. In capital cities, the Murdoch-owned News Corp accounted for 65 per cent of newspaper sales in the same period. While we are continually told that an increase in online news is leading to a ‘democratisation’ of the media, evidence suggests that the big players still hold on to the major instruments of political power. Because the swinging voters who decide elections still watch and listen to mainstream media, large commercial interests have enormous power when it comes to determining who to support and how issues will be framed.

When Treasurer Joe Hockey, in a speech at the beginning of this year, announced ‘the end of the age of entitlement’, he was only reaffirming what had become a hallmark of both sides of parliament over the past decade. From the late 1990s onwards, Australia began privatising many of its publicly owned assets – particularly electricity and gas, transport and communication, and financial services – including the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and Qantas. This was accompanied by schemes such as Work for the Dole, introduced in 1998, and the contracting out of social services; these actions signalled a paradigm shift from welfare as a social entitlement to an increasingly privatised and individualised program of ‘conditional support’. Currently, there is talk of adding Medibank and Australia Post to the list of candidates for privatisation, a move that would further consolidate this shift.

Privatisations creates very real dangers: when public and social services are made reliant on for-profit companies, there is often a reduction of services for the most vulnerable, increased service charges and cost-cutting in service delivery. The shift in mindset also encourages social and structural problems to be viewed as simply an aggregation of individual ‘cases’ to be managed and directed into the appropriate top-down programs and private services. It signals an erosion of the social net and a movement away from an ethos of care.

The political rhetoric that Australia ‘cannot afford’ current levels of spending on welfare ignores the fact that Australia has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among OECD countries. It seeks to mask a reorganisation of economic priorities away from caring for the poor and marginalised and towards big business. The aim of attacks on the welfare state is to further individualise risk, eliminate safety nets and push a larger sector of the population into precarious forms of employment.

On the Left, we are haunted by our failure to prevent these sweeping changes – and, perhaps more so, our partial complicity in them. In Australia, neoliberal policies were first instituted by Labor governments in the 1980s and assisted by union bureaucrats through the Prices and Incomes Accord. The Left’s response over the past twenty years has been to limp behind the conservatives as the Australian political landscape shifts further to the Right, moralising and hand-wringing as we go. The only way to mourn the loss of liberal democracy has been to abandon core values and take up the banner of liberalism, as if a belated defence of these institutions could make up for past criticisms and soothe the guilty conscience of those who never realised how good they had it. As democracy becomes increasingly disconnected from its deeper meaning, there are some on the Left who now find themselves defending classical liberal positions, occupying the place of conservatives from only a generation ago.

This shift, it seems to me, is a mistake. Rather than allowing the Right to set the agenda – and, in the process, presenting ourselves as a slightly more palatable version of the same basic ideology – the Left should reconnect democracy back to its central values and principles. There is enough within the democratic tradition to support a strong and robust vision of freedom, equality and solidarity. The move has already been made by the European anti-austerity movement, which has called for an end to the neoliberal political project and the implementation of ‘real democracy now’.

The stage of this political struggle should be the very values the Right so enthusiastically claim as their own: freedom and democracy. This is, after all, the natural terrain of the Left. Although it may now seem like a hollow victory, the cultural wars of the 1960s and 70s were, in many respects, won by the Left. We all speak the language of freedom now: everyone acknowledges the importance of self-expression, authenticity and autonomy. The major success of corporate interests over the past thirty years has been a co-opting and hollowing out of this discourse – freedom, yes, but the freedom of business to buy and sell. Creativity and self-expression are now the catchphrases of a new generation of trendy corporations seeking to make a profit from yet another dimension of human subjectivity.

But it does not need to be this way.

The Left must reclaim these concepts. The assertion of the importance of economic equality over freedom is too easily met with the retort that, by privileging equality over freedom, one will end up with neither. Freedom itself needs to be transformed from an idea of free markets into a broader picture of the dependence of individuals on the free and equal flourishing of all members of society. This depends on the articulation of a deeper vision of democracy as a social relationship between citizens engaged in a collective project, one sustained through acts of solidarity and civic virtue. Such a democracy would seek to extend spheres of decision-making to increasingly wider sectors of society, including universities, bureaucracies and workplaces. In any given area of life, those directly affected by a decision should have the right to participate in making it.

This would require a broadening of current political debate from an analysis of what is most efficient or economically viable to questions of political value: who are we and in what kind of a society do we wish to live? By shifting the terrain back to considerations of value, the Left could regain traction and formulate a vision around which to rally.

Historically, the Left has always been most successful when engaged in a progressive and reformist program. Today, it must recover from its failure of imagination and return to the rich democratic tradition of freedom, equality and solidarity.

James Muldoon

James Muldoon is a political theorist and philosopher who has taught at Monash University, Swinburne University and the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy.

More by James Muldoon ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays