The Democratic Paradox

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Prime Minister John Howard is history incarnate, but not in the sense of being the underwhelming expression of ordinary Australia. Howard has shifted the permanently unsettled but delicate balance of liberalism and democracy in Australia towards a system of majoritarian illiberalism. This will be his legacy.

The marks of this shift are evident in the treatment of refugees, the incredulous denial of knowledge about AWB kickbacks to the Saddam regime, the introduction of an industrial relations system designed to produce a working poor, and in the decline of ministerial accountability.

The op-ed pages of Australian newspapers are full of dismay for this democratic malaise. Comparisons with early Nazi Germany are flippantly thrown around. John Hooker, regular columnist for New Matilda is one such example.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Hooker is notoriously angry, but righteous anger is not a good conduit for analysis. Through Hooker’s trembling pen the ‘people’ and their ‘suburbs’ have become an object of derision by a seemingly progressive commentariat. It is as if the ‘people’ are to be blamed for Howard’s political crimes. Hooker’s own elitism is symptomatic of many in the commentariat who bemoan the loss of Australian democracy.

I want to suggest that illiberal shifts in Australian politics and elsewhere are not representative of a politics of indifference in ‘the suburbs,’ rather they signify the historical emergence of a new elite ethos of management and control that is taking shape globally.

That few ministers have been forced to resign in the (later) Howard years has nothing to do with the fact that the electorate is now less demanding. It has to do with the fact that segments of the Australian elite are less demanding of themselves and their milieu. In this new climate, ministerial accountability strikes them as quaint and old-fashioned. And to push the point home, they go on about having a democratic mandate.

The emergence of illiberalism in Australia is part of a systemic global trend most recognisable in a number of established semi-authoritarian countries and newly democratising countries, where the rhetoric of popular sovereignty is used to justify any number of venal and elite-defined security interests.

Every system has an exception that proves the rule, and in this case it is the USA. President Bush’s first term was initially based on a minoritarian illiberalism involving the disenfranchisement of segments of the Black vote, a supportive Supreme Court and the cowered, defeatist Al Gore. Then possessing the levers of power, the Bush cabal was able to win a second term.

Bush’s greatest regret will not be birthing the Iraqi civil war that is his prized baby but coming to power in a period when the possibility of removing the two-term limit on the presidency is not yet feasible. Illiberal trends may make that a possibility in the future. That will perhaps properly mark the end of the great Jeffersonian compromise.

The bombing of the Middle East into democratic submission illuminates something about the state of democracy elsewhere. It brings into relief the blackhole that lies behind most democratic rhetoric, both of the exported and home-grown variety.

US attempts to export democracy are premised on a notion of popular sovereignty that is already blue-printed. The blueprint reads: ‘You will be like us.’ As Rousseau noted, people have to be forced to be free. And to update the old French philosopher, people have to be forced to be like us.

In this era of democratic imperialism, the US State can’t have people choosing to be free unless that freedom is institutionally defined by enlightened despots who know the people’s will. And just in case the people don’t agree with that ‘will,’ democratic despots are willing to lead people to it. Are established democracies much different?

Contra the position that argues democracy has been felled by an alliance of cynical consumers and reactionary rulers, it is clear that the illiberal shift is taking place among elites, and relates to questions of desired regime form in a new era. Majority mandates may be invoked to justify the shift, but this raises the question of how a mandate is secured.

When democratic autocrats speak of ‘the people’ they are gesturing in the direction of an abstraction: ‘a people’ historically mobilised around fear and driven to surrender their deliberative capacities in the face of elite-led democratic disempowerment. This is the shape that the autocrat’s popular mandate assumes.

When people such as John Hooker blame the electorate for Howard’s excesses, he is taking as self-evident Howard’s claims to a popular mandate. This assumes that democracy really is democratic.

Democracy, as it is presently constituted, is a system of electoralism and a diminution of the liberal desire for checks and balances. It can not offer a genuine mandate. Nor can it cope with a genuinely active citizenry. Just as the broader structures surrounding education ensure that schools are programmed for failure so as to deliver most people to a job requiring submission to mundane labour and the petty tyranny of a boss, democracy is contrived to deliver people to a political system that disempowers them and that now deadens the historical gains contributed by the liberal system of checks and balances.

Democracy’s failure to live up to its rhetorical promise is its most enduring success. No one understood this better than Joseph Schumpeter whose 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy remains one of the most insightful studies on the functioning of elite democracy.

Schumpeter eschewed classical rhetoric about democracy being a noble project of self-realisation and civic good; he saw it as an institutional arrangement for elites to acquire power ‘by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.’ Unlike homicidal struggles for power in the past, when defeat meant death, democracy gave elites a chance of comeback in the next election. Schumpeter famously went on to declare that, ‘Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them.’ His was not a critique but an endorsement.

It may be said that if Howard has played a historical role in giving concrete shape to the reassertion of illiberal democracy, then history itself is quite undemanding of the kind of people it selects. This would be a mistake. It is no mean feat to attack the fundamental principles that have defined the liberal tradition.

Historically, it was liberals who feared the tyranny of the majority the great unwashed and hence their desire for all sorts of checks and balances under the guise of protecting the minority. This was their condition for accepting mass democracy.

Is it not a pitiful irony that a man who leads a party of liberalism now deploys the rhetoric of majoritarianism to attack that very liberalism? What paradoxes the new global climate does throw up!

In all of this, one thing is certain: any real democratic expression by the masses will be met with all the disdain liberals have for the unwashed. When governing liberals start talking about the tyranny of the majority again, we will know we have turned a good corner.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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