March 1, 2019
“The surprise is not that few democracies are liberal, but that liberal democracies exist at all.”
Making sense of the direction of the evolution of societies has always been a challenge among philosophers and social scientists alike. Before tackling the subject of liberal democracy, viewed here as a dictatorship of minorities, it is fair to say that so far, we do not possess a clear understanding of where societies are heading.
In the 19th century, German philosopher Hegel proclaimed the “end of history”. Closer to our time, Francis Fukuyama announced his own “end of history”, which he believed to be characterized by the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy .
Although after 1989 the number of democracies surpassed other types of political systems (authoritarian, communist) for the first time in history, the fact is that today the majority of them are not liberal, but electoral democracies, as Dani Rodrik has pointed out in a recent study.
For any democracy – whether liberal or electoral – to function, however, a compromise between its actors should be reached. In practice this could prove difficult, as majorities have the numbers but no money to make good of their electoral promises, whereas minorities have the money but lack the numbers to impose their full agendas.
As opposed to electoral democracies, which are biased towards protecting the political rights of the majority of their citizens, liberal democracies are biased towards protecting and enlarging the rights of minorities within a given society, often over and above what majorities are prepared to accept (think here tax breaks for the rich or the adoption of marriage equality legislation benefitting the LGBT community). As Dani Rodrik points out in the abovementioned study, the rich will always favour liberal democracy over electoral democracy because the former entails a significantly lower rate of taxation.
Rare as they are, liberal democracies appeared in the West in a specific context in which the owners of capital – or “the rich” – had succeeded in gaining or retaining political power with the support of a limited number of voters. Thus in 19th century France, after 2 revolutions (1789 and 1830) only citizens who earned a certain amount of money were allowed to vote. They made up about 1 percent of the country’s population. The rest of the citizens, as advised by prime minister Guizot at the time, had “to get rich first” if they wanted to participate in the political life of the country.
By restricting the right to vote through a variety of methods, the nascent elites of Western liberal democracies were thus able to deny political rights to the many for a long time, as well as to avoid any responsibility for the social havoc that capitalist development played during the first century or so of its existence.
Gradually, especially after the first world war, liberal elites were forced to concede voting rights and participation in political decisionmaking to the majority of the population, including women.
For a few decades after the second world war, the balance of power inside most Western nations shifted in favour of majorities, whose working and living conditions improved dramatically. Politicians representing voter majorities were then able to impose heavy taxes on the profits of the rich, sometimes as high as 90 percent, where there were none at the beginning of the 20th century.
The rich minorities’ reaction was slow in coming but, through its consequences, it had devastating effects on the living standards of the majority of voters in Western nations. Through the adoption and promotion of neoliberal economic policies pioneered by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, the “1 percent” minority in society were able to reverse earlier policies of high taxation and, during the following decades, to diminish taxes back to levels unseen since the early 1900s.
It is fair to say at this point that if such a trend continues unchecked, Western business elites will end up paying no tax at all.
To achieve such an objective, the rich minority employed a variety of electoral tactics as well. First and foremost, they coopted all the leaders of mainstream (or majority) political parties and turned them against their own constituents (Clinton and Blair are the first to spring to mind here).
Second, they have all but destroyed the trade union movement in the West, which was the backbone of the political parties of the left and instrumental in obtaining favourable compensation for labour from the owners of capital.
The third and most peculiar way of advancing the political agenda of the rich minority has been by joining forces with leaders of other minorities, who had hitherto faced discrimination by majorities. Think here the LGBT community, some albeit not all ethnic minorities, and women.
If towards the end of the 20th century the rich minority exercised its control and promoted its agenda via the outright purchase of mainstream politicians on both sides of the political isle, over the last decades we observe a tendency to promote to power leaders who are either childless (think here Merkel, Juncker, Iohannis); who belong to the LGBT community (like in Serbia or Luxemburg); members of the billionnaire elite (Berlusconi, Trump); or selected members of ethnic minorities. Together, these minorities can display signs of becoming quite dictatorial when their agenda is challenged by majorities, prompting some to call this phase in the evolution of liberal democracies “totalitarian capitalism”.
In central and eastern Europe, the fall of communism was seen by the Western rich as a golden opportunity for building their preferred democratic system, liberal democracy, in the former communist lands. This was supposed to accompany the expansion of global corporations in Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, none of these states had had a democratic tradition matching that of Western societies. Accordingly, the push for liberal democracy in the region flopped, as the electorate in these countries favoured, by-and-large, electoral democracy and so-called “populist” leaders, such as Orban or Kaczynski. In its aftermath, a tug-of-war developed between many of these countries’ political leaders and the NGO’s amply financed by Western billionnaires who were very aggressively pushing for the instauration of liberal democracy in former communist lands.
In hindsight, it should be admitted that majoritary democracies have historically been less than tolerant of the rich or the LGBT minority. Until a few decades ago, homosexuality was shunned in most Western countries and on occasion, its members were under threat of being prosecuted and imprisoned. Similarly, the heavy burden of taxation imposed on the rich minority during the ’50s, 60s and 70s felt to them as more of a penalty for being wealthy than as a truly fair level of taxation. No wonder such policies bonded the members of these minorities together and determined them to use any means at their disposal – primarily money – to keep majorities in check and out of power.
The fight between these minorities and the majority has now spilled out into the streets, as the main institutions in our democracies, including parliaments, have ceased to work as they were supposed to. Far from liberal democracies becoming the norm in the world therefore, what we are witnessing these days is their decline. Even in the West, they are being replaced, one after the other, by electoral democracies catering to the rights of the majority. This development should come as no surprise to the proponents of liberal democracy, a political system which is but a relic of the past.
Repeatedly labeled “populists” or “illiberal” , the politicians leading the current wave of electoral democracies are here to stay and to expand both their influence and power. This time around as society has evolved however, they should strike the right balance. Accordingly, they should refrain from advocating punitive taxation levels on the rich, from fanning anti-LGBT hostility, from catering to racists. After all, the rise of the neoliberal breed of leaders was a consequence of the errors made in the past by the politicians representing the majority in Western societies. In other words, victorious electoral democracies should avoid the trap of becoming mere dictatorships of the many.Spotlight on Geopolitics