Short Note on Post-Democracy
Post-democracy is a term coined by the eminent political scientist Colin Crouch in his book Coping with Post-democracy. He uses this term to describe a new phase that democracies across the globe have started to see, which is the “post-democratic” era. In his analysis of primarily western democratic societies, he points out that on the face of it, democratic institutions still seemingly function and go about their prescribed duties in the act of governance. But supposedly, there is an unnoticed shift of power from the common people to a small group of elites. The consequence of this is that the core concept of what democracy is as a form of government becomes violated. The elected representatives somehow no longer serve the interest of the common people. Instead, they prioritize the interests of the larger global business elite.
Before taking a deeper dive into such a deep and multi-faceted concept let us break down what a democracy is and what exactly it means to be in a ‘post’ democratic era.
What is democracy?
The word itself has Greek origins. It is a fusion of two words: ‘demos’ which means a citizen living in a state and ‘kratos’ which translates to power or authority. There is no absolute definition of what a democracy is because it has undergone a lot of changes over the years. A very basic definition one can provide of democracy is that it is a form of government where power is exercised by the people. The people become the sovereign for they are the ones who exercise power.
There are also three major variations of democracy that have been observed throughout history. The first and most common one is representational democracy. This is where the people exercise their power through their elected representatives. One could even refer to this as a sort of ‘indirect’ democracy. The second one, which we no longer see in the world is direct democracy. Direct democracy is the situation where all the citizens of a state are invited to partake in all political decisions. It was a form of governance that used to be practised in Athens quite a long time back. It’s primary limiting factor was that it was only practical when it came to small populations. Moving on, the last variation is a constitutional democracy, which is fundamentally similar to a representational democracy. But there is an increased emphasis on limiting and controlling the power of the people who exercise power with the presence of a constitution which lays out a system of checks and rules to prevent abuse of power.
Even within these variations, it is easy to observe that democracy places great importance in the power of the majority and not a select group of people or a single person. This is also the main component of it that enabled it to become a widely accepted form of governance.
Explaining the ‘Post-’ Prefix
The ‘post-’ prefix as most students of social sciences may know is used rather luxuriously in the contemporary world: post-modern, post liberal, post-impressionism. As vague as it may sound initially it has a very precise intention. To best understand this, we can look at Crouch’s very own explanation of what it is. He utilizes the shape of a parabola to explain the events that lead to the aforementioned period of post-democracy. Initially, we have the pre-democratic period. This period is predominantly characterized by the lack of the democratic ideal that we see shaping most modern governments, that is the people are not given any power or part in the act of governance. After this we get to see a drastic surge in democracy as the preferred form of governance, we can call this the democratic period. We get to see people have a major role in determining the working of the government takes place because of this emerging spread of democracy. Finally, we arrive at the post-democratic time where the influence of democracy as an idea is still present but has faltered in comparison to the previous democratic period where it experienced a sudden surge. Everything to do with forming the government becomes almost strictly ceremonial and hollow. It is important to note that the post-democratic period displays characteristics of both the democratic as well as pre-democratic periods. There is also a noticeably negative notion of the saturation of the idea of democracy. What this means is that these ‘post-’ time periods tend to be difficult to discern.
Also Read: What is Neo in Prefix?
What causes post-democracy?
The biggest factor that has contributed to the steady downfall of democracy is globalization or more specifically economic globalisation. With the emergence of a startling number of multinational corporations, it is only natural that they directly or indirectly infringe upon the authority of individual nation-states. The governments are often left at their mercy of these capitalist giants. If a situation arises when a particular law pertaining to these corporations are not favourable to them, they often threaten to pull out of said country altogether. The states wanting the investment are forced to comply with whatever conditions these corporations insist on. This situation is akin to pre-revolutionary France, where the higher classes of the aristocracy and monarchy were excluded from taxation but they still exercised power. Unlike the common man who were subject to taxation but ultimately had no rights and were deemed helpless.
Looking at democracy and capitalism side by side it is quite evident that democracy has not been able to keep up with capitalism. What this means is that these corporations have managed to stay light on their feet and expand rapidly. It is not that democracy has not done the same, it is the fact that individual nation-states have failed to join hands in defending their own interests against such capitalistic agendas.
Perhaps as a direct consequence of globalization, it has been observed that privatization has also played a major part in downplaying the status of democratic governments worldwide. Many components of public service have privatized or are contracted to third parties. In doing so, the government is essentially relinquishing itself of adequately maintaining public services. The corporations who do come into these responsibilities prioritize profit which indirectly creates a poor image of public service run by the government. This culminates in the severe undermining of the self-confidence of the government to do anything in the public sphere effectively.
Another reason for this tendency to move towards a post-democratic era is the significant reduction in the political role that ordinary working people have. There has also been a significant reduction in occupations which gave way to the emergence of labour organisations, who scrutinized the authorities and enabled the working class to demand things of them. As a result of this, we get a population which is politically passive and inactive in holding the government responsible and alert.
Now that we are talking about the working class it is also important to acknowledge that there has been an undeniable absence of the social class in the modern-day political scenario. This phenomenon is a symptom of post-democracy. Where democracy challenged class privileges, post-democracy goes a step further in outright denying them. Primarily due to the push for industrialization across the world, the manual working class began to decline starting in the 1960s. Almost parallelly there was a noticeable increase in the service sector. The end result was an increase in white-collar workers who were increasingly apathetic to the political scenario in one’s state. Just as unions of individual democratic nation-states are almost ceremonial, the people came to lack unity in coming together and holding the government accountable.
Politicians on the other hand have undergone many changes too. Holding themselves separate from their own parties and the voters. Simply because today, it has become easier to approach the aforementioned global firms for money and know-how in exchange for political favours. Politicians and political parties grow ever-distant of the general public and so, elections turn out to be dry affairs that are focused on building up a brand image rather than offer any meaningful choices to the voters.
How can this be fixed?
Post-democracy undeniably represents a series of underlying changes that have caused severe democratic decline. This concentration of power within a small group of elites is not ideal in the long run, especially to other less privileged groups. While the situation does seem, grim there are changes that can be made to revitalize democracy.
A simple move would be to focus on better education. More specifically, studies relating to citizenship should be inculcated into the school curriculums. If the public acted more severely, keeping a check on every action and decision taken by political parties, the parties would quickly adapt to this. As a result, we might be able to observe much more competence from these groups. There is no definite way of knowing whether a better-educated public would necessarily be more alert but it is an important step we can adopt.
Addressing and resolving the domination that corporations have herculean task. Simply abolishing the idea of capitalism and every action that relates to it is not practical. As bad as capitalism is, there has been no alternative offered that displays the same amount of innovation in terms of producing global goods and gauging customer response to these goods. So, measures must be taken to restrict corporations from exercising too much power, especially to the point where it threatens democracy. However, more and more efforts are taken by world governments to expand corporate freedom.
In terms of the electoral system, a shift to proportional representation can do wonders for the post-democratic era. It forces political parties to compete with each other on a far more intense level. Furthermore, it would prevent egalitarian interests from dominating the political agenda.
New social movements have the potential to disrupt the status quo in post-democratic politics. Such movements have a tendency to cause disruptions by making demands for admission, which can change the political environment quickly. These movements also have the potential to be detrimental to democracy, so caution should be placed when gauging these movements.
Post-democracy while sounding like a conspiracy theory is indeed a very real problem. The degree to which it has extended across societies is debatable. Nevertheless, post-democracy has inevitably trapped the world governments in a stalemate. Politics should not be reduced to plays for power between the elite, especially in a democracy. It is the people as a collective who end up bearing the brunt of most political decisions and so it is only natural that they themselves should be involved. However, seeing that corporate giants are not slowing down and neither are any major restrictions placed on them, it looks as if the world will remain post-democratic for quite some time. We can only hope that some change comes about and rejuvenates democracy for the greater good.
- Farrell, H. (2021, May 27). The Left is now too weak for democracy to survive – Henry Farrell: Aeon Essays. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/the-left-is-now-too-weak-for-democracy-to-survive
- Defining democracy. (2019, September 24). Retrieved from https://www.moadoph.gov.au
- Alikhani, B. (2017). Post-Democracy or Processes of De-Democratization? United States Case Study. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung,42(4 (162)), 189-206. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44469366
- C. (n.d.). Coping with Post-democracy. Retrieved from https://www.fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Post-Democracy.pdf