David Green reviews The Crisis and Future of Democracy, edited by Ada Regelmann (2022, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung).
A cursory glance around European parliaments today demonstrates that liberal democracies are in crisis. Only seven countries have no right-wing influence in government, and the spread of authoritarian populism seems as tenacious as it is pervasive. It it the right which, electorally at least, has benefitted most from rising inequality, instability in working practices, and states’ perceived failures to deal with worldwide threats such as global warming. Optimistically, however, declining trust in oppressive state institutions has generated alternative models of democracy, with grassroot responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the disruptive spread of information and communication technology renewing hope in a transformative renewal of democracy.
In this context, the most recent publication from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, The Crisis and Future of Democracy (Regelmann, ed., 2022), is a welcome addition to the discussion on democratic decline and the potential for change. Divided into fourteen chapters across five sections, and drawing upon different theoretical approaches, methods and case studies, the book explores the nature of the current crisis and the new political order that seems to be emerging.
The book initially focusses on the precarity of liberal democracy and the extent to which democracy is even compatible with the values it claims to promote. In section one, Márk Losoncz’s discussion on hybrid regimes and the comparative analysis from Tiedemann et al. complement each other in demonstrating the ‘riskiness’ of liberal democracy, with participation necessarily ‘limited to the political sphere’ (p. 21). In effect, this means we have ‘liberal representative governments’ (p. 153) rather than radically democratic politics. This makes society vulnerable—as in the cases of Hungary and Serbia—to populists’ ‘subtle strategies’ (e.g., manipulation of the media and elections) (p. 153), which reshape familiar institutions to their own ends. But as Teppo Eskelinen points out later, democracy is about the ‘political community learning how to govern itself without hierarchies’ (p. 204), meaning we must learn not to be afraid of democracy, and must resist attempts to limit it in the face of such populist threats. This is surely a lesson many left-wing activists would do well to remember.
Section three discusses the contradictory forces at work in liberal democracies, largely in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with section four offering a clear link between research and activism. Cotarelo and Cutillas’s contribution, in particular, is a considered case study of three attempts to democratise
left-wing populist movements in Spain using information technology. Despite often employing such tools with the intention of removing the very hierarchies Eskelinen previously mentioned, the case studies show us that technology on its own cannot do this. Activists, they warn, require considerable thought, planning
and resources before embracing new technologies as a panacea for low levels of participation.
The volume finishes with a provocative discussion of the future of democracy and the tactics needed for a transformative shift in society. In the chapter ‘Future? What Future?’, the authors attack the left’s tacit support for the mainstream liberal centre, which they call ‘a source of menace for political anti-racism’ (p. 474). The answer, apparently, is to ‘demand the systems crash’ (p. 501). What happens once everything is burning is left for the reader to imagine. The authors here strike a highly condescending tone, leaving the reader feeling more insulted than provoked. This moralising only serves to highlight the weakness in the final chapter’s argument that the left needs to give its values and morals a central place in its activist and research base. It is not the lack of morals that is holding the left back, but rather strategic questions of whom alliances can be built with and how this is done.
As with any edited collection, some chapters will reward more than others. But the volume’s broad scope and diversity of cases will give the persevering reader a much clearer overview of the state of democracy today. The book adds significantly to our understanding of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic upon democracy, and will hold relevance for activists wanting to position their own struggles against the threats of neoliberalism and authoritarian populism.