The result of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom has raised some serious concerns about the democratic/electoral process even in such mature jurisdictions as the United Kingdom.
Philippe Forget, Chairman of the La Sentinelle press group, has in an article in L’express (Sunday last) raised the question of whether the democratic system of governance as we have known it has not outgrown its pertinence. It is true that the recent referendum has resulted in a decision which, on the face of it, seems to go against the trend of recent history and indeed the decision to exit the European Union was carried by the “reactionary” arguments about the “fear” of mass immigration and insecurity among blue-collar workers and sentimentalist nationalism more than anything else. A large fraction of the electorate has undoubtedly been swayed by the populist, racist and xenophobic arguments peddled by the extreme right parties as well as a pack of straight lies and unjustifiable promises made by those who never imagined that they would eventually be confronted with their own unworkable fabrications – such as the 350M Pound sterling which would suddenly become available for investments in the NHS in case of Britain leaving the European Union.
The irony is that millions of people also supported the Brexit campaign for reasons which are diametrically opposed to the arguments of the like of extreme right UKIP and its obnoxious leader Nigel Farage. Many left-leaning voters expressed their disapproval of neo-liberal economic policies which alienated large sections of the population from the mainstream political process. The losers of the globalization process, impoverished middle class families and workers who felt more and more insecure in their jobs and their future rallied to the Brexit cause. At the end of the day the general sense which prevails these days is that given a second chance the majority of Britons would most probably vote for remaining in the EU.
All the above have contributed to a situation in which the very validity and appropriateness of the process of “popular consultations” (elections or referenda) on issues of vital importance for a country – and in a globalized connected world these would often have global implications as in the case under review here — is being insidiously challenged with potentially serious consequences for the democratic forms of representative government.
Failure of democracy or of the elites?
The political/philosophical question of the role of the elites in governance has been at the centre of the debate about the ideal political organization, starting with the ancient Greeks and Plato’s Republic. All through history some have argued that it was dangerous to let the power lie in the hands of the masses when it comes to taking key decisions for the future of a nation. As opposed to this there have been those who, since the “siècle des Lumières”, have been arguing that the populations should be the final repository of the power to decide on what is best for the nation.
We shall not here indulge in the whole history of the debate but simply note that the most acceptable compromise seems to have been reached in the aftermath of the bourgeois revolutions in Europe and the rise of the capitalist mode of production leading to the demise the “divine rights” of monarchies. This was followed by the emergence of various forms of parliamentary democracies and the concept of “deputation.” Through regular elections, after the adoption of adult suffrage in a country, the people “depute” their representatives to Parliament for a limited period of time and with a mandate to carry out a definite programme.
In this form of democratic setting, it is understood and accepted as a founding principle that the majority obtains the right to formulate public policy simply because there are more people in it than out of it. The choice of those to whom a majority of the population would “delegate” their decision-making power in-between two elections was in turn simplified by the dominant two-party systems in which each party traditionally represented distinct programmes and approaches for solving the problems with which the country was confronted.
This simplified model of parliamentary democracy has been put under huge stress by the rapid evolution of the capitalist system of which it has been an integral part for more than a century. Globalization and even more significantly the concentration of economic power after the emergence of monopoly capitalism have resulted in a gradual capture of the whole governance process by economic/business interests.
The State has been constantly shorn of its power to regulate and to intervene in the distribution of income and allocation of resources over the past thirty years or so. As stated by P. de Grauwe, a specialist in employment and labour policies, “workers are being told that they must be flexible. They should be happy when their wages fall, when they can be dismissed quickly and when they receive less unemployment benefits… That Social Security is unproductive and should be downsized.”
A second dominant feature of the evolution of the democratic process which is contributing in emptying it of its substance is the rise of what is referred to as a political class — a notion alien to the very definition of democratic politics, for this class of professional politicians detached from the rest of the population is nothing less than an advanced form of corruption of the concept of the temporary deputation of power from the electorate to its representatives who come from its own rank and file.
As a result of the above evolutions, a fundamental disconnect between the governing elite (business and political) and the governed has come to characterize the governance structures in most of the countries labouring under a regime of parliamentary democracy. A direct consequence of this is that the electorate tends to reject the ruling elites which are perceived as being primarily driven by greed and self-interest without any regard for the welfare of the rest of the nation.
The anti-establishment fervour which has marked the recent Brexit vote and the increasing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France constitute the most evident but certainly not the only examples of a dangerous trend sowing the seeds of dangerous populism and extreme right wing rising.
* Published in print edition on 8 July 2016