The Confidence Trap by David Runciman: Are we too complacent about democracy?

A paean to muddling through.

The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from
World War I to the Present

David Runciman
Princeton University Press, 408pp, £19.95

Democracy is the prevalent form of government in the modern world, the norm to which it is believed all civilised states should aspire. But it was not always so. It began in Athens in the fifth century BC as, in the words of the Cambridge political philosopher John Dunn, “an improvised remedy for a very local Greek difficulty 2,500 years ago”. The Athenians, however, practised direct democracy in which the people made decisions for themselves rather than relying on elected representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Admittedly Athenian democracy was very limited: it was restricted to male citizens, with women and slaves excluded. Direct democracy still survives in a few small cantons in Switzerland, town meetings in the United States and, in an attenuated form, in some parish meetings in England.

In the modern world, representative democracy is the norm and the latter part of the 20th century seemed to witness its global triumph. That was a striking contrast with the first half of the 20th century. In 1926, there were just 26 democracies among the nations of the world and these came under threat after the Great Depression, which began in 1929. As a result of the impact of fascism and National Socialism, the frontiers of democracy were pushed back. In 1931, when Spain returned – temporarily, as it turned out – to parliamentary government, Mussolini declared that it was like returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In 1934, António Salazar, the dictator of Portugal, said: “I am convinced that within 20 years, if there is not some retrograde movement in political evolution, there will be no legislative assemblies left in Europe.”

By 1940, it was an open question whether democracy could survive in the west or, indeed, at all. After the fall of France, Churchill declared that if Britain were to fail in its resistance to Nazi Germany, “The whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” By 1942, there were only 12 democracies left. Yet, with the defeat of Hitler, democracy revived.

In the last two decades of the 20th century were further waves of democratisation: in Latin America in the 1980s and in eastern Europe, following the collapse of communism, in the 1990s – and also, though less noticed, in Africa, where 30 ruling parties or leaders have been ousted by voters since 1991. By the millennium, 120 out of the 188 members of the United Nations could be classed as democracies. It is possible that the Arab spring will herald a further wave of democratisation, although it is too early to tell.

Political scientists have devoted much time to analysing the transition to democratic rule and the conditions for stable democracy. They have sought, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, to discover how burgeoning democracies can “get to Denmark”, that country being, as David Runciman puts it, “perhaps the most livable society on earth, a prosperous, stable, experimental, law-abiding, well governed state”.

In The Confidence Trap, he sets himself an even more challenging task: that of analysing the crises facing modern democracies and how they have been overcome. His work is in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, perhaps the greatest book ever written about democracy, and of James Bryce, whose American Commonwealth, an attempt at a sequel to de Tocqueville’s work, Runciman rightly rescues from oblivion.

The introductory chapter of The Confidence Trap describes in a fresh and convincing way de Tocqueville’s conception of democracy. Runciman agrees with de Tocqueville that democracy is an opaque system, with its strengths – its flexibility, its powers of adaptation and improvisation – largely hidden from view. Previous advocates of democracy such as Tom Paine had argued that it was a transparent form of government: “Whatever are its excellencies and defects, they are visible to all.” De Tocqueville, by contrast, understood that it was the weaknesses of democracy that were visible and obvious, while the strengths were often difficult to apprehend. Democracy, he believed, often seemed less efficient than dictatorship but it was better at resolving crises.

Yet, precisely because democracies are so adaptable and know that they are adaptable, they allow problems to escalate. Confident that they will be able in the end to meet the problems, they defer resolving them. As the crisis over the budget in the US shows all too graphically, elected politicians are happy to squabble, comforted by the knowledge that the system remains resilient. Muddling through has worked in the past. Why should it not work in the future? So, in Runciman’s graphic description, “Democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. Both sides play this game. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which point they become lethal.” That is what Runciman means by the confidence trap. The confidence that we all have in the problem-solving capacities of democracy traps us into a devil-may-care optimism.

Runciman analyses the trap through a tour d’horizon of seven crises of democratic uncertainty: 1918, when the then US president, Woodrow Wilson, sought unsuccessfully to make the world safe for democracy; 1933, when another US president, Franklin Roosevelt, scuppered the World Economic Conference by taking the US off the gold standard; 1947, when Europe began again with democratic institutions and found itself called on to resist Soviet intransigence; 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis; 1974 and the oil shock; 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall; and 2008, the year of the financial collapse.

Runciman sees 2008 as a double failure. The voters failed to restrain politicians and public officials from financial excess; while the central bankers, who had been given independence from political pressures precisely so that they could correct the errors of those uninstructed in the mysteries of high finance, used this freedom, in Runciman’s words “to indulge their own prejudices”.

However, the chapters on the seven crises do not equal the book’s impressive opening. They amount to little more than a dusting over of fairly familiar episodes from 20th century history and on occasion lack perception. Runciman asks, for example, whether anyone foresaw the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989 and discovers few prophets. Yet, in the early 1950s, Churchill told his private secretary, John Colville, that if Colville lived to his “natural span”, he would see the end of communism in Europe, since the communists would be unable to digest what they had swallowed. Colville died in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Confidence Trap is less a work of research or scholarship than a commentary on events, strong on paradox and epigram rather than analysis and written in a somewhat rhapsodic style, which occasionally becomes wearisome. What, for example, are we to make of this? “Democracies tend to overreach themselves when they outlast or defeat autocratic rivals, because they assume the truth about democracy has finally been revealed.” True, perhaps, of 1918 but of 1945 or 1989? Runciman pontificates: “The sense of crisis is permanent in democracies and for that reason rarely definitive.” This sounds impressive but is it true? Was there a sense of crisis in Britain in the 1950s or the US in the Eisenhower era? Part of the problem of British democracy in the 1930s, confronted as it was by Hitlerism, was precisely that there was not a sense of crisis when there ought to have been.

Some of Runciman’s statements are quite vacuous. For instance: “Democracies turn victories into defeats. However, because they misapprehend what they have done, they also turn victories into defeats.” It was Sainte-Beuve who said of de Tocqueville that he had begun to think before he learned anything; perhaps the same criticism can be directed at some of those who seek to follow in de Tocqueville’s footsteps.

Runciman concludes by identifying four areas where democracies “have performed poorly over the past decade”: “They have fought unsuccessful wars, mismanaged their finances, failed to take meaningful action on climate change and seemed frozen in the face of China’s growing power.”

Nevertheless, as he recognises, democracies, in their rough and ready way, have been able to meet these challenges. They have done so not by imposing rules to constrain popular appetites, as gurus such as Hayek and Kennan would have wished, but by adaptation. The Confidence Trap is a paean to muddling through. To defeat fascism and communism, liberal democracy “did not have to deliver on its promises . . . It simply had to retain its promise, as something that it still made sense to believe in.”

I am not wholly convinced that Runciman has identified the main challenges faced by modern democrats and, in particular, democrats on the left. He does not confront the problem, which nearly destroyed democracy in the 1930s, of ensuring that it does not become powerless in the face of its enemies. How can democracies be induced to defend themselves? The problem, while not as acute today as it was in the 1930s, is nevertheless one that ought not to be evaded. While there can be little doubt that the recent Commons vote on Syria reflected public opinion, we cannot, as some on the left would wish, pull the blankets over our heads and opt out of all foreign engagements. The left must do all it can to help the liberal and democratic forces seeking to transform Iran and the Arab world and ensure that the Arab spring does not turn into a bleak winter.

The left must also combat the widespread feeling of disenchantment felt by so many democrats, especially among the young. In the west, we now find ourselves empowered in our roles as consumers and recipients of public services – but we have not been empowered as citizens. There is a striking contrast between the active consumer and the passive citizen. Democracies have not yet responded to the spirit of individualism released by the rebellion of 1968. While the rhetoric of the rebellion was neo-Marxist, it sought in reality a wider and more genuine version of the democratic ideal. The rebels owed less to Marx than to the ideals of participatory democracy of Rousseau and of Mill.

The main catchword of the rebels was participation and their basic message was a distrust of the large, bureaucratic institutions that had come to dominate modern representative democracies. In place of such institutions, they favoured direct election, party primaries, party reform, the recall, the initiative – instruments of direct democracy that would, so they believed, enable the people to hold their leaders to account. They foresaw that the era of pure representative democracy was coming to an end.

The real confidence trap, so it seems to me, is the tension in many advanced democracies between the inherited forms of democracy and the new ideological forces of modern society. The task of the left is to make the forms congruent with the forces. That requires a return to the original Greek conception of democracy as a system in which the people make more decisions for themselves – all the people and not just those who happen to be elected as representatives.

In June 1685, Colonel Richard Rumbold, an unreconstructed leader of the Levellers, was about to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his role in the Rye House plot against Charles II. In his last moments, he said: “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” That vision still lies at the heart of the democratic ideal, even if we remain far from realising it. The task of the left is to bring us nearer to realising it.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British Long arm of the state: Chinese police in June History, King’s College London

Power games: Democracy Plaza, New York City, on voting day in November 2004. Image: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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