As good as it gets? Democracy once stood for self-government by a society of equals. Today, the concept is yoked to capitalism, and most representative democracies are inescapably inegalitarian. David Marquand on the subversion of a noble ideal

Democracy and Populism: fear and hatred

John Lukacs <em>Yale University Press, 272pp, £16</em>


John Lukacs and John Dunn could not have chosen a better moment to publish their reflections on the strange story of modern representative democracy. As a system of government, democracy has no serious ideological competitors. China, the only great power with no pretensions to democracy, is ideologically inert. Russia still pays lip-service to democratic norms. Radical Islamists dispute the cultural hegemony of the democratic west, but their appeal is parochial, not global. Woodrow Wilson once proclaimed that his aim was to "make the world safe for democracy". Superficially, at least, his mission has been accomplished.

Yet there is a large and angry fly in the ointment. In Europe and North America, there are growing signs of popular disenchantment with democracy as a practice, and of elite contempt for democracy as an ideal. To take a few examples, the chief feature of last month's British general election was a pervasive mixture of distrust and distaste for all the main parties. The outcome was a government with a handsome majority in the House of Commons for which only a fraction more than 20 per cent of the total electorate had brought itself to vote. Having scrambled back into office, the head of that government proceeded blithely along his previous path. Then came the crushing No majorities in the French and Dutch referendums on the European constitutional treaty. These were greeted with a combination of denial and contempt on the part of the interlocking technocracies that dominate the EU. All this took place against the background of the Bush-Blair crusade for democracy, the most obvious results of which are a brutal occupation in Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties and due process in both the crusading powers.

How are we to interpret this unhappy tale? Lukacs and Dunn do not answer that question directly, but they both shed powerful beams of light on the history that has made it possible. Their books are very different. Lukacs invites us to share in a relaxed meditation on the present condition of democracy, above all in America. The style is conversational. Instead of an argument, we are offered a series of apercus, many of them haunting and even brilliant, but some perverse and unconvincing. Still, two grand themes sound through. The first is the theme of degeneration. The liberal, freedom-sustaining democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville found in 1830s America, Lukacs suggests, has decayed into a brutish, freedom-endangering populist democracy, nationalistic rather than patriotic, and nurtured by hatred not just for America's foreign enemies, but even more for internal dissenters.

His second theme is equally disturbing and more original. Nationalist populism, he insists, is not reactionary or out of keeping with the modern world, as the bien-pensante left imagines. It does not find its inspiration in an archaic golden age, as reactionaries do. On the contrary, one of its hallmarks is a sim- plistic and, in its purest form, terrifying faith in a unilinear, unstoppable "Progress". Hitler, the most thoroughgoing incarnation of nationalist populism known to history, was both a revolutionary and a progressive. His imagined golden age was located in the future, not the past. He hated the established order at least as passionately as did any communist or social democrat. His anti-Semitism had little in common with the centuries-old Judaeophobia with which it was sometimes confused. It was "scientific", "modern" and all the more pitiless as a result. And although Hitler's vision of unilinear progress has vanished without trace, the lesser populist leaders of our own day - Tony Blair, George W Bush and, not so long ago, Margaret Thatcher - have been inspired by their own visions of an equally unilinear progress, albeit leading in a different direction.

Unlike Lukacs, Dunn does argue a case - or rather a number of connected cases. It is not always easy to follow his argument. At its occasional best, his writing is exhilarating, gripping and full of mordant phrases. (I particularly liked the "reptilian fascination" of Robespierre.) At its worst, it is weighed down by the ponderous hermeticism all too common among academic political theorists. Setting the People Free is a marvellously rich book, like a plum tart full of delicious fruit, but you sometimes have to dig through un-appetising goo to get at the plums. It is well worth making the effort, however. In fewer than 190 pages, Dunn tells the story of democracy - as a word, an idea and a practice - from its origins in Athens 2,500 years ago to the present day. Inevitably, he leaves gaps. We hear a lot about great political thinkers, but surprisingly little about great political economists. This is a pity given that one of Dunn's main themes is the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Nevertheless, his ambition is heroic, and his achievement magnificent.

He has two main propositions. The first is that there is a paradox at the heart of modern representative democracy. It is dominant ideologically and very nearly all-embracing in practice. Yet it flouts the vision of human equality that lies at the heart of the democratic ideal - the vision evoked by the old Leveller Richard Rumbold when he declared from the scaffold that no man "comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him". Democracy has triumphed, Dunn argues, because it has been yoked to what he calls the "order of egoism", in other words capitalism. Capitalism has produced material wealth on a previously unimagined scale; representative democracy has triumphed because, against all expectations, it turned out to be the form of government that suits capitalism best. But the capitalist free market is inevitably and inescapably inegalitarian. Under capitalism, the strong are booted and spurred to ride the weak. And the worldwide triumph of the capitalist market economy since the collapse of communism has made the spurs sharper and put steel toecaps on the boots. The tamed capitalism in which social democrats such as Anthony Crosland, Andrew Shonfield and J K Galbraith put their faith has been untamed. We live in a world of intensifying economic inequalities, globally and nationally. The more they intensify, the more bogus become our pretensions to political equality.

Here, Dunn's second proposition comes into play. What we are pleased to call democracy, he points out, has virtually nothing in common with the democracy of the Athenian citizens, who really did govern themselves. They were not equal in wealth or status, but they were equal politically. Any citizen with the energy and self-confidence to do so could address the Assembly, composed of his peers; and the Assembly took all the great decisions of state. That was what democracy meant to its inventors; and for more than 2,000 years, it meant essentially the same thing to its manifold critics. In the light of that history, it is a form of semantic theft to apply the term "democratic" to the representative democracies of our day. As everyone knows, we do not govern ourselves; we choose representatives to govern us in our name from a very restricted menu, and sometimes by patently flawed methods.

Anyone who thinks this amounts to self-government should ponder the old French saying that there is more in common between two deputies, one of whom is a communist, than between two communists, one of whom is a deputy. In truth, the capitalist democracies of the 21st century perpetrate a double fraud. They are fraudulent partly because the inequalities that are inseparable from capitalism are bound to spill over from the economy into the polity, and partly because the citizenry does not, in any serious sense, control the political class that is supposed to be its agent. From time to time we can throw the rascals out; and this is far better than nothing. However, if the alternative to the rascals we know is an even nastier set of rascals waiting in the wings, the exercise becomes rather dispiriting.

So much, perhaps, so obvious. But Dunn's next move is not obvious at all. Why, he asks, do the fraudsters perpetrate their fraud? Given that present-day capitalist democracy has virtually nothing in common with the demokratia of the Athenians, why do we use their word, of all words, to describe it? His answer, I think, is that it carries an emotional charge, ultimately derived from its Athenian origins, which no other political term can match: that, in spite of the disappointments associated with its recent history, it still evokes a distant echo of Rumbold's dream of a world where no one would be booted and spurred to ride others. The implications are explosive. The managers of the order of egoism have used the language of democracy to legitimise the reality of capitalism. However agreeable its fruits may be - and it is foolish as well as dishonest to deny that most of us find them highly agreeable for most of the time - no one would fight or die for capitalism. Yet millions have fought and died for what they thought was democracy.

In short, capitalism has subverted democracy, and more flagrantly in the past 15 years than at any time since the American Gilded Age. In the past quarter- century, the nationalist populism ana-tomised by Lukacs has been one of the most potent agents of this subversion. This was not the case between the wars; Hitler was, after all, a National Socialist. He was no enemy to private property, but his political economy had nothing in common with contemporary neoliberalism. Today's populist leaders, however, are not socialists in any sense of that much-abused word. They are certainly nationalists (Blair less so than Bush or Thatcher); but with logic-defying chutzpah, they have contrived to make nationalism an ally of global capitalism and a vehicle for its imperatives. That was the real meaning of the Thatcher revolution; and it is also the real meaning of Blair's more emollient attempts to carry the revolution forward.

However, subversion is not a one-way street. Although capitalism subverts democracy, democracy has the potential to subvert capitalism. That was the great discovery of revisionist social democracy during the first three-quarters of the 20th century. My one serious complaint against Dunn is that, although he hints at the 20th-century social-democratic achievement here and there, he has denied himself the space to explore it, or to speculate about the form - necessarily very different - that a successor might take. Perhaps because of this, his conclusions are a bit lame. Sometimes he seems to be saying, with wry fortitude, that capitalist representative democracy is as good as it gets; at other times he hankers for something closer to Rumbold, and perhaps even to Athens. In fact, we have two Dunns on our hands: Dunn the careful scholar and judicious realist, and Dunn the romantic rebel. When he comes to write the sequel for which this book cries out, I hope he gives the second Dunn his head.

David Marquand's most recent book is The Decline of the Public: the hollowing out of citizenship (Polity Press)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Smokescreen