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7 February 2024

In praise of sluggish politics

Deliberation and reversals are democracy’s great virtues, writes Jonathan White. But can it keep pace with a world in crisis?

By Oliver Eagleton

Democracy is slow-going: minuting the rancorous meetings of bureaucrats, finessing the phrasing of proposals that will never pass into law, knocking on the doors of people who hate your guts. For the political theorist Jonathan White, though, this is not a betrayal of its ideals but a vindication of them. He suggests that the system’s virtue lies in its long-windedness. Quick fixes are sold by technocrats and strongmen, while open-ended deliberation is the stuff of popular sovereignty. If an age of escalating crisis creates a temptation for the former, that is even more reason to advocate the latter. Contesting different visions of our combustible planet will, and should, take time.

White is a scholar with radical commitments. His new book, In the Long Run: The Future as a Political Idea, reads as a rebuttal of Oscar Wilde’s complaint that socialism takes up too many evenings. There is an intrinsic connection, it argues, between egalitarianism and long-termism. Democracy implies an orientation towards the future, whose indeterminacy hypothetically allows it to be shaped by anyone. Its openness renders it universal, in contrast to the “closed” and stratified landscape of the present. This also makes the future appealingly abstract: since it cannot be an object of knowledge, it must be a realm of free speculation, where participation requires no particular expertise. When the demos rules, its horizons are distant. 

To assess what this futurist sensibility might mean for the current conjuncture, with its atmosphere of mounting urgency, White traces its origins back to the 18th century. In post-Reformation Europe, social conditions were “conducive to the experience and expectation of difference”: technological progress, urbanisation, religious reform, encounters with the New World. When everyday life was defamiliarised, possibilities opened up beyond it – intellectually, in the development of utopian thought across the continent, and politically, in the capsizal of the ancien régime.

The age of revolution gave rise to two competing political temporalities. Liberal reformists such as John Stuart Mill were convinced that the existing institutions would undergo a steady process of perfectibility, while utopian socialists like Robert Owen envisioned a more complete rupture with contemporary reality. Both positions had their flaws – the first in constructing an idealised image of the future, the second in eliding the practical means by which the present order could be overturned. They were criticised on this basis by Marx and Engels, who instead sought to identify the underlying material processes that determined the range of political possibilities and the pace of historical change. For them, the mass party was a necessary vehicle to mediate between futures near and far, between what is currently achievable and what is ultimately desirable.

In the 20th century, however, these clashing traditions assumed a form that was more or less presentist: constrained by the logic of the world as it is. Keynesian liberalism became a cult of “calculation”, using technocratic methods to facilitate state planning by predicting the behaviour of markets and populations. Since these predictions were based on precedents, they assumed a basic principle of continuity – a lack of variation outside fixed parameters. Stalinist socialism was governed by a similarly calculative outlook. Industrial targets and quotas aimed to narrow the gap between the USSR and developed nations, which were “pictured as being at different points on the same temporal plane”. Here, looking forward became little more than a means of overcoming “backwardness”.

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For White, the only genuinely futurist ideology of the previous century was fascism. Though it rejected any rationalist notion of progress, it valorised “an instinct for action” that would lay waste to what came before. It may have invoked a past era of racial purity, but beneath this mythology was an attachment to the modern: an obsession with novelty and dynamism. Fascism, White claims, embraced the atmosphere of radical openness created by interwar capitalist crises. Far from being a simply repressive model, it offered its followers an intoxicating sense of autonomy – refusing to posit a consistent or determinate vision of the nation, since this would undermine its promise of limitless potential. It celebrated the future “as long as it remained ill-defined”.

Yet if each of these political grand narratives was in some sense collective, it was neoliberalism – the grand narrative to end all others – that recast futurity as an individual concern. Its Weltanschauung, as White describes it, contained only the consumer and their commodities. The subject would achieve self-realisation by choosing from an infinity of privatised objects. This created the mirage of forward motion – fulfilment, development, improvement – but its effect was to freeze Homo economicus in a static state. Financial precarity encouraged moment-to-moment living. Personal debt trapped people in cycles of repayment, as credit ratings reflected the dead weight of the past on the present.

This condition, of confinement to an atomising market order, has eclipsed the Enlightenment ideal of democratic agency over the world to come. We might hope that the multiple emergencies of the 21st century will create a different form of political consciousness – attuned to the risk of planetary catastrophe, and working collectively to avert it. But White is sceptical. It is more likely, he thinks, that accumulating disasters will produce a purely reactive politics, focused on managing the fallout. Necessity would then take precedence over freedom, closed futures over open ones. There would be no time to contemplate the coordinates of a just society; it would fall to elites to find “solutions”.

In the Long Run registers these dangers with remarkable lucidity. White himself demonstrates the kind of rigorous and expansive thought that he sees as the foundation of democratic practice – refusing the consolatory assumption that accelerating crisis will inevitably lead to a mass political awakening. Yet the author’s policy prescriptions, which conclude the book, are somewhat less compelling. He suggests establishing recall referendums, making general elections less frequent, forging accountable transnational institutions and making an unspecified series of “socio-economic changes” to reduce inequality. Such reforms are intended to achieve “a new sense of temporal spaciousness” that would supposedly reinvigorate democracy. But with no theory of how to win them – what coalitions could be assembled, what strategies they should adopt, what obstacles they will encounter – they strike the reader as exactly the type of top-down “fixes” that White claims to reject. 

If the book runs into problems when it confronts the issue of practical political transformation, this raises broader questions about its methodology. As ever with the genre of intellectual history – especially its more populist instances – there is the difficulty of establishing the correct relation between the conceptual universe and its material substratum. This is not merely a matter of placing ideas in their social context, but of showing how each is embodied in and altered by the other. White does not always display such dialectical precision. His narrative sometimes strays towards the ideal-typical and away from the concrete-actual.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his account of fascism, which, in overstating the centrality of modernist artists and intellectuals, neglects its primary function: to preserve existing power relations against the revolutionary force of communism. By seeking far-right ideology’s meaning in the writings of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, rather than the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, White inflates its futurist dimensions and ignores its presentist ones.

His discussion of neoliberalism lays similar emphasis on the intellectual world of the Austrian School rather than the reality of Thatcherite Britain or Reaganite America. It leaves us with an image of individual consumers caught in the stagnant matrix of the market. Yet neoliberalism was not just a means of privatising society and circumscribing its development; it was, equally, a project for winning the Cold War and remaking the world in the image of the US hegemon. It was inseparable from the doctrine of foreign regime change – as much a narrative of “collective progress” as the liberal imperialism of previous centuries. 

White’s description of democracy suffers from a similar evasion of concrete contradictions. Under this system, we are told, politics is always a “process”, every decision is “reversible” and “provisional”, the clash between opponents is perpetually “indecisive”, elections are “a way of avoiding the finality of one side’s victory”.

But again, this is to place democracy in an idealist straitjacket. In reality, one hopes that the abolition of 12-hour working days for children, or the Jim Crow laws, or the property franchise, is indeed “final”. By the same reasoning, when White says of the climate crisis that “there will not be a moment when the ‘transition’ is complete”, one’s common sense might counter that a total and irreversible shift to a sustainable economy is exactly what is needed – not in the long run, but as soon as possible. In these cases, it is not a travesty of democracy for one side to triumph over the other. This may rather be its precondition. White’s vision of unhurried, inconclusive and pluralist politics is worthy. But can it be realised without a confrontation that is rapid, decisive and zero sum?

In the Long Run: The Future as a Political Idea
Jonathan White
Profile Books, 272pp, £20

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[See also: New millennium fascists]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?

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