The Death of Liberal Democracy?
This is the first in a series addressing the failure and apparent destruction of Liberal Democracy, and what might–and can–come after.
On Thursday, June 23th, 2016, a majority of people voting in a referendum in the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union.
On June 19th, 2016, the Mexican state began arresting and killing striking teachers in Oaxaca.
On June 17th, 2016, French workers filled the streets of every major city as part of a general strike against a new labor law.
Though each of these three events involved radically different circumstances, politics, and players, they are alike in one specific way: they are reactions to State power and its collusion with Capital. That is, they are also crises of Liberal Democracy.
To compare the three may seem initially irresponsible. Many people have died in the latest uprising in Oaxaca, while no one has died in France from the strikes. And despite a leader of the Brexit campaign stating that ‘no shots were fired’ in the movement to leave the European Union, one Labor MP was indeed killed by a far-right gunman for her insistence that the UK remain as part of the EU.
Likewise, the movements in Oaxaca and France are being led by Leftists; in France, the uprising against the government’s Loi Travaille (which would significantly destroy hard-won worker protections) comes from Left and Far-Left unions and poltical parties, while in Oaxaca, the resistance comes from Leftist autonomist movements. In the UK, however, the majority support for the exit vote came from the Right and Far-Right; in fact, the referendum was initiated by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in order to deal with divisions in his own party between reactionaries and more mainstream politicians. More so, the Brexit vote was heavily fueled by anti-immigrant (particularly anti-muslim) sentiment; in France, the far-right party (Front National) is a primary supporter of the Loi Travaille, and Oaxaca (as well as the rest of Mexico) has a net loss of population to immigration, rather than on account of it.
Obscured by these many differences, however, is the primary agent of the conflicts which led the UK to vote to leave, French workers to protest en masse, and Oaxacan teachers to risk getting murdered or disappeared.
In all three cases, the cause is Capital, and the primary agent of Capital is the State. And while French workers and Oaxacan teachers rose up to fight their government’s collusion with Capital, people in the UK (many with racist and xenophobic intentions) voted to strengthen their own government against the influence of foreign Capital while—frightfully–setting the stage for a vast reduction in government protections for their own minorities.
All of these cases are symptoms of the impending death of Liberal Democracy, and a crisis of Capital. For Pagans, queers, transfolk, disabled folk, people of color, immigrants, and every other minority who relies upon the State for their protection, this should be very worrying—and also a wake-up call to build something more resilient, and soon.
To understand how to do this, though, we must understand the relationship between Capital and the State, and before that, we need first to look at what Liberal Democracy is.
“The End of History”
In 1989, an advisor to president Ronald Reagan named Francis Fukuyama wrote a highly influential essay called “The End of History?”, in which he suggested the Liberal Democracy is the end point and highest evolutionary state of political governance. Citing the fall of Fascist governments in Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as the failure of State-Communism as seen in the then-crumbling Soviet Empire, Fukuyama suggested that Capitalism and Democratic forms of government were the destiny of humanity. Though his essay (and subsequent book) have fallen mostly out of favor, the sense that we are now living in the most peaceful, advanced, and static form of society has become so entrenched that few even see the matter as open to debate.
The consequence of this thinking, however, is that most people see Capitalism as an inevitability and the modern Liberal Democratic State as unquestionable. Not only that, but it’s difficult for many people to conceive of a form of existence outside of the present state of affairs, as the system in which we live has become almost invisible as a thing at all. Thus, Capitalism seems to have ‘always existed,’ and many instruments of modern State violence (the police, the military, private property) seem to be as necessary as air or food for the existence of humanity.
Only in moments when Liberal Democracy doesn’t function the way we have been taught to believe it does do we ever notice its existence. When police kill an unarmed Black man in the streets in America without reason, when we see photos or hear reports of wretched prisoner abuse by US soldiers, or in large-scale terror (in Paris, in Orlando) or riot (Ferguson, Oaxaca), the invisible tapestry of Liberal Democracy seems to rip before us. At such times, it is almost as if a wall we never noticed is breached, and we get a brief glimpse into the world outside before the opening is repaired.
Thus, if it were really true that Liberal Democracy is the best form of government, then events like those in Oaxaca and the United Kingdom make no sense. Why would the Mexican government gun down teachers for protesting an educational reform? Why would the United Kingdom vote to leave perhaps the greatest triumph of Liberal Democracy, the European Union? And why would workers in France choose to shut down commerce, energy distribution (including nuclear power plants and gas refineries) rather than just vote for a more sympathetic government?
To some degree, all three events seem regressive or reactionary, a revolt of backwards people against the flow of history. And that’s precisely how these events become painted by the media and by leaders: the Oaxacan teachers are violent primitives, the Brexit-Leave voters are all racist and idiots, and the French strikers are lazy and unwilling to adapt to the future.
These narratives function as a way of closing the breached wall, or repairing the invisible fabric of our present world-view. Once the crisis is averted or resolved, the events are re-written in our histories (not just by historians, government officials, or the media but by ourselves, as well) to return to the status quo we were familiar with before. Life returns to normal and the State is no longer questioned. That is, we return to ‘The End of History’ where Liberal Democracy is the highest form of society, Capital is unquestioned, and the State continues.
The Core of Liberal Democracy
Before I continue, I should to define some stuff, as terms like the State, Capital, and Liberal Democracy are not always clear-cut, and it will help to make sure we’re on the same page.
First of all, Capital is wealth used to derive more wealth through investment. Capital refers to all the money invested in factories, tech companies, stocks, property, and anything else that might make a profit for the investor. Capital seems to have a logic and an egregoric life of its own. That logic? To reproduce itself—basically, to have more Capital through profit.
By “The State,” I mean governments and all the instruments of government. So, in the United States, “The State” is the president, the congress, the supreme courts, as well as all the other government agencies and agents (including police and the military) which exist to enforce its will. Just as with Capital, The State functions as an egregore, a created entity which seeks its own survival and reproduction, which is its central logic.
Liberal Democracy is the name of a specific sort of relationship between State and Capital, a specific kind of government for which Capitalism is the primary economic relationship (“Liberalism”) and Democracy (that is, the appearance of collective will of the people) is the primary mode of governance. The United States, all the countries in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and also Mexico (as well as many, many other countries in the world) are Liberal Democracies.
Liberal Democracy has several primary attributes that are important to remember (and will be addressed again later in this series). They are as follows:
- The State is the agent of the People (the Leviathan): Under Liberal Democracy, the government is seen as the voice of the people it rules over and their empowered representative. Since people can vote for their rulers, it is expected that their rulers are imbued with the power to enact the will of the people, and act not only on their behalf, but as their sole agent. Similar to the Catholic doctrine of the Pope as the “Vicar of Christ,” governments speak and act not just through the will of the people, but as if the people speak through them.
- The State Monopoly on Violence: In Liberal Democracies, the government is authorised to enact violence on behalf of the people, and as the sole agent of violence. By ‘violence,’ I mean both the overt and obvious forms (foreign war, police arrests, capital punishment, imprisonment) and the less overt forms (laws which curtail freedoms, determine and enforce boundaries and borders).
- The State As Sole Agent of Justice: Because the State is the only one who can enact violence, Justice can only be accomplished through government action and the legal system. So, in a rape case, it is up to the government to find and punish the rapist, or if a corporation pollutes the air of a poor neighborhood, the only ‘just’ way to fix the problem is to go through the courts or environmental agency. Individual or group action outside of the legal system to right a wrong can–and often is–harshly punished by the State.
- The State as the Protector/Originator of Rights: What distinguishes Liberal Democracies from earlier forms of government is a contractural agreement between the State and the people it governs regarding the rights of citizens. Often times, these contracts were born of some struggle which threatened the ability of the State to maintain power (for instance, the Magna Carta in Britain, or the US constitution). Also, rights are constantly negotiated: female–and later Black–suffrage, the protection of disabled people, sexual and other minorities, the 35-hour work week and 5 weeks paid vacation in France are all examples of rights demanded by people and later “recognised” and enshrined into law by governments. In exchange for recognizing these rights, the government gains the consent to rule the people, and becomes the sole guarantor of those rights.
- The State as the Protector of Capital: Liberal Democracy is ‘Liberal’ on account of its relationship to Capitalism. Though ‘Liberal’ has a very narrow definition in the United States, more broadly it is understood as a position towards the freedom of Markets. Even under ‘conservative’ governments, States privilege the economic activity of wealthy individuals and groups over the potential damage that activity may cause to the poor or less wealthy. Thus, Liberal Democracy guarantees the right to “Private Property” (land and its uses) so that Capitalists can make money and help fund the activities of the State (including wars) through taxes.
- The State as the Sovereign Exception: Along with the previously mentioned attributes, Liberal Democracies claim the ability to suspend rights, protections, and other guarantees in order to protect the State from crises which may cause the State to be destroyed. Anything seen as an ‘existential threat’ to the government, then, can be met with a ‘State of Emergency’ where the contract between people and the leaders are temporarily suspended until the crisis is averted. This, by the way, is not an idea originating with Liberal theorists at all, but rather from Nazi jurist Carl Schmidt and later adopted by Liberal Democratic governments after World War II.
To understand each of these need to look at the relationship of Liberal Democracy to Capitalism, and the best way to see this is through the state guarantee of Private Property.
(Future essays in this series will cover these aspects of Liberal Democracy. What is likely to replace it, if we do not create something better, should terrify anyone who cares for equality, peace, freedom, and the earth. What could replace it, though, is precisely why Gods&Radicals exists in the first place.)
The Dance of State and Capital
Liberal Democracy is ‘classically liberal’ precisely because of its stance on freedom–that is, the State should guarantee the freedom of the people it rules in order to continue governing. And while freedoms such as the Right to Free Speech or the Freedom of Religion are definitely worth keeping around, other freedoms such as the Right to Private Property are the foundation of Capitalism and directly curtail the freedom of others.
Private Property, of course, doesn’t refer to the socks on your feet or your personal electronics; rather, it refers to the right to own land and be the sole person who may use it as you will. Unlike other rights like religion or speech, Private Property is founded upon a pre-requisite that is not available to the majority of humans in the world: wealth.
Private Property requires money to purchase. More so, it also requires exclusion. Unlike Freedom of Speech (which doesn’t require other people stay silent) or Freedom of Religion (which doesn’t require other people be excluded from religion), Private Property is a guarantee that the government will protect your right to keep other people from using your property. More so, you are free to own as much of it as you like and never sell it, thus taking away the ability of other people to own property, as land is a limited resource.
Though framed as an individual right, Private Property is a guarantee only to a specific class of people within Liberal Democracies: those with property or the money to purchase it. Though apparently meant to protect people who own small bits of land where they might subsist or live, the right to Private Property instead favors those who use their property to derive more wealth from it and therefore gain more property.
That is, the right to Private Property is a protection of Capital.
What interest might a State have in protecting Capital, though? The primary argument of Liberal Democracy for the protection of Capital (and therefore Capitalism) is that the rich ‘generate’ wealth for others by paying others to work for them. The poor who have no property have no other way to survive, and because hungry people are likely to steal or revolt, the poor need access to food. Capitalists pay their workers, who then use the money to buy food from other Capitalists who pay their workers, who then use the money purchase other goods from other Capitalists who pay their workers, etc..
In an ideal version of such a system, everyone is fed and can get access to what they need, and thus the government doesn’t need to use violence to sustain its existence and doesn’t need to use its resources to keep its citizens alive.
Of course, that’s not how any Liberal Democracy has ever functioned, but because we accept the idealised situation as the way it ‘should’ function and see exceptions as aberrations, Liberal Democracy and Capitalism continue mostly unchallenged. But there’s another reason why Liberal Democracies safeguard this system–taxes.
Without money, a government can do nothing. It cannot pay its soldiers or police, its representatives or chancellors or presidents or judges. And because Capitalism is predicated on individuals and groups being free to act without interference by the government, Liberal Democracies cannot generally make money outside of taxes, unlike State-Communist governments or so-called Petro-States.
So, all the governments of Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world rely primarily on tax revenue for their income. Without active (and inflationary) economic activity, there is less of a resource pool to tax.
Liberal Democracies tend to glean their taxes from exchange (sales, VAT, wages/income) and static wealth (land, houses). If an economy is inflationary (that is, always growing), a government can have a constant and increasing access to taxes without raising tax rates. And fortunately, taxes on static wealth (land, housing) help insure that economies become inflationary and more Capitalist.
This latter part is particularly interesting, and rarely addressed by urban activists concerned with gentrification. When taxes on housing increase, landlords can either take less profit from the rents they charge their tenants, or increase the rent. Increasing rents then reduces the amount of money the tenants have after their income, so they must either work more, spend less on other things, or find a cheaper living situation. Pressured in such a way by government taxation, the tenants (who are usually workers and already paying income taxes) ,then either demand higher wages (increasing income-tax revenue), work more (again, increasing income-tax revenue), or reduce their spending (causing the government to raise property taxes to increase revenue, thus causing Capitalist property owners to seek more profits and increasing the cycle).
Held Hostage by Liberal Democracy
As I mentioned, though Capitalist exchange seems to be an ideal situation for the state to maintain itself, Capitalism never delivers the ideal. More so, people who cannot secure what they want through the economy are liable to do so outside of legal means or even revolt.
Thus, Liberal Democracies have adopted certain Socialist programs in order to lessen the damage that Capitalism causes. Universal health care, funding for the un-employed, food and transportation aid, minimum wage guarantees and other such programs act as bandages on the places where Capitalism causes more damage than good. And while Liberal/Progressive/Social Justice movements in many Liberal Democracies see such programs as signs of increasing fairness and justice, these programs actually function to pacify resistance to Capitalism and the State, particularly since they are funded by revenue derived from Capitalist activity.
In fact, such a contradiction is a great benefit to the continuation of Liberal Democracy. People who might otherwise be very critical of Capitalism and the existence of the State find themselves in a position where they rely on the continuance of both for their existence. People suffering from illnesses for which medication subsidized by the government (and paid for by Capitalist-derived taxes) is the only way to survive thus need Liberal Democracy to continue.
This is where the Brexit vote becomes primarily interesting. Many leftists in the United Kingdom are quite terrified of the likely reductions in benefits and social programs for vulnerable people after the exit from the European Union. They have great reason to worry, too, as the European Union did significantly help increase funding for social programs and force the UK government to adopt more open policies on immigration, gay rights, and other protections for minorities. The European Union represented the height of Liberal Democracy, and the U.K.’ exit from it signifies not only an early symptom of the death of Liberal Democracy, but a significant short-term (and possibly long-term) increase in suffering for those who relied on its promises.
But it also means a blow to Capitalists, as well, who now face new barriers to trade and cheap labor through immigration. Also, the Liberal Democratic policies of the European Union significantly stabilized markets, making it so that Capitalists could plan profits long-term. The drop in the Euro and the Pound, as well as respective stock markets, is a symbol of the panic felt by Capitalists who fear loss of profit.
To see the other side of the European Union one only need to look at the situation in France. The Loi Travail in France was crafted as a way to liberalise (that is, open up) the labor markets in France, giving employers more flexibility in hiring by taking away worker guarantees. French workers still have some of the strongest protections and benefits in Europe, and empowered workers mean less profit for Capitalists. Thus, Liberal Democracy, particularly through the open-market policies of the European Union, needed to reduce worker rights in order to ensure Capitalists invest enough money to start the economic cycle which generates taxes.
More so, French workers enjoying more protections than many other workers in Europe destabilizes the labor market, encourages Capital to look for cheaper workers elsewhere, and gives basis to workers in other countries to demand more. The manifestations and strikes in France, then, are not just an attack on employers but on the State and Capital itself, as well as the Liberal Democratic foundation of the European Union.
The situation in Oaxaca has nothing to do with the European Union, but operates on the same logic. Mexico is a Liberal Democracy that faces financial ruin on account of a Liberal Democratic trade agreement (the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA). In order to generate more tax revenue, as well as stave off the governance problems associated with widespread poverty, the government borrowed money from international financial organisations in return for ‘liberalizing’ their markets and creating new ones, including in education:
The reasons why the Mexican government wants to impose the Educational Reform, even if it means killing people, as with the massacre in Nochixtlán by repressive state forces on June 19, are rooted in economic objectives guided by international financial organizations. The reform, proposed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with the OECD-Mexico Agreement to Improve the Quality of Education in Schools of Mexico, aims to lay the groundwork to shift education from being a State responsibility to instead being resolved in the realm of the financial market.
In order to comply with these objectives, the Mexican government passed educational reforms which took away rights from teachers. In Oaxaca, one of the strongest bastions of Leftist organisation, the teachers went on strike, and the state responded with violence.
While both Capitalists and the poorest will initially suffer from crises of Liberal Democracy, as in Brexit, Capitalists are usually able to recover from such crises. In fact, it’s precisely in such crises that Capitalists are able to influence their own governments more, convincing them to lessen worker protections (including wages) as in France, or selling off specific resources as in Oaxaca.
And if the people resist, Liberal Democracy has a particular weapon that proves generally irresistible: violence, upon which it holds a monopoly.
Next: Liberal Democracy and Violence
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
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