The Progressive Post

Post Democracy: the challenge for Europe


Changes in society, the economy and class identities are creating a ‘post-democracy’ in Europe, as elsewhere in the industrialised world. However, there are still opportunities to set a more progressive agenda. Institutional reform, a review of party structures and a more socially-oriented approach to investment could all help to move the ordinary citizen closer to the centre of European affairs.

he European Parliament elections will provide governments and political parties with a series of challenges in 2014, not the least of which is how to engage with the electorate in what is essentially a “post-democracy.” Let me be clear, however, that I use post-democratic in exactly the same way that the term “post-industrial” society is widely used: it certainly does not mean there is no industry, or that people do not use the products of industry. It is simply that the energy, dynamism and innovation of the economy have moved elsewhere; in this case, to the services sector. By the same token, post-democratic does not mean that Europe is home to non-democratic societies: the institutions are all there and they function.

It is simply that the energy and innovation in the political system are no longer to be found in the formal democratic arena, but instead among small groups of elites – notably political and economic in nature; a situation reminiscent of the pre-democratic era. Though many different actors have combined to create this state of post-democracy, there have been two driving forces: a structural change in the workforce and the rise of the multinational corporation in a globalised economy.

Democracy and the workforce
Looking back, I would argue that strong mass democracies were only made possible by a series of historical accidents. One was the accident of social classes, who were essentially created by the Industrial Revolution and who struggled to achieve inclusion into the political system as citizens – and in some cases struggled to exclude others from that. In many societies, there was a similar dynamic around the inclusion and exclusion of various religious identities. These struggles were at times violent and horrifying. However, they eventually gave way to a set of compromises whereby such identities were accepted and a more or less peaceful form of conflict – based on respective vested interests – was enacted through the electoral system. Clearly, this occurred in different ways and to different extents within Europe but by the third quarter of the 20th century, the existence of these social classes and religious groups as citizens had been accepted. It proved to be a relatively short-lived period of stability – at least as far as the structure of employment was concerned. From the 1970s onwards, societies in Europe and the United States ceased to have a growing industrial population – as jobs moved instead to the service sector.

What is significant about this sector and its occupations is that they were born at a time of universal citizenship. Those working in them do not therefore have identities that were involved in struggles for inclusion or exclusion, and they do not feel any need to develop an identity to struggle for political rights, or to make particular political claims. Indeed, the central thesis of post-democracy is that ordinary people are no longer able to generate the autonomous movements that give shocks to the system; that post-democratic polity is very much controlled by political elites who rely on marketing techniques and market research, of which ordinary people are simply the passive recipients. The net effect of this decline in the ability to base identities on social-economic positions is that the main terrain of socio-economic struggle enjoys very little popular energy

Exceptions to identity loss
That said, I also recognize that a number of exceptions exist to refute this argument, with the three notable ones being feminism, the environmental movement and populist xenophobic parties. I believe that feminism, in particular, still has a great deal of potential to effect change. Although most people see the women’s movement as being outside the realm of class identity, an interesting feature of the occupational groups of post-industrial societies is that women are either equal to or often far exceeding men in the number of their workers. If politically relevant occupational identities do develop in post-industrial society, they will very probably be defined primarily by women. The environmentalist movement meanwhile also continues to produce an agenda that is uncomfortable for elites, and one that they certainly have not generated themselves. As for the racist, xenophobic movement in Europe, it is very clearly based on national identity and represents a disturbing return to attitudes that last held real currency in the 1930s.

Democracy and globalisation
Alongside these structural changes, the second driving force in post-democracy is globalisation, whose development I believe has created a fundamental problem for national governments: namely, that democracy is essentially a phenomenon of the nation state – or of lower, more local levels – while the modern economy is not. An economy cannot be managed on a purely national basis, as the multinationals are not subordinate to individual jurisdictions. We have seen this incapacity of national democracy in the management of the 2008 financial crisis and the consequent euro crisis. When the financial crisis struck with the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, the priority became saving the banks from their own misdeeds; this, in turn, has led to enormous pressure being placed on ordinary citizens who are required to bear the cost of bailing out the banks and suffer the associated cuts in public spending. This is post-democratic, especially in the form taken with the Greek and other bank rescues, where political deals have been brokered behind firmly closed doors between banks, governments and the European Central Bank. Citizens of those countries have been entirely excluded from the deal-brokering process and simply informed afterwards “it is the price you have to pay.”

Though portrayed by those involved as Germany and France rescuing the likes of Greece from their mistakes – this is not really the case. They are actually rescuing the German and French banks that lent to irresponsible Greek governments, and did so because they were part of a financial system that banks believed could continue to be irresponsible in perpetuity.

The economic crisis is clearly having a huge impact on Europe, and is doing so at a time when its institutions in the form of the European Parliament are taking one step forward – and one step back. The step forward is that the parliament represents a reaching-out of democracy that goes beyond the nation state; it is the only institution in the world like it. Though it may often be criticised for being weak, the parliament is at least present in a zone that democracy currently does not reach and, as such, should be treasured. The parliament is also a lot more vigorous today, compared to when it was an appointed assembly; it has an agenda, it ventilate issues and it pushes for policies. Admittedly, it usually loses if there is a confrontation with the European Commission, but it is certainly a more vivid institution than before it was elected.

A Europe of mixed messages
The step back is that the parliament is itself a child of post-democracy. It was not created by people fighting to gain access to citizenship, or by popular, grassroots movements demanding a democratic level to run alongside the bureaucratic and elite levels. It was decided at the top and then handed down as a prerequisite for the European project. In that sense, the European Parliament is a pure example of post-democracy: the democratic institution exists but there is not a lot of life in it, and there are a number of reasons for this: one is the extreme reluctance of national politicians to allow that level of democracy to develop, partly because they wish to maintain control of how the European institutions work and partly because they are very reluctant to share with the European Parliament. By contrast, they are very keen to claim their democratic legitimacy in their relations with the other European institutions. But when faced with a given problem, very rarely will politicians tell voters that they intend to “work hard with their European partners” to tackle it. Even if national politicians do subsequently use Europe to find a solution, the overwhelming temptation is to claim the credit on a strictly unilateral basis. And yet, if they communicated a sense of sharing a common fight with other European countries, and a desire to achieve something that is only realisable at a supranational level, I believe that such a rhetoric would create livelier European politics. It would also represent the kind of 2014 electoral campaign that might actually resonate with European citizens. Otherwise, the very real danger is that next year’s elections become far more about people voting to prevent Europe from taking action – and far less about inspiring it to achieve.

Britain and the euro crisis
Britain has provided a striking example of this ability to undermine the role of European institutions in its attitude to the handling of the euro crisis. A charge levelled by British politicians, including the likes of former chancellor Nigel Lawson, is that the Europe Union has been undemocratic in its dealings with southern European countries. However, one reason why European institutions including the parliament have been unable to play a role in this crisis is precisely because of David Cameron’s decision to veto the use of those institutions at the Council of Ministers in December 2011. His decision meant that all the initiatives for the euro zone would have to be developed on an ad-hoc basis, thereby handing the elitists their chance to create a structure suiting their interests. Had the veto not been used, the European Parliament would have been in a position discuss the treatment being meted out to Greece, and a far more European-wide voice could have been heard. Admittedly, the bankers, rather than the European institutions, would still have taken the lead role. But the parliament in Strasbourg would certainly have been more effective.

At another level, Britain’s veto is symptomatic of the fact that post-democracy varies considerably in tone between different countries. The most extreme form of the phenomenon is certainly Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, where a commercial enterprise was able turn itself into a political party and to successfully take power, protecting its leader from a series of investigations by the legal system in the process. That said, there are also major questions to be asked of Italian citizens as to how that could be allowed to happen in the first place and why there was no real opposition. At the other end of the scale, the Netherlands and the smaller countries of northern Europe are still quite lively democracies. Moving eastward, however, it is particularly depressing to witness the speed with which some central European countries have moved from fighting for democracy to becoming post-democracies. Here, the struggle for democracy did not result in political parties with deep roots among citizens, but instead fostered parties whose identities were frequently subject to change and whose governments were desperate to please overseas investors.

The supranational challenges facing Europe
Clearly, Europe faces a number of challenges at national level, according to context. However, there are also a number of pan-European issues that can only be resolved at a supranational level, the first of these being the need for some form of mechanism to re-regulate the global financial system so as to avoid a repeat of 2008. Individual countries cannot do this, but Europe as a whole certainly can – despite the dead weight of the British, who appear to have a different agenda. There is a clear and much-needed opportunity here for the EU to achieve something positive in the sphere of regulation. Secondly, there is an opportunity to reverse the trend in Europe to move social policy from public provision to markets.

This trend is very clearly creating conflict, for example in certain northern European countries, between social protection legislation, collective bargaining systems and trade union rights achieved at a national level and the competition policy being imposed at an European level. As a result, certain governments will again see their role as limiting what Brussels can do, in order to safeguard national achievements. This only serves to make Europe appear more remote from its citizens. In short, there is a need to recapture the original Delors social agenda, running alongside the market agenda, so that people feel they can look to Europe as creator of social policy. History teaches us that moves to extend markets have to be accompanied by social policies to remedy the negative externalities that markets create but cannot resolve. It will be disastrous for the European project if it is associated only with the former, hostile to the latter.

The treat of extremism
Strengthening the social agenda is important for many reasons, not the least of which, in the context of the 2014 elections, is the need to counter the rise of political extremism. The rise is being fuelled by globalisation – to the extent that it is not compensated by social policy, by feelings of economic insecurity and by the ability to identify immigrants and cultural minorities as being to blame. As the 1930s amply demonstrated, it is far more comforting to place blame on relatively defensive minorities, rather than powerful institutions. Indeed, the period between the end of World War II and the start of the 1990s – when two generations of Europeans vowed never to use foreign or ethnic minorities as scapegoats – may ultimately prove to have been a highly unusual episode in our history. The horrors of Nazism do not reach out to people today with anything like their former immediacy or potency, and human society sadly has a long, documented history of persecuting its minorities.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in a context of globalisation, precarious employment and high levels of immigration, these xenophobic, nationalistic movements are beginning to return. Another factor at work here is a fundamental human need to belong, and to have a sense of identity. Since those pertaining to class and religion have declined markedly in recent decades, as we saw earlier, certain social groups feel they only have their national identity left. And whilst that can be expressed by cheering on a football team, it can also mean hating people who do not share that identity. And in a society where identities tend to be muted and where electoral competition between mainstream parties on the economy can be a particularly pallid exercise, stirring up national identities provides its instigators with an extremely powerful weapon. Indeed, such a party need not be economically competent to take and retain power. In past decades, the Ulster Unionist Party’s competence in managing the economy of Northern Ireland was largely irrelevant; what counted for the then majority of the population was simply that it was a Protestant party.

One problem, three solutions
With the 2014 elections on the horizon, Europe appears increasingly to be at a turning point, with post-democracy clearly representing a significant challenge to the European project. However, this does not imply that the project is doomed to failure, or that it is too late for its citizens to seek greater representation. In so many spheres of human activity and not only politics, there is a European level today that simply did not exist before. The European Trade Union Confederation and the European Trade Union Institute, for example, are attempting to develop shared agendas among those they represent. Indeed, the very existence of organisations such as FEPS and the Policy Network shows there is political life outside elite circles at the level of Europe. It may be weak, but it is there and it is important to help it grow. The parliament and its elections are, I believe, a part of that process. However, they are not the only route to reconnecting with European citizens.

My contention is that there are three other ways in which Europe can attempt to meet the challenges of post- democracy: namely through institutional reform, party re-orientation and the social investment welfare state. It would actually be very simple to put more life into European democracy – by having the European Commission chosen by the European Parliament. At a stroke, the Commission would gain in democratic legitimacy, the Parliament would gain significantly in importance and political parties would genuinely produce a European level of operation, rather than being the very loose coalitions we have today. Unfortunately, nation states are highly unlikely to do that – since their appointment of the Commission represents a significant lever of control. Yet until that fundamental change is made, the European Parliament will continue to resemble that of pre-1918 Germany: one that could hold debates and pass laws, but could not install or dismiss the government – which was appointed by the Kaiser. Such is the relationship that currently exists between Strasbourg and Brussels.

Reaching out to the Facebook generation
The second area involves first exploding a popular myth: that the declining membership of traditional parties and trade unions, along with the periodic bouts of low voter turnout, are proof that young people – in particular – are apathetic about political action. Nothing could be further from the truth. The hollowing out of party politics has not created a passive citizenship that just sits around doing nothing. Thanks partly to the Internet, our present period is witnessing a great wealth of campaigns and movements, championing an equally rich variety of causes. Every multinational company now has one campaign or another dogging its tail because of its practices, while tax avoidance by major corporations such as Starbucks and Google is being highlighted today in a way that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

Put simply, citizens are finding other ways of expressing their concerns. The formal party model of Annual General Meetings, congresses and parties presenting themselves for elections may have become somewhat lifeless, but there is very clearly a richness of debate and direct action out there. The question is how can parties connect with that ecosystem and be invigorated by it. The answer lies in a willingness on both sides to engage, though this is easier said than done. Parties are afraid of being associated with movements they cannot control, and a degree of wariness may indeed be healthy. The fear that haunts politicians in these circumstances is of a damaging publicity backlash, triggered by the actions of a group with which they are associated – but over which they can exert no control. By the same token, movements are very suspicious of parties, as they fear being taken over and suffocated. However, the two sides need each other’s resources and the challenge for both, which certainly exceeds the scope of the 2014 elections, is to find a modus vivendi for working together. Both will gain by taking some risks.

The need for change
Though the focus here is very much on the future, there is an important historical point to bear in mind when discussing party politics and the Facebook generation. Political parties have undergone considerable organisational changes during their lifetimes, having often started out as the small creatures of central elites before becoming mass movements in their own right. I would argue that the political parties and trade unions, with their centralised, bureaucratic structures and perceived isolation from their own memberships, belong to a form of society that we are leaving behind us, and have effectively become post-democracies themselves. Plainly, this is not how people who seek affirmative action are engaging today. They are attracted instead by other – often Internet-based – forms of communication. Parties may be very slow to change, but they can and must. Several of the themes we have discussed separately – the need for European institutions to engage with ordinary people, the Commission’s duty to assume its supranational responsibility for moderating the forces of globalisation on behalf of its citizens and the importance of dialogue between movements and parties – are very closely inter-related. European institutions will only square up to the problems produced by multinational capitalism if there is a much stronger citizen input; if public officials and corporate elites are allowed to cosy up to one and other, it provides both sides with a very quiet, pleasant life. It is only when they feel the heat of popular anger about such activities that they are susceptible to change. The anger generated recently in the United Kingdom by the deals struck between the British tax authorities and multinational corporations contrasts sharply with the tranquil relationship that both sides enjoyed when there was no transparency in their affairs.

Improvement through social investment
The final mechanism through which I believe real change can be delivered is through what scholars have been calling the social investment welfare state. Though it will be played out in different forms, a key battleground in the 2014 elections will almost certainly be the debate over whether austerity or expansionism can solve Europe’s economic crisis and get millions of people back to work. However, if the objective is for Europe to achieve high-quality economic performance it needs neither simple austerity nor simple expansionism, but instead a re-orientation of public spending in order to upgrade economies, to increase the skills of workforces, provide a degree of security that enables people to take risks in their working lives, and to improve infrastructures. This presents a tough challenge to those countries, mainly in southern Europe, whose welfare states are undeveloped and excessively devoted to providing rather regressive transfer payments and buying political support. The way in which public resources can be used to improve economies rather than be a drain on them is an issue we face at a national and a European level. Though I doubt whether parties will actually develop an election agenda around that in 2014, I firmly believe they should.


Find all related publications

The Crisis and Force Majeure Regulation: Towards future-proof crisis management and responses?

New Pact Implementation series

Computer in command

Digital Programme: Algorithms at the workplace

The new Screening and Border Procedures: Towards a seamless migration process?

New Pact implementation series

The real effects of Next Generation EU

Recovery Watch Series
Find all related news

FEPS represented at T20 Brasil International Advisory Council


FEPS at UN Civil Society Conference in Kenya


Notice of vacancy – Policy analyst on international relations


FEPS celebrates 20 years of the biggest EU enlargement

Find all related in the media
In the media

Die EU-Osterweiterung nach 20 Jahren: Kann die Konvergenz sozial und wirtschaftlich nachhaltig gestaltet werden?

by Wirtschaftsdienst 13/06/2024
'EU Eastward Enlargement After 20 Years: Socially and Economically Sustainable Convergence?' FEPS Secretary General László Andor co-authored this article of the German journal Wirtschaftsdienst

Flere har en computer som chef: »Det dræber al gejst og motivation«

by Finans 12/06/2024
'Several people have a computer as their boss: "It kills all spirit and motivation" Finans article features FEPS latest policy study and survey 'Computer in command'

Un comisario de democracia para Europa

by Confidencial 11/06/2024
"A Democracy Commissioner for Europe". FEPS President Maria João Rodrigues co-authors this article, advocating for the establishment of a Democracy Commissioner.

A Europa tem de conseguir reinventar as suas alianças

by SÁBADO 07/06/2024
"Europe must be able to reinvent its alliances". FEPS President Maria João Rodrigues discusses with SÁBADO the report she co-authored, 'Europe 2044: Tomorrow is Today'.