The Rise and Fall of Democracy? Meritocracy?

В категориях: Russian Christian News

Ivan Krastev

Why Modern Elites Have No Legitimacy and Capacity to Govern

Resume: The paradox of the modern world is that democratization of society has ironically led to voters' loss of power and the rise of social inequality while globalization liberated the elites but deprived them of legitimacy and capacity to govern.

Today elected governments run the majority of states in the world. The majority of CEOs of the biggest banks and international corporations are those who are the best and the brightest – the ones who have graduated with merit from the world's leading universities. Today citizens are better educated, better informed, their rights are better protected and they are more empowered to resist the authority of the state than ever before. Both the political and business elites are more diverse than ever in their ethnic, gender, race and class makeup, while being better connected and much more homogeneous with regard to their cultural tastes and ideas about governance. But neither the rise of democracy, nor the rise of meritocrats have eased publics' growing anxiety that "markets aren't working the way they are supposed to, for they are neither efficient, nor stable; that the political system hasn't corrected the market failures; and that the economic and political systems are fundamentally unfair."

So what caused the current crisis? Is it the dysfunctionality of democratic regimes or is it the failure of meritocratic elites?


What was true about monarchy more than a century ago (that "it is an intelligible government [because] the mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other." Walter Bagehot (1867)) is now true of democracy. Democratic ideal reigns uncontested and the will of the people expressed in free and fair elections is accepted to be the only real source of legitimate power. In the 21st century democracy has dispensed with most of its critics but, unfortunately, none of its internal contradictions.

In June 2006 when Robert Fico triumphantly won the vote and formed his government in a coalition with the extreme nationalists of Jan Slota, the Slovak constitutional court announced that a Slovak citizen had pleaded for the court to annul the general election. The claimant insisted that the republic had failed to create a "normal" system of elections and had therefore violated citizens' constitutional right to be governed wisely. In the eyes of the claimant an electoral system that could lead to a motley coalition such as the new Slovak government could not be "normal."

The lone Slovak appellant had a point. The right to be governed wisely can contradict the right to vote. This is what always made liberals nervous about democracy. Indeed, superstitious minds familiar with the work of the influential 19th-century liberal Francois Guizot (1787-1874) might suspect that he had been reincarnated in the figure of the Slovakian citizen who demanded answers from the constitutional court.

It was Guizot and his colleagues, "the doctrinaires," who used all their eloquence to argue that democracy and good governance can coexist only under a regime of limited suffrage. In their view the real sovereign is not the people, but reason. So, voting should be discussed in terms of capacities rather than rights. In the 19th century, capacity was translated as property or education; only those with the right education or enough property could be entrusted with the power to vote. The modern successors of Francois Guizot will find it more complicated to define capacity – almost everybody is at least partially educated and at the same time many people are reluctant to disclose all their property. In these circumstances, the only guarantee that reason will be the sovereign is to introduce an electoral system where everybody can vote but his vote should not necessarily influence all spheres of government. This is exactly what has progressively happened in the EU.

While we all agree that democracy means we should be able to influence decisions which affect us, in reality this is not the case. We are frequently consumers of decisions made by governments we have not elected. In a globalized world we depend more than ever on the decisions of others; those who never were and never will be part of our community. And therefore there is a natural urge to make sure that those others do not make the wrong choices. Truth be told, democracy was never that great at preventing people from making mistakes. However, it was great on an institutional, psychological, and intellectual level at making it easier for people to correct their mistakes. In its essence, a democratic society is a self-correcting society. It allows its citizens to act on the basis of their collective experience and to make sense of this experience. It is not therefore by accident that democratic constitutions are basically nothing but guides of how to avoid the latest catastrophe. When, for example, you read Germany's Basic Law, it is clear that it is a guidebook for ensuring that no future Adolf Hitler can come to power in Germany by democratic means. Thus, the legitimacy and success of democracies do not depend on their capacity to bring prosperity (autocratic regimes can do that just fine), success does not depend on their capacity to make people happy (we know far too many unhappy democracies), but it does depend on their capacity to correct its policies and to formulate common purposes. And it is this major advantage of democracy that is at question today. The central issue is whether it is possible for national democracies to retain their capacity to be self-correcting societies, while being squeezed between the power of the market and the frustration of voters.

In his book The Globalization Paradox, Harvard's economist Dani Rodrik argues that we have three options to manage the tensions between national democracy and the global market. We can restrict democracy in order to gain competitiveness in the international markets. We can limit globalization in the hope of building democratic legitimacy at home. Or we can globalize democracy at the cost of national sovereignty. What we cannot have is hyper-globalization, democracy, and self-determination at once. However, this is exactly what most governments want to have. They want people to have the right to vote, yet they are not ready to allow people to choose "populist policies." They want to be able to reduce labor costs and to ignore social protest, but they do not want to publicly endorse authoritarian "strong hand." They favor free trade and interdependence, but they want to be sure that when it is necessary (in a moment of crisis like the present one), they can return to national control of the economies. So, instead of choosing between sovereign democracy, globalized democracy, or globalization-friendly authoritarianism, political elites try to redefine democracy and sovereignty in order to make the impossible possible. The outcome is democracies without choices, sovereignty without meaning, and globalization without legitimacy.

What was until yesterday a competition between two distinctive forms of government – democracy and authoritarianism – has evolved today into a competition between two different forms of "there is no alternative politics." In democratic Europe, the motto line is that "there is no policy alternative" to austerity and voters can change governments, but they are disempowered to change economic policies. Brussels has constitutionalized many of the macro-economic decisions (budget deficits, levels of public debt), thereby de facto extracting them from electoral politics.

In Russia and China, the recurring line is that "there is no political alternative" to the current leaders. The governing elite is more flexible when it comes to experimenting with different economic policies but what is taken out of the equation is the possibility to challenge those in power. People are not allowed to elect wrong leaders, so elections are either controlled, or rigged, or banned for the sake of 'good governance". The last few years have seen the growing intolerance towards political opposition and dissent in these countries.

So, it is not easy to understand whether our democracies are becoming ungovernable because publics' influence on decision making has dramatically increased or because the voice of citizens has lost its power squeezed between the growing influence of global financial markets and the expansion of the democratic principle of self-government outside of the realm of politics.


Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Bulgaria, and Permanent Fellow at the IWM, Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

Добавьте свой комментарий

Подтвердите, что Вы не бот — выберите человечка с поднятой рукой: