Mark Carrigan, interviewer
It’s been over fifteen years since you first offered your analysis of post-democracy. What is post-democracy and has the UK become more or less post-democratic in that time?
I defined post-democracy as a situation where all the institutions of democracy – elections, changes of government, free debate, rule of law – continue, but they become a charade, because democratic institutions have been surpassed as major decision-making entities by small groups of financial and political elites. I argued, not that we had reached such a situation in most western countries – there is far too much lively politics for that – but that we were on the road towards it. The financial crisis of 2008 was an example of some further steps to post-democracy, as the financial institutions that had created the crisis were able to influence public policy in a way that protected their interests, pushing the burden on to the general public who had been their victims and who had to bail out the banks with public spending cuts. So yes, post-democracy has continued to develop, in the UK and elsewhere.
How can the concept of post-democracy help us understand recent developments within the Labour party? With over half a million members, is it becoming a possible vehicle for mitigating the post-democratic tendency?
Certainly, Corbynism is a response to post-democracy, a desire to wrest the Labour Party away from engagement in the game of elites. But I fear that it is a blind alley. In order to establish a group with sufficient motivation and internal agreement, Corbyn’s followers are – like so many activist groups before them – forced to form an inward-looking clique that finds it difficult to communicate with the rest of society – sometimes even despises the attempt at such communication. The movement becomes a clique around a leader. That does not take us towards more democracy in the society at large.
Following the referendum, many commentators claim that British society is more divided than ever. Could we see this contention as at least potentially heralding the return of substantive politics or do these divisions mark a new stage in the decline towards post-democracy?
The Brexit movement and the other right-wing populist movements that are flourishing elsewhere in Europe, the USA and in other parts of the world are certainly an example of what I meant in Post-Democracy by popular forces that take existing elites by surprise and disturb their cosy circles. But I do not believe that they can strengthen democracy. They depend for their mobilisation and support on the identification of foreigners who need to be excluded, and movements motivated mainly by a desire for exclusion are not good bearers of democratic behaviour. Similarly, by defining their supporters as the ‘real people’ – a mantra often used by Trump, Farage, Le Pen, etc – they define their opponents as not real people – which again does not promise well for democracy.
It seems as if our increasingly post-democratic politics is incapable of generating collective agents able to contribute to a strengthening of democracy as a whole. Would this assessment be too gloomy?
Our politics certainly has great difficulty in generating collective agents, but we should never say ‘incapable’, as that rules out any possibilities. We have recently seen how xenophobia has been able to mobilise large minorities within many countries. There are also many citizens who reject doctrines of hate and intolerance. Can those liberal sentiments, stung to action by witnessing the effects of xenophobia, become in turn a force for mobilisation? The future, not just of democracy, but of a decent civilisation, might depend on the answer to that question.
Colin Crouch is Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick. His most recent book is The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life.
Mark Carrigan is Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review. He is currently writing a book about digital distraction and the challenge it poses for social movements.