Green European Journal

The Unhappy Marriage of Capitalism and Democracy at the Root of Europe’s Crisis

Dolenec, D. i Žitko, M.

In order for the Left to re-articulate growing anti-establishment sentiment in Europe towards emancipatory politics, it must put the future of capitalism squarely on the able and explicitly address the contradiction between further economic integration and the future of democracy in Europe. A first step to achieving this involves reframing the terms of our analysis so that we can fully grasp the scope of the expressions of discontent that we are witnessing.

According to most analyses, Europe is swinging to the right. In a recent standoff, which took place in Austria for the country’s presidential election, the Green candidate, Van der Bellen, beat the Freedom Party’s Hofer by just 31,000 votes among the 4.64 million cast. In a number of Western European countries, far-right parties have surpassed 10% electoral support, while the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria is at 35%, the Swiss People’s Party at 29%, and far-right parties in Denmark and Hungary both stand at 21%. If we add the current Polish and Croatian governments to the mix, with their blend of social conservativism and nationalism, one is indeed inclined to pronounce the rise of illiberal politics in Europe. On top of the already well-documented trend of falling electoral turnout and volatility, dwindling party loyalty and declining trust in political institutions [1], we are observing growing segments of citizens turn to nationalist, xenophobic and authoritarian parties for solutions.

In contrast to mainstream accounts of this trend, which refer to the rise in Islamophobia, growing Euroscepticism or some such statements founded on opinion surveys, we propose a political economic analysis, old style, which collapses the artificial distinction between the economic and political domains in order to make sense of what is happening in Europe today. Doing this requires abandoning the term illiberal democracy, which we understand as a conceptual obstacle to progressive politics. By labelling the current crisis as the rise of illiberal democracy, we are blindfolding ourselves in the search both for explanations and solutions.

The first problem with the concept of illiberal democracy is that it ostensibly refers only to the political domain: democracy as a political regime characterised by free and fair elections, and illiberalism as the catchphrase for the rise of authoritarian, xenophobic and nationalist political platforms. However, even a cursory probe into the concept of liberal democracy (as used, for instance, by the often-quoted Fareed Zakaria [2]) immediately reveals that the liberal component refers to the rule of law, as it pertains not only to the protection of civil liberties, but to property rights and the underlying class politics that this entails. From the onset of liberalism, capitalism and democracy have been posed as contradictory forces, embodied in the fear that when the masses come to rule, this will spell the end of capitalism [3]. The concept of illiberal democracy plays into this age-old liberal fear.

Authoritarian capitalism

The second problem with this concept is that it precludes progressive alternatives to the status quo. While stuck in this liberal-illiberal dichotomy, we are forced to choose between the status quo on the one hand, and worse outcomes on the other. The hegemonic status of economic liberalism is left off the table. A way of grasping this problem is by re-visiting Dani Rodrik’s trilemma, which stipulates that global capitalism, nation-states and democracy are mutually incompatible. The second half of the 20th century witnessed how democracies used national governance frameworks to rein in capitalism. Since then, in a story today everyone knows by heart, global economic integration has become the driving force of social change. If we agree with Rodrik, that means either nation-states or democracy have to give way. Why? Mitigating social and environmental consequences of global capitalism democratically (that is, in the interest of the majority of the world population), requires a global governance system which remains a utopia. We are hence left with the other pair, where global economic integration is implemented through nation-states in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Over time, national governments face narrowing policy scope in taxation, spending, and regulation – eroding their democratic legitimacy and foundations. Isn’t it more accurate then to label the current trend in Europe as the rise of authoritarian capitalism, rather than illiberal democracy?

The bottom line connecting right-wing resurgence across Europe is the political articulation of social demands for protection, a longing for security and belonging.

Most importantly, illiberal democracy is a residual term which bundles together two phenomena that are not inherently related: a rejection of neoliberalism and the rise of right-wing extremism. The reason why these two phenomena are linked today is due to the dramatic failure of the Left to articulate the interests of numerous social groups and individuals who are currently badly losing out. To return to the election in Austria: the outcome reflects a widening class divide, where middle-class, urban elites voted for Van der Bellen, while low-earning rural and working class Austrians backed Hofer. In other words, ever since the 1990s, when it uncritically embraced economic liberalism, the Left ceased to represent the very social groups that it owes its existence to.

The Swiss political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi [4] argues that political realignments in Europe should be attributed to the process of globalisation. Global economic integration, undertaken to facilitate free movement of capital, goods, services and people, brings increased economic competition for jobs and personal opportunities, as well as increased cultural diversification due to immigration. In other words, it creates new articulations of interests and alignments, of proponents and opponents to economic liberalisation. The particular morphology of opponents will vary across national contexts, but generally speaking, individuals and groups who find it harder to adapt to social change because of lack of education, skills or other impediments to mobility will oppose further  economic liberalisation.

As Bauman [5] famously argued, today’s liquid world is inhabited by tourists and vagabonds. The first group is moving through the world, while for the other, much larger group, the world is moving by. Vagabonds are on the move because they have been pushed from behind, uprooted from places that hold no promise, while the tourists stay or move at their hearts’ desire. The group with the right resources – information, networks, knowledge, money – has the whole world at hand, while the group without these resources is switched on and off according to its momentary relevance to global networks of capital and markets.

The crucial problem we are facing today is that this resentment is being articulated by the Right, on various platforms that aim to demarcate communities and provide a sense of security by vilifying the Other – on anti-immigration and Islamophobic programmes in Western Europe; on Eurosceptic, anti-LGBT, socially conservative programmes in Eastern Europe. The bottom line connecting right-wing resurgence across Europe is the political articulation of social demands for protection, a longing for security and belonging. In other words, the abundance of social anger and frustration caused by capitalism, coupled with estranged Left parties that have for decades been articulating elitist platforms designed for tourists rather than vagabonds, help explain the metamorphosis of working class identities into nationalist and xenophobic ones.

The project for the European Left

Once we reframe the problem in terms of resistance to further commodification, rather than resorting to culturalist explanations, it becomes possible to reinterpret the current political conjuncture not as right-wing ascendance, but as a Europe-wide, unequivocal rejection of establishment politics. A 2013 study of global protest concluded that the fundamental grievance expressed today is over the lack of “real democracy” [6]. While we understandably worry about the rise  of nationalism and xenophobia, we should focus on the fact that the phenomenon before our eyes is wide-scale popular rejection of the political establishment. This is evident in the resurgence of popular protest, the growth of new social movements, and a re-articulation of Left politics – as is particularly evident in Greece, Spain and Portugal. It is also evident on the European level in initiatives such as DiEM25, which advocate urgent re-democratisation of the European Union and the taking back of power currently held by the Troika.

However, this anti-establishment sentiment is currently more effectively channelled through right-wing extremism and countering this trend represents the most urgent task for progressive politics in Europe. In order for the Left to re-articulate this energy towards emancipatory politics, it must put the future of capitalism squarely on the table and start explicitly addressing the contradiction between further economic integration and the future of democracy in Europe. In order to do so, it may help to remember that today’s democracies, which we are all devoted to preserving, were the outcome of struggles by workers’ movements and socialist parties for universal suffrage, political, social and economic rights.

Though standard textbooks mark the inclusion of socialist parties in government as the fundamental moment in which democracy took its contemporary form, in the early 21st century we have forgotten this.

Instead of observing how popular anger is articulated into nationalist platforms, the Left must boldly reclaim egalitarian principles. One of the side-effects of the hegemony that liberal democracy holds over our imaginations is a reduction of the concept of egalitarianism to meagre compensatory mechanisms. In stark contrast to that, egalitarianism is an ambitious political project of building communities in which people stand in relations of equality to each other [7], and that project demands simultaneous struggle against class and status injustices [8]. Claims for recognition based on the status of the citizen versus the immigrant form a pressing demand for justice, but Leftist appeals to solidarity fall flat if they fail to address the class divide. Only by addressing the personal opportunities of the vagabonds can we hope to divert the current trend away from authoritarian capitalism and in the direction of a renewal of democracy.

[1] Mair, Peter, 2014, Ruling the Void, London: Verso

[2] Zakaria, Fareed, 1997, ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy’, Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec.)

[3 ]Streeck, Wolfgang, 2011, ‘The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism’, New Left Review, 71 (Sept/Oct)

[4] Kriesi, Hanspeter, et al, 2006, ‘Globalization and the transformation of the national political space: Six European countries compared’, European Journal of Political Research 45: 921–956.

[5] Bauman, Zygmunt 1998, Globalisation. The Human Consequences, Polity Press: Cambridge

[6] Ortiz et al., 2013, ‘World Protests 2006-2013’. Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, New York and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung New York Office

[7 ] Anderson, Elisabeth, 1999, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics, 102, 2.

[8] Fraser, Nancy, 2003, ‘Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition and Participation’. In: N. Fraser, A. Honneth (eds.), Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange. London: Verso.

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