Is democracy a done deal? Is the form of governance prevailing in the West today the most democratic there is ever going to be? We normally think of democracy and dictatorship as a binary question: either a country is a democracy or it is not. Yet this black-and-white conception of democracy has been challenged, for instance by Freedom House’s graded scale or the 2014 Princeton study which argued the US is more accurately described as a civil oligarchy than a democracy per se.[i] To be, or not to be democratic—that isn’t really the question. No, the intelligent question is the extent to which a society manages to include its citizens into the political processes; not whether a society is a democracy, but how democratic it has become.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.
So how do we determine just that? How do we define democracy and how do we measure a society’s degree of democracy?
The mainstream account of democratic governance still goes along the lines of what the political scientist Robert Dahl described in the 1950s and onwards. According to Dahl, democracy shows up as a power balance between different interest groups. Such balance forces the parties into a situation in which the following five criteria must be true (this particular definition is from a 1989 book):[ii]
- Effective participation: Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.
- Voting equality at the decisive stage: Each citizen must be assured their judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.
- Enlightened understanding: Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming which choices best serve their interests.
- Control of the agenda: “The people” must have the opportunity to decide what should be actual political matters and which should be brought up for deliberation.
- Inclusiveness: Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has a legitimate stake within the political process.
It should be noted that all the states commonly held as democratic fail to truly fulfill these ideals, and that it would be more or less impossible to actually do so. Dahl’s definition of democratic governance, despite being rather conventional, serves to illustrate how much democracy is more of an ideal than an actual state of affairs; that democracy remains an impossible goal worth striving towards.
Just like the socialist Eastern Bloc didn’t actually consider their societies communist, but rather saw communism as the end-goal that the “actually existing socialism” was in the process of creating, true democracy remains the unrealized promise of liberal society; the equally distant utopia that the “actually existing liberalism” should be in the process of creating.
Sadly, the idea of democracy as an ongoing process—a fight for equality and liberty that never ends—has waned in favor of the belief we have already reached the end-goal of a fully democratic society. As a result, faith in democracy has eroded in recent years. Without the prospect of further democratization, those who feel disenfranchised in modern society have become more inclined to abandon democracy altogether.
As a remedy, I propose we update democracy; that we abandon the notion of democracy as a done deal and renegotiate its terms—that democracy, as it is currently realized, can only ever be a proto-synthesis; that it, by necessity, remains provisional and always subject to future revision.
I thus believe we have ample reason to challenge the relative self-contentment of the world’s “most democratic” societies by asking how they could become more democratic? Could the governance of societies like Sweden or the US be transformed and improved upon, even beyond what Dahl envisioned? Could there be future, deeper forms of “democracy” which are not only improvements upon the present systems, but genuinely and qualitatively different in clearly preferable ways?
From such an imagined future vantage point, could today’s taken-for-granted state of affairs in contemporary “democratic” societies even be viewed as terribly undemocratic, primitive and oppressive? Are we medieval?
It is often claimed that today’s democracy is under threat; that it is decaying, that it might be losing its grip or otherwise is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.[iii] But such diagnoses can also be understood as a malady of modernity aging, of the modern institutions, founded a century ago or more, having become unable to effectively tackle the complexities of metamodern (postindustrial, transnational, digitized, etc.) society—a society in which the key self-organizational flows occur on a much higher order of complexity.
Thus, we are not only talking about restoring, revitalizing or “saving” democracy, but about fundamentally updating democracy and reimagining its institutions. Hence, we are asking a more radical and dangerous question: How do we reinvent democracy? What kind of democracy comes after democracy?
This is an idea echoed not only in the work of Habermas, but also in the experimental political philosophy of the legal theorist Roberto Unger. Habermas points us towards a deeper form of post-liberal democracy and Unger opens the door to taking an experimental stance towards the democratic institutions—that they can and should be experimented upon under controlled and reasonable forms.
If our present political systems are in a state of relative decay, can they really be mended and saved with the currently adopted tools of democratic governance? Isn’t it more realistic to imagine a path forward towards a democratic system more up to speed with today’s globalized and digitized world? If our democratic institutions are working poorly due to being designed to govern a modern, industrial nation state of yesteryear—doesn’t it make sense to take the issue of updating and reinventing these institutions more seriously?
The fundamental starting point of Democratization Politics is thus a negative: There is simply no conceivable reason to believe our current forms of governance in modern democratic societies would be the only possible and best forms of governance for all posterity. If all other forms of governance have emerged in historical time, have had beginnings and endings, is it really a feasible supposition that liberal parliamentary democracy is an exception?
No, democracy is not a done deal. Why would it be? It is a developmental process like everything else, just one that stabilizes around relatively fixed equilibria (or “local maxima”) because institutional changes require such great investments and create path dependencies. With “path dependency” I mean that, basically, once a society has opted for a certain form of governance, it is very “expensive” and difficult to change the structure.
The fact that liberal democracy has been stably operational for a good while, that is has outcompeted its modern alternatives, such as communism and fascism, and that it remains very difficult to change—even to imagine a credible alternative—can create the illusion that democracy in its current form is “the natural order of things”. But of course, it isn’t.
Luckily there are hacks; there are ways to get around this bottleneck and to open developmental paths that lie beyond liberal democracy.
First of all, a society can expend resources, time and effort in smaller settings to experiment with potentially better forms of governance, e.g. in “experimental zones”, as proposed by Roberto Unger. Secondly, a society can orchestrate a large number of democratic technologies and innovations in governance which seek to enhance democracy incrementally. If enough incremental change has occurred, eventually the system itself will have shifted from one stage to another.
And here’s another way of seeing it: Given the sacred status of democracy, isn’t it strange that no late modern economies are making serious, concerted and patient efforts to develop it and improve upon its quality? By treating democracy as a given, are we not failing to take our own democratic values seriously?
Let’s begin by plunging into this question by identifying a few general historical trends. What does it mean for democracy to develop? How did it emerge, and why? And what were the attractors that brought democracy into being?
I’d like to suggest that there are some deep and sturdy historical patterns which—again—don’t determine where things are going, but certainly hint us towards some long-term attractor points, i.e. the direction towards which things potentially can go.
If democracy is not a binary variable, not a question of either-or, but a developmental matter, a direction—can we then know and recognize its “true north”? Can we know when democracy becomes deeper, retains higher quality, becomes truer to its own principles and ideals?
And if we go far enough in this direction, will democracy inevitably look like “more of the same”, or will there be qualitative shifts from one stage to another that will make democracy look like something completely different, perhaps event warranting a new word? What if liberal parliamentary democracy isn’t “democratic enough” for governing metamodern society?
To traverse the dangerous territory such questions lead us towards, we’d better have a good sense of a “true north” lest we can get lost and end up inventing new forms of oppression, tyranny, or political disintegration and collapse. Let’s look for such a true north.
One undeniable trend is the increasing dispersion of leadership and decision-making. If we go back in history it becomes perfectly clear that pre-modern and early modern monarchical leadership was more concentrated, more arbitrarily wielded and relying more upon the good nature and talent of specific rulers than what is the case in present-day parliamentary democracies. Today, more people partake in decision-making at all levels of society, and wider groups of citizens can be elected.
But even nowadays, the world-system, as a whole, places incredible responsibility and power in e.g. the US President, which must be viewed as a very high-risk strategy for governance. If this one person has significant flaws—as we all do—this leads to great costs for people all around the world. As such, there still remain pockets of irrationally and inefficiently concentrated power in contemporary democracies.
Another undeniable trend has to do with the increased total volume of active decision-making, i.e. the sheer volume of information processed by organs of governance, and the complexity of the processes deliberately shaped by governance.
When viewed as a very long historical trend, it becomes obvious that governance has become “more powerful” over the centuries. Governments simply have much greater capacities to interfere in the lives of citizens than in the past. I have already pointed out that the taxation capacities of modern societies, even while limited in practice due to corruption and the flight of transnational corporate capital, are staggering compared to anything that came before. Strong states levy high taxes, and they penetrate society more thoroughly in a variety of ways. As we have discussed, Foucault pointed out that modern “free” society requires many additional layers of control.
Naturally, it is not that a system with greater total power is more democratic in itself, as it is easy to name totalitarian states with high degrees of organization. But there certainly is a correlation between the quantity of self-organization and the growth of democratic forms of governance around the world. And even if libertarianism is a strong current in many present-day democracies (seeking to minimize state power), even the most libertarian ones in the world today are highly organized by historical standards.
Thus, as democracy has progressed, it has begun to organize greater amounts of money in the public sphere and otherwise regulating exchanges on the market. Money, of course, isn’t a concrete “thing” “the state” can “take” and then “spend”. That would just be a childish way of seeing things. No, money is a measure of people’s coordinated efforts to extract resources from the environment as well as their degree of coordination of agency with one another.
The point, then, is that democratic governance has come to dominate both greater material or natural resources, and it has begun to coordinate more human actions: longer stretches of time of people’s lives (in terms of time, effort and attention), in more minute details, playing parts in more abstract patterns of information, for more abstract shared goals. This means many more decisions must be made, much greater amounts of information organized. Hence, there is a move towards bureaucratization and digitization—anything that can cost-effectively monitor and control larger quantities of more varied (and specialized) human agency.
A third long-term trend is that democracy has evolved more checks and balances against arbitrary uses of power; hence there has been an increased accountability of decision-making.
This one is difficult to spot in recent decades, as democratic development has stagnated and come to a halt. But if we look over the centuries of modern history, the pattern is obvious. There are more laws restricting the use of power, the power of office is decoupled from the office-holder—legally, if not socially—and there are greater demands for transparency and motivation of decisions made. Moreover, there are more institutions —state-run as well as in the media and civil sphere—which actively seek to uncover failures of governments, elected officials, the bureaucracy, the courts and the legal system at large. There is even an increasing number of critical social scientists who spend years laying bare problems in just one sub-section of governance, be it concentration of power in informal networks of elites, shady conflicts of interest, or structural malfunctions that elude casual observers.
These many forms of checks and balances increase the inter-subjective verification of legitimacy, or indeed, the inter-subjective falsification of claims to power. This does not mean that democracy functions by the same premises as does modern science, which also ideally works by inter-subjective verification/falsification—far from—but it suggests a vague, tentative approximation of the scientific ideals.
This, in turn, entails that the self-organization of society gradually begins to rest upon a deeper and more intricate web of verifications and falsifications. And even these verifications and falsifications are themselves subjected to increased scrutiny as more voices join the fray.
We may sometimes nostalgically look back at the times of Athenian democracy, of English coffee houses (17th and 18th centuries), of French salons (18th and 19th centuries), of worker socialist collectives (19th and early 20th centuries), or even the youthful energy of 1968. “Ah, those were the days”, we say, “when people cared, when everyone engaged in the political, in the public, in the civil sphere. Back then, folks were citizens, not merely idle consumers”. But we often forget that these expressions of political enfranchisement only reached small cliques of the overall population: Athenian democracy excluded all women, slaves and non-Athenians; English coffee houses catered to urban well-to-do citizens; French salons were meeting places for the upper bourgeoisie and the radicalized parts of the nobility; more comprehensive worker collectives showed up during key moments and events rather than being a permanent state of affairs; and even in 1968 (with the hopeful, radical students) we must remember that university and college admissions were considerably smaller than today. It is true that there have been beautiful and inspiring nexuses in historical space-time, and it is true that such beauties have waxed and waned —but this should not blind us to the obvious macro-historical process: that checks and balances have increased over time as democracy has grown into its current variety of forms.
This leads us to a fourth long-term directionality; namely that democratic participation has thickened and deepened. Even if the younger generation of today appears to have a lower level of interest in public life (at least conventional politics), and even if many democratic institutions and practices have become subjected to different degrees of market logic (where voters are viewed as “customers” or “clients”), largely due to the impact of the so scorned cultural and political currents of “neoliberalism” and “new public management” in recent decades—it still remains true that today’s citizens have more venues of participation than in the past.
Not only do larger groups of people have greater access to media and more time and resources to inform themselves. People also have more concrete channels of participation: in advisory boards and citizens’ councils, feedback channels for public institutions such as schools and hospitals, direct links by email to elected officials and a higher number of representatives. And then there’s a dramatic increase in the number of interest groups and civil society agents who defend the interests of many groups—from the ethnic minorities to the sports’ clubs to the animal rights activists to the people suffering from sclerosis and, increasingly, metamodern groups (yay!) who seek to enhance the quality of public dialogue, and so on.
Seen as a totality—and if we put the partly negative trend of neoliberal watering-down of public enfranchisement of recent decades into a greater historical context—there can be little doubt that public enfranchisement has increased dramatically. This does not have to mean that more citizens spend their time doing things public and political; it simply means that there are many venues and that many and diverse interests crop up and organize.
Lastly, a fifth long-term trend has to do with the growth of democratic culture and values. Yes, Sweden was indeed a democracy even in the 1920s and the 1950s if we consider its institutions. But in the 1920s, a husband could still legally rape his wife, it was considered inappropriate to speak too openly against religion, people talked to one another differently depending on social status and title, and so forth. Up until the early 1960s, you could beat children, not only at home but also in schools. In short, culture was considerably more authoritarian, less tolerant, less multi-perspectival, less egalitarian and overall less democratic than today. If you go back to the late 1800s the issue becomes even clearer, with a majority of the constituency being against not only women’s suffrage, but also against racial equality, equality of different social classes (or “estates”) and free speech.
Earlier in this book we discussed that values evolve in recognizable patterns as societies develop, and in Book One I mentioned the research of the huge World Values Survey (WVS) which indicates that the Nordic countries have the “most progressive” values in the world. As Christian Welzel, the boss of WVS, notes, it is clear these values play well together with the development and maintenance of democratic institutions. When “progressive” values decrease—for reasons of economic turmoil or otherwise—it often leads to direct attacks on democratic institutions, as has recently been the case in Turkey, Russia and the Philippines.
What I am getting at here is that democracy in itself is not only a matter of institutional frameworks, but also of cultural development where the values, sentiments and behaviors of people can be more or less in line with democratic ideals and their collective democratic functionality.
The recent rise of co-development ideals in the most progressive countries bears witness to this tendency. Co-development is the process of improving the quality of debate, dialogue and deliberation throughout all of society and across the political spectrum. It works from the supposition that we can’t possibly be right about “everything” and hence always need to learn from one another, friend or foe; if nothing else just to see where they’re coming from. This, of course, is a deeper democratic ideal and an early sign of a further deepening of democracy.
All changes of institutional and constitutional frameworks must ultimately rest upon the values and cultural realities of real people. It is within this cultural realm that challenges to the existing equilibrium stage of governance (“liberal democracy”) can grow.
Thus, I have suggested five dimensions of what a deeper democracy may entail:
- increased dispersion of leadership;
- increased volume, complexity and efficiency of information processing;
- increased accountability and balancing of powers, putting greater demands upon the verifiability of decision-making;
- a deepening and thickening of de jure and de facto participation and popular support in processes of decision-making and opinion formation; and
- the growth of democratic, egalitarian and multi-perspectival culture and values.
If you like, you can call these five dimensions a way of increasing the collective intelligence of a given society; a means to “deepen” democratic participation.
In this regard, a deeper democracy is one that lets solutions of higher orders of complexity emerge and gain legitimacy, thereby allowing for more complex forms of society to exist and thrive.
If more real problems are solved, if public support of and consent to decisions are better, if the decision processes run more smoothly, if there are fewer unwanted and unexpected consequences of decisions made—and so on—then we can say that democracy has been developed, that it has been deepened.
These five dimensions give us a kind of “true north” of democratic development, a map that can guide us towards a more democratic democracy. Today’s democratic institutions are better than their historical predecessors not because they in-and-of-themselves are a God-given “correct” form of governance, but simply because they fulfill these five criteria more adequately as compared to earlier forms of governance.
When we “defend democracy”, this can mean two very different things: We can either defend the progression and development of these democratic ideals and their manifestation in society (which is good)—or we may be defending the current, increasingly outdated institutional form of modern “liberal democracy” from the metamodern currents of renewal and refinement. In the latter case, we may think of ourselves as heroic defenders of democracy, but we are in fact waging a war against the core values of democratic development because we mistake the current forms of governance for a sacred entity—for instance, by being overly defensive about “the constitution”. The latter is as enlightened as holding sharia laws to be the only true and God-given way of organizing society. It makes us medieval.
Because democracy in its current form is seldom regarded with a sober and secular gaze, and often as a kind of sacred value-in-itself, the majority of the population may in effect be on the anti-democratic side of the developmental tide—much like when most folks in the past were against women’s suffrage and gay rights. Habits, outdated norms and investments in the status quo all work to uphold social inertia, an immunity to change. In this case, we end up fighting off necessary developments of governance and thus of our collective intelligence. The majority position, then, is that of the false defenders of democracy.
The majority is wrong. Always were. Then again, what else should we expect? The point with democracy isn’t that the majority is always right. The point is that there is a process of free and sufficiently systematized truth-seeking and dialogue going on for small groups to be able to prove the rest of us wrong, again and again, so that values, opinions and laws can evolve and adapt. That’s how democracy works—you can’t “vote” about the truth; the idea is that the truth offers a powerful attractor point so that, in the long run, more truth than falsehood will win out, and that this, on average, will have better consequences.
The true north of democratic development can and will lead us beyond the institutional forms of modern society. We are, of course, still struggling with the taboo of asking such questions, about what might lie beyond liberal democracy (with a capitalist market), because the two major alternatives of the 20th century—communism and fascism—turned out to be such terrible mistakes.
However, this compass could actually help us steer clear of new treats of totalitarianism that may show up in new, seductive, postindustrial, digital-age guises. With a good compass, and with a critical sensitivity towards the directionality of historical development (seeing the stages of development and how these constitute historical attractor points), we may be nearing a point in history in which we are compelled not to take any form of governance for granted—and in which we must begin to dream dangerous dreams of future forms of governance.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i]. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (2014, Princeton).
[ii]. Dahl, R.A., 1983. Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press, p. 221.
[iii]. Francis Fukuyama has claimed that the US system of governance has been in a steady decline for decades due to its outdated system of checks and balances, which he claims has reduced the quality of governance and led the country to become a de facto “vetocracy”, where interest groups and courts (and courts influenced by the former) hinder decisive government action by an effective “veto”, which in turn undermines the legitimacy of the public institutions, which in turn makes governance and taxation more difficult. This vicious cycle may hold great explanatory power in terms of the ailments of today’s US.
Many other contemporary political scientists share the general picture of a US democracy in institutional decay.
Fukuyama, F., 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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