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  Путь : Главная / / Ivan Krastev: The Rise and Fall of Democracy? Meritocracy? 

Ivan Krastev: The Rise and Fall of Democracy? Meritocracy?

Ivan Krastev: The Rise and Fall of Democracy? Meritocracy? 26 июня 2013, 17:52 автор: Крастев Иван

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. 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 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?

Is It Democracy, Stupid?

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” (Columbia World of Quotations. Columbia University Press, 1996) is now true for 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 triumphanantly 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 catastrophy. 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 Paradox of Globalization” Harvard’s economist Dani Rodrick (Professor Dani Rodrik, “The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy”, Norton, 2011) 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 competiveness 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/ thus 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”. In the last years in these countries we are witnessing growing intolerance towards political opposition and dissent.

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 makets and the expansion of democratic principle of self-government outside of the realm of politics.

The Market-State/Master-Slave/ Dialectics

Although history is the best argument why democracy and the market go together — most prosperous societies are market democracies — the tensions between the market and democracy are also well known to any scholar of democracy. While democracy treats individuals as equal (every adult has an equal vote), free enterprise empowers individuals on the basis of how much economic value they create and how much property they own. Thus it is fair to expect that the average voter in a democracy will protect the property of the rich only if he believes that this can increase his own chances to become wealthier. If the capitalist system does not enjoy popular support, democracy will not tolerate the inequality produced by the market. The fear that democracy will destroy the functioning of the market is well-spread among those on the right of the political spectrum. At the same time the fear that inequality in wealth, constantly produced by the market, will make a sham out of the democratic process, is a constant complain on the Left. But historically the tensions between democracy and the market were tensions between the national market and the national democracy. In the last three decades the frame of the discussion has dramatically changed.

Silvio Berlusconi’s last act as prime minister of Italy in the fall of 2011 was to drive through a crowd of protesters who were taunting him with “buffoon” and “shame.” The streets outside the presidential palace pulsated with chanting demonstrators waving Italian flags and popping champagne bottles as the 75-year-old media mogul met with Italy’s president to tender his resignation. In one corner, a choir sang “Hallellujah,” accompanied by an impromptu orchestra. In another, celebrants formed a conga line. Cars honked their horns and pedestrians broke into song. It looked frankly like some sort of revolutionary moment. But it was not. The fall of Berlusconi was hardly one more classical triumph of “people’s power.” It was instead a triumph of the power of financial markets. It was not the will of the voters that kicked Berlusconi’s corrupt and ineffective clique out of office. It was the explicit joining of financial markets with the commanding bureaucratic heights in Brussels and the European Central Bank’s leadership in Frankfurt that sent the message “Berlusconi must go.” It was also they who selected Berlusconi’s successor, the former European commissioner technocrat Mario Monti to be Italy’s next prime minister. People on the streets of Rome had every reason to feel simultaneously ecstatic and powerless. Berlusconi was gone, but the voter ceased being the most powerful figure in crisis torn Italy. The public’s celebration of the end of the Berlusconi regime resembled the enthusiasm of Italians upon greeting Napoleon’s victorious army in 1796. The people on the street were not the actors but the spectators of history.

It is still true that in capitalist democracies governments depend on the confidence of voters. But the nature of this dependency has changed. In post-crisis Europe we are witnessing the rise of a strange division of labor between voters and markets when it comes to the work of governments. Voters can decide who will be in government — their votes still “choose” the winning party, while markets decide what will be the economic policy of the government, irrespective of who wins the elections. In the heated debate in Europe today about the future institutional architecture of the Euro-zone, it is clear that the new rules will additionally constrain the ability of voters to influence economic decision-making. Simply put, markets want to be confident that voters will not make foolish decisions. But in the logic of Hegel’s master-slave dialectics weak national democracies are constantly playing tricks with the omnipotent finacial markets, like in the case of Italy where a year after Monti came to power imposed by the markets voters delivered election victory to the protest comedian Bepe Grillo and to...Silvio Berlusconi, because the more policy makers try to deprive the voters of the possibility to make mistakes the more voters are incentivized to vote wild.

When People Vote on Everything

In 1972 the social psychologist Walter Mischel came up with a groundbreaking experiment to understand what explains success in life. The experiment was misleadingly simple. A marshmallow was offered to every child at the Bing Nursery School on the campus of Stanford University. If the child resisted eating the marshmallow for a certain period of time he was promised two instead of one. The objective was to measure how long each child could fight temptation and how that might relate to the child’s future success. Contrary to the dominant view postulating raw intelligence as the single most important predictor of success in life, Mischel’s experiment suggested that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control (The results of the experiment proved him correct). The ability to withstand downing the marshmallow was more important for your success than your IQ test scores. In the end, it was the self-control, stupid!

Mischel’s findings would hardly have surprised Protestant theologians who have long taught that life on earth is nothing more than resistance to eating the marshmallow. The irony, however, is that exactly around the time Mischel demonstrated that success is determined mostly by what “you are not allowing yourself to do,” the Western world was heading in the opposite direction.

The sociologist Daniel Bell wondered whether the total victory of the market might ultimately be more dangerous than the spread of socialist concepts. He feared that when the logic of the market is adopted in other spheres of human activity like politics or culture, capitalism could turn out to be self-destructive.

Is this logic not at work in today’s crisis of governability? “Markets are voting machines,” Citibank’s Walter Wriston once said, “they function by taking referenda.” Is it not true that the expansion of the democratic principle of self-governance through the popular vote outside the political sphere— the fact that today we vote on nearly everything in practice contributed to the de-legitimation of the institutions of representative democracy and the erosion of the quality of governance?

Today we vote practically on everything - on the best song, on the worst movie, on the most professional dentist. For the younger generation, the experience with democracy is not necessarily through the prism of politics. Democracy can be said to be omnipresent. Football, for example, is becoming increasingly democratized. In 2008, the third division team Ebbsfleet took a major step towards football democracy: for a modest fee of 35 pounds, fans were offered the right to manage the team themselves by voting in real time on the internet regarding all important issues. These ranged from the transfer of players and the management of the budget to the design of souvenirs in the team store. 32 000 supporters from 122 countries joined what has been called “the ultimate football fantasy.” People were empowered to “directly” run football teams at the same moment when they started losing their power to influence government policy. The problem is that this unstoppable spread of democracy has both destroyed the borders between the different spheres of human activity - those which should be run by vote and those which should be run by professional competence, and at the same time de-legitimized the popular elected democratic institutions.

A decade ago the British polling agency YouGov made a comparative study between a group of political junkies and a similar cohort of young people who actively participated in the Big Brother reality show. The distressing discovery of the study was that British citizens felt better represented in the Big Brother House. It was easier for them to identify themselves with the characters and ideas discussed there. They found it more open, transparent and representative of people like them. Reality show formats made them feel empowered in the way that democratic elections were supposed to make them feel, but failed to do so. The logical consequences of such attitudes are on one hand - the secular trend of decline of electoral turnout in most Western democracies, and on the other hand - the tendency where people least likely to vote are the poor, unemployed, and the youth, in short those who in theory should be most interested in using the political system to change their lot.

So, the paradoxical outcome of the expansion of democratic principle of self-governance outside of the political realm is that now that we vote on everything, the political power of the voter has declined.

Is It the Elites, Stupid?

Why meritocratic elites are resented so much is the other key question that we had to answer. “Meritocracy”- wrote Ralf Dahrendorf - is a word that sounds nothing but good. It means rule by those who have merit - the most talented and the best educated. Who would not wish to live in meritocracy? It is certainly preferable to plutocracy, in which wealth determines status, or a gerontocracy, in which age leads one to the top, or even an aristocracy, in which what counts are inherited titles and properties.” Plato’s philosophers were probably some of the earlier Meritocrats we know who claimed power on the base of knowledge and competence. The complexity of the world around us made it rational to expect that people would choose to be run by the best educated and the most competent. It was as if complexity will naturally ask for meritocracy. It turned out that everything is much more complex than this. The legitimacy of the experts and professionals was among the early casualties of the rise of complexity. The social costs of meritocratic principle also turned to be less benevolent. Strangely enough the very term “meritocracy” was not coined in an ancient tract on good government but it was on the title of an anti-utopian writing of British sociologist Michael Yong published in the middle of the last century. In Young’s imagination meritocratic society is not a dream but a nightmare. It is a society of huge income inequalities where citizens have lost their sense of political community, where democracy is a sham and where the promise of social mobility is replaced by self-protecting elites, who are in the business of excluding others. Many of Young’s apocalyptic predictions are today’s reality. The rise of meritocratic principle means that today we are wealthier but more unequal than 30 or 40 years ago. By 2007, the year before the crisis the top 0.1 percent of American households had an income which was 220 times larger than the average of the bottom 90 percent. In 2011, twenty percent of the US population own 84 percent of the total wealth. And it is not only in the US. Globalization has led to the decline of inequality between states but it has increased almost everywhere the inequality within nations. That inequality has been rising faster in egalitarian Germany in the last decade than in most of the advanced capitalist countries. And this growth in income inequality is accompanied by a decline of social mobility. In reality inequality persists. Data shows that poor kids who have been academically successful are less likely to graduate from college than richer kids who did worse in school. And even if they graduate from college, the children of the poor are still worse-off than low-achieving children of the rich. In short, education really pays back handsomely but it functions like a privilege rather than as a social lift.

For many years France and Japan have been epitomes for democracies being run by meritocratic elites. But the failure of those two societies to meet the challenge of global competition is yet another argument to challenge the advantages of a society run by its best educated members. Very often meritocrats’ competence, deprived of real life experience, has led to policy failure. And while many are quick to attribute the success of communist China to its meritocracy-centered philosophy of governing, the truth is that in the case of China meritocracy is very often the language in which decisions are being justified and not necessarily the criteria on which the best decisions are taken. In this sense it is quite indicative that neither in Russia, nor in China the career success of governors follows the economic performance of their respective regions. This does not mean that education and experience are not important in China. It simply demonstrates that patronage is more important. It is interesting to point out that out of the 250 members of provincial Communist party standing committees, an elite group including party chiefs and governors, 60 claim to have earned PhDs /a highly impressive percentage/, but it should be noted that fifty out of these sixty have earned their degrees while being senior officials. It means that having a PhD diploma increases your career chances in China but being in the higher echelons increases by far more your chances to end up as a PhD graduate.

Both rising wealth disparity and resentment towards the elites are particularly visible in the post-communist world. Many Central Europeans today believe that it was not the people but the former elites who broke free and collected the jackpot of the end of the Cold War. They are confident that democracy set in motion a process which liberated ex-communist elites from their fear (of purges), from guilt (for being rich), from former ideology, from the chains of community, from national loyalties, and even from the necessity to govern. It is fair to assert that in many East European countries post-communist elites are more resented than their communist predecessors. So why are communist elites from the past perceived today as less vile than post-communist elites? One reason is that while communist elites were brutal, they were also accessible — they were obliged to mix and mingle with ordinary people. It was an ideological imperative and a pre-condition of the party’s control over society. But it was also an unavoidable reality imposed by shortages and organized around informal arrangements, exchanges of services, black market deals, party contacts and connections by which people used to get along or ahead.

Twenty years ago, even a member of the elite had to befriend his greengrocer if he wanted fresh fruit. He had to return a favor if the greengrocer asked him. In the perverse world of the shortage economy, the greengrocer decided who would get what. He was powerless and powerful at the same time. But, while the greengrocer benefited from the corruption of the communist system, he became the victim of post-communist corruption. The revolutions of 1989 gave him the freedom to talk, to travel, to vote, to consume. But he lost his limited, but not insignificant, leverage over the elites. The power of the ballot is more abstract than the tangible influence he derived from his connections. Now there is no need for anybody to befriend the greengrocer to get fresh fruit. He cannot ask for favors from powerful customers. And he has no contact with the political class — the modern politician talks to the voters through television and listens through opinion polls.

John Rawls spoke for many liberals when he argued that being a loser in a meritocratic society is not as painful as being a loser in an openly unjust society. In his conception the fairness of the game will reconcile people with failure. But liberals are not always the best psychologists and experts on the inner life of losers. In reality it is much more painful to be a loser in a society where you are constantly forced to own your failure, than in a society where everybody knew that it was probably the system that failed you.

In short, in our interdependent world the elites are less dependent on their co-citizens. Traditional aristocratic elites had their duties and were raised to perform them. The fact that generations of their forebears who looked upon them from portraits on the walls of their castles had performed these duties before meant they took them seriously. In Britain, for example, the proportion of upper class boys who died in the First World War was greater than the proportion of the lower classes. But the new elites do not know from sacrifice. Their children didn’t die in any war. The nature and convertibility of the new elites make them practically independent from the pressure of the state. They are not dependent on their country’s education system (their children go to private schools) or the national health service (they can afford better hospitals). They have lost the ability to share the passions of their community. People experience this independence of the elites as a loss of citizen power.

What makes the current elites unacceptable is exactly their convertability and self-perception of making money the “right way,” so that they don’t owe anything to anybody and belong to nowhere. Thus being free is the elite’s blessing and its curse. It makes them able to avoid the pressure of the local contests but it dooms them to illegitimacy. The best example is the particular resentment towards finacial elites. The landlord cannot take his land with him and the old industrialist cannot escape with his factory. The financier can do it quite easily. Such elites are self-confident because they are mobile and they do not see themselves as a part of community. The relations between people and their meritocratic elites have started to resemble the relations between modern football clubs and their fans. The best clubs spend incredible amounts of money to get the best players and to please their fans. The problem is that nothing but unwavering success can guarantee their loyalty because nothing else connects the players and their fans. They are not from the same neighborhood. They do not have common friends. Most of the players in leading football teams are not even from the same country. The fans are ready to acclaim their clubs when they win but will not hang with them when they start losing. The meritocratic elite is a mercenary elite. Its members do not belong to the community but they want to be respected, admired, and even loved. The way the new global elites present themselves resembles the way Marx depicted the proletariat in his “Communist Manifesto” — they are the productive force of society; their fatherland is the world and the future belongs to them. So, it is not only President Putin but also many of the protest movements that have emerged in Europe in the last years that dream of nationalizing the elites. It is the missing sense of community and kinship that makes elites so despised.

The paradox of the illegitimacy of meritocratic elites attests to the fact that true power comes not from elite independence from society but rather from its dependence. You trust your leaders not only because of their competence but also because of your belief that they will stay with you in the boat in times of crisis rather than run to the emergency exit. It is the convertible competence of the present elites, the fact that they are equally well fit to run a bank in Bulgaria and in Bangladesh which makes people so suspicious to them. Because people rightly fear that in time of trouble meritocrats will decide to leave instead of sharing the cost of the crisis. In people’s view the fact that elites have “privatized” the social “emergency exit” makes this social strata not only less legitimate but also far less powerful.

“Elena,” the prize-winning movie of the Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev illustrates superbly the dynamics of the relationship between elites and the masses in a fragmented society. The movie has a simple plot. It is a story of a couple. Elena is a sixty-something woman married to a rich self-made (and already retired) businessman. Over the course of the film it becomes clear that her husband is what we would call today a “1 percent” man who has met his “99 percent” nurse wife in the hospital after recovering from a heart attack. You would not call their relationship one of love. They sleep in separate rooms, take breakfast separately, and watch their respective television programs on different TVs. She takes care of him, but in her spare time looks after the family of her son, a dissolute loser living in a rundown tenement in the city’s outskirts. When the 1 percent husband refuses to pay for the college education of Elena’s grandson /becauase he does not deserve it/ and thus to help him avoid joining the army Elena makes her decision — she distributes Viagra among the medicines of her husband which is fatal for him. The family of her son moves in with her to the dead man’s upscale Moscow apartment. This is then a 21st century allegory of the class war in a meritocratic age: no strikes, no revolutions, just angry nurse-wife and death by Viagra.

The Exit

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. While until 1970s the spread of democracy has been making societies less unequal, the rise of democracy today /contra Tocqueville/ is accompanied by the rise of income inequality. John Dunn argues convincingly that it is the divorce between the ideal of egalitarian society and the ideal of democracy that explains the global appeal of democracy today. It was the happy discovery that elections today hold few terrors for the rich , and promise at least some benefits to practically everyone that makes democracy triumphant. And while meritocracy is the way to justify the growing social inequality /income gap is due to technological changes/, it is democracy that makes the unequal regimes politically possible.

So, reflecting on the strange relationship nowadays between democracy and meritocracy we can come up with some preliminary conclusions. It is fair to acknowledge that today’s world is made by the joint efforts of the democratic principle and the meritocratic principle. So, the current crisis of governability will be solved by neither more public participation alone, nor by more technocracy and shifting decisions to competent bureaucrats. Furthermore even the better mix between democracy and meritocracy would be of little help. What is crucial right now is redefining the very meaning of politics in a globalized world, because what makes societies governable is the existence of a shared purpose and at least minimum social cohesion.

In the Cold War years in order to keep the border with communism closed, Western democracies kept the borders between social classes open. In the days of sustained national democracies, the citizen voter was powerful because he was at the same time a citizen-soldier, citizen-worker, and citizen-consumer. The property of the rich depended on the readiness of the workers to defend the capitalist order. The citizen-voter was important because the defense of the country depended on his courage to stand against the enemies. He was important because his work was making the country rich. And he mattered because his consumption was driving the economy. In order to understand why today citizens throughout the West cannot easily control politicians by democratic means, we need to look at the way in which various extra-electoral forms of dependence of politicians on citizens have been eroded. When drones and professional armies replace the citizen-soldier, one of the major motives of the elite’s interest in public welfare is substantially weakened. The flooding of the labor market by low cost immigrants as well as the outsourced production have also reduced elites’ willingness to cooperate. The fact that over the course of the recent economic crisis, it became evident that the performance of the U.S. stock market no longer depended on the consumer power of the Americans is one more argument why citizens are losing their leverage over the ruling groups. It is the decline of the leverage of the citizen-soldier, citizen-consumer, and the citizen-worker that explains voters’ loss of power but also the growing ungovernability of modern democracies.

The paradox of current democratic condition is best captured in the observation of Stephen Holmes, law professor at New York University, who notes that the critical question now is: "How is it possible to have elites that are legitimate globally and locally at the same time?"

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