There is no alternative

Governments now answer to business, not voters. Mainstream parties grow ever harder to distinguish. Is democracy dead?

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A child waits for her mother at a polling station in Rome, 24 February, 2013. Photo by Yara Nardi/Reuters

A child waits for her mother at a polling station in Rome, 24 February, 2013. Photo by Yara Nardi/Reuters

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. His latest book is The Political Economy of Trust (2009).

Last September, Il Partito Democratico, the Italian Democratic Party, asked me to talk about politics and the internet at its summer school in Cortona. Political summer schools are usually pleasant — Cortona is a medieval Tuscan hill town with excellent restaurants — and unexciting. Academics and public intellectuals give talks organised loosely around a theme; in this case, the challenges of ‘communication and democracy’. Young party activists politely listen to our speeches while they wait to do the real business of politics, between sessions and at the evening meals.

This year was different. The Italian Democratic Party, which dominates the country’s left-of-centre politics, knew that it was in trouble. A flamboyant blogger and former comedian named Beppe Grillo had turned his celebrity into an online political force, Il Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement), which promised to do well in the national elections. The new party didn’t have any coherent plan beyond sweeping out Old Corruption, but that was enough to bring out the crowds. The Five Star Movement was particularly good at attracting young idealists, the kind of voters who might have been Democrats a decade before.

Worries about this threat spilt over into the summer school. The relationship between communication and democracy suddenly had urgent political implications. The Democratic Party had spent two decades suffering under the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s stranglehold on traditional media. Now it found itself challenged on the left too, by internet-fuelled populists who seemed to be sucking attention and energy away from it.

When Bersani started talking, he gave a speech that came strikingly close to a counsel of despair

The keynote speaker at the summer school, the Democratic Party leader and prospective prime minister Pier Luigi Bersani, was in a particularly awkward position. Matteo Renzi, the ‘reformist’ mayor of Florence, had recently challenged Bersani’s leadership, promising the kind of dynamism that would appeal to younger voters. If Bersani wanted to stay on as party leader, he had to win an open primary. The summer school gave him a chance to speak to the activists in training, and try to show that he was still relevant.

I was one of two speakers warming up the crowd for Bersani. The party members and reporters endured us patiently enough as they waited for the real event. However, when Bersani started talking, he gave a speech that came strikingly close to a counsel of despair. He told his audience that representative democracy, European representative democracy in particular, was in crisis. Once, it had offered the world a model for reconciling economy and society. Now it could no longer provide the concrete benefits — jobs, rights, and environmental protection — that people wanted. In Italy, Berlusconi and his allies had systematically delegitimized government and undermined public life. The relationship between politics and society was broken.

Bersani knew what he didn’t want — radical political change. Any reforms would have to be rooted in traditional solidarities. But he didn’t know what he did want either, or if he did, he wasn’t able to describe it. His speech was an attack, swathed in the usual billowing abstractions of Italian political rhetoric, on the purported radicalism of both his internal party opponent and the Five Star Movement. He didn’t really have a programme of his own. He could promise his party nothing except hard challenges and uncertain outcomes.

Why do social democrats such as Bersani find it so hard to figure out what to do? It isn’t just the Italians who are in trouble. Social democrats in other countries are also in retreat. In France, Francoise Hollande’s government has offered many things: a slight softening of austerity (France’s deficit this year will be somewhat higher than the European Commission would like); occasional outbursts of anti-business rhetoric (usually swiftly contradicted by follow-up statements); higher taxes on the very rich (to be rolled back as soon as possible). What it has not offered is anything approaching a coherent programme for change.

Germany’s Social Democrats are suffering, too. The Christian Democrat-led government can get away with austerity measures as long as it convinces voters that it will do a better job of keeping their money safe from the Spaniards, Italians and Greeks. And the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for Chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, is not well placed to object. In 2009 he helped introduce a constitutional measure to limit government spending, hoping that this would make his party look more responsible. He now appears like a weaker, less resolute version of his opponent, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and has 32 per cent job approval.

Greece’s mainstream socialist party, Pasok, won only 12.3 per cent of the vote in the election in June last year. Spain’s social democrats are perhaps in even greater disarray than the conservative government. Ireland’s Labour Party, a junior party in the current government, saw its vote collapse from 21 per cent to 4.6 per cent in a by-election in March.

Where they are in opposition, European social democrats don’t know what to offer voters. Where they are in power, they don’t know how to use it. Even in the United States, which has never had a social democratic party with national appeal, the Democrats have gradually changed from a party that belonged ambiguously to the left to one that spans the limited gamut between the ever-so-slightly-left-of-centre and the centre-right. It, too, has had enormous difficulty in spelling out a new agenda, because of internal divisions as well as entrenched hostility from the Republican Party.

This isn’t what was supposed to happen. In the 1990s and the 2000s, right-wing parties were the enthusiasts of the market, pushing for the deregulation of banks, the privatisation of core state functions and the whittling away of social protections. All of these now look to have been very bad ideas. The economic crisis should really have discredited the right, not the left. So why is it the left that is paralysed?

Colin Crouch’s disquieting little book, Post-Democracy (2005), provides one plausible answer. Crouch is a British academic who spent several years teaching at the European University Institute in Florence, where he was my academic supervisor. His book has been well read in the UK, but in continental Europe its impact has been much more remarkable. Though he was not at the Cortona summer school in person, his ideas were omnipresent. Speaker after speaker grappled with the challenge that his book threw down. The fear that he was right, that there was no palatable exit from our situation, hung over the conference like a dusty pall.

Crouch sees the history of democracy as an arc. In the beginning, ordinary people were excluded from decision-making. During the 20th century, they became increasingly able to determine their collective fate through the electoral process, building mass parties that could represent their interests in government. Prosperity and the contentment of working people went hand in hand. Business recognised limits to its power and answered to democratically legitimated government. Markets were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.

The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further

At some point shortly after the end of the Second World War, democracy reached its apex in countries such as Britain and the US. According to Crouch, it has been declining ever since. Places such as Italy had more ambiguous histories of rise and decline, while others still, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, began the ascent much later, having only emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s. Nevertheless, all of these countries have reached the downward slope of the arc. The formal structures of democracy remain intact. People still vote. Political parties vie with each other in elections, and circulate in and out of government. Yet these acts of apparent choice have had their meaning hollowed out. The real decisions are taken elsewhere. We have become squatters in the ruins of the great democratic societies of the past.

Crouch lays some blame for this at the feet of the usual suspects. As markets globalise, businesses grow more powerful (they can relocate their activities, or threaten to relocate) and governments are weakened. Yet the real lessons of his book are about more particular forms of disconnection.

Neo-liberalism, which was supposed to replace grubby politics with efficient, market-based competition, has led not to the triumph of the free market but to the birth of new and horrid chimeras. The traditional firm, based on stable relations between employer, workers and customers, has spun itself out into a complicated and ever-shifting network of supply relationships and contractual forms. The owners remain the same but their relationship to their employees and customers is very different. For one thing, they cannot easily be held to account. As the American labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others have shown, US firms have systematically divested themselves of inconvenient pension obligations to their employees, by farming them out to subsidiaries and spin-offs. Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers died in a Bangladesh factory fire in November last year. Amazon uses subcontractors to employ warehouse employees in what can be unsafe and miserable working conditions, while minimising damage to its own brand.

Instead of clamping down on such abuses, the state has actually tried to ape these more flexible and apparently more efficient arrangements, either by putting many of its core activities out to private tender through complex contracting arrangements or by requiring its internal units to behave as if they were competing firms. As one looks from business to state and from state to business again, it is increasingly difficult to say which is which. The result is a complex web of relationships that are subject neither to market discipline nor democratic control. Businesses become entangled with the state as both customer and as regulator. States grow increasingly reliant on business, to the point where they no longer know what to do without its advice. Responsibility and accountability evanesce into an endlessly proliferating maze of contracts and subcontracts. As Crouch describes it, government is no more responsible for the delivery of services than Nike is for making the shoes that it brands. The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further.

Politicians, meanwhile, have floated away, drifting beyond the reach of the parties that nominally chose them and the voters who elected them. They simply don’t need us as much as they used to. These days, it is far easier to ask business for money and expertise in exchange for political favours than to figure out the needs of a voting public that is increasingly fragmented and difficult to understand anyway. Both the traditional right, which always had strong connections to business, and the new left, which has woven new ties in a hurry, now rely on the private sector more than on voters or party activists. As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another, elections become exercises in branding rather than substantive choice.

Crouch was writing Post-Democracy 10 years ago, when most people thought that things were going quite well. As long as the economy kept delivering jobs and growth, voters didn’t seem to mind about the hollowing out of democracy. Left-of-centre parties weren’t worried either: they responded to the new incentives by trying to articulate a ‘Third Way’ of market-like initiatives that could deliver broad social benefits. Crouch's lessons have only really come home in the wake of the economic crisis.

The problem that the centre-left now faces is not that it wants to make difficult or unpopular choices. It is that no real choices remain. It is lost in the maze, able neither to reach out to its traditional bases of support (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose any grand new initiatives, the state no longer having the tools to implement them. When the important decisions are all made outside of democratic politics, the centre-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.

Most left-wing parties face some version of these dilemmas. Cronyism is less a problem than an institution in the US, where decision-makers relentlessly circulate between Wall Street, K Street, and the Senate and Congress. Yet Europe has some particular bugbears of its own. Even if national political systems were by some miracle to regain their old responsiveness, the power of decision has moved to the European Union, which is dominated by a toxic combination of economic realpolitik and bureaucratic self-interest. Rich northern states are unwilling to help their southern neighbours more than is absolutely necessary; instead they press for greater austerity. The European Central Bank, which was deliberately designed to be free of democratic oversight, is becoming ever more important, and ever more political. Social democrats once looked to the EU as a bulwark against globalisation — perhaps even a model for how the international economy might be subjected to democratic control. Instead, it is turning out to be a vector of corrosion, demanding that weaker member states implement drastic economic reforms without even a pretence of consultation.

Let’s return to Italy, the laboratory of post-democracy’s most grotesque manifestations. Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s elaborate simulacrum of a political party, is a perfect exemplar of Crouch’s thesis: a thin shell of branding and mass mobilisation, with a dense core of business and political elites floating free in the vacuum within.

After the Cortona summer school, Bersani won his fight with Renzi in November last year and led his party into the general election. His coalition lost 3.5 million votes but still won the lower house in February, because the Italian electoral system gives a massive bonus to the biggest winner. It fell far short of a majority in the upper house and is doing its hapless best to form a government. Grillo’s Five Star Movement, on the other hand, did far better than anyone expected, winning a quarter of the votes. Grillo has made it clear that his party will not support the Democratic Party. Renzi has tried to advance himself again as a compromise leader who might be more acceptable to Grillo, so far without success. In all likelihood there will be a second general election in a few months.

‘We die if a movement becomes a party. Our problem is to remain a movement in parliament, which is a structure for parties. We have to keep a foot outside’

The Italian Democratic Party is caught on one tine of the post-democratic dilemma. It is trying to work within the system as it is, in the implausible hope that it can produce real change within a framework that almost seems designed to prevent such a thing. As the party has courted Grillo, it has started making noises about refusing to accept austerity politics and introducing major institutional reforms. It is unclear whether senior Democratic figures believe their new rhetoric; certainly no one else does. If the party does somehow come to power, the most it will do is tinker with the system.

The Five Star Movement has impaled itself on the other tine, as have the Indignados in Spain, Occupy in the US and UK, and the tent movement in Israel. All have gained mass support because of the problems of post-democracy. The divide between ordinary people and politicians has grown ever wider, and Italian politicians are often corrupt as well as remote. The Five Star Movement wants to reform Italy’s institutions to make them truly democratic. Yet it, too, is trapped by the system. As Grillo told the Financial Times in October: ‘We die if a movement becomes a party. Our problem is to remain a movement in parliament, which is a structure for parties. We have to keep a foot outside.’

The truth is, if the Five Star Movement wants to get its proposals for radical change through the complex Italian political system, it will need to compromise, just as other parties do. Grillo’s unwillingness even to entertain discussions with other parties that share his agenda is creating fissures within his movement. Grillo is holding out for a more radical transformation, in which Italian politics would be replaced by new forms of internet-based ‘collective intelligence’, allowing people to come together to solve problems without ugly partisan bargaining. In order to save democracy, the Five Star Movement would like to leave politics behind. It won’t work.

The problems of the Italian left are mirrored in other countries. The British Labour Party finds itself in difficulty, wavering between a Blairite Third Wayism that offers no clear alternative to the present government, and a more full-blooded social democracy that it cannot readily define. The French left has mired itself in scandal and confusion. The Greek left is divided between a social democratic party that is more profoundly compromised than its Italian equivalent and a loose coalition of radicals that wants to do anything and everything except find itself in power and be forced to take decisions.

All are embroiled, in different ways, in the perplexities of post-democracy. None has any very good way out. Ever since France’s president François Mitterrand tried to pursue an expansive social democratic agenda in the early 1980s and was brutally punished by international markets, it has been clear that social democracy will require either a partial withdrawal from the international economy, with all the costs that this entails, or a radical transformation of how the international economy works.

It is striking that the right is not hampered to nearly the same extent. Many mainstream conservatives are committed to democracy for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons. They are quite content to see it watered down so long as markets work and social stability is maintained. Those on the further reaches of the right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, find it much easier than the Five Star Movement or Syriza, the Greek radical-left coalition, to think about alternatives. After all, they aren’t particularly interested in reforming moribund democratic institutions to make them better and more responsive; they just want to replace them with some version of militaristic fascism. Even if these factions are unlikely to succeed, they can still pull their countries in less democratic directions, by excluding weaker groups from political protection. The next 10 years are unlikely to be comfortable for immigrants in southern Europe.

Post-democracy is strangling the old parties of the left. They have run out of options. Perhaps all that traditional social democracy can do, to adapt a grim joke made by Crouch in a different context, is to serve as a pall-bearer at its own funeral. In contrast, a new group of actors — the Five Star Movement and other confederations of the angry, young and dispossessed — have seized a chance to win mass support. The problem is, they seem unable to turn mass frustration into the power to change things, to create a path for escape.

Perhaps, over time, they will figure out how to engage with the mundane task of slow drilling through hard boards that is everyday politics. Perhaps, too, the systems of unrule governing the world economy, gravely weakened as they are, will fail and collapse of their own accord, opening the space for a new and very different dispensation. Great changes seem unlikely until they happen; only in retrospect do they look inevitable. Yet if some reversal in the order of things is waiting to unfold, it is not apparent to us now. Post-democracy has trapped the left between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. We may be here for some time.

Read more essays on politics and government

Comments

  • kidmugsy

    "Why do social democrats such as Bersani find it so hard to figure out what to do?" Social Democrat? The bugger's a communist.

    • LordOrlock

      Believing he is a communist is naive as thinking the Democratic Republic of (North) Korea is democratic! Like the 'socialist'-but-actually-social-democrat Francois Hollande of France, Bersani is just a hollow Social Democrat politician with no ideas separating himself from the right besides empty rhetoric. At least Berlusconi is funny: Bersani is just bloody pathetic.

  • Julianemre

    The rise of UKIP, to the right of the UK spectrum, is certainly providing the Tory Party a greater headache than anything the Labour Party is faced with on the Left.

    The post-democracy you describe does not only have adverse consequences for progressives; we simply perceive these problems in a context of how they will effect the causes held dear to us. The Right will no doubt be doing the same thing, only the causes will be different, and largely invisible to those on the Left.

    Even the old ideas of Left and Right hamstring the debate; they provide us with a necessary framework for comprehension, and yet simultaneously locate the debate inside ideologies that no longer exist. These terms correspond to touchstones that allow us a sense of the familiar, in a politics that becomes increasingly alien.

    • so1on

      Well put

  • Lester

    Well, yeah.

    Politics is the application of power. Neo-liberal power merchants purposely created the illusion of a post-political economically driven growth paradise. In reality it was always about siphoning power away from democratic institutions.

    That's because Capital is naturally anti-democratic and neo-liberalism is Capitals politik.

    Whenever economies are propped-up by consumerism making real choices in terms of where one may or may not want to direct public life is severely limited to the growth prerogative.

    Currently we are simply in a place where the majority of universities and public institutions are peopled by the Neo-Lib generations whilst concurrently public levers have been dismantled.

    That doesn't mean the power struggle has ended. It just means that for the last forty years the class war has been well and truly won by Capital.

    What will come of it? A new politics based on community, ecology and sustainability where people are the driving force and where the economy works for people and not vice versa.

    It's either that or we will all perish.

    That usually focuses peoples minds.

    • Jeff Blanks

      Well, not all of us will perish. The well-connected will apparently keep themselves afloat and let the *rest* perish--that is, if those who aren't so well connected just roll over (which probably won't be the case if it ever comes to that).

  • Barry_D

    This is a frightening article.

  • drokhole

    "Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers died in a Bangladesh factory fire in November last year. Amazon uses subcontractors to employ warehouse employees in what can be unsafe and miserable working conditions, while minimising damage to its own brand."

    And, right on cue:

    Frantic search for survivors after Dhaka building collapse
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22289362#TWEET734440

    A search for survivors is continuing at a building which collapsed in a suburb of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, killing at least 200 people.

    And:

    Owner forced workers into doomed factory
    http://www.theage.com.au/world/owner-forced-workers-into-doomed-factory-20130425-2igyo.html

    "None of us wanted to go in. The bosses came after us with beating sticks. In the end we were forced to go in."

    According to Matthew Yglesias from Slate, 'That's OK!!!":

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/04/24/international_factory_safety.html

    Neo-liberalism at its finest.

  • http://twitter.com/LibbydeQ Libby Robin

    This is Italy, but it might as well have been Australia. Is this what globalization means?

  • http://ThePublicProfessor.com The Public Professor

    Sadly, I find most Americans very hostile to such a message. At a very large rate they have bought into the electoral "branding" referred to here, which is compounded by the winner take all system. So even the roughly one-half of the electorate that identifies as "independent" still align themselves with the political duopoly on election day for fear of being not just relegated to the margins, but being essentially uncounted altogether.

    • so1on

      You're points about the issues American democracy is dealing with are very different than what the author is presenting. Their are symptoms on both sides of the Atlantic, but their etiologies are not the same

  • Laahrik

    How can you write an essay like this and not once mention Scandinavia? That just seems like such an absurd oversight that it has to have been intentional.

  • so1on

    This is a great analysis of European politics, but I am a bit nonplussed as its generalization to the United States. How does the thesis count for the partisan divide in Washington, or the rather robust democracy of individual states? Yes, the United State's federal democracy may be in a tricky position, but for none of the reasons given here. On a national level, the sequester would never have happened if the politicians were solely answerable to corporations; it is completely counter to their interests. Rather, democracy broke down in that instance because individual politicians were answerable to their constituents, and their constituents have certain irreconcilable differences. One can also look at a variety of instances in individual states where they have chosen positions inimical to banks and corporations due to the demands of their citizens. Arizona faced a mild embargo when it instituted its immigration laws. Vermont's single payer system is going to make it considerably more difficult for businesses to easily expand there, as they will create a completely different regulatory framework.

    As always, Europe's political problems are its own. Their is an ocean dividing their issues from those - also serious - of the Americans.

    • SmilingAhab

      The sequester happened because company-bankrolled freshwater economists run both parties. A defunded government produces mediocre services, and mediocre services are ripe for privatization.

      We may have an ocean between us, but we have cultural connections far deeper than the water.

  • http://twitter.com/mikeyc7m Michael Caruana

    In Australia the centre-left Labor federal government is resisting the death of democracy and getting creamed for it. On every measure they have delivered (or tried to) for the country yet they are relentlessly debased by the media and face certain defeat at the looming election. Their incremental technocratic approach is sneered by the left and hated by the right, industry groups line up to receive handouts or give the government public beatings. The opposition party is in bed with big business and the media.
    Democracy in Australia dies at the next election, the future is Plutocracy. However I do expect the incoming regressive government to be surprised and get taught the lesson early on. It's a small consolation.
    But what to do? The Arab Spring and Occupy movements highlighted the lack of alternative. All we can do is play the game, be happy consumers, and stay out of debt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Brodix-Merryman-Jr/1226942995 John Brodix Merryman Jr.

    Well, If nothing can be done until the structure collapses, we better start figuring out what it is we want when it does. This is an essay on that very topic I wrote lat year, in the wake of the Occupy movement;

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/03/17/1075305/--What-is-Your-Occupation?detail=hide

    Relevant parts;

    " The essence of human civilization is the creation, organization and storage of information. The problem is that information tends to be static. It holds and binds the energy required to maintain it. This sets up a conflict between the dynamic energy and the static information, so the system develops methods of reseting and erasing excess information. Biology does this by individual organisms dying, as the species regenerates. Bodies are processes in themselves, as generations of cells are formed and shed. As our social institutions build up legacy costs, they also find themselves losing ground to less burdened, more dynamic entities. So there is a constant churn of structures building up and breaking down."

    " Just as individual mobile organisms evolved central nervous systems in order to navigate complex environments and respond to circumstances, groups of people develop governing structures in order coordinate their responses to situations they encounter. This requires a framework in order for everyone to adhere to. This might be anything from religious texts, to national constitutions, to company mission statements. Goals, group narratives, external adversaries, etc. are some of the many incentives to keep the group cohesive. There are many equally powerful influences both internal and external, trying to break down such organizations. Even conflicts between keeping them together and continuing to fulfill original purposes can be rending, as management and vision clash."

    " Human nature is such that we will always be looking for a way to grow and progress and will do so with whatever resources are at hand, whether it be scratching two sticks together to make a fire, or building vast structures and societies. In order to do so, we need two things; Organization and energy. Within the biological body, there are two systems to enable these functions. The central nervous system processes information and organizes responses, while the circulatory system enables energy collected by the respiratory and digestive systems to be effectively transmitted to where it is most necessary. Within society, these systems are mimicked by government and finance."

    "As monarchial hierarchies transitioned into various forms and degrees of public governance, finance naturally became part of the market system which it enabled. A market needs a medium of exchange, i.e. a common currency and a system to enable the efficient transfer of this currency. If those managing this system do not understand their role as facilitators of the market to serve the larger community and simply use their positions to enrich themselves, then they are no longer efficient. Much as monarchies lost sight of their roles as serving the larger society and became inefficient managers of government."

    " As a medium of exchange, money is mistaken for a commodity in itself, but it is more of a contract. It is a promise of value, rather than a store of value. It is the guaranteer of that currency which is the actual store of value. The guaranteer is not simply the entity issuing it, but all parties and the value they represent, who are willing to trust and trade in that currency."

    "To the banking system, money is a commodity that is manufactured by creating demand for it. Therefore it is in the interest of banks to create as much debt as possible, but there are limits on how much debt the economy can support, so there is a finite amount of notational wealth that can be sustained in a healthy economy. We lose sight of this, when everyone wants to save as much money as possible. The theory behind supply side economics is that the more notational wealth that can be accumulated, the more capital there will be to invest and expand the economy, but it is demand for goods, the supply of resources and the ingenuity to match them that really determines how much the economy can grow, not how many units of otherwise underemployed currency are available."

    "Money is commodified trust and it has been both the vehicle for powering human civilization to its current heights and what is now driving it over the edge. If we collectively make more promises to ourselves then we are willing and able to keep and hire the politicians and financial managers opportunistic enough to voice those promises, we will eventually be quite disappointed."

    " Money is a contract. It is drawing rights on the rest of the community. Its value stems from the willingness of the participants in that contract to honor it. Contracts are not owned by any one party. They are an agreement among different parties. To the extent the financial system is the circulatory system of society, money is the blood flowing through it. Its effectiveness is dependent on its fungibility. We no more own the money in our pocket, than we own the road we are driving on. Yes, we are in sole possession of any one spot on that road at any one time, but its value is due to the connectivity with all other roads. We own our cars, houses, businesses, etc, but not the roads connecting them and no one cries socialism over that. We have to think of money in the same way.

    If people understand that money is a form of public utility and not actually private property, then they will naturally be far more careful what value they take out of social relations and environmental resources to put in a bank account. This would serve to make people's own self interest a mechanism to put value back into the community and the environment and allow more organic systems of economic connectivity and reciprocity to grow, as well as reduce the power of large financial and governmental systems over our lives.

    There are different ways to issue currencies and a debt based currency has its uses, if the pitfalls are kept in mind. When the basis of the currency is government debt, there is an inherent bias toward creating a lot of public debt, as the current system seems designed to do. Budgeting is to list priorities and spend according to ability. Instead the legislative leadership bundles up these enormous bills, then adds whatever necessary to collect enough votes, which the president can only pass or veto in whole. If the government actually wanted to budget, these bills could be broken into all their various items and have every legislator assign a percentage value to each one. Then reassemble them in order of preference and have the president draw the line at what is to be funded. This would create a system of actual budgeting, as well as distributing more power over the entire legislature, rather than having most of it accumulate at the top. The percentage voting would also allow legislators to tune their responses to various constituencies.

    This system would result in a smaller money supply and less federal money going to local projects, but if there is a community public banking system, which funneled profits back into the public projects within the community being served, rather than having it siphoned off by big banks, to be lent back to the various levels of government and then spent on those same projects, the result would be a more stable and sustainable civic foundation."

  • Dean

    A friend of mine made the following points:

    Five things to keep in mind:

    First, most of the world's democracies have more than two parties

    which makes governing even more difficult since it requires endless

    streams of compromise.

    Second, a regnant goal of all politicians (and business people) it the

    avoidance of personal responsibility. Since there are no immediate

    consequences for any given vote or action, that goal is surprisingly

    easy to achieve.

    Third, much of this problem could be quickly reduced by introducing

    public financing for election and thereby limiting the role of

    cronyism and decreasing the isolation of the politician from the

    electorate.

    Fourth, the view that corporations are somehow uber-persons rather

    than made up of individuals who can be held responsible for their

    actions needs to be balanced by real penalties for corporate action

    and appropriate severing of immunity when corporate behaviors are

    contrary to the well-being of the state (in effect a criterion for

    treason even by multi-nationals operating in a country). Otherwise,

    there is no way to keep corporate manipulations from the political

    process. By extension, taking corporate compensation should be

    considered an act of treason as well.

    Fifth, no democratic system can work without an informed and involved

    electorate. Too often the use of mass media in the process is geared

    to disinformation. Far too many voters feel that they have no purpose

    in taking direct and local action.

    • Clairdelune

      Your friend's third, fourth and fifth points are the crux of our current problems in the US. These problems can safely be labeled "Republican", to the displeasure of some commenters who dislike labeling, although the Democratic Party's unwillingness to stand up and be counted has been a contributing factor. Over half a century ago some authors of Science Fiction novels described today's political/social conditions with a frightening accuracy - I recall the fear and revulsion I felt reading about a world dominated by mega corporations, but my youthful optimism let me believe that this would never happen in the real world, especially not here... Too bad those authors did not enter the political arena and try to change the trends they saw. I am way to old to consider entering politics, but today's prophets need to become proactive and attempt to heal our institutions before the malady becomes terminal. Your clear-eyed friend should consider it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/phil.bock1 Phil Bock

    We have corporatist governments across the world. This has been documented by the Canadian John Ralston Saul, but it appears that few have noticed. Read: "The Unconscious Civilization", "Voltaire's Bastards: and "The Doubter's Companion".

  • tarry2020

    With such hopeless credentials, why force 'democracy' on hapless developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America - rising from the ashes of colonialism and imperialism into what can be considered as their hope for survival and prosperity - being integrated into the global economy. If you must know - they are more advanced in this respect. They care less about your democracy; the Multinational Companies (MNCs) are their saviours.

  • Logic

    I think the real problem is this collusion of government and corporate power can use the tools of both to take out political movements before they can enact any change.

    Anyone who crops up as a leader, or who even looks like a potential, has their lives gone though with a fine tooth comb.

    It's like if Martian Luther King Jr was mysteriously arrested for some thing trivial just before giving his I have a dream speech... but it's not going to be that obvious.

    Imagine four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, N.C. get arrested for trumped up charges at the end of January in 1960. Not knowing what would have happened, the public would have no clue something has changed.

    This system makes sure nothing threatens it. Just look at HBGary and Glenn Greenwald http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2011/02/14/hbgary-ceo-also-suggested-tracking-intimidating-wikileaks-donors/

    Or the US government's treatment of OWS http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/25/shocking-truth-about-crackdown-occupy

  • Simon

    I don't agree with your title. Politician, to-day, at least in France are much more interested giving attention to voters than anything else. Their main concern is: Shall I be reélected and soforth what could I do to make voters vote for me. There are many ways to satisfy voters: In short term for short minds and medium or long term for very few minds. I apologise for my english.

  • rootless_e

    Jesus. The apex of democracy in the US was just after the second world war? When black Americans were routinely murdered for trying to register to vote?

    • Jeff Blanks

      That's what happens when even liberals try to ignore the '60s and '70s.

  • Alex Roe

    Post-democracy or growing pains? The world only really took a major step towards mass suffrage based democracy in the 20th century - that's less than 100 years ago. Democracy is a child and it has not yet entered puberty.

    Maybe the situation will improve when we find a way to make democracy function as we would like. Just a thought.

  • SmilingAhab

    "As one looks from business to state and from state to business again, it
    is increasingly difficult to say which is which. The result is a
    complex web of relationships that are subject neither to market
    discipline nor democratic control. Businesses become entangled with the
    state as both customer and as regulator. States grow increasingly
    reliant on business, to the point where they no longer know what to do
    without its advice. Responsibility and accountability evanesce into an
    endlessly proliferating maze of contracts and subcontracts."

    Sounds like aristocratic feudalism. We lived under it for 5,000 years, and we'll live under it again. Maybe we are evil, and this is the system we naturally make and deserve.

    • PanurgeATL

      Who's this "we"??

      • SmilingAhab

        The vast majority of the human race.

        • Jeff Blanks

          I don't recall that "the vast majority of the human race" implemented such a system--we just *live under it*. Way to look like exactly the kind of misanthropic snob that gets people to vote Republican, though.

          • SmilingAhab

            My, how partisan of you. Those who run and manage an autocratic system bleed the same color and have the same biological and emotional needs as the rest of us. They are human. It takes humans becoming aggressive and dominating and humans becoming passive and compliant for an autocratic system to exist. Ergo, we, the human race, create it, and we, the human race, live under it.

  • Archies_Boy

    The "vanishing left," eh? What I'd like to know is, how many of professor Farrell's compeers concur with him? And how many disagree? What's the average opinion of the experts on these kinds of issues? As for me, I say Bah, humbug.

  • putesputes

    Well, let's face it, governments don't create jobs. All they do is create deficits to pay for political promises that really don't help people. They just help politicians get elected. The reality greediest kid in any country is the goverment. You have a few people in goverment spending trillions of dollars of other people's money to stay elected. Those trillions of dollars are taken from the real economy thus reducing the earning and purchasing power and opportunities of everyone.

    • root_e

      That is completely and utterly false. It's a purely ideological statement that flies in the face of evidence. The Internet was created by public (GOVERNMENT) investment. Writing that government cannot create wealth on the Internet is like saying that the earth is flat on satellite radio.

      • putesputes

        It is a fact. If the goverment created jobs, then those jobs would be generating a profit to the goverment. Those profits should be creating a surplus to the goverment and the goverment should be giving us those profits.
        Nope, instead of those so called jobs created by the goverment are actually liabilities payed by borrowing money at the tax payers expense. The only winners are the politicians who claim to create a job but in reality all they did is create a debt to be payed by future generations.

        • rootless_e

          Sigh. The government (the public acting via the government) employs a fire department. As a result business flourishes because there are not periodic massive fires. However the government does not earn a profit on the work of the firemen. Think about how things work instead of relying on formulas.

  • Fekecs Sándor

    Or maybe it will end up in revolutions...
    I think the author is also stuck into traditional systematic poltical thinking.
    There are other ways in real life than to participate in the current regime's framework.
    And revolution is just something that that does not need party ratifications or long talks with multinational companies.
    Many undervalue the power that communication methods give to people on the brink of rising against the current regime.

  • riverrat37

    An oppressed people WILL revolt. That's fact. Trouble is, they often wait until things have been totally out of control for some time before they have the courage. They tend not to be pro-active. We're seeing that now. But ... the time will come and change will occur. It always does. And so the average politician and big capitalist will be shocked (and in big trouble).

    • Irrational Man

      I recently read a story of how Obama and Geitner went to Wall St to threaten the elites, saying "The people have the torches and pitchforks".
      They were laughed out of the room. Obama got some money. Tim got exposed for his tax avoidance. . . and to date, no one has been tarred and feathered in front of the NYSE.

  • riverrat37

    Of course, there's a new "elephant in the room" now: global climate change. It's about to throw a wrench in the cogs of life like we've never known before. A new outside influence that we've largely chosen to ignore -- but it's not going to ignore us. Not even close. All other problems (like the ones in this article) pale in comparison. The article (and most others) are the proverbial "rearranging of the deck chairs...", if you my drift. Brace yourself ... it's gonna be wild!

  • Irrational Man

    I am not an anarchist...but I do like some of the things that they write. I can attribute this quote, but some diligent googling may turn up its author.

    "Ideology is the means by which alienation, domination and exploitation are all rationalized and justified through the deformation of human thought and communication. All ideology in essence involves the substitution of alien (or incomplete) concepts or images for human subjectivity. Ideologies are systems of false consciousness in which people no longer see themselves directly as subjects in their relation to their world. Instead they conceive of themselves in some manner as subordinate to one type or another of abstract entity or entities which are mistaken as the real subjects or actors in their world.

    Whenever any system of ideas and duties is structured with an abstraction at its center — assigning people roles or duties for its own sake — such a system is always an ideology. All the various forms of ideology are structured around different abstractions, yet they all always serve the interests of hierarchical and alienating social structures, since they are hierarchy and alienation in the realm of thought and communication. Even if an ideology rhetorically opposes hierarchy or alienation in its content, its form still remains consistent with what is ostensibly being opposed, and this form will always tend to undermine the apparent content of the ideology. Whether the abstraction is God, the State, the Party, the Organization, Technology, the Family, Humanity, Peace, Ecology, Nature, Work, Love, or even Freedom; if it is conceived and presented as if it is an active subject with a being of its own which makes demands of us, then it is the center of an ideology."