#15 responsibility
Patrick Delaney

Churchill’s Nightmare

The changes that democracies have undergone since the advent of governance are frequently underestimated. The good, the bad, and some cautious optimism.

“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Does this legendary statement by Winston Churchill still hold up today? If the answer is yes, then we might be in some serious trouble. What is practised today, this complex and messy arrangement of intertwined regional, national, international and supra-national levels of governance, still abides by many of the classic democratic principles, yet makes short work of others.

Representative democracy – the burden of indirect rule

There are, of course, plenty of problems associated with democratic decision-making that have necessitated the adjustments to systems of rule commonly referred to as global governance. One of the most notable issues is that when people pass on the power to rule over to elected delegates, interests can become increasingly distorted and eventually lost entirely since decisions are made at the local, national and international level. Individuals might feel like they are not being properly represented by their elected delegates and the governments they have formed. In international politics in particular, the scope of problems and conflicts of interest becomes so large that a proper aggregation of individual political preferences into specific policies becomes a tricky enterprise.

... the emphasis on social steering historically eclipses an evaluation of the democratic quality of such practices.

This is where governance usually kicks in and re-introduces the voices of stakeholders to the political process. According to one of the many definitions, the purpose of governance here is to enable private actors to engage in matters of public interest, which seems a more than reasonable endeavour to a certain degree. In this regard however, the phenomenon is not as novel as it might seem. Its predecessors can be found in corporatist and tripartist arrangements in the nation state where business, labour and state actors engage in negotiations and try to work together to create economic policies. It is nevertheless important to note that even in regard to these arrangements, the emphasis on social steering historically eclipses an evaluation of the democratic quality of such practices. This blind spot is increasingly worrying as the scope of governance networks exceeds the national level. The structures of transnational and multi-level governance are far more complex than their national counterparts and raise questions of power distribution, accountability and transparency.

The new order

In the early 2000s, esteemed governance researcher Renate Mayntz already suspected that a new system of rule was taking shape, a system that differed substantially from traditional democratic orders. One could argue that transparency already posed a difficult problem when stakeholders attempted to hold elected officials accountable within the boundaries of parliamentary and executive decision-making.

It is easy to take democratic government for granted and forget that it is very fragile indeed.

Keeping the above-cited quote from Churchill in mind, it nevertheless makes sense to cautiously examine any adjustments made to this framework. It is easy to take democratic government for granted and forget that it is very fragile indeed. It is also important to keep in mind that most states in the world which have established democratic forms of rule have done so rather recently in the scope of human history. Democracies arose from oppressive regimes, violent wars and turmoil and cannot be taken for granted. They are not the rule, but rather the exception.

… this embodiment of the “one citizen – one vote“ principle, is being diminished today.

To the House of Commons in 1944, Churchill expounded: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.” Leaving aside Churchill’s dated assumption that the electoral body consists of only male citizens, the crucial thing to note here is this: The importance of that person walking into the little booth, this embodiment of the “one citizen – one vote“ principle, is being diminished today. One of the fundamentals of democratic theory – presented by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century and by Jürgen Habermas today – implies that only fair and equally distributed means of participation allow individual freedom to be sustained under collective rule.

Governance networks function differently in this regard: Actors are brought in to participate in deliberative discourse on an issue. Some are elected officials, some are renowned experts in the respective field, and some are stakeholders from civil society who want to see their interests represented. It often is incomprehensible to who defines the composition of a network and who is responsible for which part of the process. The most common justification for this approach is that it represents the best way to reach consensus and effectively solve difficult problems. This characteristic of governance networks Mayntz called the “problem-solving bias” ultimately leads to a heuristic that tends to obscure the role and dynamic of conflicts in society.

The common good is not static and universal. It has to be explored and defined by a society’s citizens through democratic procedure.

German political scientist Petra Dobner most recently pointed out two basic misconceptions at the basis of this system: First, from a democratic perspective, the basis of legitimate rule is simultaneously the basis of effective decisions and solutions. The common good is not static and universal. It has to be explored and defined by a society’s citizens through democratic procedure. Second, there is an imbalance of power in civil society already and representative democracy is specifically designed as a mechanism to compensate for this imbalance in the state. Civil society is by no means a uniform actor that always speaks for public interest.

As a premise and an effect of these developments, national sovereignty is dwindling as governing on supra- and subnational levels gains importance. In this scenario, national parliaments are losing influence while the executive branches of government participate in trans- and supra-national networks that more often than not have a serious effect on national legislation.

Overall there is no guideline for who is invited to certain networks and negotiations, the modes of entrance are asymmetrical and even the positions within a network become a question of power.

Likewise NGOs are gaining importance on the global level as agents of civil society, while traditional unions tend to be neglected as representatives of very particular interests. Overall there is no guideline for who is invited to certain networks and negotiations, the modes of entrance are asymmetrical and even the positions within a network become a question of power and resources. This closely relates to the critique of deliberative discourse from a gender and feminist perspective posited by Lynn Sanders a few years ago. She declared deliberation an elitist practice that entails a lot of prerequisites for the people trying to engage in discourse. So stakeholders without the knowledge, resources and power of veto such as – depending on the society – the unemployed, the poor, or women are not likely to be represented in a network. Even when groups like these are included, they will still be subject to the imbalance of power within a network and run the danger of further legitimising the decisions made while not having a noteworthy amount of influence.

A positive outlook

All this has not happened in a vacuum, of course. The second half of the last century saw many protest movements that fought for the right to more immediate participation in democratic states all over the world. The end of Soviet socialism and increasingly more dynamic processes of globalisation called for essential reconsiderations of the role of the state in society and international relations. What is described above as governance is not only needed to a certain degree; it can even be beneficial in solving the world’s most urgent problems.

… participation is not necessarily more democratic than democracy …

In any case, the structures are established now and it is important to make the best of it. We need to keep in mind though that participation is not necessarily more democratic than democracy and that systems do not just evolve by themselves: They are designed, albeit from numerous sides and on various levels with a plethora of unintended side-effects. This appraisal is reassuring, as it emphasises individual and collective agency. Governance structures can act as a gateway for democratic practices as long as their setup is carefully monitored and we keep in mind that there is no universal measure for efficiency in questions of public interest. Democratic institutions have to remain strong enough to properly aggregate personal interests and keep the rule of networks in check. Otherwise the task of holding anybody accountable for anything in the world of politics might become increasingly difficult.

Photo: “Rolling Rebellion Sparks in Seattle to Defend Internet & Stop the TPP” by Backbone Campaign
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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