As I watched Trumps storm troopers invade Capitol Hill and the heartland of the US political system, I was reminded that Liberal Democracy (representative systems with checks and balances as in the U.K; USA; France etc. as opposed to authoritarian regimes as in Russia and China) is a precious and fragile thing that needs to be defended. As climate change bites harder, and global population movement becomes greater and more urgent, I fear that some Liberal Democracies will succumb to a populist authoritarianism ‘justified’ by anti-migration sentiments and resource competition. In this context it is necessary to defend the institutions of Liberal Democracy.
I haven’t always felt this way. As a young man I was keenly aware of the structures of class and culture in Britain and I didn’t like it, not one bit; not Eton public school, not the Dons of Cambridge university, not the Conservative Party, not the Church of England, not the monarchy, not debutant balls, not Royal Ascot, not fox hunting, not the Henley regatta, and most definitely not the British political and military establishment.
I was influenced both by Marxism and by Sartre’s vision of human freedom in which not only are we radically free to make choices, we must do so, and in good faith. From Marxism I learned about class and power. From Sartre I learned that we are not the victims of a metaphysical destiny but can shape our own lives. Framed by these philosophies, I saw that we could break away from our political and cultural traditions, for we are not bound to them by either history or metaphysics. I saw myself as a part Marcuse’s Great Refusal. I read literature; Kerouac, Ginsberg and Hesse; political philosophy; Marx, Raymond Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre; I danced to The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane; I listened to Tariq Ali and Stuart Hall, I took LSD and smoked Marijuana, and I joined political protests. I dreamed of a society of justice amongst equals and regarded Liberal Democracy as at best a temporary and inadequate stop over en route to a better world, and at worst an obstacle to it.
My dreams didn’t come true of course. Today I regard the setting up of the Welfare state in the UK by the Labour Party in the context of a Liberal Democracy as perhaps the greatest political achievement of all time. Right now there is little evidence of popular support for radical systemic political change in the West at all, let alone ‘revolution’. Reform seems to be the only possible way to move forward within Liberal Democracies. Here Liberalism involves a balancing act between individual freedoms and a reduction of suffering through collective (state) action. And it allows individual to pursue their personal goals as long as they don’t hurt others. When we look across the globe and across history, Liberal Democracy is the best actually existing political system that humans have come up with. It is not what we might dream of (it is not what I dreamed of) but it is as good as it gets (at least for the time being). Human beings no longer appear to me to be perfectible in some imagined utopia and in this sense I have adopted a more pessimistic, tragic, view of what it is to be human.
This does not mean that we have to accept Liberal Democracy as it stands. On the contrary, we should try to push for the extension of democratic practices within the Liberal Democratic framework. That is to say, to hold Liberalism to account and demand that it delivers on its promises. If Liberal Democracies proclaim us to be free equals, lets us push for the promise to be fulfilled. Let us demand a radical democracy. As we face a climate emergency we must try and push states to act; the non-violent protests of Extinction Rebellion, for example, are entirely consistent with Liberal Democracy, and indeed it is Liberal Democracy that allows them to happen.
A commitment to Liberal Democracy is historically contingent and we may one day come up with something better, (it does not necessarily mark the ‘end of history’ as Fukuyama put it) but for the time being, it’s the best we’ve got for all pragmatic (my account draws on Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism) purposes. A Green Social Democracy that functions within the institutions of Liberal Democracy seems to me to be the best hope we have for the reduction of human suffering. I no longer think the revolution is upon us. And in so far as a radical political shift is immanent, I fear it will be to the Right. Hence the plea from this old Lefty to defend Liberal Democracy.
4 thoughts on “A Pessimists Defence of Liberal Democracy”
not sure I understand all of this Chris but Marx’s ideals never came to fruition … card holders become the elite instead of intellectuals or entrepreneurs …
Nice to meet you and welcome to WP 🙂
Thanks, nice to meet you too. (: ..
I agree with most of your points Chris. I too am an old lefty who would like to see deep reform but don’t know how we get there. I just read an article that argued we can never get there by working within the system given that it is currently controlled by corporations, the elite, and career politicians. That seems to be true, at least here in the US.