Book Debate: The End of Representative Politics?

Today we publish a two part blog on Professor Simon Tormey’s book “the End of Representative Politics“. In this work Tormey argues that narratives of democratic decline are too tightly focused on representative forms of politics, and thus conceal processes of politicisation and democratisation outside the purview of representative institutions. Tormey’s opening statement in part 1 is followed by a reply by CURA’s Adrian Bua in part 2, asking Simon to expand upon the democratising potential of “post-representative” forms of politics.

Part 1: Simon Tormey on the End of Representative Politics

For nearly half a century political science has been gripped by “the crisis of democracy”. After a period in which liberal democracy seems to be in rude health with high turnouts for elections, mass political parties, and high level of interest in and knowledge about politics, citizens seem to have turned off and tuned out.

2016 gave us a partial correction of this image of apathy and indifference with the emergence of populist movements and leaders. The reinvigoration of politics as it least a talking point in many households off the back of Brexit, Trump et al. Some parties, notably the Labour Party, also bucked the trend in managing to recruit a new generation of enthusiastic young members.

Yet political scientists remain gloomy about the overall trend. Many note the lack of engagement in for example sub and supranational elections. Others note the “easy come, easy go” nature of our political affiliations, our fluctuating preferences, low boredom threshold, and the inconsistency of the manner by which we engage as participants. Many also note that populism arises not out of renewed interest in politics, but it’s opposite: frustration with mainstream politicians, technocrats, experts, representatives of all stripes.  In short we should not be sanguine about the future of democratic participation because of populism. On the contrary, populism should be a wake-up call for all of us concerning the health and well-being of our democracies.

Looking back over the relevant literature three variables have been explored by political scientists to explore the problem: the lack of civic engagement, the decadence of the political class, and the deathly grip of neoliberalism and austerity politics.   Depending on one’s intuition about the matter and reading of the relevant data, the solutions flow from the diagnosis:  increasing civic education, understanding and knowledge of political institutions; better training, payment and preparation of the political class; acknowledging the complicity of market based strategies and privatisation in the emptying out the public realm.

This is all quite persuasive at one level.  However there is something missing in this puzzle, and this is the representative function itself.  What I argued in The End of Representative Politics (polity, 2015) is that we have arrived at a moment when we need to look more closely at how representation itself works, and for whom. My reasoning is that the core elements that historically compose the representative claim:  commonality of interest, identities or ideologies is under stress as we move from societies marked by stable hierarchies, respect for tradition, for elites toward societies marked by “individualisation”, flatter or even horizontal social structures, and a consequent erosion of the traditional basis for authority, a respect for hierarchy.

Sociologists regard these developments almost invariably in negative terms.   They represent the loss of the kinds of society they grew up in and have done well in: societies in which there is a deep respect for, for example, academics and professionals we have special claim to knowledge and insight. On the other hand, what it means is a different  way of relating to politics and a different repertoire of political engagement. Henrik Bang uses the term “everyday makers” to describe the emergence of new kinds of political actor who do not wish to be represented by others, who are not satisfied by a periodic engagement with the electoral process, and with the assignment of the capacity to act to representatives.

In my own fieldwork in Spain, this sense of impatience with representation was all too evident. It’s an impatience borne by a strong belief that politics should be about individuals joining together to help themselves rather than to be passive recipients of something whether that be welfare, jobs or whatever. But what also became evident is that a mistrust of mainstream politics need not necessarily lead to apathy or indifference. Nor does it have to lead to populism, or at least the kinds of populism that we associate with Trump and Brexit.   It can lead to the development of an imaginative repertoire of new kinds of political action, initiatives which led me to describe Spain as “a political laboratory”. It’s a laboratory where citizens conduct the experiments. It is one where what was considered impossible yesterday becomes quite possible today, whether it be the creation of pop-up parties, Twitter-led citizen insurgencies, a proliferation of direct action groupings of every stripe and colour, or latterly the election of “unelectable” radical figures, notably Ada Colau and former communist Manuela Carmena.

And so we arrive full-circle.  Representative politics is not dead. It is not even dying. It is mutating and changing. With the emergence of new kinds of political subjectivity armed with new tools for individualised collective action, we are seeing “everyday makers” move from the periphery of political life to the centre. Whether the emergence of a more active citizenry and of institutions better attuned to their needs succeeds over the counterveiling forces that so preoccupy political scientists is needless to say far from a formality.

But nor can we go back.  The Golden Age of representative politics is long past.  Either we reformulate democracy in terms that are more engaging and inclusive for citizens or we can anticipate continued gains by those for whom democracy is a means to their own advancement, rather than to an improvement in how we govern ourselves.

Part 2: Reply by Adrian Bua

There is much to agree with the argument set out in Simon’s book. First, it is a refreshing departure from narratives about democratic decline that do not sufficiently recognise the importance of the politics that occur outside of the purview of traditional institutions. Second, underpinning his argument is an understanding that democracy is a highly adaptable system, shape-shifting in reflection of social balances of power. Third, The End of Representative Politics does not attempt armchair design of institutions intended to “fix” the system – the big changes the book traces do not come from blueprints, but emerge from dynamics that exist in the present. For these reasons Simon’s book is necessary reading for those thinking about how to shape a more democratic future.

In my response I ask Simon to extend his argument in one area: that of the massive challenges that democratising projects face contemporarily. In doing so, I will focus on issues related the third variable that Simon identifies in the literature – that of neoliberalism and austerity politics. Specifically, I question whether new forms of post-representative and progressive politics pose a threat to the deeply de-democratising trajectory  of contemporary capitalism. My challenge is that whilst Simon’s work is indeed refreshing in challenging ubiquitous decline narratives, it runs the danger of Pollyannaism absent a clear account of how post-representative politics can challenge the deepening and expanding capitalist system.

One way to cast this challenge is the development of plutonomy – an idea developed by Citibank in the mid noughties to reassure its equity clients that global prosperity was not threatened by widening inequality, and would not again depend on a redistributive fix akin to the post-war settlement.  A decade on, and following the global financial crash the move toward global plutonomy seems to me to be alive and well – and also seems to dwarf post-representative politics.

The democratic spaces that Simon identifies emerge at a time when the space for politics is unprecedentedly constrained by the imperative to protect appease capitalist markets. Responses to the crash by nation states and global state institutions have been designed to insulate neo-liberalism and austerity from democracy.  The increased use of coercive enforcement does point at a crumbling hegemony – neo-liberalism resorts to the hard hand of state power to protect accumulation as it can rely less on popular consent or acquiescence. In the face of a phenomenal expansion of protest movements, the austerity state has developed measures for policing and criminalizing protest. Simon would be right to argue that these are signs of a system struggling to cope and with and control new political dynamics. However, absent an alternative capable of mobilising protest and governing it seems to me that evanescence – one of the features of post-representative politics identified by Simon in his book – is all we can expect. Without moving from protest to effective proposition two outcomes seem likely: for neo-liberalism to continue on in its de-democratizing path, in zombie fashion and under the protection of the austerity state, or for it to be de-railed by authoritarian nationalism, or fascism.

Developments in Spain, described by Simon and colleagues in other work as a “political laboratory”, are indeed hopeful. Here we have an attempt by post-representative social movements to move into the representative state.  As well as the election of Ada Colau (Barcelona) and Manuela Carmena (Madrid) mentioned in Simon’s post, an impressive array of other major cities have elected administrations claiming to represent social movements. An array of policies are being implemented that advance minority rights, protect the welfare state, combat gentrification and experiment with participatory democracy. However, this politics is constrained by governance challenges linked to a hostile Spanish state that dutifully implements austerity measures, the development of policies that contradict international capital, and contemporarily, regional independentist movements that have arguably pushed social issues down the political agenda, and are being quashed in decidedly undemocratic and authoritarian fashion, by a reactionary government that mendaciously claims to be acting in protection of “democracy”.

In summary, I do not want to question the development of post-representative politics, but its ability to perform and deliver democratisation in the context briefly sketched here. Simon is right to reject nostalgia, and focus on emergent possibilities. The question I want to ask is linked to one posed by Simon at the end of the book – can post-representative politics transform their critical energy into a genuinely reforming political initiative? How can we expect radical democratic impulses of post representative politics to interact with the de-politicising, de-democratizing tendencies of increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism and, perhaps most importantly, its capacity for co-option and usurpation?

Simon Tormey is Professor and Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney

Adrian Bua is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation and at CURA

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