Friday, 11 November 2011

Are we done with democracy?

It has been a dramatic week for Southern Europe, with the elected leaders of both Greece and Italy falling as a result of pressure from the markets. Both are to be replaced by unelected technocrat governments, with former EU economists being appointed to replace them. It would appear that the democratic political systems in both countries were incapable of delivering a solution to the debt crisis. The unprecedented situation has prompted uncomfortable questions. Given the North Atlantic crisis the West has found itself in and seems to be incapable of extracting itself from, is democracy failing?

This was the question being asked on the BBC's Newsnight programme Wednesday night. Italian economist Vito Tanzi said during the interview that a government of unelected technocrats can do what elected politicians cannot - tell people the truth and push through unpopular but necessary reforms. "It can do a better job of informing people what needs to be done. I think that is the problem that the Italians were told for many years that there were no problems, that nothing needed to be done when the situation was progressively getting worse. If you have this kind of government, then sooner or later you get in trouble. The technical people would know better and would tell people what the consequences are of continuing with current policies"

He was of course speaking of his friend Mario Monti, the former EU Competition Commissioner who is set to be appointed new Italian prime minister.

In Greece, it was announced yesterday that another EU official, former European Central Bank vice president Lucas Papademos, will be appointed prime minister of Greece. Neither of these men has ever been elected to any office in their home countries. But both were appointed by their countries to their EU positions, and both earned praise for their performance in those positions. Greece and Italy are joining the two EU countries which already have provisional unelected governments - Slovakia (whose government collapsed after the parliament refused to back the Greece bail-out) and Belgium.

I was speaking with a Greek friend about this situation last night. He said both he and his family in Greece see the unelected technocrat government as the best alternative to the country holding elections. The political system is broken, he told me, and there is no way an election would yield a government that could tell the people what they don't want to hear and implement the immensely unpopular austerity reforms demanded by Northern Europe in exchange for the bail-out. It is the same in Italy, where the political system has become so dysfunctional it allowed a prime minister to stay in power while he openly flouted the law, had sex with underage prostitutes and called his own nation a "shitty country."

"It's not like democracy has been working so great for us," an Italian friend told me. "I felt powerless before with Berlusconi in power. At least this way I'll be powerless with a competent government."

So has it come to this? Have our political systems in the West failed us so utterly that people are willing to try less democratic approaches? The prospect of unelected technocrat governments has caused alarm in many quarters of Europe. And the fact that Greece is the birthplace of democracy is an irony lost on no one. Because these technocrat governments are being dictated by the markets, it seems to many like we are witnessing the imposition of a 'marketocracy', where political decisions are no longer made by elected leaders but instead by bankers and financial experts.

But others are questioning whether we are being too hasty in immediately condemning the scaling back of democracy as a step too far. Perhaps we entering a period where people start to think of new ways of organising governments and society that stray from the democratic principles we've held as sacrosanct for the past half century.

Looking at this from an American context, one can see how this line of thought might be attractive. The American political system is now universally acknowledged to be broken, and the cause is politics itself. The right feels a primal rage against the system that has manifested itself in the form of the Tea Party. And the left feels disillusioned after they elected a president who promised them change but was then stymied by the constraints of politics and a confused, emotional electorate. I wonder, how would Americans - particularly liberals - feel about the prospect of a technocrat government temporarily coming in to fix the nation's deep problems without being under the constraints of politicking and elections? I honestly don't know.

These are certainly interesting times in which to be living.  Are we, as many democracy advocates are now suggesting, entering a slippery slope toward dictatorship? Or are we, as others have suggested, on the cusp of new revolutionary movements that will change the world in a way similar to what took place in 1848? Is this a return to authoritarianism, or the dawn of a new period of creativity in which people develop new, heretofore undeveloped political systems? Are we moving backwards or forwards?

Lots of questions, few of which I'm qualified to give the definitive answers to. But one thing seems increasingly apparent - things are not going to stay the same. We are on the cusp of great change, but what that change is is anybody's guess.


Anonymous said...

........democracy "was invented" (Rousseau, etc.) for a Congress full of men of wisdom, and what do we have today ? Basic assumptions have changed more or less since 1700. Len

Anonymous said...

Democracy is not perfect and can fail miserably? The harsh truth is both the Greek and Italian elected politicians have failed there citizens for decades. Always telling there voters the sun is shining and there are no economic problems, when there are deep structural problems in both countries.

A technocrat government by be 'undemocratic' but just maybe they will get things done the elected spineless politicians never had the stomach to do?