Henry Farrell and the politics of despair

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell

The great vectors of change today are technological and cultural rather than political.  Digital platforms give force to a mutinous public, which has trampled with muddy boots into the sacred precincts of authority.  The established order has reacted with fear and confusion.  Politics, ultimate form of authority, is now stuck in the muck.

In democratic countries, among people who believe that the good life can only be attained by means of political change, this has inspired a deep pessimism verging on despair.  In many, contempt for electoral politics has curdled into condemnation of democracy.  These critics come from every point of the ideological compass, though the loudest and most tortured, it seems to me, belong to the traditional left.  All share an obsession with politics and a peculiar blindness to the changes around them.

Exhibit one for the politics of despair is this lamentation in Aeon.  Its author, Irish-born Henry Farrell, is an academic, a blogger, and a man of the left:  and he thinks liberal democracy has failed.

The Public Can Be Up, Even When the Left Is Down

Farrell holds to an old-fashioned, party-mediated notion of how the public relates to power.  Specifically, only the parties of the left can defend the public’s interests against predatory private factions.  Thus the failure of democracy must be a consequence of the left’s defection from its historic mission.

At the heart of the problem is the utter paralysis of government.  Political authority, on which Farrell, as a good social democrat, counts to regulate many aspects of life, appears exhausted, almost brain dead.  The cause is obvious to him and standard to those who share his views.  Cozy relations with “business” and the “private sector,” always prevalent on the right, now supersede loyalty to the public among politicians of the left.  “As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another,” Farrell concludes, “elections have become exercises in branding rather than substantive choices.”

I take the crisis of government to be a fact beyond dispute.  Farrell, however, gets the arrow of causation exactly wrong:  it’s the revolt of the public – its strength rather than its weakness – that is responsible for political paralysis.  This is usually the case with democracies.  “The people have acquired power which they are incapable of exercising,” Walter Lippmann warned long ago, “and the governments they elect have lost powers they must recover if they are to govern.”  Evidence of the public’s muscular application of power can be found everywhere – Farrell even cites some instances of it, like the rise of the “Five Star” movement in Italy.

An antiquated conceptual apparatus can blind an observer to the reality around him.  By squeezing the turmoil of the digital age into an opposition of “left” and “right,” Farrell appears at times to be performing some inscrutable ritual:  to genuflect before a non-explanation.  Do left and right still have meaning today?  Consider the 2011 uprising in Egypt.  Mubarak, authoritarian and supposedly business friendly, might be tagged a ruler of the right.  Does that make the protesters who overthrew him people of the left?  Where, in the binary equation, does the Muslim Brotherhood fit?  What of the Salafi religious parties?  Like the old Latin mass, the rhetoric of the French Revolution may provide a sense of identity for some groups, but it is wholly inadequate to analyze current sociopolitical developments.

Beyond left and right, in democratic and authoritarian countries, the public is alienated, angry, and on the march.  The system of government matters little.  It is modern government as such that is on trial.  The rebellious public has no need for the traditional parties of the left, and in fact considers these, rightly, to be part of the authority structure it despises.  Movements like the Five Star in Italy and the Indignados in Spain have trapped the old left in a room with the walls closing in, Star Wars style.

These movements share a willful disregard of programmatic coherence.  Their rhetoric betrays distant socialist (or anarchist, or libertarian) origins, but their motive drive is negation:  anti-structure (government first of all, but also political parties and any form of organization), anti-ideology, anti-program.  The public opposes but will not propose.

Metaphor for the traditional left...

Metaphor for the traditional left…

Inclusion Can Mean Alienation If We Don’t Like Ourselves

In the story he tells about the failure of democratic politics, Farrell follows Colin Crouch, author of Post-Democracy.  I have not read the book, but according to Farrell it traces the history of democracy as an “arc.”  At first, most people were excluded from participation in government.  Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, popular power grew, reaching a zenith “at some point shortly after the end of the Second World War” – a time when, apparently, “ordinary people” were “able to determine their fate through the electoral process,” and markets “were subordinate to politics, not the other way around.”

Globalization, Crouch claims, destroyed this golden age.  Rather than control the power of corporations, governments now “ape” them, privatizing services.  The state has become dependent on, and ultimately indistinguishable from, the business world.  Individual politicians leverage corporate wealth to disconnect from their own parties and constituents.  Democratic politics bend to selfish interests.  The public is alienated precisely because it has lost control of its political destiny.

Concocting an “imagined past,” Fritz Stern once observed, is a sure manifestation of cultural despair.  Crouch’s arc of inclusion seems to climax during the era of Jim Crow in the US South and the ration card in Britain (not to mention the misery exemplified by The Bicycle Thieves in Italy).  Let me suggest that a far more persuasive trajectory for the history of democracy can be found in Pierre Rosanvallon’s Counter-Democracy.

The process of democratic inclusion didn’t mysteriously abort around 1945 – many notable advances, such as affirmative action and proportional representation, came much later.  Rosanvallon contends that inclusion and alienation have progressed in lockstep.  This is not a paradox, but cause and effect.  Implicit in the long struggle for universal suffrage was the promise that, once all the people were included, something magical would happen:  the good society.  But nothing remotely magical happened.  Nothing changed.  Instead, we were left with our own imperfect selves, muddling through the necessarily procedural and uninspiring machinery of representative government.

I believe with Rosanvallon that the “disenchantment” of self-recognition in the mirror of electoral politics gave rise to an “age of distrust” – the genesis of the public as such.

It is that age, with its ceaseless “vigilance” and “denunciation” of political authority, which we now inhabit.  A host of permanent informal structures, like NGOs, smother the institutions of liberal democracy.  Their message is entirely critical.  More spontaneous eruptions of the public into the political arena are inspired by hostility to specific regimes, policies, or events.  Such protests are fueled by negation and amplified digitally.  New technologies give the public new power over the information sphere, magnifying the din of oppositional voices and greatly increasing their reach.  This strategic reversal has frightened elected officials into a defensive crouch.  The most successful among them have decided, probably correctly, that governing in the age of distrust means avoiding culpability.  Hence the barrenness of politics and the paralysis of government.

The End of Revolution Can Cause Terminal Despair

Farrell saves his profoundest despair for the inability of the left to conceive new programs and policies.  He observes that Europe’s social democrats, when in opposition, “don’t know what to offer voters.  Where they are in power, they don’t know how to use it.”   Closer to home, the Democratic Party also has had “enormous difficulty in spelling out a new agenda.”  The reasons for this curious sterility he never directly addresses – corruption by capitalism, we are to assume, must be behind it.

Again, Rosanvallon has a more interesting thesis.  The ideological silence of the left, he suggests, can be traced to a drastic change in what it means to be “radical.”  A generation ago it meant faith in revolution.  All of the left’s programs and policies aimed at a transcendent purpose:  to make the world anew. The debate was whether revolution should be achieved violently, in “one long night” which transformed human relations, or by means of incremental reforms.

That faith is gone.  Revolution is neither believed in as a possibility nor desired as an outcome:  on this point, Farrell and Rosanvallon agree.  “The people are omnipresent and no longer content with making their voice heard only on election day,” the latter writes.  “Yet no one believes any longer in the idea of an alternative to the status quo.”  While communism’s fall from grace in 1989 is in part responsible for the demise of revolution as a political ideal, a more important reason, Rosanvallon maintains, is the character of the intrusive public.

The public suffers from a sort of attention deficit disorder:  it never perceives a big picture and will only mobilize on a “case by case” basis.  Rather than overthrow the established order, the public in revolt seeks to control the government’s actions toward the specific case which has engaged its energies.  And it does so by force of negation.  Left radicalism, which once aimed to transform society, now more modestly (but also more successfully) labors to browbeat democratic governments into acknowledging an endless string of failures in need of correction.  “To be radical,” Rosavallon affirms, “is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.  It is not to aim a cannon at the citadel of power in preparation for a final assault.”  For the radicals of the new millennium, it would be an embarrassment to be caught advocating positive programs or policies.

Revolution is an ideal grounded in utopian optimism.  Hopelessness drives prophets to the wilderness, to feed on locusts and wild honey and dream of a messiah.  Farrell’s portrayal of the “post-democratic” parties of the left shows them sickened by their own paralysis and self-betrayal, embracing vague messianic dreams.

The problem that the center-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 base (which are largely dying or alienated from it anyway) nor to propose 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 center-left can only keep going through the ritualistic motions of democracy, all the while praying for intercession.

Who or what will do the interceding so devoutly wished for is not a trivial question, particularly for those of us still clinging to a naïve faith in liberal democracy.  Wistfully to fantasize, as Farrell does, about a “collapse” in “the systems of unrule governing the world” and “some great reversal in the order of things,” is unthinking enough.  But longing for a world-historical redeemer – to drag Fritz Stern into this discussion one last time:  a fuehrer who will say to the body politic, “Arise and walk” – was always a symptom of terminal pathology in the politics of cultural despair.

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