Photo: Petros Giannakouris

Europe’s fraying democracy: a Q&A with Colin Crouch

  • December 22, 2015

People & Power

“There are alternatives to neoliberalism, it is just that they lack powerful social carriers. A revitalization of trade unions would be our best chance.”

Colin Crouch is one of Britain’s and Europe’s leading social and political scientists. In 2000, he famously coined the term post-democracy, which has been widely drawn upon by scholars seeking to understand Europe’s contemporary condition and which has since gained renewed relevance in light of the ongoing European debt crisis.

Earlier this year, Professor Crouch went into conversation with the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck at a seminar organized by the Marxism(s) in Social Movements working group at the European University Institute. This interview was taken by email following that conversation. The accompanying Q&A with Professor Streeck can be found here.

Thanks to Eliska Drapalova and Lorenzo Cini for organizing the interview.

Professor Crouch, it has been fifteen years since you first coined the term “post-democracy”. How would you assess the validity of your thesis today, in light of the European debt crisis? Would it be fair to say that the long-standing tendency towards post-democracy has by now become a post-democratic condition?

We have certainly moved much further down the road to post-democracy, though civil society still retains some capacity to fight back, so perhaps we have not quite reached the ‘condition’ yet. The final outcome of the Greek crisis will tell us if democracy still has some capacity to shock the system.

Since I wrote my book we have had the first, Anglo-American, financial crisis, the response to which showed how the needs of banks were so important to our economies that other sectors of society and economy had to bow down to them. Then there has been the thoroughly undemocratic way in which the Eurocrisis, and especially the Greek crisis, has been handled.

Ahead of us looms the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which will undermine many of the achievements of both European and North American democracies in regulating global capitalism. These are dark days for democracy, and sadly the European Union is playing a leading role in undermining it.

Recent years have seen a remarkable proliferation of popular protests and social movements mobilizing explicitly around the question of democracy. How would you assess this wave of protests? Should they be seen as the early stirrings of a sort of Polanyian counter-movement against post-democracy?

Yes, I agree with you on this point too. It is not just that these protests seem like a Polanyian moment; we also seem to be back in the late 18th century, where popular protest is seen in little movements, often not having any strategic sense, sometimes consisting of little more than abstention.

It is sad that the great democratic institutions of the 20th century, like trade unions, are able to play such a little part in all this. We seem to be going back. Also, deep among the protest movements, and perhaps with more potential than any others, are xenophobic, nationalistic movements which do not take us forward at all, but back to a highly undesirable past.

Another theme at the top of protesters’ list of grievances is the question of corruption. There has been a spate of major corruption scandals involving political leaders lately. Should this corruption be seen as part of the tendency towards post-democracy?

Not all corruption is post-democracy; some of it is very pre-democratic, while there was always some corruption within democracy. But clearly the large amount of inequality that we have today, with vast sums of money available for those willing to do what is necessary to get it, acts as a major temptation.

And you are right to point to the intertwining of corporate and political elites. The increasing privatization or contracting-out of public services creates opportunities for many ‘dodgy’ deals between public officials and private firms, especially given the relaxation of former barriers that prevented former officials from using knowledge, etc. gained in public service in their new careers in firms to whom they used to award government contracts.

As you have observed in your recent book, ‘The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism’, the neoliberal doctrine has proven remarkably resilient in the face of the crisis. Do you see any change on the horizon? What political force or alternative set of ideas — if any — would be capable of replacing neoliberalism?

There are alternatives to neoliberalism, it is just that they lack powerful social carriers. A revitalization of trade unions would be the best chance for developing such a carrier, especially as union memberships become increasingly feminine. Women are in a better position than most men to appreciate the damage being done by the financialization of life and reductions in social citizenship.

Beyond that there is the very wry point that neoliberalism may find that it is increasingly allied with the xenophobic movements in its determination to fight social democracy. These movements may be helpful in crushing left-wing protests, but they also seek strong social policy and are hostile to neoliberalism’s globalization project.

At present moderate conservatives and neoliberals seem happier to work with the far right than with the moderate left, as the Danish and Norwegian cases show. But the contradictions in such alliances are so strong, that they may prove very unstable, as has been found already in Austria and the Netherlands.

In your latest book you also discuss the role of feminism in challenging post-democracy. This seems to contrast to some of your earlier work, in which gender did not play a very central role. How would you account for this evolution in your views? Do you see the emergence of a specifically female or feminist response to post-democracy?

Yes, it is a realization of something that was staring me in the face! In Post-Democracy I argued that the weakness of new democratic pressures was mainly a problem of the political weakness and lack of political identity among lower-paid workers in the services sectors; on other issues, such as the environment, gender and indeed race, there was a lot of activity.

What I failed to notice was that the majority of people working in middle- and low-paid jobs in services are women. Perhaps feminism, defined broadly, is the form being taken by that new political identity. As I said earlier, there are ways in which this might form a new social democratic agenda.

In industrial society social democracy was a movement that interpreted the interests of everyone through the eyes of the male worker — the family ‘breadwinner’. Perhaps in post-industrial society it will become a movement that interprets the interests of everyone through the eyes of the female worker — balancing work with the rest of life, and more aware than most men of the importance of social and health care, good schools, and many other public goods.

You also mention the importance of collective goods as crucial for human well-being. Recent years have witnessed the growing influence of the concept of “the commons” as an alternative to both the public and the private, state and market. Should we consider the commons as a new battleground for the re-definition of the role of state?

I prefer to see the “commons” as including the state. There are also hybrid institutions that are part of the state or public sector in a broad sense but not under the control of government – like public broadcasting services. These all need to be seen together. The idea of the commons as more or less excluding the state is mainly a project of our US colleagues, for whom campaigning for state action is almost impossible. We start from a stronger point in Europe. Let’s not lose it!

Read the accompanying interview with Wolfgang Streeck here.

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Colin Crouch

Colin Crouch is an English sociologist and political scientist, and Emeritus Professor at Warwick University. He is Vice-President for Social Sciences at the British Academy.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is an LSE Fellow in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine. His first book, Why Not Default? The Political Economy of Sovereign Debt, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

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