Democracy’s recession


By Adam Price

We experience time in two ways, the American philosopher William Connolly teaches us. The first is through the world of everyday being, where things may change – the sun sets, the sun rises - but life as a whole stays the same. In the world of becoming, ordinary time itself stands still and the world shifts on its axis as a new age is born. These are the asteroid showers of human evolution, what the ancient Greeks knew as kairo-logical , not chronological time, the pivot-points of history. Is what we see at the foot of St. Paul’s (or on Syntagma Square, Puerta del Sol, Rothschild Avenue etc) such a time of transformation?

Ask the modern Greeks if we are living in an age of business as usual and your words will soon be drowned out by the sound of saucepans and water cannon. The birthplace of democracy has now shamefully abandoned democracy much to the relief of other European leaders. But it’s not just in Athens that the people have returned to the polis. The entire world has become an echo chamber of dissent.

The harbingers of revolution are not just the radicalized voices of the young and dispossessed; they are also to be felt in the stark warnings of those much closer to the centre of power. Greece’s economic pain may be too much for a liberal democracy to bear, John Major avers darkly. Former Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says we have entered an age of “black swans” and “sovereign failure”. And most eerie of all is the dean of Asia’s most influential public policy school, Kishore Mahbubani’s prophetic pronouncement in the Financial Times just a few days before the encampment began in Zucotti park:

“…the US political system is dangerously flawed. The American people feel in their bones that something has gone awfully wrong. They know that the financial elite is in bed with the political elite. The interests of the banks will be taken care of; the interests of the people will not. Yet while all this is happening, politics is on autopilot.”

It’s no wonder that America is mired, according to one commentator, in a “bear market in trust”. In the latest Gallup poll Congress received an approval rating of just 9%. It crosses party lines, with majorities of both Democrats (65%) and Republicans (92%) expressing dissatisfaction with American governance. In the European Union we fare little better with two thirds of us registering our distrust.

Democracy’s recession is felt hardest among the young, the under-employed and over-indebted twenty-somethings that are the stalwarts of the global occupation. In the US the economic roots of alienation lie not just in the recent crash but the decade of jobless growth that preceded it. The Age of Apple, the upswing period from the 1980s on of what economists call the fifth “Kondratieff wave”, associated with the rise of the personal computer, mobile telecommunications and the Internet, was able to absorb young graduates as knowledge workers in the new economy. After the crash put paid to that, the strategy was to pump the economy high with cheap loans and easy mortgages.

And so we find ourselves living through the biggest economic come-down of our lives. Except the generation with the headache wasn’t even invited to the party. No wonder they’re angry. The “mass democratization of credit” has ended up discrediting democracy among the masses. And the death of Jobs is the punctuation point to an economic age where jobs themselves have disappeared for millions.

The last time a majority of Americans distrusted democracy it was the era of Watergate, Vietnam and the Oil Crisis. An early forerunner of Davos – the Rockefeller Tripartite Commission – decided, in its report on vanishing trust, the answer was not more democracy but less. "The effective operation of a democratic political system” argued Samuel Huntington “usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups." Technocracy would succeed where politics failed, in other words, the kind of idea currently being pushed in Berlusconi’s Italy.

The problem for global elites this time around is that while there is plenty of disaffection on the global street, apathy is in short supply. Baby boomers may have had Saul Alinsky, but millennials have something more powerful: they have each other, continuously and globally, through Facebook, Twitter and Livestream. With this unique constellation of forces – austerity and gridlock in a globally connected world - the crisis-this-time may yet turn out to be, in the terms of complexity theory, a criticality – a tipping point when an old system, beset by tension and rigidity, suddenly collapses, allowing something new to emerge in its stead.

What precisely that new age will be is impossible to discern at this point. But to dismiss this movement as a passing fad or the usual rabble is to underestimate what Walter Benjamin used to call the “now-ness of history”. Occupy is a carnival of demands, from the imaginatively romantic (“ending greed”) to the unabashedly modest (“better financial regulation”). Its true radicalism may be more one of process – the tireless and leaderless consensus-building of the “people’s mic” and “sparkling” hands - than of policy. But with politics paralysed, and the economy driven deeper and deeper into permafrost, from these tented cities in a world in pain, a world of becoming – a new sense of human possibility – may yet be in the first stages of conception. 

Adam Price is a former Plaid Cymru MP, now a Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a supporter of OccupyBoston.