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Mark Mazower and the crisis of democracy

March 1, 2013

Historian Mark Mazower writes in the Financial Times today that “those (in Europe) preaching austerity do not see themselves as contributing to a crisis of democracy, but they are” and that the “legitimacy of the democratic order itself” is threatened.  This is a thoughtful piece but I think Mazower elevates form over substance a bit here by minimizing the fundamentally undemocratic nature of capitalism.

It should be self-evident that a society arranged like ours, in which a tiny fraction controls all significant levers of economic power and is able to decree, through the impersonal laws of orthodox money and consolidated oligopolistic “markets”, how and to what purpose the vast majority will live, cannot be congruent with democracy.  That the actual formal institutions of democracy perpetuate this tyranny is prima facie proof they are not in fact truly democratic.

The compatibility of democracy with concentrated power has always been a source of great tension.  Perhaps a temporary shaky truce was possible in older times when larger percentages at least had their own land to fall back on as a means of survival.  Now, though, virtually everyone is a landless “employee”, a modern day serf, whose very survival is almost completely determined by the whims of higher forces.

Our “order” is not democracy; it’s capitalism – the unbridled tyrannical dominance of a tiny minority – hidden behind facades of formal democracy.  The crisis, then, can’t be one of a democracy that doesn’t exist; it’s rather a crisis of democratic facades which quickly translates into a crisis of the broader “order” itself.  The key question is what happens as the facades crumble – do we move toward real democracy or to the opposite extreme?  We all hope for the former of course, but the author rightly lays out the darker option – a descent into an even more brutal tyranny.

(The achievements of the 1950s and 1960s) now look in danger of being undone.  For it is not written in stone that Europe will always be identified in the minds of its citizens with growth and democracy.  A different future may lie ahead in which Europe is identified instead with stagnation, unemployment, and tyranny.

From → Wealth & Poverty

  1. Vincent permalink

    I’m not sure democracy ever truly existed in the United States, and the large percentages of land owners you refer to, I can only guess, is a subset of a greater “white society”. Order, at least in the US, originated from an already privileged, landed gentry, who codified a system into laws in which the appropriation of indigenous people’s habitat, along with the institutional exploitation of labor became acceptable advancement of (white) society.

  2. Good points Vincent. It’s quite clear that true democracy never existed in the US and the constitution itself, focusing as it does on property rights, is Exhibit A. Our so called Founding Fathers were quite open in expressing their fears of democracy. The suppression of the Indians and blacks of course is a huge historical crime. That said, the US had a very high level of white owned family farms in the 18th to mid 19th century. This did, I think, provide a major relief valve against the oppression of capitalism since they could always fall back on a degree of self sufficiency. Not so today.

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