How Changing Understandings of Democracy Create New Possibilities for the Left

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, I gave a short talk for the Platypus Society at Goldsmiths‘ in London about interactions between democracy and leftism. The following post is a transcript of that talk.

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There are, I think, three different strategies for advancing left-wing politics:

  1. The traditional revolutionary approach, in which the left organises in preparation for an acute legitimacy crisis or “objective revolutionary situation”.
  2. The traditional reformist approach, in which the left attempts to construct members-based Labour Parties which compete in elections with the human and financial resources of worker civil society organisations, like unions.
  3. The new party capture approach, in which the left uses calls for “democracy” to institutionally hollow out already dominant bourgeois parties and guts the party elites from within.

With some reservations, I will argue for the party capture approach and against the other two approaches.

There are lots of little problems with the traditional revolutionary approach. It was one thing to call for revolutionary politics when the ordinary citizen was armed with the same musket or rifle the soldiers carried. Now there’s a big gap in hardware between the citizen and the state. It was one thing to argue that the military might defect to the left when the military was made up of draftees and conscripts. Now it is made up of professionals and skews heavily right-wing. It was one thing to argue for revolutionary politics when revolutionary states like the Soviet Union had some credibility as competitive, meaningful alternatives. Now these states are widely recognised by ordinary people to have been not only uncompetitive but also morally repugnant. It is irrelevant to what extent one thinks the prevailing view about the Soviet Union is true—that’s how most ordinary workers in western states feel about it.

There are similar small problems for the traditional reformist approach. Unions are declining in both membership and resources, and they are less capable of supporting these parties than in the past. To remain competitive, many of the post-war members-based parties have engaged in neoliberal triangulation and are not meaningfully left-wing anymore. The fact that they were members-based did not protect them from right-wing capture.

But there is a larger problem for both of these traditional approaches—they no longer track the concept of “democracy” in the way it is generally understood by 21st century people. Over the lifespan of democracy, democratic legitimation mechanics have constantly evolved and changed. There was a time when it was possible to call yourself a “democracy” despite property and gender restrictions on voting. That time is past, and the kind of political system which prevailed in the 19th century no longer strikes people at meaningfully “democratic”. The same is true of the 20th century approaches—they are now out of sync with what the term “democracy” means to our people.

In the past, movements for democracy often emphasised franchise expansion. But today advocates of democratization are increasingly looking to democratise the political parties themselves. This means taking the power to select candidates away from committees and smoke-filled rooms. Instead, they want candidates to be selected by ordinary people in a transparent, accountable fashion. The parties, to retain democratic legitimacy, have been slowly accommodating this movement. It has been carried furthest in the United States, where binding primaries now select candidates not just for president but for most down ballot races. In the states, you don’t have to be a party member or a registered supporter to vote in primaries, and many millions of people participate in them. Party and media elites attempt to curate the primaries with endorsements, dark money from oligarchs, and politically motivated news content. But they were unable to prevent Bernie Sanders from running a highly competitive race, and they were unable to stop Donald Trump from winning outright.

In the UK, Corbyn became leader principally because of decisions Ed Miliband made to legitimate the party to internal pro-democracy movements. This has created an alignment problem, in which the leader is out of sync with most of the MPs. Thusfar it has been impossible to remove the leader because of his support from ordinary Labour supporters, and this makes it likely that there will eventually need to be an institutional change in the way MPs are selected, moving the party further in the American direction. Miliband’s institutional schema is insufficiently stable and will likely give way to further pushes for democratisation within Labour.

In my view, these institutional changes create some new possibilities for the left. There are three key reasons for this:

  1. The neoliberal consensus is struggling to restore legitimacy post-2008. But rather than lead to calls for revolution or the formation of new competitive members-based parties, this has instead largely led to party capture movements.
  2. The ability of media moguls to gatekeep the discourse has been diminished by the rise of the internet and social media. This has only recently become a factor—it is now cheaper and easier than ever before to get competitive left-wing messages out, without catering to these tastemakers. This change is furthest advanced in America, where the market for independent media is largest. But it is still in development—we are going to go further in this direction, especially as demographics shift and younger, more online voters displace older voters with more traditional media pallets.
  3. The more party elites attempt to intervene openly in candidate selection, the more this conflicts with these new democratic legitimation mechanics, increasing pressure on elites to make further concessions for fear of demobilising base voters or pushing them to defect to fringe third party and independent candidates. Serious interventions by elites in party politics thus have serious long-term costs. They cannot intervene now without diminishing their ability to intervene later. In this respect the party elites increasingly find themselves in the position of the feudal aristocracy in the 19th century—the more power they attempt to deploy, the weaker they become.

For these reasons, I think the party-capture approach presents the left with a real possibility of winning power in some of the richest and most powerful democratic nation-states. Consequently I do not think representative democracy is itself the primary obstacle to left-wing success. The larger impediment is globalisation. As states become more economically integrated and trade volumes skyrocket, states become enmeshed in races to the bottom on taxes, regulations, and wages in bids to prevent jobs, investment, and their own citizens from migrating to foreign states. Attempts to undo this economic integration, by returning to capital controls, harder borders, and protectionism, result in severe economic shocks because the level of integration is now quite high. Left-wing governments who do these things have little hope of winning re-election, and therefore initially promising electoral victories can turn to ashes in their mouths.

This is especially true in the European context, where EU institutions have created considerable economic integration without the accompanying political integration required to manage it. Without strong regional political institutions, decision-making defaults to the powerful states, and that means Germany can inflict austerity and labour market reforms on other states without limit.

So in Europe, left-wing politics requires not merely the election of left-wing governments at the national level, but substantial revision of European institutions so that economic integration can be politically managed. This means a left turn in Europe requires a whole international coalition of left-wing governments, all of whom are in office at the same with roughly the same conception of the problem and heavily overlapping notions of the institutional solution. This is much more challenging to achieve.

Prospects may be better in the United States, because it is already a large, powerful, united political bloc. The difficulty in America is the sheer number of offices that must be won to accomplish anything. The American left must not only take the Democratic Party from the establishment which still dominates it, it must then defeat the Republican Party in hundreds of congressional races and compete for senators, state legislators, and governorships in deep red states. This requires a considerable amount of social movement building, beyond the mere election of someone like Bernie Sanders to the presidency.

So when we look at democracy today, the question is not whether the left can win—I am increasingly confident that we can compete. The question is whether the left can win enough stuff at one time to overcome the internal institutional barriers it faces in the USA and the external institutional barriers it faces in Europe. While left-wing forces are increasingly electorally competitive through means of party capture, they still have a long way to go in finding replacement political organisations for the declining unions and in fully utilising the power of independent and online media. Given the low material barriers to entry, it remains shocking how uncompetitive the left is on platforms like YouTube, and organisations like the Democratic Socialists of America are not sufficiently engaged in the electoral process.

Unfortunately, it is all too common for people on the left to respond to these challenges by retreating into alternative approaches which have no real prospect of going anywhere. Revolutions and new members-based third parties have no traction in the 21st century. In the United States, members-based parties are even illegal in many states, because the American conception of party democracy is now completely oriented around primaries with wide electorates. Far too many people are hiding from the reality that the approaches that might have found success a century ago are now exhausted. As difficult and as challenging as it may be, party-capture is now the principal path open to the left, and it must rise to the occasion and make a go of it. If it does not, this contemporary crisis may instead lead to a turn even further right, as a post-Brexit UK considers a free trade agreement with Donald Trump’s America.