Vol. 34 No. 1 · 5 January 2012

Will we be all right in the end?

David Runciman writes about the current European crisis

3029 words

The recent Brussels summit to save the euro was a strange affair, and not just because of the quixotic behaviour of the British delegation. It was presided over by two politicians who were giving out a very mixed message. Nicolas Sarkozy told the world in the run-up to the meeting that this was the moment of truth not just for the currency but for the future of democracy. Europe only had a few days to save itself: ‘Never has Europe been in so much danger,’ he announced. Get this wrong and ‘there will be no second chance.’ It was salvation or the abyss. Angela Merkel wanted people to know that it was important not to be rushed; any solution would take time. ‘The European crisis will not be solved in one fell swoop,’ she declared. ‘It is a process and this process will take years.’ So which one was it: now or never, or wait and see?

Probably it was both. The two halves of ‘Merkozy’ were simply reflecting the way most of us feel about this crisis. We are in a split mind about it. The whole thing is simultaneously deeply threatening and somehow remote. The worst-case scenarios are so ghastly that it’s almost impossible to fathom what they would mean, but for that reason it’s equally hard to imagine mature democracies deciding to walk off a cliff. This is what gives the crisis its peculiar character. We know we are in trouble but we don’t know how much trouble, because we have an underlying suspicion that we will pull back from the edge, if only we could be clear about where the edge is. Democracies often look like they are in a total pickle, but they always get out of the mess in the end. Don’t they?

The presiding cliché of this crisis has been Churchill’s famous line: democracy is the worst system of government apart from all the others that have been tried. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read or heard someone say this over the past year (when I tell people I’m writing a book about democracy in crisis it’s the thing they most often say back). It’s a cliché because it’s true. But how much help is it to know this? It partly depends on why we think it’s true. The conventional explanation for the superiority of democracy to the alternatives is that democracies hold regular elections. Democracies can get rid of their bad leaders whereas autocracies get stuck with theirs, since autocrats are notoriously bad at knowing when their time is up. They have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and this past year has provided plenty of evidence of what a laborious and unpredictable business that can be. In democracies we don’t get the satisfaction of tracking our failed leaders down and executing them in a ditch. Instead we have to watch them making a small fortune peddling their memoirs. But that’s a small price to pay for avoiding the misery of being governed by people who can only be prised from office by force.

Still, elections can’t be the whole story. To start with, democracies are perfectly capable of replacing bad leaders with even worse ones. If you took a visitor from another planet to the United States and explained that regular elections are what gives the American system its edge over, say, the Chinese system, you might get a puzzled response. So if people have had enough of Obama then all they have to do is pick one of these other guys and everything will be all right? These other guys? Are you sure? The other problem is that elections are not much help in a crisis. When democracies are in serious trouble, elections always come at the wrong time. Maynard Keynes, the posthumous guru of the current crisis, made this point in the aftermath of the First World War, and again in the early 1930s. When something really momentous is at stake, the last thing you need is democratic politicians trawling for votes. Keynes readily accepted that democracies were far better at renewing themselves than the supposedly more efficient dictatorships. He just wished they wouldn’t try to do it when they were struggling to stop the world descending into chaos.

These worries have never gone away. Who or what might the Greek people vote for, given the choice? Or the Italians? The Spanish have just done what electorates usually do when the money runs out: they got rid of the sitting government and replaced it with the only alternative on offer. No doubt this made them feel better, but has it left them any better off? The French will get their chance next spring. It will be nice to see Sarkozy get his comeuppance, if that is what happens, but it will not be nice to see what has to be said and done and promised and trivialised in order to get there.

If elections are not the answer, then what explains the ability of the world’s leading democracies to survive crises, something which has been demonstrated time and again over the last century? My best guess is that their crucial advantage lies in being more politically flexible than the alternatives. That is, in a crisis democracies can experiment with autocracy but autocracies can’t experiment with democracy, not even in small doses. They daren’t, for fear of losing control. This is the real problem for the Chinese system. At some point, perhaps at some point quite soon, China’s leaders will face a critical situation in which they would be better off if they could find an outlet for popular dissatisfaction with the regime. But they will be extremely nervous of opening that door for fear of what lies behind it. So they will be stuck. Democracies can put democracy on hold and get away with it; if autocrats suspend their autocratic powers, they tend not to get them back.

That’s the good news for democracy. People who have announced that Europe’s current experiments with technocracy are a fundamental betrayal of democratic principles are being premature: it could work. But here’s the bad news: there is no guarantee that it will work. The conditions have to be right. The historical evidence suggests that democracies can be flexible only under certain circumstances. To start with, they must not be too poor. In countries where per capita GDP falls below a certain level (usually estimated at around US $7000), democratic experiments with emergency rule often end in disaster. It’s the temporary autocrats who don’t give power back. Political scientists take these thresholds very seriously. Above the line, democracies appear pretty much invulnerable, but below it, even safe-looking democracies might suddenly collapse into something worse. During the economic contraction of the mid-1970s per capita GDP in New Zealand fell perilously close to the cut-off point (it got down to about $10,000). It is hard to imagine what a military coup in 1970s New Zealand would have looked like. But it’s not impossible to imagine. And it’s certainly not hard to imagine what a military coup in 1970s Greece would have looked like.

All the countries of the European Union, even Greece, are currently streets above this threshold (last year the Greeks were at around $28,000, making them slightly richer per person than New Zealanders, though that would not be true any more; for comparison, Tunisia is around $9000, Egypt around $6000, the Democratic Republic of Congo around $350). They are also well above the other key threshold for democratic survival, which is demographic. Countries where the median age is in the twenties or below are much less likely to wait out a democratic crisis than countries where it is in the thirties or above. Young people, especially young men, are impatient and reckless; older people are more willing to give things time. The median age in Greece is 42.5, and in Italy it’s 43.5, one of the highest figures in the world (for comparison, in Tunisia it is 29.6; in Egypt 24.3; and in the Democratic Republic of Congo 17.4). This poses all sorts of economic challenges for Greece and Italy in the long run, but it does at least mean that their democracies are less vulnerable to short-term shocks.

What no one can know is what happens when relatively wealthy democracies suddenly and permanently become a great deal poorer, even if they don’t fall below the threshold of doom. There are simply not enough examples of this happening to be confident of the outcome. In those circumstances, do temporary autocrats give their power back? Well, you might say, we’re going to find out. But that’s another puzzle about the current European crisis: power hasn’t actually been handed over to temporary autocrats. It’s been given to technocrats, which is different.

The assumption is that experts’ superior knowledge gives them the right to take decisions, and ensures that people will abide by those decisions. Yet we live in an age which is deeply suspicious of experts, particularly of the kind currently trying to sort out the mess in Greece and Italy: economic experts, drawn from the world of banking. The past few years have not been a good advertisement for their particular brand of superior knowledge. Moreover, in democracies, the problem does not tend to be a lack of knowledge. These bankers were not having their views suppressed by the regimes they have replaced; they were simply not being listened to in the way they would have liked. The problem for democracies in a crisis is not that no one knows what to do, it’s that no one knows how to get other people to do what they are told.

In that sense, the turn to technocracy looks like a diversion. It served its purpose in allowing the Greeks and Italians to ditch busted governments without holding elections. But if the technocrats are meant to sort out the mess, instead of simply providing a bit of breathing space before elected politicians get another crack at it, then they will need some autocratic powers. They will have to be able to force their nasty medicine down the throats of kicking and screaming populations. Something else will be needed too. The biggest barrier at present to a solution of the Eurozone crisis is the reluctance of German politicians to challenge the prejudices of German voters (in large part because most German politicians seem to share them). It is hard to see how Italy and Spain, never mind Greece, could be rescued without the German government choosing to ignore the wishes of the German people, and perhaps even the injunctions of the German constitutional court. The hard truth is that democracies do not save themselves by flirting with technocracy. They have to flirt with something nastier.

But those flirtations also have to have limits. Democracies have survived worse crises than the present one because their previous experiments with non-democratic methods have always been time-limited. In war, for instance, democratic governments have often had to resort to emergency powers, but when the war is over, those powers get given back. That won’t work this time. The present crisis is not a war, and it’s not going to be easy to tell when it is over. We won’t be celebrating Victory in Europe Day anytime soon. So this is where elections come in. They are needed to provide an artificial break-point for autocratic experiments. Democracies have to hold elections not because they are democracies, but because sometimes, by necessity, they aren’t.

The problem for Europe is that although there will eventually be elections in Greece, Italy and elsewhere, there are no plans to hold meaningful elections at the Europe-wide level. If the solution to the crisis involves the reallocation of national powers to unelected centralised authorities in an attempt to create a fiscal union, then there is no artificial break-point for this drift away from democracy. The thought of national elections gives Europe’s technocrats sleepless nights, but it’s the thought of Europe-wide elections that really scares them. Ask the people of Europe to elect a president and what would you get? Perhaps something, or someone, worse than the disease you are trying to cure.

So what to do? The overriding temptation is to muddle along, and rely on the experimental qualities of democracy to find a way through. The present situation looks bleak, but the great advantage that democracies have is that they do not get stuck. They can always try something new. This is a comfort, but it also represents perhaps the greatest hazard of the present situation: it can easily turn into a comfort blanket. This is the first real democratic crisis of the era of democratic triumphalism, which began in 1989. All the history of the previous hundred years suggests that wealthy democracies do eventually find the solution to their problems, because they are more adaptable than their rivals, and have more to lose. We know this, it’s the reason democracy triumphed at the end of the 20th century. And because we know this, we are tempted to assume it will all be all right in the end, so long as we cling on to what we know.

Tocqueville said that the overriding vice of the democratic age would turn out to be fatalism. He was right. Because the inhabitants of democracies can be confident that in the long run their system works better than the alternatives, they will tend to drift along with their fate. This is not irrational. Following his friend John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville distinguished two kinds of fatalism. There was what Mill called, in the language of the time, ‘Oriental’ fatalism, which is the superstitious belief that our destiny has been decided in advance and there is nothing we can do about it. And then there was ‘Western’ fatalism, which is the belief that we can know how things will turn out, because the scientific order of the world follows regular patterns. Increased knowledge tends to puncture Oriental fatalism (including in present-day China), but it reinforces Western fatalism, because the scientific order of the world does follow regular patterns. This is true of politics as well. Political science can show – and over the past thirty years it has shown – that democracies have real advantages over other systems of government. It is our knowledge of this fact that has made it increasingly hard for democracies to know what they should be doing. They are hampered by their knowledge that things will probably turn out all right.

It was part of Tocqueville’s genius to recognise that democratic fatalism does not simply manifest itself as thumb-twiddling passivity. Just as there are two kinds of fatalism so there are two kinds of fatalist: those who resign themselves to their fate and those who embrace it. This second group is often angry and impatient. They throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want. What makes them fatalists is that they don’t see any alternatives to the way things are, they simply want to be free to drift along with their fate. All this makes David Cameron a classic democratic fatalist, rather than the pragmatist he likes to present himself as. He certainly behaved like one when he exercised his veto in Brussels. The definition of a pragmatic conservative is someone who wants things to change so that they can stay the same. Cameron seems to want things to stay the same so that they can change.

But in a sense we are all democratic fatalists now. One of the most striking things about this crisis is that the basic divide it has revealed is not between fundamentally different political views of the future, but simply between optimists and pessimists. Looking back on all the hundreds of articles and commentaries I have read, this is the theme that dominates. Either we’re fucked or we aren’t. Either we’re almost out of time or we’ve always got more time. The optimists believe that democracy will be all right because it has always been all right. Indeed, in every crisis of the past hundred years the people who have written off established democracies have been made to look like fools: the doom-mongers always overstate their case because they mistake short-term difficulties for long-term weaknesses. The pessimists believe that this time it’s different: European democracies have finally got themselves into a bind from which there is no obvious means of escape. American democracy is not far behind on the road to ruin. But the pessimists aren’t proposing any alternatives to democracy, they simply want us to know that its luck may finally have run out.

That’s what makes this crisis for democracy different from any that have gone before. We might be worried that the Chinese are stealing a march on us with their neat, streamlined, ruthless, election-free politics. While we’re squabbling and tinkering, they are deciding what needs to be done and then doing it. But no one in the West is seriously advocating that we should ditch our democracies and adopt Chinese autocratic capitalism. We want the system we’ve got, because we know it’s the least bad one on offer. In the past, democracies in crisis have always had to fear being swept away by some plausible ideological alternative. The current argument between the optimists and the pessimists has all the hallmarks of an ideological dispute but without any of the content. We don’t have an alternative. The fear is that the political system we’ve relied on in the past might not be up to the task at hand, but it’s the only one we’ve got. You’d think that would make it easier for us to fix it. My fear is that it’s going to make it harder. It makes it more likely that we will drift along with our fate, and into the unknown.

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