Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Fareed Zakaria’s Dream

Fareed Zakaria, 2011. Martin Dam Kristensen/flickr

If there was a machine capable of detecting reticence and hostility towards democracy there’s no doubt it would be working overtime in this European crisis. It would buzz and bleep in more than a few locations, some of them unexpected, including (it turns out) the studios of CNN. Earlier this week, their big-audience presenter Fareed Zakaria (he’s also Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine) proposed a cure for the ills of the Eurozone: less democracy.

Zakaria began by acknowledging Paul Krugman’s point that the present austerity consensus is ruining the prospects for job-creating growth. Zakaria claimed, on the basis of ‘having been in Europe briefly earlier this week’, that Europe’s political elites have understood the principle. The sticking point, he said, is that at the same time they’re sure that economic recovery won’t lead to the balanced budgets and fiscal discipline that global money markets expect. The governing elites (he meant Angela Merkel and her allies) believe that many of the countries in trouble ‘have economies that are uncompetitive, hobbled by bad regulatory and tax frameworks and also by large and inefficient governments, with ever-increasing entitlements doled out to their citizens.‘

The deepening crisis, Zakaria noted, offers a golden opportunity to put an end to all this inefficient and wasteful welfare state stuff. Global money markets have a right to insist that governments 'get their houses in order’. But there’s a catch, he concluded. During the past few decades, politicians have grown used to winning elections by ‘promising voters more benefits, more pensions and more health care’. So in this crisis democracy has become part of the problem. ‘The question’, he concluded, is whether governments can now ‘get elected offering less?’

A satirical engraving published by William Humphrey, A Democrat, London 1793. my collection

Here’s an answer: only if (a) millions of people are willing to let the powerful re-write their sense of history, that is, let themselves be hoodwinked into accepting explanations that reverse the causes and effects of this crisis, which was after all triggered not by profligate welfare states but by reckless and ruinous banking and credit sector practices that evaded democratic controls; if (b) ideals and customs of universal citizenship are politically wrecked, consigned to the gutter by the proponents of austerity, abandoned by the democratic movements, civic initiatives and political forces that have so far been left behind in this crisis, but which (if they can pull themselves together) still remain the best hope for protecting citizens who want to regain their livelihoods, and their dignity; and if © millions of people turn their backs on democratic traditions, give in to Putinism, or embrace some or other version of Zakaria’s free market/strong state liberalism, so letting themselves be dragged backwards, no doubt with the help of armed force, towards the 18th and 19th centuries, to past times when ‘the people’ were widely thought by liberals and powerful others to be selfish, stupid, prone to fits of violence and interested ultimately in working less and living more.

These are pretty big asks, but as this crisis within the Atlantic region worsens, anything can now happen. Fareed Zakaria’s liberal dream may come true. Much hereon will depend however upon the actions of citizens, and whether they’re prepared, in large numbers, anti-democracy detectors in hand, to resist the deadly combination of austerity, unregulated money markets and emergency rule.