Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Exit from comment view mode. Click to hide this space
6

Purpose beyond Power

BUDAPEST – The re-run of the Greek parliamentary election on June 17 is only the latest symptom of the most serious crisis to plague Western democracies and open societies since the 1960’s. Liberal democracies in the West today are struggling to avoid – and in doing so are exacerbating – a crisis of identity, which puts the existing social contract at risk and threatens their implosion.

The end of the Cold War bequeathed our leaders with a new set of governance challenges, which promptly grew in magnitude, in large part owing to faster globalization, the consequences of the 1980’s economic liberalization, and the 1990’s revolution in information technology. These challenges, insufficiently addressed, soon led many to question the sustainability of liberal democracy’s appeal at home and its universality abroad, and to probe the alleged merits of the “Chinese model,” best characterized as a form of authoritarian or state capitalism.

The financial meltdown of 2008, which soon metamorphosed into the deepest Western economic recession since the 1930’s, added fuel to the fire, as policymakers hunkered down in a non-transparent crisis-management mode, condoning massive state intervention in the economy and socialization of private-sector losses on a previously unprecedented scale. The resulting fiscal austerity plunged many below the poverty line and accelerated economic inequality, while many private institutions, having caused the 2008 bust, recovered on the public dime.

Adding insult to injury, in Greece and Italy, two of the hardest-hit countries, financial markets effectively deposed elected, if imperfect, governments. The hapless former Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, had to resign last year after daring to suggest a referendum to decide the economic future of his fellow citizens. (Ironically, the upcoming election will de facto serve as the referendum that Papandreou suggested in October 2011.)

At the root of the European crisis (and its equivalent crisis in the United States) is a shift in the configuration of economic, social, and political power. Liberal democracies and open societies have traditionally relied on a fine balance of these three forms of power. Over the last two decades, our elites have been unable to maintain it, as economic power has long since gone global and dislodged itself from political power, often corrupting democratic politics in the process.

At the same time, social power, which provides the oxygen for democratic legitimacy, has been marginalized and disillusioned, and is increasingly turning away from the traditional transmission belts of politics. The result is an erosion of the stature of mainstream political parties and trade unions, and all-time low levels of trust in governments writ large. Powered by new media, identities are beginning to form around new networks of social interaction that often defy state boundaries and have little connection to liberal democracy’s traditional institutions of governance.

The refusal of today’s elites to promote an effective balance of the three powers – to recognize a larger purpose beyond maximizing each individual power – has visibly translated into a waning regard for the public good. This has dramatic consequences for liberal democracy and open societies.

With political power diminished (and sometimes usurped) by the transformation of its economic counterpart, and its detachment from its social base rendering it increasingly illegitimate, this is the hour of populists and extremists. We now see them feast on enfeebled democracies in many European countries, as fringe movements become serious contenders for power and threaten to wipe out the achievements of more than 60 years of European integration. In the US, the political system has descended into seemingly intractable partisan paralysis, gravely undermining the system of checks and balances and generating a deepening sense of malaise and frustration.

We stand at a critical juncture. Recreating democracy and open societies in a global age requires investment in new ideas to rebalance political, economic, and social power at both the national and the global level. Nationally, we need to experiment with new mechanisms for policymaking and implementation, reconnecting democratic institutions to citizens and emerging networks of civil society. Globally, we must allow political and social power to establish their rightful place next to economic power.

Mere tinkering will not do; we need a transformation of the global institutional architecture. Unless we can establish a global socio-political space, we cannot legitimately deliberate over the provision of global public goods, let alone deliver them successfully. The push toward such a space needs to be spearheaded by risk takers – social and political entrepreneurs who are unafraid to work across lines traditionally dividing sectors and states, and who help to re-create a global community of purpose beyond power.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once described the Berlin Wall as a mirror. In view of the Soviet system, it was indeed easy to overlook our own weakness and fallibilities. As the Wall came down, our elites struggled to maintain the fiction of an inherently imminent victory march for liberal democracy worldwide, now laid bare by the economic crisis on both sides of the Atlantic.

We have lost two valuable decades to respond adequately to globalization and the crisis of liberal democracy and open societies. It is time to begin an honest reflection about power and its purpose in today’s rapidly changing world.

Exit from comment view mode. Click to hide this space
Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (6)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedGreg Rushing

    I find this article quite vague. "reach across party lines"well, duh. Of course this needs to be done. It is always better for citizens when their self-serving politicians act like disinterested statesmen. But the trick is to think of a way to incentivize them into doing this in a reliable manner. For example, both term limits and being elected "President for life" are possible solutions to the problem of politicians being obsessed with short term political gamesmanship. But these two solutions may raise other problems. The author does not offer any realistic SOLUTIONS for actually accomplishing this aspirational goal.

  2. CommentedKevin Lim

    "At the root of the European crisis (and its equivalent crisis in the United States) is a shift in the configuration of economic, social, and political power. Liberal democracies and open societies have traditionally relied on a fine balance of these three forms of power. Over the last two decades, our elites have been unable to maintain it, as economic power has long since gone global and dislodged itself from political power, often corrupting democratic politics in the process"

    Rubbish. First, this is not a problem plauging liberal democracies. New Zealand, Chile, Australia and Canada arent having any problems. This is a European problem plain and simple. The fact that the author concludes that liberal democracy is under threat simply reveals his eurocentrc view of the world.

    Second, each country has come to this dire state in different ways. In Spain, it was an asset bubble that rocked the boat, so arguably economic power has disrupted political life. But in Greece, it was the political elites abusing economic power to ensure their short term political survival that got them into a mess. Grossly inflating their civil service beyond all reason, allowing a culture of tax evasion to persist (a political decision, it was routine b4 an election to tell tax collectors to stop doing their jobs).

    There is no grand threat to liberal democracy. The roots of this current crisis are awesome only in their magnitude, but otherwise utterly banal and predictable in their nature.

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    This very precise review article says the following:

    "...We stand at a critical juncture. Recreating democracy and open societies in a global age requires investment in new ideas to rebalance political, economic, and social power at both the national and the global level. Nationally, we need to experiment with new mechanisms for policymaking and implementation, reconnecting democratic institutions to citizens and emerging networks of civil society. Globally, we must allow political and social power to establish their rightful place next to economic power.
    Mere tinkering will not do; we need a transformation of the global institutional architecture. Unless we can establish a global socio-political space, we cannot legitimately deliberate over the provision of global public goods, let alone deliver them successfully..."

    I could not agree more, we are at crossroads, and our decision will decide our immediate future and even our long term survival.
    On the other hand I do not fully agree with the following statement:

    "...The push toward such a space needs to be spearheaded by risk takers – social and political entrepreneurs who are unafraid to work across lines traditionally dividing sectors and states, and who help to re-create a global community of purpose beyond power..."

    Risk taking will not do, we have already done enough experimenting and wasting resources. This is why before we do anything, even planning we need a global education program for each and every one of us from leaders to the common people of the street regardless of culture, education, talent, age or nationality.
    Before we move we need to understand what it means to live in a global, interconnected world, what it means that the whole of humanity and the environment around us is totally interdependent, how it is possible to live within available resources, still providing mutual, equal necessities to everybody.
    The information for this education is already around us, we simply have to put it together into a cohesive, complete picture providing us with the blueprint of the global, integral reality we exist in.

  4. CommentedJohn Aho

    I like this analysis but continue to fear the growing darkness of our times. Yes, there is a purpose beyond power, but there is no money in it and our people has been trained aggressively for generations to equate money with purpose. The regulatory, political and media capture of America's democracy by moneyed elites has been breathtaking to observe. The ease of this takeover probably has much to do with the relentless creation of a consumerist society. In addition, tens of thousands of "management consultants" continue to canvass the world, pursuing the project to monetize all human interaction at the expense of local community and ethics. The decades lost that you refer to seem to have begun (at least in America) with the rise of Reagan (and the rejection of Carter and his impossibly naive call for shared sacrifice and public trust). Part of the problem is that the legitimate spaces that individuals previously occupied to promote values other than power (and money) have been serially corrupted and undermined. What sane and decent person would enter politics in the current system? Or the church? Or social work? They are all headed to the dustbin or revamped to serve corporate interests. Instead, what is left over is the doctrine of the corporation itself, a particularly soulless ideology, where increased short-term profit is the fiduciary duty and very meaning of all human activity. With capital flight now a global prospect, domestic democracies are simply not able to rule. Instead, the bond markets dictate major economic policy. This is intolerable to many humans (and strangely comforting that is Greece that finds it so hard to swallow this lifeless pill), who desire to control their own fate and are completely disillusioned with the financial system that elites have bribed or forced upon them. You rightly note that "mere tinkering" will not do, and yet also warn of the rise of radical politics. This seems somewhat contradictory, what may be needed is a rise of a radical center (if such a thing is possible) to brush away crony capitalism and its enablers (and reset the absurd amounts of wealth being plundered at the top), while reforming the state project of institutionalized unproductivity at the bottom. Those are truly radical proposals, but likely necessary if we as a species are to survive.

  5. CommentedAlok Shukla

    Very aptly said private sector losses have been taken care off by tax payer. Austerity is imposed at the individual i.e. no bail out for common citizen. Irony of the moment is what we believe in the western world i.e. free markets, democracy, and preaching the virtues of austerity to bailed out countries by IMF and when the moment of truth came we have done exactly opposite of what we have said so far. Seeds of present rot lies in the past what we need at this moment is some plain talking and soul searching in society and leaders with some spine. At least this way we will restore the trust between the polity and population and this will lead to slow painful organic growth. Be sure there will be no quick fixes for the mess we are in.

  6. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    An excellent piece of work. The roots of the problem are in the past. When there was a perceived threat to the existence of capitalism from the Soviet system the response was to compromise between the classes. It has been thought of as 'the bribe' of capitalism.

    Since the end of Eastern European Communism this bribe has been withdrawn. The view that we need to rebalance our society and the power dynamic between social, economic and political is hopeful more than realistic. Power is rarely allowed to slip away.

    This time the threat to capitalism must not be merely external.

Featured