Book Review: Democracy under stress-The global crisis and beyond

This book focuses on the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its implications for democracy. Why and how did the crisis come about? Are there any instructive lessons to be drawn from comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s? What are the democratic response mechanisms to cope with serious crises? Do they work? Is China a new trend setter? Do values matter? Are global democratic rules a possibility? These are some of the key questions addressed in the volume.

As more academic literature is likely to emerge on the global financial crisis, Democracy under stress is an interesting edited volume on the topic that at the same time is even more elucidative on the current state of political science. I really liked the range of contributors from 7 countries and 3 continents and the fact that this isn’t just a range of essays written by ‘usual suspects’. Although established social and political science academics, many don’t have a track record of English-language publications or a well-known digital presence. But once I started to read the contributions I really felt a sense of disappointment, at some points even frustration. To be very clear: There is absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with the contributions. They are relatively easy to understand for academic publications, they cover a broad range of topics from history, liberal democratic theory, case studies from China or questions of popular culture and transnational governance. The book is well-edited and Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, one of the editors provides an excellent conclusion to the volume in which he links the different contributions together – something that is often poorly done in edited books. Hence, my disappointment doesn’t stem so much from the ‘factual’ aspects of the book, but from the ‘discursive’ dimension that actually made me lamnet for the contemporary state of established political science academia.
As the chapters unfold, many authors cling to old-fashioned, abstract and oftentimes naive theoretical conceptions of democracy that are shared without qualifications and reflections. Ursula J. Van Beek, the co-editor of the book, sets the tone in her introduction The crisis that shook the world. Right from the beginning we are told that there was a financial ‘earthquake’ (p.11) in 2008 and that the nature of the crisis is marked by the events in 2008. All the other contributors buy into the ‘event-ness’ of the crisis, rather than asking whether the ‘crisis of democracy’ may have started years, maybe even decades, earlier when the socio-political, financial and legal foundations were laid for the crisis. But the weakness of many contributions is that they are hiding behind well-known and often repeated phrases: What does it mean that ‘the deregulation of the 1990s’ contributed to the crisis or ‘capital market liberalisation in the 1990s opened up markets to the free flow of short-term, hot, speculative money’ (p.187)? Many processes are masked in abstract terms, often without subjects. No mentioning of lobbyists, politician’s close ties with the financial industry (I’m pretty sure the words ‘Goldman Sachs’ don’t appear in the whole book) or a social climate, often supported by tabloid journalism and underfunded academics, that ‘reforms’ that had to be made to appease ‘the markets’ were inevitable in a globalised world. Dirk Berg-Schlosser’s concluding remarks that ‘what we know so far is that the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 did not have any serious political repercussions’ (p.57) can only be justified by a strict theoretical political science analysis: Yes, compared to the world in the 1930s and given the fact that civil wars in the EU have not yet broken out, the crisis did not have an impact. But that really requires a very conservative belief in the theory of ‘liberal democracy’.
Laurence Whitehead’s chapter on Democracy, error correction and the global economy is one of the few chapters that provides a more critical account of the democratic system, although he shies away from any recommendation:
‘Thus, on the evidence available so far, it could be concluded that democratic procedures have offered a safety valve for citizen discontent, an opportunity for the peaceful renewal of political authorities, and perhaps even more some scope for the termination of failed strategies of economic management and their replacement by more promising approaches’ (p.84-85). 
So are the Bush-Obama and the Blair/Brown-Cameron transition good examples of how well the democratic systems are still working? Even Whitehead is sceptical:
‘neither of these [US and UK] democratic processes unfolded in a manner favourable to the effective redress of past errors, of the holding account of failed officeholders, or the subsequent improvement of economic policymaking to guard against further relapses of the same kind in the future’ (p.86).
So let’s put this in non-academese: Voting doesn’t make a difference! But in a true academic style Whitehead only suggests fiddling with the edges: He suggests better ‘feedback’ mechanisms because ‘one clear lesson of the 2008 crisis is that politicians who rely uncritically on a narrow set of orthodox indicators and advisers will not escape blame when their errors are exposed’ (p.94). He doesn’t provide examples and even if some politicians lose office and might be blamed there is not a sentence about their ‘afterlife’ in lucrative board jobs or other private sector engagements. Everything seems to take place in a political science seminar sponsored by Max Weber, where perfectly informed citizens make perfectly rational choices that are implemented by a leadership who put the public good over their short-term ‘results’ in a media-driven society. Although Whitehead warns that ‘there could be a high cost for persisting with a standard electoralist approach arising from its error-compounding and socially de-legitimising properties’ (p.95) he neither outlines high cost nor alternatives to standard approaches that seem to be working well regardless of whether 60, 50 or 30% show up at elections.

Maybe this stretches the limits of this review, but as I will mention later on, there are some interesting lessons for the international development context hidden somewhere: One of the key themes of the book is a firm belief in the Western liberal democratic model – the kind of model that peace- and nation-builders have tried, with various degrees of unsuccessfulness, to export to post-war and fragile societies. Through scholarship like the one of the book, these abstract notions are repeated time and again and generalised to the point of meaninglessness.

Ursula Hoffmann-Lange’s chapter on The model of liberal democracy and varieties of capitalism reminds me a lot of texts I read during my undergraduate political science degree almost 15 years ago. Robert Dahl, Samuel Huntington, second and third wave democracies – a long list of well-known prototypes and political science theories are outlined, but none of this really helps to shed light on the 2008 crisis. Yes, I know that central banks or supreme courts are supposed to be independent, but what about the discursive neoliberal framework in which their decision-making has been taken place in the past 20 or so years? How did it become accepted wisdom that ‘we’ need to ‘cut spending’, tighten our belts, accept working poor, reduce welfare to a bare minimum, accept widening income- and wealth gaps or produce a growing university-educated underemployed young generation? And how come the Italian electorate couldn’t or wouldn’t get rid of Berlusconi, but the EU could force him out without much resistance? Instead, standard, and nowadays almost imperial ideas about stability are repeated:
‘While the wealthy consolidated democracies can be considered strong enough to cope with even major political and economic challenges, the poor Third Wave democracies are much more vulnerable because their political institutions and party systems are not well established, democratic value orientations are not deeply rooted in their political culture and they have fewer economic resources to cope with income losses’ (p.114).
Or, to quote an African friend from facebook: ‘What are all these Portuguese doing in Angola looking for jobs?!’.
Pierre du Toit’s chapter on The Great Recession and its potential impact on popular culture in liberal democracies assures us that based on the ‘liberal peace theory’ hypothesis (Rummel 1997) Europe’s liberal values may become under stress because of the economic decline, but by and large pacific popular culture should be a safeguard against aggression. NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan or Libya, the war in Iraq or the effects of the EU border management and its huge cost and other impacts on popular culture are omitted – as they are throughout the entire book.

Christer Jönsson’s chapter on Searching for democratic approaches to a new world order could have been more relevant for the development context, but again, simply repeats well-known ideas around ‘globalisation’, building on Castells 1996 research on ‘flows’, and the difficulties of transnational governance. I just don’t find it enough to conclude after two decades of academic interest in ‘governance’ that
‘global governance arrangements in general, and those in global finance in particular, rate low on basic democratic criteria. The best we can hope for in the short to medium run seems to be incremental steps in a democratising direction’ (p.197).
That’s it? That’s the vision academics have for global governance? And why is Jönsson not more precise, mentioning that it’s intentional that democratic principles should not be applied to global (financial) governance? The least he could have done was to mention the current debate around the ‘Robin Hood Tax’ even if this is unlikely to be introduced.
Unfortunately, the last chapter before the conclusion continues in this way. Bernard Lategen (Values, interests, power and democracy at a time of crisis) introduces another ‘usual suspect’ thinker: Arend Lijphart and his research from the late 1990s.
‘The concept of consensus democracy proposed by Lijphart has retained its relevance. Whether in the form of electoral systems aimed at proportional representation [UK anyone?!], bipartisan parliamentary and public committees [USA anyone?!], coalitions, governments of national unity [...] – all practical possibilities should be harnessed’ (p.212-213).
So that’s the state of the art in political science thinking after the 2008 economic crisis.

There are three chapters on China as well, which aim at exploring whether the ‘Chinese way’ provides any answers as to how to respond to the crisis. These chapters tend to be a bit general, too, but at least summarize some key developments. However, the ‘unique combination of state control and rampant free-market capitalism’ (p.219) can hardly be copied elsewhere – and the high price with regards to cultural or environmental aspects is only touched upon briefly.

In the end, the questions outlined in the official summary are not sufficiently addressed. But what sounds primarily as a shortcoming of the book is actually more a shortcoming of the authors and their disciplinary rituals. They neither add any self-reflective insights into their profession, their theories and the shortcomings of keeping up with real-life developments nor do they provide bold, critical comments on the origins of the crisis and how democratic institutions and systems have been hallowed out to a box-ticking exercise of theoretical phrases such as ‘free and fair elections’. Almost all of the contributors stick to their ‘theoretical guns’, models that have been discussed for 15, 20 or more years – 15 or 20 years in which many people, communities and states have lost important battles against transnational corporations, the ‘markets’ and those seemingly unchanged social, cultural and political institutions that have always been putting private profits before public goods. From a development perspective the book is an indication of how the ‘West’ has really lost its case and how traditional political science seems unable to offer meaningful interactions with emerging or ‘poor’ countries.

van Beek, Ursula J./ Wnuk-Lipinski, Edmund (eds.):
Democracy under stress.
The global crisis and beyond.
ISBN 978-3-86649-453-4, 244 pages, 29,90 €, Barbara Budrich Publishers, Farmington Hills, MI.

 Full disclosure: I received a free review copy from Barbara Budrich Publishers in December 2011.


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