Democracy in crisis: A critique of ‘individualistic’ culture

Aristotle once said that ‘anyone who does not partake of society, is either a beast or god.’ Aristotle makes two distinct points: that political enfranchisement is a civil virtue; and that the social conditioner of which is essential to human nature. What is clear therefore is that any point of political analysis must start from the same principle, that society is an organism which develops with the participation of citizens, and that crises that emerge within the system reflect wider problems of complimenting the pluralistic interests of citizens into an integrated whole.
It is refreshing and convincing compared to the postmodernist muddle social liberals enter into when they rehearse the phrase, “do what I want, sell what I want, sleep with who I want.” Except they don’t genuinely believe this. Rights are not absolute – they are negotiated. When activists assert that women own their bodies, the argument is framed in favour of the right to abortion. But what about the right to sell your bodily organs? Illegal organ trade is estimated to generate profits globally of between $600 million and $1.2 billion per year, where people in impoverished countries like India take the ‘choice’ from their economic self-interest to sell their organs.
Individual freedom is a philosophical framework of contradictions and dead-ends. If so, democracy in its current stage of crisis resembles the wider mutation of individualistic culture, where individual rights meet the wall of social reality.
But first, what is democracy? While democracy itself is difficult to define, we should settle with this one: a set of civil institutions that encourage public participation in how government is run, on the principles of equality, freedom and justice. Liberal democracy therefore is the conglomerate re-invention of the need to serve demands of a rising popular class, observed since the French Revolution of 1789 onwards, adjusted to elitist mechanisms of constitutional rights and an accepted state system of hierarchy.
Democracy in crisis is much discussed and is the topic of this article. The Brexit-Trump phenomenon in 2016 perfectly encapsulates to many the predicted threat of populist-nationalist movements which disparage liberal values of individual rights and international cooperation.
Democracy in crisis however is the crisis of the nation state, and its ability to offer credible solutions to people’s socioeconomic needs. Without the centralising and moderating force of the nation state, national unity and a cohesive society is quickly lost and replaced by the bitterness of ill-tempered debate driven by polarisation and partisanship: the last general election saw the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, gain over 80% of the vote, the first time for several decades. Meanwhile, voting behaviour is sharply divided by factors such as age group: Yougov data shows that 66% of voters aged 18-19 voted Labour, while 69% of voters aged over 70 voted Conservative.
While it can be argued that disagreement is the nature of democratic debate, political tribalism is by no means a sustainable alternative to consensus politics: polls suggest that a proportion of Remain voters want to see Leave voters economically punished for the Leave outcome.
All this is the outcome of individualistic culture. When political issues are assessed from individual self interest, compromise and consensus is replaced by conflict, and individuals enter strategic voting ‘coalitions’ which further entrench the biases in their viewpoints. As political thinker Jacques Ranciere argues, voting has itself become an act of war against perceived ‘evil’, where voting becomes an occasion of supporting the lesser evil: Yougov data shows that around 15% stated voting against the other main political party was their main reason why they voted a certain party. This leads to the negation of political society itself, where people withdraw to the cells of their own perspective, without delicate, multi-faced discussion, but the comforting humm of the social media echo chamber. Society begins to adopt the model of individual self-interest and small-minded psychological gratification, which is neither valuable nor self-sustaining.
However, what crisis offers is an opportunity for change. Without such potent reminders of the fragility of hard-won rights such as universal suffrage and right to free speech, democracy dies with apathy. There is reason for hope, when populist trends in politics also represent wider public participation and higher voter turnout: voter turnout in the 2017 general election stood at 68%, with a significant increase in the turnout of young people. The EU referendum has raised debates about the role of parliamentary democracy, the Supreme Court system and the constitution. Interest in politics has also increased membership of the Labour Party, which is now the largest political party in Western Europe with 552000 members as of June 2017.
Therefore, the answer rests in the ability of constitutional liberals to reinvent the nation state in the current social context of multiplicity and cultural change. The challenge is simultaneously accepting people’s socio-economic concerns, while offering credible solutions for them through the state apparatus.
There is reason for hope as in moments of crisis the liberal democratic state has found ways to innovate beyond what’s perceived as politically possible: the social democratic consensus of the post-war period, and similarly the Thatcherite consensus from the 1980s onwards, are examples of how the state system can adapt to serve predominant social and cultural needs.
What we can conclude is that the Age of Individualism is over. It has planted the seeds of its own destruction, by creating a solipsistic, self-selecting, self-enclosed public discourse that is both poisonous and self-destructive. We must therefore strike out to create an alternative from it. But whatever your political ideology, one fact resonates: people must identify with whether they accept social change is inevitable and adapt to it, or abstain and excuse themselves from influencing it.

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