Money and power have only grudgingly yielded to the democratic agenda

Opinion: With the disappearance of communism, the way was clear for an attack on the equality that had been achieved

Monte Carlo, “a sunny place for shady people”: interventions on behalf of the wealthy and privileged are becoming more and more confident

Monte Carlo, “a sunny place for shady people”: interventions on behalf of the wealthy and privileged are becoming more and more confident


Democracy is born free but everywhere in chains, as Rousseau nearly said. In truth all democracies are creatures of past struggles, amalgams of old power structures and pervasive cultural influences – with “freedom!” taped unsteadily on top.

Entirely new beginnings are rarely possible (the failure of France, 1789) or, if they are achieved, desirable (Russia, 1917; North Korea today). The postwar axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) enjoy a democracy defined by their defeat, while the free nations of post-1989 Europe have too easily become platforms for ancient hatreds. Even Ireland’s democracy – achieved by revolution for sure – was from the start shaped by its former colonial master, its newly ascendant church and the hotheads whose reckless (but successful) revolutionary gamble turned them, their families and the parties they founded into republican aristocracy.

Democracy, therefore, did not explode onto the world in the 20th century – it crept in, and critically only after power and wealth had tamed this dangerous beast of popular suffrage. The whip has been war and the fear of war. Universal mass suffrage has invariably been accompanied by emergency laws justified by conflict, which have then been “normalised” in peacetime and successfully mobilised to resist radical challenges to pre-existing structures of inequality.

Growing out of the first World War, democracy in Britain has of course improved the lot of the many but it has also never been without the means of destroying radical political opinion, via police brutality, prosecutions for sedition and the partisan deployment of common law executive powers.

What Jack London called the “iron heel” has been evident in the US as well, in the Red Scare of the 1920s and the McCarthyism of the 50s. The United Nations largely gives states licence to do what they will within their borders, and even the European Convention on Human Rights allows governments to deal robustly with truly destabilising dissent. Freedom has always had its limits. Who is to say that this tamed democracy was not the best that the real world (rather than one of abstract purity) could offer during the short 20th century? Combining a conscious drift towards equality with an unrelenting hostility towards those who would move at revolutionary speed if they could (Communists), the postwar Western world gradually came to take armed social democracy for granted. This was always a contingent democratic story, however. When the facts changed with the weakening and then collapse of the Soviet Union, the shape of democracy changed with them.

Fear of revolution

Wealth and money-driven power may have survived the democratic era pretty well in most places but reactionary forces have never entirely reconciled themselves to the modest egalitarian concessions required to make even tamed democracy sustainable. With the Soviet threat gone, the field was clear for a frontal assault on the social justice that had been brokered by fear of revolution. Freedom became what markets delivered, not what humans aspired to. A new imperialism (“humanitarian intervention”) generated opportunities for freedom (aka the market) while dazzling the populace with the patriotism of war. Al-Qaeda’s exhibitionist violence kept fear at the front of “democratic” debate, using up space that might have been deployed to swing the political conversation more towards equality and justice.

The structures of international capital, created largely outside democratic control after 1945, became increasingly confident in their global interventions on behalf of wealth and privilege. Social democratic forces have buckled before the assault, their arguments about solidarity, trade unions and co-operation seeming quaint and out-of-date. The democratic left did not realise until too late how much of its apparent power had been down to fear of Soviet-style revolution.

True, national democracy survives, but in a hollow way, mocking the ambition that each term used to signal. It is this mismatch – between claim and reality – that explains the perpetual anger (discussed last week) of our current politics, both in old and new democracies. Wealth has no intention of forgoing either term: they are useful illusions under which to rework the world to reflect the pre-democratic “Gilded Age” arrangements of opulence within, police guards and gated communities without and all under cover of a supposed democratic will, but one now damaged almost beyond repair by the pre- and anti-democratic forces ranged against it. How can this be challenged? I turn to this question next week. This is the second in a series of four linked columns on the subject of democracy and accountability

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