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Brexit and the new hostility to participatory democracy

The reaction to Brexit illustrates the desperate need for the Left to return to first principles. For, as the result broke on social media, a remarkable number of progressives directed their anger not at anti-immigrant demagogues and opportunist politicians but against the voters themselves and the very idea of a referendum in which they might express their will.

Britain EU Referendum Updated: Jun 27, 2016 15:16 IST
Brexit,European Union,UK
A person holds European country flags in an hand and a United Kingdom flag in another on June 25, 2016 in Lille, northern France.(AFP Photo)

The reaction to Brexit illustrates the desperate need for the Left to return to first principles. For, as the result broke on social media, a remarkable number of progressives directed their anger not at anti-immigrant demagogues and opportunist politicians but against the voters themselves and the very idea of a referendum in which they might express their will.

It’s merely the most recent illustration of a growing estrangement from democracy, not only on the mainstream Right but also on the Left.

Obviously, that claim requires an immediate qualification. In Eureka Street recently, I wrote:

These days, aside from a few fringe cranks, everyone endorses democracy. As C. Douglas Lummis says, ‘The sentence, “I’m for democracy” communicates virtually no information … The statement is likely to be met with a blank stare or with a puzzled response like, “How nice”.’

But the almost universal enthusiasm is actually remarkably recent. Raymond Williams reminds us that, until the 19th century, democracy was mostly a term of approbation. It referred to a particular model of society, one in which the multitude ruled and the wealthy were suppressed: hence, in the revolutionary wave of 1848, the insurgent forces were known simply as ‘The Democracy’. Roget’s Thesaurus captures something of that usage by retaining ‘democrat’ as a synonym for ‘commoner’.

But that meaning was challenged by a conception of democracy as representative rule on behalf of the masses. Thus, Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founders, insisted that vesting deliberative or judicial powers in the collective body of the people led to ‘error, confusion and instability’. Against that, he advocated representative democracy as a kind of check on the multitude, ‘where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons’.

As Williams says, it’s from this notion that the dominant modern sense of the term developed. Yet, throughout the 20th century, the old debate continued in a new form, reflected in the differing understandings of democracy in the liberal and socialist traditions. For socialists, democracy meant popular power; for liberals, it meant elections of representatives alongside the conditions that facilitated those elections.’These two conceptions,’ Williams argued, ‘in their extreme forms, now confront each other as enemies.’

But that was written in 1976, a time in which the Left retained some of the vigour of the insurgent 60s. Today, the socialist tradition has been erased from public consciousness — and the radical definition of democracy largely forgotten.

In that piece, I suggested that the #neverTrump campaign illustrated the new hostility to participatory democracy. But the response to Brexit offers an even clearer example.

Take, for instance, the article by Michael Pascoe in the Melbourne Age, a piece about the Brexit result noteworthy primarily because it’s so typical.

‘Many of the protagonists know no better,’ he writes.

They are people with minds closed to the reality of the world being made a better place by maximising engagement, by welcoming differences and enlargement. There are others, the worst of them, happy to exploit ignorance for their short-term advantage. It sells newspapers. It can win an election. It can give an aspirant power.

The ignorant still view the interactions of nations as zero-sum games. They don’t grasp that globalisation is a win-win process, that the sum of our individual nations is indeed greater than the parts.

Pascoe’s the contributing editor of Business Day and thus hardly a radical. But, alas, that’s the point, for last night, you saw an almost identical rhetoric from all across Twitter. The majority of British voters were, we were told, buffoons and bigots – Little Englanders too foolish to understand the self-evident virtues of European integration. Many Australians drew a direct parallel with the proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage, a venture that would, we were told, allow a massive dam of ignorance and hatred to break its banks and drown us all.

Denunciations of the masses’ idiocy are always reactionary. If that seems surprising, it’s because, over the last decade, we’ve seen a minor cottage industry in books by supposed lefties with titles like Idiot America, The Dumbest Generation, A Short History of Stupid and so on. But if the masses are feeble minded, why bother trying to convince them? Why not instead devote yourself to reshaping the world on their behalf? Indeed, it often seems today that politics comes down to a choice between different versions of paternalism – the stern daddy of the Right versus the kindly father of the Left.

Of course, despite what the Pascoes of the world would have you believe, the ordinary people voting for Brexit weren’t motivated simply by a mixture of folly and spite. There were plenty of entirely legitimate reasons for scepticism about the EU project. Some years ago, Perry Anderson denounced the ‘degenerative drift of democracy across the continent, of which the structure of the EU is at once cause and consequence’.

The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.

More recently, Paul Mason argued that:

The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece; a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service. A judiciary that, in the Laval and Viking judgments, subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right do business freely.

Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law.

None of that necessarily involves claiming Brexit as a victory for the Left. As Mason says, at least in the short term, the beneficiaries will undoubtedly be the xenophobic Right.

At the same time, nothing’s contributing to the Right’s success more than the Left’s embrace of the antidemocratic, technocratic ideas embedded in the EU. It was one thing to argue against Brexit on the basis that it was being driven by bigots like Farrage. It was quite another to simply dismiss the quite legitimate concerns of working people as prejudices that might be dispelled by lectures from pop stars and TV personalities. ‘The cultural and economic barriers in the UK,’ lamented Salon, ‘the resentment of small-town people, some of them poor, to famous, wealthy people telling them how to vote … may be steeper than the people who did the predicting guessed.’ Ya think?

In some respects, Cameron’s plebiscite might be compared to the process by which Corbyn became Labour leader. In both cases, it took a political miscalculation to provide an opportunity for the expression of the popular will – an illustration of just how rare participatory democracy has become.

The best way to defeat a newly emboldened Right is to undercut its claims to give voice to the silent majority. The racists across Europe hate democracy – many of them have lineages directly traceable back to the fascist era. They can only present themselves as tribunes of the people because so much of the Left now sees ordinary voters not as agents of history but as a problem to be managed.

Take, for instance, the lessons being drawn from Brexit about the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. In the Age (in a piece published before the British vote but nonetheless expressing a sentiment widely voiced in its wake), Wendy Squires denounced the very idea of a vote on equal marriage as ‘divisive’, a ‘preposterous endeavour’ that would be innately ‘ugly’.

Again, it’s one thing to say that the plebiscite’s unnecessary, to denounce it as a stalling tactic by the conservatives. But that’s not the argument being made. Instead, the implication is that a popular vote would be more dangerous than a parliamentary one because it would involve, well, the population.

It’s a particularly odd contention, given the history of marriage equality in Australia. As I’ve argued before:

The current debate is only necessary thanks to John Howard, who, back in 2004, inserted a clause into theMarriage Act to exclude same-sex couples and ban them from adopting children. The Liberals’ discriminatory legislation was immediately supported by the ALP, with Nicola Roxon announcing Labor’s support for “promoting the institution the of marriage between men and women and as a bedrock institution for families”.

Noting the parliamentary consensus, Howard crowed, “Nobody can say [the amendment] is being used as a wedge, nobody can say it’s a diversion, everybody can say it’s a united expression of the national parliament and therefore of the will of the Australian people.”

The current marriage laws were imposed on the nation only 11 years ago, not as a result of the ignorance of the great unwashed, but as a parliamentary manoeuvre by the very people [we’re now told] will protect us from the hoi polloi.

For years now, polls have shown that the vast majority of Australians support marriage equality. The obstacle to equal marriage isn’t the bigotry of ordinary Australians but the demagoguery of Australian politicians, who entrenched homophobia into law. To put it another way, the struggle for marriage equality demonstrates that ordinary people have been consistently more progressive than their elected representatives.

Why, then, do so many progressives insist on presenting the issue as a cautionary tale about popular prejudice?

It’s the same problem we see in the reaction to Brexit: a conviction that ordinary people have failed us. Unfortunately, it’s far more accurate to say that we on the Left continue to fail them.

(Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland.This article originally appeared in