Late in the evening in Strasbourg, where I’ve arrived to spend three days working as a rapporteur for the November meeting of the World Forum for Democracy that is happening in the Palace de L’Europe over the next three days.
I still find myself somewhat surprised to be here. A few months ago I took it upon myself to write a small blog piece, thinking aloud about the similarities and commonalities between the politics of Trump and Brexit on the one hand, and President Zuma on the other. It was not a piece about which I had really high hopes; more an attempt at thinking aloud, in order to puzzle out what it is that I find novel (and scary) about the political conjuncture in the world I live in. On a whim, I sent it to OpenDemocracy. To my gratification, it was published, and to my surprise this was followed a few days later by an invitation from OpenDemocracy’s editor in chief, Rosemary Bechler, to join her as a rapporteur at the WFD event. It’s not really my beat – my focus has been on development and poverty for the last twenty years; but I accepted with alacrity, partly because it is a wonderful opportunity to have a ringside seat at a key political forum on democracy as a critical time in world history. And while I am a rural sociologist by choice, I have a healthy interest in politics and political theory, and the issues at the heart of this year’s WFD meeting (the theme is Is Populism a Problem?) speak directly to critical questions about the nature of modern government and politics in which I am very interested.
I’m expecting an interesting few days. I can’t say for sure yet – I am a complete outsider here – but here are my first impressions (I am noting them here partly because it will be interesting for me to see how my hunches pan out).
Firstly, despite the big question mark in the title, the Council of Europe, the organisation that hosts the WFD, clearly does think that populism is a problem. In my blog piece, I theorised that one of the things happening in the world today is that a fairly stable form of institutionalised political management – let’s call it neoliberal technopolitics – is suddenly much more open to challenge. Some of the challenges are from the ‘left’, and may have potential to empower the poor and the marginalised and to challenge the worst excesses of modern financial capitalism. But some of the most prominent phenomena – Trump, Brexit, and our own president Zuma among them, seem to embody a new kind of cynical, even nihilist political theatre, acting in cahoots with predatory corporate interests and chauvinist or racist forces to pursue anti-democratic politics. It is clear that the Council of Europe is deeply worried by these developments. While they acknowledge the breakdown of trust between ordinary people and political institutions, and while there is some language about the positive potential of a more engaged citizenry, it is pretty clear from the programme notes that the dominant assessment on the part of the conference organisers is that the rise of populism poses an existential threat to the institutions of democracy (and particularly liberal democracy). (I must say I pretty much tend to agree.)
Secondly, my sense is that the dominant agenda informing many of the proposals and sessions to be debated are essentially conservative. My take is that the Council of Europe and the organizers of the conference would dearly like to get the genie back into the bottle. While there is a lot of emphasis in the programme notes about the need to make institutions more responsive and more participatory, the agenda seems to me to be essentially a techno-political one: to take the wild and rambunctious energies released by populism and to tame them, to bring them back into the fold of rational, evidence-based policy and legal deliberation.
Thirdly, it seems to me that the methods being proposed to do this are unlikely to succeed. Much of the discussion at the WFD will take place in ‘Labs’ where people will debate and propose various kinds of institutional or technical innovation that can make democracy work better. This year, there is a lot of emphasis on all manner of innovations into making democracy more participatory, and also a whole raft of proposals on how to deal with fake news through some kind of institutionalised fact checking system. My take on the proposals I have seen is that they have limited chance of having traction. No doubt participation is an essential part of a ‘healthy political system’. But politics is about much more than participating. Crucially, it is about the processes of adjudication by which difficult choices are made about conflicting demands. Those problems can’t be solved by simply making them more participatory.
And the notion that fact-checking will do anything at all to contain the proliferation of powerful new ‘othering’ narratives in society is in my view just delusional. The core of populism is not the actual content of one claim or another; it is the way in which a wide diversity of social demands are stitched together in narratives that create new and emotionally powerful senses of social belonging. All the fact checking and all the citizen participation in the world is not going to hold back the neofascist and racist forces now making headway in society. The only thing in the world that will stop them is counter organization – narratives that create alternative ways of thinking about belonging. And this will have to be linked to political programmes that do something about the substantively unfair and unequal distribution of resources and opportunities in our world.
Fourthly, after spending a couple of hours in the hotel bar downstairs, eating the Hotel Mercur’s uninspiring hotel food and comparing notes with Rosemary Bechler and her colleagues from OpenDemocracy, I can report that: my fellow rapporteurs are a sharp and canny bunch. I am honoured to be part of their team and I am looking forward to what the next few days will reveal.