IV.5 Democracy in Europe



IV.5 Democracy in Europe

In human political communities it ought to be ordinary people (the adult citizens) and not extra‑ordinary people who rule. This is not a very plausible description of how things are in the world we live. But it has become the reigning conception today across that world of how they ought to be. (John Dunn 1995a: v)

IV.5.1 Democracy in the context of erosion of state sovereignty

Democracy is one of the most powerful concepts in the Western(centric) ‘grand narrative’, from its roots in classical Greece, the ‘cradle of civilisation’, to its Enlightenment rediscovery, and its assumed eventual spread to all the world. It is associated with the Western World’s prosperity and triumph over totalitarianism (both Fascist and Communist) and with the liberal national state. This association with the nation-state leads to a perceived threat, as power seems to be transferred to supra- and sub-national levels, with the actually existing democracy at the national level no longer seeming to suffice to ensure democracy at a wider level, as it might in the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states. There is a deep paradox here, as this proposed Europe-wide democracy is related to the erosion of state sovereignty, when traditionally, (modern representative) democracy expresses the transfer of the sovereign will of the citizens to a hence legitimated national government.

The processes at play are not uniquely European and will be studied in this section in the framework of the world system, namely the posited EwE SCA.

IV.5.2 Democracy in the Westphalian system of states

“Democracy for the Athenians, from the days of Pericles to those of Demosthenes a full century later, was a system of citizen self-rule” (Dunn 1995b: 240-241). Hobbes’ 17th century liberal state is to some extent the opposite of participative democracy as the Hobbesian Natural Law of all against all only can be superseded by creating an unlimited sovereign power, denying the people the right to act against it (Tuck 1995: 105-107). Representative democracy makes on one hand democracy safe for the modern state (it is converted from “unruly master” to “docile servant”), and on the other hand it makes both democracy and the modern state safe for a modern capitalist economy (Dunn 1995b: 248-250). Here, ‘modern’ means post-French Revolution (post-Enlightenment), that is, related first to the UK SCA and then to the US one.

Under Dutch hegemony, based on a small nation’s domination of small areas of the world (mostly coastal regions and islands), the larger European countries’ ruling elites did not need to share the benefits with their populations. With the UK-led expansion of the world-system to vast extensions, and the advent of wars in the core countries involving whole populations instead of small professional armies, the support of the core countries’ populations was needed, as seen in section II.3.7.

While democracy is a way of obtaining that support, Dunn asserts that “even today it is far from clear why representative democracy has had such striking success in providing that defence” (of private property, or of the rich against the voting poor) (Dunn 1995b: 252). The reason becomes clearer once the creation of the core-periphery structure is taken into account, as the costs of giving some benefits to the core populations are offset by the profits obtained from that structure (see section II.3.7). The core populations become enthusiastic supporters (as seen in the core-wide racism against the periphery) of a world-system that benefits them as well as, even if not as much as, the bourgeoisie[34]: “being a solidarity between equals, the solidarity between workers did not have to be applied to what was beyond the circle of equality. … Democracy could expand to the extent that it was confined to the state and the polity it delineated”[35] (Santos 1998: 14). When the labour movements occupied state power only in, but in all, core countries, their action was constrained by and subordinated to the processes of accumulation of capital on a world scale (Arrighi et al. 1989: 40).

Legitimacy through regular acquiescence by the people, now become citizens with the inherent us/them barrier that entails (Anderson 1991: 5-6) can then be used in the (late) 19th century process of the creation of the western nation-state and the corresponding progressive expansion of franchise and social rights, culminating in the post-WW II (i.e. in the USA SCA’s commercial expansion phase) social contract. As noted in section IV.3.3, nationalism and the connection of citizenship to the enjoyment of those rights weakened resistance to the capitalist system,

In the core (western) countries, democracy and the state came to be perceived as indissociable; however, this western state is only conceivable within the Westphalian system of sovereign states, not least due to its dependence on the externalised core‑periphery structure. This posed no problem under Dutch, UK, and US hegemony. The shift now taking place marks a fundamental transition in the world system as both the reality and principle of state sovereignty are being abandoned, with human rights providing a justification for interference in other countries’ internal affairs (Glaser 1998: 166). This questioning of the modern sovereign state is a direct threat to the principles that have underpinned democracy in the modern period, and indeed democracy at the national level no longer suffices to ensure democracy at a wider level. The origin of these threats will now be studied.

IV.5.3 The social contract vis a vis the new core-periphery structure

In a bounded territory, people’s sovereignty is the basis upon which democratic decision-making takes place; and ‘the people’ are the addressees, or the constituents, of the political decisions. … Only in a sovereign state can the people’s will command without being commanded by others. Hence, ‘popular sovereignty’, too, has a spatial dimension in that it is premised on the occupation and possession of a territory. In the age of globalization, this ‘nesting’ of democracy within the nation-state has become problematic. (Roland Axtman 1998b: 9-10)

One of the consequences of the massive investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT), which is the strategic commodity of the EwE SCA as seen in section III.4.2, is that a never before seen pool of skilled unemployed workers was created, leading to a situation of ‘all against all’ where labour solidarity is broken (Bourdieu 1998: 98). Out-sourcing leads to de-bourgeoisification as companies shed many of the social responsibilities they previously had (Gray 1998: 72). With the formation of the new core-periphery structure (see section III.5), there is a “structural predominance of exclusion processes over inclusion ones. The latter still exist, even in advanced forms, but they are confined to ever more restricted groups, imposing abyssal forms of exclusion to ever wider groups”[36] (Santos 1998: 23-24).

In the UK and USA SCAs, the basic unit of political organisation was the nation-state, also responsible for fighting the wars between competing groups of capitalists. ‘Universal’ (that is, limited to the core) redistribution of wealth and the democratisation of the nation-state ensued, as seen in the previous section. As the (old geographic) core entire population is no longer needed, the old social contract is no longer valid, and a new one is taking form, based on redistribution of wealth limited to the new (non-geographic) core of ‘knows’ – as opposed to the ‘knows-not’, the new periphery within the core, which becomes unnecessary to the smooth functioning of the system[37]. This questions the basis of citizenship, and leads to a weakening of the democratic basis of society.

IV.5.4 The continuing centrality of states

We have seen in section III.4.4 that nation-states still retain considerable power over national economic policy, and indeed the liberal programme presented by governments to their constituencies as an inevitable reaction to ‘globalisation’ has been carried through in Europe by continued political action by the European national governments, while denying the political nature of ‘technical’ matters (e.g. deregulation), hence outside the scope of democratic accountability (Hirst 1997b: 121-127).

The creation of the Single European Market (SEM), and European Monetary Union (EMU) are major steps in this process (see section IV.2.2). The Euro‑11 governments have voluntarily given up control of their most important (Keynesian) weapons against negative social effects of the market, namely monetary policy which they have given wholesale to the European Central Bank[38], and budgetary policy with the stringent restrictions imposed by the Maastricht criteria. This is a direct attack on the (Keynesian) welfare state, breaking the traditional link between high profits and high growth (and consequent high employment and redistribution) (Gowan 1997b: 100), and constitutes the central threat to democracy in Europe (here it is necessary to distinguish between the formal workings of representative democracy – regular elections of political bodies, and democracy as rule of the people). “Democracy and the free market are rivals, not allies” (Gray 1998: 17).

Hence, the supranational approach of increasing the direct accountability of the EU through extending the power of the European Parliament (Beetham 1998: 59-60, Lodge 1996: 187-191) cannot solve its posited ‘democratic deficit’, also because the EP is normally dominated by MEPs from the same parties that form the national governments that underwrote the free market and the demise of the European universal welfare system. Further, lobbying is central in EU decision making due to the EU’s own institutional system (see section IV.2.1), and democratic representativity is of lower importance (Andersen 1996c: 52-53). The core of the EU ‘democratic deficit’ problem is not “popular authorisation of political leadership”, but how to ensure “accountability of power holders to the public” (Beetham 1998: 60), where many of these power holders are not governmental or even political bodies.

IV.5.5 The EwE SCA and democracy

The basic institutions and social systems of a society must be compatible with the prevailing paradigm, or in other words, with the prevailing hegemony. In the UK and USA SCAs the hegemony was firmly based on the nation-state as overriding political, economic, and warring unit, to which representative democracy, associated with the provision of universal social rights, is well-adjusted. The new EwE SCA, however, is based on the fragmentation of society and on the formation of networks of enterprises, statal and non-statal institutions, and individuals. The main principle that must underpin democracy at the European level hence is that it must be well-adjusted to a fragmented society.

This leads to a second, contentious, point. Should democratic participation and its benefits be distributed only amongst those who are well-integrated in society and therefore able to contribute to it (the non-geographic core), or amongst all the population including the so-called ‘excluded’ (the non-geographic periphery)? At this point we must remember that in the past, the benefits of the world (state) system were firmly kept in the core countries. Assuming that the identification of the core with certain geographic areas (the West) is not a necessary feature of world systems in general, we can generalise the previous sentence as “the benefits of the world system are kept firmly in the core”, and after rephrasing the question above as “Is, in the EwE SCA, democratic participation and its benefits going to be distributed only amongst the core, or also amongst the periphery?” the answer becomes obvious. We have seen in section IV.4.5 that redistribution was restricted to the (new non-geographic) core populations, and so will be democratic participation.

IV.5.6 Fragmented citizenship, participation, and subsidiarity

The assertion that democracy in the emerging world of transnational decision‑making can only be sustained (and recreated) by the organisation of transnational democratic movements capable of extracting concessions from the new holders of power (Markoff 1996: 132-135) would be valid in the USA SCA, but no longer in the EwE SCA. While the USA SCA antisystemic groups used equality as the basis for their claims of the ‘crumbs from the table of capital’ (see Arrighi 1989), the EwE SCA antisystemic groups use fragmentation to claim rights for single-interest groups. Multiple membership leads to the concept of the ‘segmented citizen’ (Neunreither 1995: 5), who can claim segmented benefits at different levels (see section IV.4.3).

The EU favours this process through its extensive reliance on external knowledge, as shown in section IV.2.1. A new pattern of governance through negotiation based on partnerships and networks is emerging, where the citizens can take part. This is fully consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and the western associative tradition. However, participation presupposes knowledge, that the periphery of ‘knows-not’ do not have[39], and this pattern leads to the weakening of the principle of equal treatment, even if the rules are common. As the core of ‘knows’ need less direct protection to be provided by the state, the social security net can be reduced to a minimum (Hirst 1997b: 10-11, 115-119), with their consent and even involvement: “Solidarity is all the more difficult to accept if one is no longer confident that the state will administer it efficiently. At all levels of political organization, the same resistance appears: The rich suburbs no longer wish to underwrite the poor suburbs” (Guéhenno 1995: 12), as we have seen in section IV.4.5.

This system can be seen as a form of participatory democracy, to some extent similar to that of classical Greece: all the ‘fragmented citizens’ participate in the process at some stage. That this citizenship is not legally enshrined in law is of little consequence. A Norwegian working in Britain is more likely to be a ‘fragmented citizen’ than a black British ‘official citizen’ living in Brixton.

It is possible to conceive an extension of this model of fragmented citizenship to the non-geographic periphery (Hirst 1997b). The government would devolve the provision of social services to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as local self-governing associations with free (i.e. chosen) membership, while providing public funding, together with supervision and general accountability. This extreme form of subsidiarity, that can be called ‘associative democracy’[40], would combine the liberal principle of free choice in the market with social provision, delinking consumption from compulsion. Further, voluntarism would reduce the levels of societal conflictuality, as each community would decide its own standards (given a government-defined minimum): The richer would be able to make their own way and pay only for themselves, and the poorer, while still getting only a minimum of provision, would be able to control it. The net result would be an entrenchment of the internal core-periphery structure, while keeping social peace.

IV.5.7 Repressive exclusion or underfunded inclusion?

As the non-geographic core still accounts for the majority (roughly 2/3 – see Table III) of the population of western countries, state repression of the excluded underclass can become acceptable and be accepted by the majority as an alternative method of social control. This is more likely to happen than the ‘associative democracy’ proposed above. ‘Civilised’ zones can coexist with ‘wild’ ones (banlieus, inner cities), where the standards of application of law are different: in the former, the state applies the (democratic) law, even if inefficiently, while in the latter it acts in a repressive, predatorial fashion[41] (Santos 1998: 33-41). Simultaneously, mass imprisonment can be used as a means of controlling those segments of the population that are now seen as a threat to the new order (Bauman 1998: 103-115), and in the USA, also as a means to reduce unemployment figures as about 2% of the population are in jail, on parole, or on probation (Gray 1998: 116-117). While the European rates of incarceration are still about 10 times lower than in the USA, they are increasing fast (Bauman 1998: 115).

Proposals for a cashless society for the excluded have been put forward, in which the relation between work and income is broken (Rifkin 1995: 256-261). Voluntary work would lead to shadow wages (in the form of tax deductions), together with social wages for the poor, instead of welfare payments. One could however argue that this consists merely in transferring welfare responsibility away from the tax-payer (i.e. companies and the ‘included’), with consequent underfunding of such schemes. Local Exchange and Trading Schemes (LETS) in the UK function in a similar way, with people trading hour‑pounds in exchanges of skills and services, creating a two-tiered society of conventional economy vs. a moneyless sub-culture (The Economist 5 December 1998, p.36), which is not possible to exploit and becomes irrelevant for the functioning of the capitalist system, hence even more excluded from society.

Proposals for a more radical, all-inclusive, democracy at the world level[42] would include (Santos 1998: 49-57): a world-wide redistribution of work (including the importation of low value-added activities back to the western countries) with reduction of working hours, an equal set of minimum labour rights, and flexible immigration and citizenship laws to facilitate migration from the (geographic) periphery to the core; recognition of different types of work, including voluntary work and house work; regulation of financial capital with the introduction of the Tobin tax on short-term capital movements (Haq 1996), and full pardon of the third world debt; and transnationalisation of labour unionism, including reviving the solidarity traditions, which would mean including the rights of the excluded and of third world workers in the unions’ claims. Short of a world-wide catastrophic event (e.g. world revolution), these proposals are difficult to realise (although some, like the Tobin tax, might be carried through in order to stabilise the financial system).

IV.5.8 Democracy in Europe in the EwE SCA

The paradox mentioned in the beginning of this section, that the proposed Europe-wide democracy is related to the erosion of state sovereignty, while democracy expresses the transfer of the sovereign will of the citizens to a hence legitimated national government, is solved by redefining the concept of citizenship. The all-inclusive, nation‑state based, citizenship is replaced by a fragmented citizenship, based on participation in the processes of governance, that are no longer exclusively with the governments.

These ‘fragmented citizens’ of Guéhenno’s Empire without Emperor will benefit from the new SCA of capital after an initial struggle and provide the state with legitimacy through their support. The depoliticisation of the state posited by some authors (including Guéhenno – see Guéhenno1995: 19-23) is only real if viewed from the point of view of the USA SCA, where politics were to a large extent equated to control of the society and of the economy by the state. In fact, once the structure of the new SCA is considered, there is a repoliticisation of the nation-state, since it becomes the political fighting ground for the new antisystemic movements.

The principles that are likely to underpin democracy at a Europe-wide level in the next decades are shaped by the characteristics of the EwE SCA, and are:

– A splitting of the European society into two tiers, as described in section III.5.5, one composed by the new core of ‘knows’ as well as by what is left of the old core, the other composed by the unemployed, part-time or short-term contract workers, the old, single mothers, ethnic minorities, and other excluded groups. The first group defines the new European citizenship[43], that is much more substantial than the traditional citizenship, increasingly void of content;

– A high level of participation by the new fragmented citizens, through involvement in associative, voluntary or single-issue movements[44], in what constitutes a highly democratic system based on subsidiarity;

– Social control obtained either through increased state repression of the new non‑citizens, or by an extension of the subsidiarity principle with some social provision for the new periphery (probably both methods will coexist).

– A liberal ideology based on individual freedom and on the Washington consensus (see section III.4.4), that legitimises the new citizenship and the concurrent exclusion of the new periphery.



[34] Note that democracy remained essentially confined to the core during the UK SCA, and only near the end of the US SCA has it begun to seriously expand to the periphery.

[35] NPB translation.

[36] NPB translation.

[37] There is an increasing literature on this subject. See e.g. Forrester 1997 on how large amounts of western Europeans are increasingly unnecessary to the generation of profits and hence make a direct transition from the US SCA core to the EwE SCA periphery. See e.g. Paugam 1996 and Bourdieu 1993 on processes of exclusion in Europe.

[38] Freeing Central Banks from democratic control, seen by the Washington consensus as a self-evident measure to improve their effectiveness, and tying a state’s policies to WTO and GATT, are central political aspects of creating the global free market. The ECB is more independent than most Central Banks (Gray 1998: 43).

[39] For instance, the MAI project has been (for the time being) defeated by a grass-roots movement almost entirely conducted through the internet by highly aware people, mostly Canadian and French (see http://mai.flora.org/).

[40] And can also be considered a privatisation of the voluntary sector, as NGOs become public service contractors (Robinson 1997).

[41] This is similar to the USA SCA application of the law to whites and of KKK ‘justice’ to blacks in southern US states, or to the institutionalised racism of the British police force. These ‘wild zones’ can be seen to be in a Hobbesian natural state, which would justify and legitimise a high degree of state coercion.

[42] It is clear that an all-inclusive democracy of this type can not exist at the regional block (e.g. EU) level only, as it would leave it open to competitive attacks from the other blocs.

[43] This is not the same as citizenship of the European Union, that is only one of the many components of the new fragmented citizenship.

[44] Note that the simple ability to participate is enough, as free-riding is still possible for those who can discern the issues at stake.