🦋 Is it post-democracy; or maybe authoritarian neo/liberalism?

'Democracy is in crisis'. It's a claim we have heard since the 1930s, and new terms regularly surface to describe democracy’s transformations through crisis. Of these terms, argues Dimitra Mareta, post-democracy and authoritarian neo/liberalism are the most challenging. While they can describe either a strong or weak state, they both describe a state that offers weak protection for society but strongly promotes private interests

In 2004, Colin Crouch coined the term post-democracy to describe a trend in liberal democracy that began in the 1970s. According to Crouch, while liberal democratic institutions are still working — elections, parliaments, rule of law, etc — power is nevertheless being transposed from citizens and their representatives to unelected corporations and financial institutions.

Crouch stresses many people's growing apathy towards politics. He also highlights their indifference to engaging with the decision-making process, especially over policies which determine their life quality. While citizens do continue to vote in national, local and European elections, participation rates remain on the decline.

The baggage of post-democracy

Crouch locates significant shifts in the role of big firms, social classes, political parties, and, finally, citizenship. Big firms become political institutions because they embody the constantly growing class of capital owners. But they also become institutions because they own capacities which the state has lost through ongoing privatisations. Crouch focuses on media corporations in particular because of their capacity to sway — some would argue, control — political communication and popular thought.

Central to his analysis is the decline of manual working-class jobs. In contrast with the burgeoning capital-owning class, the number of manual workers is decreasing steadily, and trade unions are losing their negotiation power. In the meantime, no other class of working people has arisen to act as counterbalance.

Political parties have transformed from membership affiliations into organisations controlled by financial elites

Crouch also connects post-democracy with a major change in political parties. Parties have, in large part, transformed from membership affiliations into organisations controlled by financial elites. Finally, Crouch relates post-democracy with a major change in citizenship. He argues that citizenship is now connected with the commercialisation of welfare. People have lost rights they once held automatically as citizens. Now, they can have them only if they can buy them. This privatisation of public services thus leads to a more centralised democracy and state — and to less accountability.

Post-democracy, in short, has radically changed what we have come to know as the democratic state. Depending on the political culture we’re looking at (e.g. the United States), the effect may be more or less advanced.

Before post-democracy, there was authoritarian liberalism

In early 1933, around the time Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Hermann Heller emphasised the fact that every state is authoritarian, and struggles against democratic policies and politics.

Heller describes the essence of the authoritarian state as characterised by a retreat from economic production and distribution. He stresses, however, that the authoritarian state continues to subsidise large banks, extractive industries and agricultural enterprises. Heller also observed how autocracies dismantle social policies by, for example, providing formal education at private cost. He summarises all this as the retreat of the ‘authoritarian’ state from providing public goods (like education), the liberalisation of the economy, and dictatorial control of politico-intellectual functions.

Or, as Heller himself put it, the authoritarian state became the neoliberal state.

The neo/liberal revival

Hermann Heller may be long forgotten, but authoritarian neo/liberalism is enjoying a renaissance. After the end of the second Eurocentric war (WW2), authoritarian liberalism fell into oblivion. Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and the period of austerity following the 2008 financial crisis, propelled its revival. Now, the term is reborn as authoritarian neoliberalism.

After WW2, authoritarian liberalism fell into oblivion. Now, the term is reborn as authoritarian neoliberalism

The revival is a response to the events, changes and crises of the 1970s and 1980s, embodied in the radical-right governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Ian Bruff notes how social democracy failed to take advantage of the post-2007 crisis. This, he says, led to a new condition of authoritarian neoliberalism under which 'dominant social groups are less interested in neutralizing resistance and dissent via concessions and forms of compromise that maintain their hegemony'. This, instead, favoured 'the explicit exclusion and marginalization of subordinate social groups through the constitutionally and legally engineered self-disempowerment of nominally democratic institutions, governments, and parliaments'.

Alexander Somek uses Heller’s authoritarian liberalism to describe the situation during the Eurozone crisis. Somek sees how governments have to comply with the demands of the Commission, and the 'enhanced surveillance' of member states by the EU organs which directly affect their public policies. He describes this as 'the transfer of authority over policy-making from the domestic to the supranational level'.

This dynamic resonates strongly with Crouch’s post-democracy thesis.

Can we have both?

Is there any difference between post-democracy and authoritarian neo/liberalism? Can both exist simultaneously? First, both concepts focus on the state and its transformations. However, post-democracy seems to downplay the role of the state in political, economic, and social spheres. Authoritarian neo/liberalism, on the other hand, recognises the state as an important — if not the cardinal — actor behind these developments.

Post-democracy downplays the political and economic role of the state. Authoritarian neo/liberalism, by contrast, recognises the state as the most important actor

The former sees the state as being almost at the mercy of the economic elites; the latter as the power which unleashes/deregulates the economy, and functions within a complex of typically elite/privileged actors, powers, and interests. Finally, post-democracy seems to consider the changes which take place in society, but authoritarian neo/liberalism remains a powerful tool to approach and analyse the actor generating these changes, which is to say, the state.

Both concepts offer us a different perspective from which to approach the changes we face today, especially as both examine how these changes affect the most important aspects of citizens’ life in modern democracies. And we need both concepts because they ask us to critically refocus our attentions on the state, and to revive or revisit its role in protecting us all from the depredations of exploitative capitalism and insatiable corporate greed.

This Science of Democracy series must address such topics, because it invites us to contemplate not only the definitions of democracy but also what the state does to earn the definition 'democratic'.

No.107 in a Loop thread on the Science of Democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Dimitra Mareta
Dimitra Mareta
Independent Researcher

Dimitra Mareta holds a PhD in Political Science from  Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.

She was an adjunct lecturer in Political Science at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki for the academic year 2020–2021, where she was also a postdoctoral researcher, and at the Hellenic Open University for the academic years 2018–2019 and 2020–2021.

Her research and teaching interests include political philosophy, conservatism, the state, neo/liberalism and women’s studies.

Dimitra has published academic articles and has participated in national and international conferences.

Her chapter on the theory of democracy appears in the Introduction to Political Science (Gutenberg, Athens, 2023) eds. Costas Eleftheriou, Yannis Tsirbas, Panos Koliostasis and Sophia Kanaouti, which presents theories of democracy from Ancient Athens to the present day.

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