Against the backdrop of mounting civil unrest, stark political division, and demands for the imprisonment and repeal of citizenship for those who would burn the American flag, delivered via tweet by a clownish oaf who happens to be the president-elect, the New York Times has run a piece on the future of liberal democracy. More specifically, the central concern of the piece is Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, who have recently developed a system that allows them to ‘check’ the temperature of people’s attitudes towards democracy, in order to determine whether or not democracy is ‘ill’. Their conclusion for liberal democracy in the West? “Warning signs are flashing red”.
First of all: no shit. The writing has been on the wall for decline of democracy for some time now, as anyone who has their ear close to the street level could point out without recourse to the instruments of the political scientists. As the American experience has shown since, well, the Obama campaign back in 2007, people get out to vote in attempts to push the system itself back. While these demands have always been framed in the language of democracy, and even in the language of liberal democracy, both their left-wing and right-wing iterations have drifted further and further from the ideological center-space of the Washington establishment.
Second: should we be all that concerned with the passing of liberal democracy? If what comes out the other side is a proto-fascist, fascist, or some other authoritarian formation, then yes, absolutely, we should try to limply breathe life in this squalid system. To do so, however, doesn’t mean that we should support liberal democracy, or position it as the panacea to our problems, or even see it as a platform through which we can inch closer towards a liberatory politics.
Reading through the New York Times piece, I noticed two interesting things. The first was that measures used for democracy and freedom stemmed from the periodic analyses offered by the non-governmental organization Freedom House. The second was that Mounk and Foa’s research is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Democracy. While this might seem like rather insignificant nuggets of information (after all, blandly-named organizations and publications are the classical haunts of political scientists and policy wonks), what caught my eye is the fact that both Freedom House and Journal of Democracy are both linked to one another, and are embedded in a wider network that links together the elite institutions of the political science and international relations worlds with the US foreign policy establishment.
Freedom House, which was launched in the 1940s by progressive luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, has been more recently described as a “Who’s Who of neoconservatives from government, business, academia, labor, and the press”. It has received funding from right-wing philanthropies such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundation, as well as liberal and centrist ones such as the Ford Foundation. Additional funds flow from the US government by way of the US Information Agency, the US Agency for International Development, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – the latter of which provides around 80% of Freedom House’s budget. The Journal of Democracy, incidentally, is a publication of the NED, and serves as its official organ. Experts from the NED routinely publish their articles in the journal, and it is in the pages of the periodical that many of the theories which inform the NED’s work – which consists of “promoting [liberal] democracy” in authoritarian-ruled countries and in the developing world – are hashed out. One of the annual features of the Journal is Freedom House’s year survey, which assess which countries are democratic and which are not. Be a country against the United States and find yourself marked as “unfree” – and odds are the NED will be funding and training dissidents right under your very nose.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re marked unfree by Freedom House odds are that you are an authoritarian country, just as if the NED is working with dissidents in your backyard, it’s because you necessitated the rise of such grassroots forces that the US is only later to capitalize upon. As I’ve written extensively elsewhere, US government-funded democracy promotion agencies like the NED seek out pre-existing social movements in order to take advantage of their needs for funding and training, and aim to steer them towards ends amicable to the US’s geopolitical imperatives and/or the interests of transnational capital – ends that, as the name implies, consist of little more than the construction of liberal democracy. As a general rule, only vulgar leftists and the so-called “anti-imperialists” (i.e those folks everybody knows whose arguments rarely move beyond lame whataboutisms) build up the tin-foily image of the NED and its related organization as sowing seeds of dissident where none existed before. If one encounters a piece that justifies, to one common example, Putin’s crackdown on protestors because of some link to US-based funding bodies, please do the prudent thing and not waste your time.
This does not, of course, absolve the US from the dynamics of democracy promotion – a topic that much more must be said about. More immediately for our concerns here is the way that these groups (the NED, Freedom House, Journal of Democracy, etc.) articulate just what liberal democracy” is, which in turn drives straight to the heart of what is wrong about liberal democracy, and ultimately why we should abandon it and get along with building a better, more just anarchist society and all that jazz – Mounk and Fao’s concerns be damned!
What is Liberal Democracy, Exactly?
Democracy, with or without the prefix of “liberal”, occupies a unique space in American political discourse, serving at once as a symbol of its ‘enlightened’ tradition and the clarion call for those who live under its sovereign rule to participate in its process. In its most basic and common articulation, democracy is treated as the end itself, the highest form of duty the citizen can perform for themselves and one another. Democracy, then, functions similar to notions of solidarity, but on a more instinctual way that is built into the sense of ‘being’ American, as an identity.
When one leaves these well-promoted colloquialisms aside and enters the domain of policy development and political science research, the definition of “democracy” rapidly changes. The shift is easy to understand: for citizens of a country, the goal of participating in governance is to ostensibly play a role in forming the infrastructures that allow life to flourish. For the political class, on the other hand, the goal of governance is much different: it is to serve as an administrator and to wield the power of the state. Democracy, then, represents something far different for those who have power. For the political scientists whose goal it is to make governance and power operate as smoothly and continuously as possible, democracy is understood precisely as Joseph Schumpeter defined it in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy: “Democracy is a political method, that is to say, a certain type of institutional arrangement for arriving at political—legislative and administrative—decisions and hence incapable of being an end in itself, irrespective of what decisions it will produce under given historical conditions.”
In Schumpeter’s reasoning, if democracy is to serve as an effective political method for decision-making, there must be limits to what democracy is capable of doing – or, in other words, democracy must be connected directly to formal limits that are capable of keeping it in check, lest it collapse any capacity for rational governance. Thus when Samuel Huntington observed in his contribution to the 1977 Trilateral Commission report on the ‘crisis of democracies’, that a dual “excess” of democracy and a decline of “public trust” in governing institutions was causing an erosion in the capacity to govern, he was acting as a quintessential Schumpterian. In this report the crisis of governance was, unsurprisingly, connected directly to the uprisings that had rocked the Western world in 1960s, ranging from anti-war movements to civil rights. It would be that the Trilateral Commission, perhaps the archetypal ‘transnational’ think-tank of the proto-globalization era, saw that governance declines the more politically-engaged the citizenry becomes.
This is reinforced by the trajectory traced by William Robinson of this initial wave of democracy studies in political science, which uses Huntingon’s own genealogy as its base. Following the release of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in the 1940s, a long debate raged over the nuances of this interpretation of democracy, ultimately culminating in Robert Dahl’s 1971 work Polyarchy. For Dahl, democracy works most effectively and rationally if it is structured to support “polyarchy”, which entails the dissolving of power into multiple people. These people, of course, are the officials that are elected into office by the citizenry of the country; polyarchy is thus a sort of limited pluralism in which competing interests play themselves out in the public arena but in a manageable setting tending towards stability. Yet, as Robinson points out, the political scientists’ concern was not immediately with simply happening upon the most rational form of governance, but with cultivating a rational governance capable of maintaining “the stability of the capitalist social order”, wherein attempts to transform the social order are determined to be attacks on democracy itself. This perspective is best exemplified in Huntington’s work, with its ongoing emphasis on abstracting democracy-as-process away from the demands of the citizenry – though perhaps the bluntest articulation of this understanding of democracy appears in the writings of William Douglas. To quote his 1972 work Developing Democracy:
…democratic governments may be able to do the same things as dictatorships to overcome centripetal social forces: use police to stop riots, strike bargains with the various groups to keep them reasonably satisfied, and call out the army when peaceful means fail… There is no denying the need for organization structures by which the modernized elite can exercise tutelage. However… it is common experience that in obtaining the desired behavior from a balky mule, a balky child, or a balky peasant, the real key is to find just the right balance between carrot and stick… Democracy can provide a sufficient degree of regimentation, if it can build up the mass organizations needed to reach the bulk of the people on a daily basis. Dictatorship has no monopoly on the tutelage principle.
This provides us with a crucial insight into the way transnational ‘democracy’ functions within the foreign policy establishment: it entails the replacement of the older, more autocratic, unilateral and stick-based regimes of governance with newer, multi-polar modes of governance that interact with the citizenry in ways that allow flexible oscillations between sticks and carrots. Such a regime is more equitable to the stable expansion of capitalist power on a global scale, and this is precisely the reason that every developing country that has undergone so-called ‘liberalization’ since the end of the Cold War has received attention and aid for democracy promotion and ‘good governance’ from the dominant countries of the globe, organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, and the ‘civil society’ networks of NGOs, international trade unions, election monitors, and the like. Taken as a cohesive whole, ‘liberalization’ becomes entangled – and ultimately inseparable from – the promotion of polyarchy, designed to install a “modernizing elite” (to borrow a phrase from Douglas) who can effectively manage the population.
Perhaps ironically, this position drew additional intellectual ammunition from a network of scholars who emerged from New Left, anti-colonialist discourses from the 1960s – only to later drift into the so-called moderate wings of the US foreign policy establishment. This would be the neo-Marxist “dependency school” theorists who emphasized the uneven development between the developed core countries and the underdeveloped and/or developing periphery countries, and drew attention to the way in which capital flowed from the global poor to the global rich. Dependency theory was first articulated as a critique of modernization theory, which had served as the justification of the US’s neo-colonialist ambitions in Latin and South America and in Southeast Asia; in certain quarters, particularly those who were on the receiving end of funding from the Ford Foundation, the discourse had evolved into a critique of the “bureaucratic authoritarianism” that had emerged in the wake of the application of modernization. In the work of Guillermo O’Donnell, bureaucratic authoritarianism is analyzed as a mode of governance inherently doomed to failure due to its inability to establish a cross-class alliance. While the ruling faction of the elite might forge links with other elite factions, or even with global elites, bureaucratic authoritarianism operates without concern for the lower classes and relegates their consent to the sidelines. This, in turn, generates class tensions which effectively destabilize the government in the long run. As O’Donnell ultimately concludes, bureaucratic authoritarianism “is a suboptimal form of bourgeois domination.” The optimal form of political domination? “…the very thing that [bureaucratic authoritarianism] has radically denied: democracy.”
Such arguments would be integrated into the US’s imperial toolkit by way of the Transitions Project, launched in 1979 at the Woodrow Wilson for International Scholars (itself launched in the 1960s to better align the worlds of political science scholarship and policy-making circles) and completed with the publishing of multi-volume Transitions from Authoritarian Rule in 1987. In these four volumes, the neo-Marxist insights were completely retooled: with the overarching objective of elucidating means to move states from bureaucratic authoritarian modes of governance to democratic modes, O’Donnell and his co-authors reiterate the relationship between managing variables in civil society and a flexible polyarchical elite. In order to avoid the sort of crises identified by Huntington and the Trilateral Commission, the careful control of elections in order to maintain stability and continuity was foregrounded:
For a transition to democracy to viable in the long-run, founding elections must be freely conducted, honestly tabulated and openly contested, yet their results cannot be too accurate or representative of the actual distribution of voter preference. Put in a nutshell, parties of the Right-Center and Right must be ‘helped’ to do well, and parties to the Left-Center and Left should not win by an overwhelming majority.
In a similar vein, Transitions further reinforces the polyarchical model by noting that in order to achieve optimization, the transitional process must link the government together with “valid interlocutors outside the regime itself”, with these interlocutors being “notables – respected, prominent individuals who are seen as representative of propertied classes, elite institutions, and/or territorial constituencies and, hence, capable of influencing their subsequent collective behavior”. Democracy thus becomes synonymous with a full-spectrum of tools and devices capable for constructing a hegemonic framework for society, a set of instruments capable of balancing key variables in a way that is equitable to ruling elites not only in the nation-state in question, but the global elite in the world’s centers of power.
Bringing It All Back Home
We will return to and extend this thought momentarily, but it occurs to me that at this stage some might be wondering what this has to do with what we were discussing at the outset – that is, the networks around Freedom House, Journal of Democracy, the NED, etc. – and with notions of liberal democracy in the US as it currently stands. Isn’t the experience of transitioning from authoritarian rule, and the construction of democracy from that vantage point, fundamentally different?
Regarding the first question: the theoretical tendency sketched out all-too-briefly here is plugged directly into the US foreign policy establishment, and the democracy promotion network in particular. The creation of the NED had marked the culmination of a process that grew out from the Democracy Program, a multi-year endeavor launched by the American Political Foundation at the behest of the Reagan administration that was tasked with determining the most effective way to “to foster the infrastructure of democracy–the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities.” William Douglas was amongst the hefty number of political scientists and State Department apparatchiks tapped to head up the Democracy Program; his aforementioned Developing Democracy served as the project’s intellectual cornerstone, with references to it peppering their theoretical output.
It is the act of ‘promoting democracy’ itself that is so often the topic of discourse around the NED; after all, who doesn’t want to read about cut-out organizations funneling money from US government to activist groups? One could make a career out of peddling NED conspiracy theories. What is less acknowledged, however, is the NED’s role as a think-tank. The Democracy Program was first and foremost an intellectual endeavor, and that infrastructure was imported wholesale. As McKenzie Wark has recently indicated, there is always a correlation between power and particular knowledge infrastructures, and here is with no exception. The NED’s knowledge infrastructure is the internal International Forum for Democratic Studies, which manages the Journal of Democracy and organizes the network’s Research Council. The Research Council, in turn, brings us directly into the arena of the Transitions Project. To quote Nicolas Guilhot,
All the members of the Research Council are indeed presented as “democracy experts” by the NED. The analysis of the Research Council, therefore, provides an entry point in the process of social construction of such expertise. In other words, it allows us to flesh out the social structure of the field of democracy and human rights… At first sight, the Research Council of the NED looks like a roster of academic scholars specializing in various geographical areas or political issues (human rights, economic reform, comparative democratization, Chinese politics, Latin America, etc.). From its list of members appearing in various NED publications, 67 out of 95 members are academics… The most salient are the affiliations with various think tanks and policy research centers (32%), such as the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (7 individuals), the American Enterprise Institute and its offshoot the Center for Strategic and International Studies (5), the Hoover Institution (3) or the International Institute for Strategic Studies (3). Permanent or occasional work with the State Department (10) or with other state agencies related to defense or security (13) also appears as a relevant characteristic. To a lesser extent, consulting for the USAID (7) is another visible feature. Obviously, many members of the Research Council cumulate positions across these various institutions. In contrast, there are only few affiliations with NGOs (6), and among them Human Rights Watch predominates (3).
Within this breakdown, we find all the significant members of the Transition Project and the authors of Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Guillermo O’Donnell, Phillippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead have all been present on the roster, as is Abraham F. Lowenthal, the former Ford Foundation official who first organized the Transitions Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. These individuals have been joined, in turn, by Robert Dahl and Samuel Huntington. The NED’s knowledge infrastructure contains, in other words, the cream of the political science crop when it comes to analyzing what liberal democracy is and how it operates.
So why is this relevant?
Many of the countries that are currently experiencing “democratic deconsolidation”, as Mounk and Foa describe it in a July, 2016 essay for the Journal of Democracy, are, in fact, countries that have followed the transition plan developed and executed by those in the democracy promotion network. An excellent example here would be Poland, which has swung from being one of the first major laboratories for democracy promotion in the waning days of the Soviet Union to being a hotbed for anti-democratic, even pro-authoritarian politics that has been quickly seeping across the borders into neighboring European countries. But another example would be the United States.
What is essential to realize is that while the political scientists and policy wonks and State Department bureaucrats work hard to transition countries from “bureaucratic authoritarianism” to liberal democracy, this liberal democracy is, at the end of the day, a polyarchical system modeled on the liberal democracy of the US itself. This is reflected in the very grant-making structure of the NED itself, especially through its primary subsidiary organizations. These four institutions are a reflection of the pillars of US liberal democracy itself: there is the International Republican Institute (IRI), which works with the Republican Party; the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is connected to the Democratic Party; the Solidarity Center, a program of the AFL-CIO labor union; and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), tied to the Chamber of Commerce. Each works with different sectors of the population in a targeted country. The NDI and IRI work with oppositional political parties, bringing them closer to the moderate center, establishing ties between donors and sympathetic elite figures, staging negotiations between one another, etc. CIPE, in turn, works hand-in-hand with the business sector, networking it with political institutions in-country and international bodies – ranging from the IMF to USAID to various lesser known organizations – to develop an economy that can transition into globalized neoliberal with ease. The Solidarity Center, meanwhile, fosters moderate union that can form a soft counter-power to these developments. Other organizations, such as Freedom House, work to develop “civic institutions” at the ground level.
We can say, therefore, that democracy promotion is really the exporting of the US model of government and civil society. As William Robinson has depicted in detail in his Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, there is no fundamental distinction between this political exporting and the processes of economic globalization. If you’re read these pages or have continued this far, odds are you’re quite familiar what this entails: the spread of monopolistic competition, hardening income inequality, monolithic corporations and the apparent inability of anybody to do anything about. The structure of liberal democracy is precisely why this economic system is capable of reproducing itself. A broad ideological consensus is formed at the center of the political establishment, one from which there can be partial, but not absolute dissent from (the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the US, for example), which is tied directly to the interests of the top tier of the economic strata. Mechanisms are put into place that prevent forces, be they market-based or governmental, from whittling away wealth and privilege, while moderate unionism is allowed and even applauded – as long as it focuses on harmonizing relations between labor and management, as opposed instigating division. Liberal democracy, then, is a tool that shields monopolistic competition, which is currently in its neoliberal guise (though this guise is waning) from both competitive pressures and political pressures.
At the same time, it shields both the political class and the business class from pressure from the bottom up: as Douglas noted, an essential part of democracy is the ability for the political class to wield the baton. Liberal democracy is a device that holds in play multiple and often contradictory variables, seeking to balance them all out: the interest of the political class and the business class, national imperative and international relations, granting demands from the bottom-up while heading off alterations to the system. It forms, in other word, a control system – which is precisely why O’Donnell noted that it was a far more optimal form of bourgeois domination than older, more sclerotic forms of authoritarianism.
It is unsurprising, then, that people are rejecting liberal democracy right at the same time that they are rejecting economic globalization. As I’ve written elsewhere, the rejection of globalization is problematic, confused, and a dangerous position to hold if careful nuances are not applied. The risks of compounding economic populism are great, and it is extremely telling that those who are rejecting liberal democracy are often the very same that espouse economic populism. In many respects it is precisely the ‘pre-democratic transition’ state of bureaucratic authoritarianism that these individuals aspire too, and in more ways than one history seems to vindicate Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s observation that the impulse to pursue a political urge to “withdraw from the world market” is indeed “a curious revival of the fascist ‘economic solution’”. The irony is that this new fascism arises not from military coup, but from the structures of liberal democracy. Here Mounk offers a good conceptual tool: “illiberal democracy”. Maybe we can also develop an idea of an “inverted internationalism” to describe the international ties between nationalist-oriented political parties, politicians, and grassroots groups.
As with everything in this age, we’re confronted with a host of dynamic problems. How do we critique, undermine, and move beyond something like liberal democracy, when it our enemies who are doing precisely this? Something like illiberal democracy is not the negation of liberal democracy, but is its bastard offspring, perhaps even the inevitable result of trying to hold together a strong nation in the era of globalization – and it follows from this that it is highly adaptable (as all fascistic ideologies are) to a quickly shifting political environment. And even if we begin to talk about alternatives, be it the participatory structures offered by everyone from the municipalists to the folks at the P2P Foundation to the more mainstream social anarchists, is there not something to say about this simply being a miniaturization of the problems existing at the core of mass, liberal democracy – which is the impossibility of truly managing multi-variable affairs in the context of ever-feedbacking complexity? This here is a sticky ball that we have not even begun to untangle, though in due time it will be essential. It will be essential to start cranking out answers to all these questions.
 Joseph Schumpeter Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Taylor & Francis, 2003, pg. 242
 William Robinson Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony Cambridge University Press, 1996 pg. 51
 William A. Douglas Developing Democracy Heldref, 1972, pgs. 16-22; quoted in Robinson Promoting Polyarchy, pg. 84
 Guillermo O’Donnell “Tensions in the Bureaucratic-Authoritarian State and the Question
of Democracy, in David Collier (ed.) The New Authoritarianism in Latin America, Princeton University press, 1979, pg. 309, quoted in Nicolas Guilhot The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order Columbia University Press, 2005, pg. 127
 Guillermo O’Donnell, Phillippe C. Schmitter, Laurence Whitehead Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Volume 4: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies John Hopkins University Press, 1986, pgs. 62-63
 Guilhot The Democracy Makers, pgs. 92-94
 Roberto Stefan Foa and Yaschka Mounk “The Dangers of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect: Journal of Democracy July 2016, Volume 27, Number 3 http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Foa%26Mounk-27-3.pdf
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin Books, 1977, pg. 239
 Yaschka Mounk “Illiberal Democracy or Undemocratic Liberalism?” Project Syndicate June 9th, 2016, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-european-populism-technocracy-by-yascha-mounk-1-2016-06?barrier=true