The Left Against the People?

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From the 1990s to the mid 2010s, the question of the people was not a central one in British politics. Low and declining voter turnout, party membership, and trade union membership (as traced by Peter Mair in his essential Ruling the Void (London: Verso, 2013)) in fact created a moral panic in the other direction. During this period of declining popular sovereignty, there was a moral panic about apathy – essentially the people were defined by their absence from political life.

The situation in late 2018 is very different. In the last two years, the people have re-entered British politics in an unexpected way. The vote to Leave the European Union ran counter to the advice and expectations of the political, journalistic, and academic elites. In the two years since the referendum result the ability of Leave voters to understand the complexities of the European Union, or of simple referendum voting, has been put under the microscope. The wisdom of plebiscitary politics has been repeatedly questioned, from a number of angles. But most of all, we have seen a constant pillorying of the cognitive capabilities of Leave voters. They are seen as unable to resist the draw of bigotry, or of a return to Empire, or of Russian social media bots. The contemporary moral panic, then, is not around the apathy of the people, it is around their ignorance.

The contemporary moral panic around the ignorance of the masses has a number of characteristic symptoms: the diagnosis of a post-truth or post-factual politics; a deep suspicion of social media that circulates information too quickly and with too little moderation; an instinctive siding with technocratic, institutional aspects of democracy against expressions of popular sovereignty; and, a desire to protect the people from politics (such as the supposed appeal of populism or fascism) as far as possible. The British Left, or at least the liberal Left, the Labour Party and Momentum, sadly seem to be evincing almost all of these symptoms. (The Full Brexit and a number of others stand as honourable exceptions, willing to defend Brexit on democratic grounds; see my piece on the EU as anti- and un- democratic here.) 

The Left’s acceptance of this essentially anti-mass view, if unchanged, will have disastrous political consequences. Most importantly, it cedes the ground for a democratic defence of Brexit to the Right and to people like Jacob Rees-Mogg. It would leave the Labour Party exposed on Brexit, unable to mediate between Leave voters on the one hand and Remain activists and Parliamentarians on the other. At the same time, the moral panic around the ignorance of the masses puts the ‘blame’ for rising populism at the door of the supposedly racist, xenophobic, and irrecoverably hateful British working class. This mistakes symptom for cause. The key factor driving the rise of populism across Western Europe is structural – it is the yawning gap between politics and the people across the continent that has allowed Right-wing populists to attract attention and support by (correctly) criticizing establishment politicians as out of touch. As Lee Jones puts it on the podcast #OCCUPYIRTHEORY, ‘populism is a symptom of the void’. Bridging that void, and so eliminating the space for Right-wing populism, with a demand for greater democracy should be a key priority for socialists.

It seems there is a parallel here with an earlier socialist attempt to rescue the people from what we might want to call the enormous condescension of the elites. Much of Raymond Williams’ work, along with that of Stuart Hall and E. P. Thompson, looked to trace the development of mass culture and politics in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, popular education, and universal suffrage. In his 1958 book Culture and Society Williams focuses on the development of mass culture and the arguments that surrounded its emergence. Among other things, Williams finds a deep fear on the part of cultural elites towards the newly literate and enfranchised working classes. A key construction in the critique of mass culture, in Williams’ account, are “the masses”, whose ignorance and lowered cultural tastes are said to be eroding the cherished standards of “high culture”. Williams memorably concludes: ‘There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.’ (Culture and Society, London: Chatto and Windus, 1958, p. 289.) In the final analysis, it is always the case that the masses are invoked from a conservative position to explain an undesirable change. As Williams aptly puts it: ‘Masses are other people.’ (p. 289.)

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The Left today could gain from seeing the contemporary moral panic around the ignorance of voters in the context of a longue durée class struggle over the ability of working class people to participate in the politics and culture of our society. A key part of Raymond Williams’ conception of socialism was a defence of the ordinariness of culture, seeing it as part of everyday life rather than a reified and privileged domain to which only the select have access. We need to carry something of this position over to contemporary politics. Socialism more generally must be a mass political movement, an attempt to defend and extend democracy into every sphere of life. Consequently, it is meaningless without a faith that we are able to use our collective intellectual (as well as technological and physical) power to make the world a fundamentally better place. This requires us to reject the conservative position that the people are too ignorant to be trusted.

The EU and democracy: the EU as undemocratic and as antidemocratic?

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The packed launch event of Costas Lapavitsas’ The Left Case Against the EU earlier this week suggested that there is increasingly fertile ground for arguments against the European Union that appeal to Leftists. While these arguments have been made previously — indeed, nothing in what I’ve written here is new — it is crucial to continue to make them. As a second referendum looks ever more likely, socialists will have to arm themselves with a set of arguments aimed at convincing as many people as possible that the EU and democracy are incompatible.


The EU is incompatible with democracy in two distinct ways. It is undemocratic, suffering from a well-known “democratic deficit” such that its institutions are structured to give political power to unelected and unaccountable officials. But it is also anti-democratic: the effect of the EU on the domestic politics of member states is to downplay the importance of democratic decision-making processes in those states. It is this latter sense that is often overlooked in debates around Brexit: when we leave the EU, it will change (gradually at first) politics at the national level. And it is precisely this change that the Left should defend in arguments around Brexit.

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The undemocratic nature of the EU was widely recognised prior to the Referendum. It was painted much more frequently before June 2016 than after as an institution lacking the sort of widespread popular support that ordinarily legitimises our political institutions.

The acceptance of the undemocratic character of the EU by Remain voters with a sympathy towards the Left is problematic in and of itself. But it also reflects a wider trend in the understanding of what democracy is. “Democracy “as a concept has two interrelated elements: a popular sovereignty aspect (centrally voting) and an institutional element (including checks and balances, political rights, representative structures, and an independent judiciary). As Peter Mair traces in his Ruling the Void (Verso, 2013), in the post-war period of European democracy, and accelerating from the 1990s onwards, we see a clear shift from seeing democracy in terms of the former to understanding it in terms of the latter. In other words, the actual fact of publics coming out to vote (and derivatively their propensity to be members of political parties, trade unions, and other associative institutions of civil society) becomes increasingly peripheral to the conceptual understanding of democracy. Of course, the dynamic created here is clear: popular support (for instance voter turnout in national elections) eludes European political systems, and as a consequence it is argued by those in power to be a less important constituent element of what legitimates those systems.

The structural problems of the EU in regard to democracy are not difficult to see. The bodies of the EU’s “executive” (centrally the Council and the Commission) are not elected, while the bodies of the legislative are either not elected (the Council) or the process for their election is not democratic (the Parliament). Elections for the Parliament are not democratic in a constitutive rather than a procedural sense. As Costas Lapavitsas points out, the process for electing the European Parliament is not democratic because it lacks a demos — there is no European demos. Without a demos, democracy is impossible. As Lapavitsas puts it,

No class or other social divisions in Europe take a homogeneous “European” form, for there are no occupational, organizational, habitual, cultural, and historical norms able to create such an overarching social integration. Actual class divisions in Europe always take a national form, as do the party politics that correspond to these divisions. In Marxist terms there is neither a European capitalist class nor a European working class. (The Left Case Against the EU, London: Polity, 2018, p. 113.)

The democratic argument should have been the Left’s central claim prior to, and after, the Referendum.

Brexit has delivered a series of harsh lessons for the Left, but none more central than that it’s crucial to see and defend socialism as an extension of democracy (rather than a set of policies that help the worst off in society or address inequality — that’s left liberalism). The Left, though, in general continues to choose not to make arguments based on democracy or on class. Indeed, the main claim of the Remain campaign ended up being an appeal to the “Europeanness” of Remain supporters. The democratic deficit of the EU is widely accepted, but it is the Right that has generally been more prepared to organise on the basis of an appeal to the idea of democracy.

What goes less frequently analysed in accounts of the EU from a Left perspective is its role in the depoliticizing dynamic of contemporary European politics. The EU has a much greater effect on the national politics of member states than is often realised, although it is difficult to find many people on the Left who think through seriously the consequences of EU membership on the character of British politics. The critical point here (as argued by Chris Bickerton and others at The Full Brexit) is that EU integration involves a crucial shift from nation statehood to member statehood. Aside from legal and constitutional changes, there is a more profound political transformation. The EU comes to stand in for the national polity as a source of legitimacy for political decisions. The function of EU membership, seen from the perspective of democracy, has been to contribute centrally to the dynamic of the decreasing importance of popular sovereignty to what we understand as “democracy”. The EU offers a specific brand of technocratic legitimacy to national decisions made by heads of state, with the consequence of distancing the public from decision making. This is both a result of the distance between politicians and the public at a national level (and the concomitant lack of trust of the former in the latter), and a cause of it (which then reduces public trust in a removed and unresponsive political class).

The EU, then, is anti-democratic in the sense that it is part of a political dynamic aimed at eroding one of the two poles of democracy, namely that of mass participation or popular sovereignty at the national level.

In sum, the EU is not only internally fatally flawed with respect to democracy, but it also plays an important role in the erosion of mass participation at the national level. Therefore, quite apart from the travestying of democracy that a second referendum would represent, the Left should welcome the potential for repoliticization offered by Brexit.


Brave New Europe have re-posted this at: https://braveneweurope.com/george-hoare-the-eu-and-democracy-the-eu-as-undemocratic-and-as-antidemocratic. I’m a big supporter of BNE, which is a great source for articles and podcasts on European politics.