Every day delivers a catalog of political horrors. Militarized borders. Unapologetic nationalism. Resource grabs in a zero-sum world with narrowing ecological horizons. When Rosa Luxemburg defined the options for the future as socialism or barbarism, she was envisioning war, imperialism, and some combination of social collapse and unrelenting exploitation—early feudalism with modern weaponry. That bleak disjunctive prophecy feels apt for a world in which the prospect of unprecedented mass migrations is arising alongside politicized racism, and the imperative of growth is further tightening the ecological bottleneck everywhere.
What do these slow-moving disasters have in common? Here is a definition of barbarism: a system that makes people into one another’s enemies, victims, and oppressors. In this sense, barbarism is not a quality of culture or its absence, as imperialists and racist ideologues have used the term. It is what Luxemburg meant, a product of political economy. It is what divides people and pits them against one another. That is what resource grabs and fearsome hyper-competitive economies do to people; it is what right-wing nationalism teaches people to see in the human predicament. Others are, at best, opportunities for self-enrichment, at worst mortal threats, and having adopted this premise you should expect them to take the same attitude to you.
A second definition of barbarism: a system that keeps its people in the dark and gives them no way out. A system, that is, that makes the world as it is both inescapable and unintelligible. Crises strike like earthquakes or medieval plagues; some succumb to them, and the lucky survivors stumble on to the next. Climate change is a great barbarization, as the globe becomes a plaything of forces we can model but not control. Another great barbarization is a global financial order in which nearly everyone, on some level, is crossing their fingers over “the next crisis,” though very few of us could even give a good fake at explaining how that is likely to come about. Right-wing populism feeds on the sense that the world is a congeries of hostile forces that make sense to someone, somewhere, but not to the people who have to suffer them. Along with other, more nihilistic impulses, this perception is the root of the appetite for smashing systems and skewering elites, if only to see them shudder.
Democracy should be a political rejection of barbarism in both aspects. It is an order premised on the equality of everyone who lives in it and the embrace of a shared fate. It is the way—the only one we have—for people to choose the terms of their shared lives, the shape of their mutual vulnerability and entanglement. An order that we have made is one we can at least hope to understand and, most important, know how to remake, and remake again.
But this praise for democracy is too easy. Political majorities are the vehicles of nationalism, militarization, and resource grabs—of barbarism. We make the conditions that make enmity and fear seem inevitable. Many governments are elected, it seems, to keep us in the dark: to embody myths about national purity or strength, myths about the rationality and fairness of the market, myths about the global climate. And it was mostly elected governments that charged forward in building the global economic order that most of us do not understand, and the global ecological crises that it is producing. Both fantasy and cruelty are much more vivid in political life than they tended to seem during the surface consensus of the Long 1990s.
So it risks bad faith to say “democracy or barbarism.” The more honest formulation is “democracy and/or barbarism.” We stand on the blade of that forward slash. This special section of Dissent is an exploration of our prospects.
It needs saying that “barbarism” is a word entangled with the racist and imperial imagination. There is also, however, a long history of using the word to criticize imperialism and the arrogance of powerful societies that fail to recognize their own cruelty and dysfunction. It is an ironic symptom of how the Global North has projected the worst human potentials outward that there is no untainted synonym that so well conjures up social cruelty, institutional breakdown, and the denial of human commonality. Dissent’s use of the word here is in Luxemburg’s tradition: the moral analysis of a violent and destructive political economy with its home in the world’s power centers. We don’t mean to say that Luxemburg’s phrase was itself free of pernicious tropes about East and West, civilized and savage, but on the whole we consider it worth recovering and recasting. It seems particularly apt when, as in the past, the political forces that are doing the most to stoke xenophobia and open imperial posturing are the same ones that are barbarizing their own societies—two sides of a coin that melt together in, for instance, the Trump administration’s terrorizing of unauthorized migrants.
An opaque and politically intractable world fosters not only right-wing nationalism but emergency anti-crisis measures by technocrats, which strengthen the standing of their brand of anti-politics and build up their institutional repertoires (think of the 2008 U.S. bank bailout and Europe’s post-crisis governance of its indebted peripheral states). Because the immediate alternative is to let the crisis roll on like a blind natural disaster, these technocratic moves always seem justified on their own terms. This is a tragic tendency in the creation of massively complex and crisis-prone systems.
Another tragedy of twenty-first-century democracy is that the institutions that can give majorities actual power are still housed in the nineteenth-century nation-state, making their reach seem inadequate to global problems and presenting constant temptation to fall back on exclusionary and neo-imperialist political appeals. (Given the state of politics in Modi’s India, it is parochial to imagine that neo-imperialism is restricted to the historical imperial powers.) On the global scale, humanity appears weak, divided, not up to the crises it has half-mysteriously visited on itself. Where we have the power to act, we appear “naturally” divided into more or less homogenous groupings that give prominence to common language, regional history, and race.
For these reasons, it isn’t hard to imagine a future in which, fifty years from now, respectable opinion regards democracy as an antique conceit, as obsolete as alchemy. Consider how much of current politics is veering toward a kind of symbolic electoral monarchy: Donald Trump and Boris Johnson rise on the charisma of wealth, celebrity, and a certain sadistic cathexis (“This guy can be cruel in ways that I can’t, and I love it”) and then perform a bumptious burlesque of sovereignty while their friends run the administrative and economic institutions and ensure that their friends’ friends get richer. Sophie Lewis’s essay in this issue explores the emotional texture of this sadistic politics, an essential topic to understand when the pleasures of cruelty have vividly re-entered political life.
This particular version of hollowed-out and perverted democracy might continue for a while on the shell of electoral institutions. Quinn Slobodian has pointed out that most right-wing nationalism is not interested in actually “taking back control” for national electorates, but only in pursuing neoliberal plutocracy in neo-nationalist style. Every turn of that particular wheel is likely to undermine democratic credibility and deepen the trends to exclusion and recurrent crisis. At the same time, it isn’t hard to imagine financial and climate crises strengthening whichever institutions can coordinate regional or global responses in ways that favor concentrated wealth and power over human numbers, and with the capacity to shrug off the stylings of the nation-states’ temporary kings.
That’s the bad news. Part of the good news is that not all of the bad news is actually news. It’s now a mainstream view in the Democratic Party that the stakes of the 2020 election include democracy itself. Democrats understand that the Trumpist Republican Party is running a minority-rule strategy: the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court can, and presently do, combine to give the decisive losers of the national popular vote effective control of national government. Accordingly, the Democrats’ H.R. 1, symbolically foregrounded as the vanguard of the House of Representatives agenda, would end the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, mandate automatic voter registration and early voting, and make Election Day a national holiday, along with other reforms intended to get as many people as possible to the polls. Proposals are also in the mix to offer statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico (presumably bringing the Senate closer to the partisan breakdown of the national vote and also proposing one redress of U.S. imperialism) and to increase political control over the Supreme Court by ending life tenure and guaranteeing each president a certain number of nominations. The willingness to shake up political and even constitutional norms bespeaks a sense of crisis.
Of course, such radical proposals raise the stakes of losing. Imagine the Democratic response if Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell promoted legislation to mandate voter-ID laws and felon disenfranchisement and bar early voting, break up Texas into several red-leaning states, or entrench control over the Supreme Court by increasing its numbers while Trump can make appointments. The difference, of course, is an issue much more basic than constitutional norms: the twin principles of small-d democracy—that the people rule, and that a majority vote counts as the voice of the people. The reforms that Democrats are pushing would advance democracy. The equal-and-opposite Republican initiatives would further throttle it.
But what does it mean to work for democracy in 2019, besides breaking down the barriers that keep citizens from ballots? What, besides the prospects of the Democratic Party, is at stake? The democratic left has always been defined by believing that democracy means more than elections: some combination of robust personal freedom and equality, political control over economic life, and, in some versions, a sense of solidarity in place of the generalized competition that most of us endure. What do these ideas mean today?
The stakes of democracy are especially hard to pin down when many people who support H.R. 1’s reforms are also ambivalent, at best, about the principle of majoritarianism. Although Trump has not even come close to enjoying majority approval since losing the popular vote on his way to the White House, the fact that he is president has given new currency to Tocqueville’s famous phrase “tyranny of the majority,” and all the fears of simple democracy that it conjures. So have the Brexit vote, the slide toward one-party rule in Hungary (and maybe Poland), and Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil on a neo-fascist platform. Indeed, there is much to fear. But the bromides of U.S. civics have for a long time run ahead of any actual authoritarian threat, invoking “tyranny” to suggest that the real genius of democracy is institutional design (separated powers, judicial review, and other “checks and balances”) that thwarts majoritarianism.
One of the odd things about the last few years’ rush to defend democracy is that it has highlighted what a thin idea of democratic politics motivates many of its champions. The idea that majorities should rule, or that the popular will is the basis of political power, is largely absent from sophisticated mainstream arguments such as Stephen Ziblatt and Daniel Levitsky’s How Democracies Die. For around a century, political scientists and other certified students of democracy have mainly believed that such ideas are naive and dangerous. There is no such thing as a popular will, goes the skeptically sophisticated argument, and ascribing such mystical conceits to the decisions of majorities, let alone the governments they elect, invites them to crush whoever is not in the majority. Democracy, with the sentimentality boiled off, is nothing but a (usually) larger group of people doing things to a small group of people. This bleak perspective was very important to neoliberals such as Friedrich Hayek, who adopted it in arguing that markets are the only form of social order to respect individual freedom and equality, and it led Joseph Schumpeter to a famous definition of democracy as a mechanism of “elite rotation”: there is no such thing as “the people,” and self-rule is a dangerous phantasm, but from time to time a majority of voters can throw out one group of wealthy, connected, and credentialed rulers and replace them with another. Works like How Democracies Die are basically accounts of how that rotation gets clogged up by power-grabbing elites who entrench themselves by tamping down debate, skewing elections, and breaking the governing-class norms that maintain some comity among parties and factions. The solution is to get elite rotation going again.
These adamant defenses of tepid democracy are not fatuous. The inch of difference between, say, Canada and Hungary, or Donald Trump’s America and Barack Obama’s, is the inch in which, for now, many of us live. And the problems with the idea of popular will are not invented. Part of the reason so many Americans identify with something they call “the Resistance” is the feeling that, in these few years, political rule is something being done to them by other people who are not so different from an occupying army. This is, of course, not a new experience. Many black Americans, Native Americans, and unauthorized migrants have long had versions of it. Part of the point of the “Resistance” label is to identify with and center these experiences.
The language of occupation and resistance is also, of course, the language and experience of Tea Party supporters under Obama. This is not to propose moral equivalence, but to point out that elections and other decisive government action don’t create harmony where before there was conflict: they shift the ground of conflict. So there is a lot to the political scientists’ unambitious idea of democracy as the system that lets Occupiers and Resisters change sides from time to time. The challenge for the left is to defend a stronger idea of democracy without relying on sentimentality or dubious claims to represent simplistic and bombastic versions of “the popular will.”
Although democracy is a unifying banner for many on the left, under scrutiny it sometimes appears to be a sweeping name for whatever one thinks is morally and politically good. In progressive reformist and democratic socialist imaginations, the economy is a pliant domain capable of being reshaped via democratic politics. Beneath this highly abstract level, visions proliferate. A democratic economy might mean anything from the middle-class society that progressive scholar and Elizabeth Warren policy adviser Ganesh Sitaraman recommends in The Great Democracy to one that maximizes free time, as philosopher Martin Hägglund urges in This Life. Its key institutions might look like a welfare state, a system of cooperatives, or something else. Frequently in the polemics of the left, rivers of ambitious arguments against neoliberal and hierarchical political economy don’t quite reach the sea but end in soggy deltas: a few examples of unorthodox local economies, a sketch of some riots or factory takeovers, a general call for a democracy of everybody (or, in some ecological circles, of all beings). This isn’t worse than the liberal-centrist habit of ending with an appeal to a version of constitutional values or national identity that just happens to align with all your commitments, but it isn’t clearly better as a statement of constructive politics for the age of crisis.
All this talk is especially vexed because the economy is a dense, complex, opaque domain of life. For at least the last seventy-five years, the world’s most powerful governments and largest concentrations of private capital have been building a world-system of finance, commodity flows, supply and distribution chains, and segmented labor markets that (as the 2008 financial crisis highlighted) hardly anyone entirely understands even in its “normal” operation.
Although this system may fail to keep itself running smoothly, it deals harshly with heretical efforts. One example: After the Greek left-wing party Syriza received a democratic mandate in 2015 to reject the austerity measures that the European Union was demanding as part of the country’s debt renegotiation, its leaders essentially concluded that they had no way forward and folded. That was a bid for a fairly small margin of policy freedom, but it was still more than institutional reality would allow. There is a vast disproportion between what we believe we should do and anything like confident knowledge of how to do it and make it stick—let alone how, politically, to get into a position to try. Utopian horizons are essential, and their rebirth and proliferation has been a great achievement of the last decade-plus of politics. But when a government in power faces a palpable crisis with technocratic common sense on one side and only a utopian horizon on the other, it is sure to go where it has a map. During difficult times, it becomes clear how hard it is to think and act in ways different from those in which “everyone” has been thinking and acting, how deep the premises of the time run in both consciousness and institutional logic. Bill Fletcher Jr.’s essay on socialist strategy in this issue asks how movement-building can aim at preparing elected officials to avoid getting caught in this corner.
It’s characteristic of political life in this era to feel, for good reason, that we are able to do much less than what we need to—not just to change the world, but even to preserve it. Despite that, essential political priorities follow from a clear sense of what democracy’s present crises are. The electoral reforms in H.R. 1 are an indispensable component of this program. But there are other ways to deepen our democratic commitment. It is destructive for a democracy to be crisscrossed by arbitrary private power and undergirded by caste systems. A world of precarious and at-will employment and sharp divides between the rich and most everyone else accustoms people to fear, self-censorship, and cringing in their work lives. Where many millions of unauthorized migrants work in extreme legal vulnerability and without political voice, economic life trains its participants in arrogance and entitlement on the dominant side, compliance and invisibility on the subordinate end. Unionization and workplace protections are democratic policies that train people in seeing one another as equals by rearranging power in everyday life. So are forms of social provision, including healthcare and child care, that decouple the basic needs of well-being from pleasing a boss or making yourself profitable to one.
For the same reasons, democratic principle points strongly toward a right to vote on the basis of residency, not citizenship. The point of majoritarian decisions is that those who have to live under a given regime of rules and power should be the ones who shape it. When a privileged set of insiders sets the rules for a population that includes a large number of non-citizens, majoritarianism reconstitutes its old caste basis, as surely as in felon disenfranchisement or voter suppression. If you are here—wherever “here” is—you should have a say in the shape of life here. (Although a 1996 law prohibits non-citizens from voting in federal elections, states and municipalities can institute residency voting in their own elections. There is also a plausible constitutional argument that once a state has made non-citizen residents eligible to vote in its own elections, they have to be eligible to vote in congressional elections as well. And repealing that 1996 federal statute should be on the progressive agenda.)
It should also be a democratic goal to make the world of institutional forces less opaque. It’s much too late (and in some cases would make no sense) to avoid complexity and the need for expertise in many domains, from climate policy to the monetary system, but there are also political choices to make about the degree of complexity in many important areas. For instance, it is perfectly possible in principle to make banking extremely boring, treating the management of the money supply as a kind of public utility and separating it from investment services and other financial industries. The latter, in turn, could be made much simpler by regulations prohibiting many “sophisticated vehicles” and directing finance into relatively simple buckets. Ever-more-complex finance for the wealthy solves none of the world’s present problems. The economy does not have to be as mysterious and susceptible to technocratic anti-politics as it is. Expanding institutional domains that citizens actually have a chance of understanding brings some of the world back within the ambit of democratic politics. It might also reduce the appetite for perniciously simplified myths, from goldbuggery to Bitcoin fetishism—displaced expressions of the desire to understand the world and to help shape it.
The ultimate challenge today is to match the scale and power of democratic politics to the economic and ecological crises it confronts. There is a place in this program for scaling down: reducing reliance on global supply chains, impeding capitalist arbitrage of labor costs and regulatory regimes, and supporting national and regional food sovereignty in places now at risk of becoming neocolonial breadbaskets for the rich countries when a food crisis strikes. But equally important, and even harder, is developing internationalist political solidarity on the ground of the nation-states where the institutional power of democracy still resides. A radical politics for climate change, for instance, cannot happen only or mainly in what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia,” floating alliances of mobile and rooted resistance to the infrastructure of fossil-fuel capitalism. Climate politics needs an alliance of democratic majorities in countries with strong economies, with the power to impose new rules regionally and globally. Anything less will offer little but moral satisfaction. Alyssa Battistoni’s essay on climate and democracy in this section (which I co-authored) highlights how little progress we have actually made in this direction, most of climate politics having unfolded in an era of neoliberal anti-politics. Joshua Leifer’s interview with Waleed Shahid explores where and how young activists are gaining essential and belated ground.
Any political system must answer inescapable questions and resolve perennial conflicts that arise from human interdependence. One we might call the Resource Question: Who gets what, of the many things we need to live, to act, to thrive? Another is the Question of Power, whose flip side is the definition of rights: Who can do what to (or with) whom? What acts or threats are you protected from? How may you try to bring others around to your will? These very abstract questions have concrete applications in labor law and the practices of the workplace, in the tax code, and in an economy that produces and protects huge personal fortunes, to give just a few examples.
A political system must answer these questions as they arise in new versions. What to do with internet commerce and social media, with monopolies in the farm economy and the labor precarity of Uber-style gig platforms, with industrial policy and redistribution at a time when rural regions are falling desperately behind cities and suburbs?
Just as important, a political system must reproduce its own legitimacy, reconcile people to living with the answers it gives, even when they lose out and have to give up interests and hopes that they passionately hold. Democracy means a commitment to resolving conflicts by reference to the decisions of the majority of the political community. And it means producing legitimacy by appealing to the equality of everyone involved. Donald Trump’s politics is thus anti-democratic both because it relies on anti-majoritarian mechanisms of power, and because it denies the equality of others, signally immigrants, women, and Muslims.
American politics has often evaded democracy. In some ways, that has been the specialty of a political class that relies on anti-politics, laying down rules in ways that are formulated to dismiss dissent before it is voiced. There are many forms of anti-politics, but in the United States and other modern democracies, the most powerful lies at the intersection of technocracy and juristocracy. Technocracy holds that questions about how to organize economic life have uniquely correct answers that experts can identify, and that majority decisions always risk getting wrong. Juristocracy hands off essential questions to elite judges who impose or invalidate major policy decisions by fiat, typically dressed in the argument that any other decision would violate key aspects of legality. (In the United States—a particularly egregious case—recent decisions include authorizing unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, invalidating major parts of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health coverage, and striking down Obama’s major climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan.)
Juristocracy and technocracy are extortionary forms of genuine imperatives. Social cooperation needs the rule of law and rational responses to complex technical problems, but the boundaries between rules, reasons, and political judgments are intensely contested. In the Trump era, liberals and centrists like to invoke juristocracy and technocracy against Trump’s depredations—doubling down on conventional economics to attack his trade and monetary policies, and invoking the rule of law against his corruption and abuse of power—when a radical democrat might say that “politicizing” economic policy and the judiciary is beneficial when done for democratic goals. Samuel Moyn’s case against juristocracy in this issue highlights how deep this conflict runs in mainstream progressive politics and calls for boldly rejecting the rule of judges.
American politics has also evaded democracy through limits on who belongs to the demos. Aziz Rana’s reconstruction of American history highlights that the principle of radical democracy is as old as the country’s political project, but has been perennially lashed to white supremacy and genocidal expansion in ways that both betray democratic equality and, historically, make actual majorities easier to maintain. In our conversation in this issue, Rana and I explore the difficulties of threading this needle: defining a political agenda that can marshal majorities for programs that, among other things, empower the marginalized and vulnerable. For a radical democrat in a profoundly unequal world beset by political forces skilled at turning popular energy to chauvinism and cruelty, this is a subtle problem. It is hopeful, however, that many egalitarian programs, such as a wealth tax and the principle of universal healthcare, have clear majorities behind them. There is, too, a genuine democratic appetite for a vision of the country as a place decent in its possibilities: witness Obama’s two victories in presidential elections. The challenge is to avoid easy uplift that works like a rhetorical Instagram filter, leaving the world more handsome and better-lit, without confronting historical and present injustice. As Rana insists, this is not a problem to be solved in the abstract. Its best answers will come through actual mobilization around goals that make the race-class opposition tactically nugatory, which in practice tends to mean universal programs for popular forms of justice (such as social provision and investment) and principled forms of political equality (such as truly universal voting).
Democracy depends on solidarity and, to survive, must produce its own solidarity, over and over, in the face of new challenges. Solidarity is always a matter of both an imagined community and a material one. Each specific success makes it easier to mobilize around the challenge that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez issued at their 26,000-strong rally in Queens this fall: to defend the life and interests of those very different from you, whoever you are.
Jedediah Britton-Purdy teaches at Columbia Law School and is the author, most recently, of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.