Liberal democracy: fighting back or fracturing?

“This was the year liberal democracy fought back,” declared Janan Ganesh, a particularly dull-witted columnist for the Financial Times on 15 November. The argument put forward by the FT’s international politics correspondent is that, following a period of chaos in which the ‘sensible political establishment’ was heavily discredited, 2022 has been the best year for liberalism in a long time.

This assertion evidences zero understanding of the political processes unfolding in society.

April this year saw Emmanuel Macron re-elected as president of France, for which the FT columnist hails him: “the most successful electoral politician in the west”.

If this is true, it sets the bar for liberal success just a few inches off the floor.

Macron won 28 percent of first-round votes in the presidential election, compared to 34 percent of the electorate who either didn’t vote or spoiled their ballots, and over 50 percent who voted for the anti-establishment candidates of the Left and the Right. The traditional establishment parties (the Socialist Party and the Republicans), which have ruled France for decades, were reduced to less than 7 percent between them.

France: abstention the winner

The second round of voting saw the highest level of abstention for 50 years, giving Macron the electoral support of roughly 20 percent of the French population.

melenchon Image The Left FlickrThe left-wing candidate, Mélenchon, was only kept out of the second round by the splitting behaviour of other left parties / Image: The Left Flickr

The left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was only kept out of the second round by the splitting behaviour of other left parties (including the Communist Party). Faced with clear ‘left-right’ options, the polarisation of the French masses might have produced a markedly different result.

In the subsequent legislative elections, Macron’s party lost over 100 seats and its parliamentary majority, forcing him to stitch up an arrangement with National Rally (formerly National Front).

If this is the West’s most successful electoral politician, it is no ringing endorsement, and certainly not a show of strength for liberal democracy.

Over the past several years, Macron has attacked the pensions and retirement age of French workers, in addition to declaring war on public sector workers. Further attacks are to come as inflation takes hold, growth predictions are being revised down, and a sharp rise in unemployment and poverty is forecast. The French workers are fed up and looking for a way out.

Strikes are in the air, the establishment parties are discredited, Macron has little support, and anti-establishment parties have made substantial gains. This is a recipe for polarisation and class struggle, which the liberal democratic system will be unable to channel and contain.

The farce of British democracy

Turning to Britain, Ganesh celebrates the downfall of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister is a “moral upgrade”, he says.

Johnson Truss Map Image Socialist AppealAlthough Ganesh considers Sunak a "moral upgrade" on Johnson and Truss, he came to power by a finance coup / Image: Socialist Appeal

It’s hard to see how Sunak is an advert for the strength of liberal democracy, given how he came to power through what was effectively a coup by finance capital.

He was instrumental in ousting Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister who won the 2019 general election. In the subsequent election for PM, in which just 140,000 members of the Conservative Party voted, Sunak lost to Liz Truss.

Subsequently, a coalition of unelected state and international institutions swung into action. The Treasury, the International Monetary Fund, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, and the financial markets, who disliked Truss’s economic agenda, and ousted her after just 45 days in office. They then went behind the scenes to clear out any competition, ensuring Sunak took up the post of Prime Minister unopposed.

There is probably no leader of a liberal democracy with a weaker democratic mandate than Sunak. He has not been elected by popular vote, nor by his own party. He became Prime Minister via an establishment coup.

It paints a picture of the anaemic weakness of liberal democracy that the establishment and the bankers felt it necessary, and were able to, ride roughshod over its normal functioning when it didn’t deliver the result they wanted. In order to secure their man in Number 10, they were forced to expose the sham of their democratic system for all to see.

Crisis and polarisation in Brazil

Ganesh is delighted by the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election in October, as were the Brazilian workers and youth.

Bolsonaro 7 Sept Image Isaac NóbregaAlthough Bolsonaro narrowly lost the Brazilian election, liberal democracy in this country is balancing on a knife-edge / Image: Isaac Nóbrega

But can that election really be regarded as a sign of a triumphant fightback by vibrant liberal democratic values?

The Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, Lula, won the election with 50.9 percent of the vote, compared to 49.1 percent for Bolsonaro. The latter increased his vote by over 6 million between the first and second round of voting, compared to an increase of 2.6 million for Lula. Bolsonaro’s party is the largest in the congress and the senate, and controls the three most populous states in the country: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.

The country remains deeply polarised and the institutions of the state are not trusted, even by those whose interests they defend. The police actively engaged in voter suppression and there was rampant speculation that Bolsonaro would refuse to accept the election result using the army as his base.

This provoked strong appeals from the imperialists and representatives of the capitalist class both in Brazil and internationally for Bolsonaro not to destabilise the situation, which he was clearly capable of doing.

In the context of Brazil’s severe social crisis and extreme inequality, liberal democracy in this country is balancing on a knife-edge. With Lula having promised ‘fiscal discipline’ (i.e. austerity), rising anger will turn not just against this or that party or individual, but the whole system.

USA: Democrats didn’t lose as badly as feared

Finally, Ganesh joins in the victory dance of liberals across the world, celebrating not a win per se, but a smaller-than-expected loss for the Democrats in the midterm elections in the USA in November.

Trump IRA Image Gage Skidmore FlickrThe fallout of a Trump vs. Biden rematch will be growing disillusionment in the liberal democratic system / Image: Gage Skidmore Flickr

These gushing self-congratulations come after President Joe Biden, and much of the media, warned that democracy itself had been on the line in this election. If the Republicans had won, they said, then key elements of the state apparatus would fall into the hands of people who would use it to subvert democracy in the USA.

This was not just political rhetoric. The US establishment is genuinely concerned that Donald Trump-backed candidates would use their elected positions to manipulate future election results. That such a spectre can be raised in the most powerful liberal democracy on earth reveals the depths of liberalism’s weakness.

In the end, Republican gains were less than expected. Yet what was a key cause of their failure to make a bigger breakthrough? The Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade, which stoked enormous anger over the threat it posed to abortion rights – and which discredited this key pillar of the liberal democratic order! In the long run, this is hardly a triumph for the liberal centre-ground.

Of the 230 candidates backed by Trump and feared by the establishment as a threat to liberal democracy, over 200 of them won their elections, and took control of the House of Representatives.

Moreover, 73 percent of people aged 18-29 didn’t vote in these elections despite being told “democracy is on the line”. Many were more concerned about inflation and wage-restraint than the abstract values of liberal democracy, which have offered nothing but decades of wage cuts and stagnation.

The fallout of a Trump vs. Biden rematch for the presidency in 2024, in the context of a spiralling economic crisis, will be growing disillusionment in the liberal democratic system, which solves none of the fundamental problems facing ordinary people.

Why is it happening?

The “liberal fightback” hailed by Ganesh is in fact a spluttering cough from a very unwell patient. Despite superficial signs of vitality, its life forces are actually fading fast.

Liberal democracy is the highest achievement of capitalism in the arena of statecraft. It provides individual freedoms, elections, constitutions, and all manner of things, designed to give the appearance that we have control over our lives and over society as a whole.

All the while, in reality a narrow class of wealthy individuals, who own the banks, land, and biggest businesses, takes the crucial decisions that affect our lives.

But the deepening crisis of capitalism globally means that the system can no longer defend its greatest achievements. As workers search for a way out of the crisis, all parts of the state apparatus are subjected to scrutiny and the veil begins to fray.

The police, the courts, the schools, the media, the civil service, and even the army are being politicised, exposed and discredited in one country after the other.

Capitalist crisis provokes movements of workers and youth, who learn in the course of struggle the real role of liberal democracy: a cover for the ruling class state apparatus. As a result, liberal democracy enters into crisis too.

It is only the absence of a convincing alternative that allows this ailing system to go on, propped up by the reformist leaders of the labour movement.

What is to be done?

Instead of celebrating narrow liberal ‘victories’, we should be asking how we can replace this crisis-ridden liberal democratic system with one capable of meeting the needs and desires of the masses of workers and youth.

Socialist Appeal Image Socialist AppealThe crisis of liberal democracy can only be resolved with workers’ democracy, and socialist revolution / Image: Socialist Appeal

Workers’ control and management are the basis and pre-requisite for a socialist society, around which a planned economy and state structures are built.

As long as such ideas are absent in the workers’ movement, any anti-establishment disillusionment in liberal democracy will be capitalised upon by the likes of Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump. Workers and young people are in need of revolutionary socialist leadership to cut across these right-wing demagogues.

The crisis of liberal democracy is one symptom of the general crisis of capitalism. It can only be resolved with workers’ democracy, and socialist revolution.