Image: "Demagogues", Flickr/Philip Hunt. Creative Commons, some rights reserved.
The under-acknowledged reality of the EU referendum is that the Remain and Leave campaigns were commandeered by and fought largely between two factions of a competing hegemonic elite. That is, between those aligned with a more internationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Cameron, Blair, Clegg et al.) and those aligned with a more nationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Farage. Johnson, Gove et al.). Broadly speaking, while one faction sought to exploit sentiments of liberalism and pluralism to win votes, the other sought to exploit nationalism and division.
The Circulation of Elites
Perhaps the best theoretical understanding of what’s happened, and this may apply to Trump in the US as well, comes from the work of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto established the theory of the ‘circulation of elites’, in which he proposed that a minority will always dominate over the majority, and that history is just the story of one elite replacing another.
For Pareto there were two types of elite rulers: ‘foxes’ and ‘lions’. As historian Hugo Drochon writes, foxes are Machiavellian and dominate mainly by “deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force”. Lions, on the other hand, are conservative and emphasise “unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes”. In our modern context, we may regard foxes as the Camerons, Blairs and Cleggs of our world, and the lions as the Trumps and Farages. While one elite never truly eliminates the other, history is the perpetual “slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again”, as Drochon writes.
The Myth of our Democracy
The contemporary relevance of Pareto’s theory is clear. The past two years have seen the lions replace the foxes as the dominant ruling elite. However, amongst all of the elite squabbling there has been one very crucial voice missing: the voice of the people. Of course we’ve seen plenty of opinion polls, interviews with the public and questions and comments from average Joes and Janes on debate shows. However, the problem is that none of these channels of communication represent meaningful political participation. Moreover, polls, interviews and debate shows are structurally biased, often following the format of elites responding to the latest statistics, questions or comments from the public. They do not facilitate meaningful public engagement, discussion and ultimately participation in decision-making.
Thus, while the public was invited to tick a box and vote for one of two options, serious debate and decision-making regarding the EU Referendum and now Brexit was, and remains, the preserve of an elite few.
This lack of democratic participation is not just an issue surrounding the EU Referendum and Brexit, however. It is a systemic, structural issue plaguing our society. Contrary to popular assumptions, we do not live in a democracy, not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact our electoral system, that is, our system of representative democracy, was never designed to be truly democratic; it was in fact designed to limit democracy.
The result is that significant policy rarely corresponds to popular will, and the level of popular participation in policy-making is extremely limited. Generally, the public is excluded from big decisions and policy is overwhelmingly dictated from above by a centralised few in Westminster, some elected, many unelected, who are themselves overwhelmed and co-opted by private interests. And as government research has itself revealed, a large portion of our public servants form a close-knit community of highly privileged elites, many of them millionaires who harbour personal ties and a revolving door relationship to the private sector.
While elections are held, governments fall, and a degree of free speech exists, the collective will of the population is mostly ignored. ‘Post-democracy’ is the term coined by the British sociologist and political scientist Professor Colin Crouch to describe this state of affairs.
A people’s participatory democracy
This is the reality of our so-called democracy, and this is exactly why we are in desperate need of real democracy: the meaningful participation of the citizenry in the construction of policy at all levels, including national, regional and local.
And yes, this includes the democratisation of the workplace – worker ownership, the election of managers, votes on pay, etc. No serious individual believes that if people had the means to participate they would construct a society that facilitates and exacerbates for themselves gross inequality, low wages, precarious employment, mass debt, child, adult and pensioner poverty, homelessness, environmental breakdown and perpetual warfare. When you give people the ability to participate in policy-making, to affect change in ways that better their own lives and the lives of their children, then they will generally grasp at it.
For most of our history the vast majority lacked the franchise, and as a result were neglected by elites and had to accept their conditions. With the acquisition of the franchise, however, they were able to demand better conditions and so increase their living standards. As these achievements have stagnated and in many ways regressed over the past thirty-five years, the time has now come – in fact it is long overdue – for the public to demand even greater franchise. In the words of the founding members of Momentum, one of the UK’s foremost democratic movements right now:
“We need to build grassroots power now: the ability for ordinary people to influence and change the world in their interests, through their own institutions. This means developing processes of collective organising that are directed and controlled by those directly affected by decisions. We must maximise people’s participation, agency and empowerment in systems affecting their lives.”
Beyond Brexit and Trump, if we are to have any chance of pulling ourselves out of the myriad of messes we now find ourselves in, then breaking the circulation of elites and advancing real participatory democracy must be the imperative. That our democracy is undemocratic is perhaps one of our biggest unkept secrets that we never talk about, and it is high time we elevate the discussion of it into the mainstream.