The new executive politics: a democratic challenge

Saskia Sassen
28 June 2009

The institutional balance within modern democratic systems is disturbed and dysfunctional. Some of the unhappiness of citizens in many a western state about their political leaders' remoteness, corruption, or lack of accountability can be understood as a thwarted recognition of this problem. This an old history. But there are specific features in the current alignments that we can trace back to the type of political economy that has dominated since the 1980s. The financial meltdown of 2007-09, has generated a bit of a crisis in this model, and with it the ground might be laid for reforms that address it.

Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology and member of the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University.

Her books include:

Losing Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization (Columbia University Press, 1996);
The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo
(Princeton University Press, 2001);
Territory, Authority, and Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (
Princeton University Press, 2006); and
A Sociology of Globalization (WW Norton, 2007)

Also by Saskia Sassen in openDemocracy:

"A universal harm: making criminals of migrants" (21 August 2003)
"Fear and camouflage: the end of the liberal state?"
" (22 December 2005) - part of a global end-of-year symposium
Free speech in the frontier-zone" (20 February 2006)
"A state of decay" (2 May 2006)
"Migration policy: from control to governance" (13 July 2006)
"Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit" (18 July 2007)
"Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)
"The world's third spaces" (8 January 2008)
"The new new deal" (23 September 2008)
"Cities and new wars: after Mumbai" (29 November 2008)
"Too big to save: the end of financial capitalism" (2 April 2009)The heart of the issue is what has come to be the overweening power of the executive branch in contemporary democracies, and the corresponding loss of power by the legislature. In this sense those who argue that the major task for parliaments is to strengthen their capacity to demand accountability from the executive branch are right. This is indeed a critical issue.

The growing power of the executive branch is often attributed to contingent circumstances such as a response to national-security threats and abuses of power by particular leaders. But there is a deeper process at work that begins in the 1980s with the implementation of neo-liberal policies across historic left-right political divides. It is, in fact, part of the structural evolution of the liberal state (see Territory, Authority, and Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages [Princeton University Press, 2006]). These structural conditions make the issue even more worrisome for the future of democracy.

The process is evident across western-style liberal democracies. There are variants, reflecting the particularities of each polity and the ups and downs of politics. Thus the strength of Die Grünen (the Greens) gave the Bundestag (German parliament) an added authority during the Gerhard Schröder years - there was a programme to fight for that was transversal to conventional party politics. But this is a relatively rare occurrence, and depends (even in a proportional electoral system where coalitions are inevitable) on special circumstances for it to arise.

A force of six

The entrenchment of executive power and its deepening asymmetry with legislative authority can be tracked through six longer-term structural trends. Central to these trends is the development of a global corporate economy since the 1980s. This development has often been seen as weakening national states and as support for the (neo-liberal) notion that "less" government is best for the economy. Both of these strong notions are partly wrong. To illustrate this I focus on the case of the United States - a system that tends to be more "legible" compared to its peers, partly because power-grabs and power-losses are often far more naked and extreme than in other democracies. In this sense it is also a sort of natural experiment for how other regimes might evolve, if this deepening asymmetry is left unaddressed (see "Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit" , 18 July 2007).

The first trend is the growing power of particular state agencies because of corporate economic globalisation: the treasury, the federal reserve, the office of the trade representative, and other agencies in the case of the US. These and equivalent institutions in other countries played a major role in building this global corporate economy - it was not just an achievement of "the free market". Their growing power in turn empowered the executive branch. This pattern repeats itself across the world as states from the 1980s on have become incorporated into the global economy.

Second, the policies associated with this incorporation of national economies into the global corporate economy - deregulation and privatisation - on the one hand remove various oversight functions from legislatures, and on the other actually add power to the executive branch. This power gain happens through the establishment of specialised commissions for finance, telecommunications, trade policy, and the other key building-blocks of the new economy. In other words, the oversight functions lost by congress reappear as specialised commissions, mostly staffed by people from the concerned industries in the private sector. All this amounts to a kind of shadow operation inside the executive branch - most famously illustrated by vice-president Dick Cheney's environmental panel whose membership and agenda were declared secret.

Third, intergovernmental networks centred largely in the executive branch have grown well beyond matters of global security and criminality. The participation by the state in the implementation of a worldwide economic system has engendered a range of new types of cross-border collaborations among specialised government agencies; these focus on the globalisation of capital markets, international standards of all sorts, competition policy, guarantees of contract for global firms, and the new trade order.

Fourth, the major global regulators - notably the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, as well as many lesser known ones - negotiate only with the executive branch. As the global corporate economy began to grow from the 1980s, these global regulators (pre-existing, or emerging) gained enormous power. This too was a dynamic and self-reinforcing process. By around 2006, when corporate globalisation had been more or less completed, their power was beginning to wane. But the institutional changes that had consolidated the executive branch were in place - and most (such as the specialised commissions referred to above) are there still.

Fifth, a critical component of post-1980s economic deregulation is the privatisation of formerly public functions. Prisons and the outsourcing of some welfare functions to private providers are among the most familiar cases, now supplemented by the outsourcing of soldiering to private contractors even in war theatres such as Iraq. The result is to reduce the oversight role of the US Congress while increasing that of the executive branch through specialised commissions. (An example that brings some of these issues to light is the extent to which Congress has been denied information about the amount of taxpayers' money going to private contractors who now handle a growing range of US military activities).

Also in openDemocracy:

Gerry Hassan & Anthony Barnett, "Britain's neo-liberal state" (29 November 2008)
Jeremy Gilbert, Postmodernity and the crisis of democracy (28 May 2009).

Sixth, there is the alignment of the executive with global corporate logics in a range of domains. The case of the Dubai Ports World corporation, whose expanding operations in the US would have given it control over the security of several major port operations if a planned purchase in 2005-06 had gone through, is illustrative. Here was a George W Bush administration driven by neo-conservatives and engaged in a "war on terror" targeting majority-Muslim states and imprisoning thousands of civilians without trial, prepared to allow a corporate contract from an (albeit friendly) Muslim country. The decision was reversed after a media-populist outcry - a mistake in my view, and also an indication that the alignment with global corporate logics can have a "progressive" aspect.

The point is clearer under the Barack Obama administration, where the alignment so far has been over environmental issues. If the pattern is extended to engage other "macro" challenges such as poverty and curable diseases, this positive effect could grow - though it must be in the context of a broader scheme of democratic accountability in order to avoid reproducing the same civic alienation and discontent referred to at the outset.

The locus of power

The growth of executive power in the United States is often referred in relation to emergency security legislation such as the infamous Patriot Act and other abuses of power in the George W Bush-Dick Cheney years. But this is only half the story.

It was hardly in the name of national security that their administration granted the department of health, the department of agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency the power to classify their documents as secret. This had more to do with the raging conflicts and vested corporate interests running through these three departments - over healthcare reforms that were a threat to the interests of large pharmaceuticals and private-insurance companies; the enormous and unwarranted subsidies to corporate agriculture, even as hundreds of thousand of family farms were suffering, thereby facilitating the concentration of land in corporate hands; and the threat of lawsuits against corporate polluters for their failure to clean up toxic sites as demanded by law, and the added costs of environmental standards to large manufacturers.

The source of the executive-branch's power to impose these measures came from elsewhere than national security - and, sadly, granting classification rights to these departments was not a violation of the law. That same source of executive power is now allowing Barack Obama to eliminate those secrecy rights. A "good" thing, in that the current US president has a more citizen-oriented agenda than his predecessor. But it also more citizen-oriented than Congress‘s, and this in great part is to do with structural factors rather than contingent ones. The executive branch's power is part of the problem even when put to progressive ends.

The particular kinds of growth of executive power described here are inscribed and routine. They are structural developments within the liberal state resulting from the implementation of a global corporate economy (see "A state of decay", 2 May 2006) . The level of asymmetric power evident in the United States is not so apparent in European states (except Britain, which is one source of its own institutional crisis).

But the larger process and the particular trends are at work there too. The neo-liberal model may have been discredited by the financial implosion of 2007-09, but it has had profound effects on the internal operations of national states. The rebalancing of a disturbed and dysfunctional system needs to begin by recognising the nature and scale of the problem.

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