It’s been just over 40 years since the Trilateral Commission issued their landmark report, The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies. Although the commission (which still exists) has become, in practical terms, fodder for the paranoid fantasies of fringe groups like the John Birch Society, in the 1970s, it was not always so.
Comprising essays by prominent social scientists (Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki), The Crisis of Democracy was symptomatic of the final petering out of the post-war boom, and the conservative modes of social organization that had underpinned it.
The Trilateral Commission was, in a certain sense, the last gasp of statist conservatism as it was being overtaken by the rising tide of neoliberalism. Now, at the precipice of a slide into a second depression in less than a decade, one whose roots are to be found in the neoliberal orthodoxy that filled the space evacuated by the old conservatism, two questions arise. How was this transition from old conservatism to neoliberalism achieved? And what, if anything, can be learned from this transition that can help in comprehending the current crisis?
There is a sense in which the import of The Crisis of Democracy can be gauged from the terminology that it lent the comprehension of the end of the postwar boom. Specifically, The Crisis of Democracy was the source of the concept of ungovernability that was a staple among the conservative epigones of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Of course, ungovernability tells one more about the thing that is being replaced, than what is replacing it. The concern figured prominently in the section of the report composed by Michel Crozier, a prominent French sociologist specializing in the analysis of bureaucracy.
Crozier’s analysis of modern European societies centered on an approach very similar to that taken by the sociologist Arnold Gehlen in his Moral und Hypermoral (1969). Gehlen had argued that the societies of the modern West were subject to what he called “moral hypertrophy”. Instead of allowing the state to function merely as a prosthesis for lifting the burdens of complexity and instinctual deficiencies from its citizens, modern democracies were being overloaded with demands that they address moral and ethical issues beyond their effective scope. As a consequence, societies were now beset by the failure organizational structures to fulfill roles to which they were suited with crisis and social conflict as the result.
Gehlen, a prominent conservative (and former member of the Nazi party) articulated the bitterness of conservatives at the expansion of political engagement by both intellectuals and the general population. With the universities swelled by the first tide of the postwar demographic boom, and with the slowing of economic growth (particularly in relation to the expansion in population), the old modes of consent formation and deference to elites were in decline. Crozier saw things in similar terms: “We seem to be, as a matter of fact, in a cultural crisis which may be the greatest challenge that confronts Western societies, inasmuch as our incapacity to develop appropriate decision making mechanisms — the ungovernability of our societies — is a cultural failure.”
Crozier noted that scholarly culture had changed, and that under new conditions of intellectual work tended to become routinized. There were now many more people who were unable to live up to the aristocratic ethos of their chosen profession. Some were thus forced to find work in para-intellectual fields such as communications (by which he seems to have meant advertising), which they resent as debasing. Intellectuals, whose education and work centered on questions of value, were increasingly moving beyond their traditional role of buttressing the ideological superstructures of society:
Even if it does not affect the general public, which tends to react against highbrow pessimism, the overall mood of Western societies is shaped by a general cultural tendency. Western European values are not rejuvenated in a convincing way. No model of civilization emerges from the present-day drifting culture, no call for reform and pioneering. Ritualism and self-pity remain the basic undercurrent behind the arrogant radical criticism that prevails on the surface. Vague utopias certainly do not counterbalance the stronger apocalyptic nihilism that forms the texture of our vanguard culture. On the other hand, there is no possible dialogue between the ruling elite and the new generation.
These changes, both demographic and intellectual, were exacerbated by changes in mass media. These had, traditionally, functioned as ideological props, conveying and renewing social values. But the mass media had ceased to fulfill its role of providing a “coherent rationalization” of events and “[a]nomic rebellion, estrangement from society, and alienation have dangerously progressed due to this cultural void.” In an era of inflation, with the cultural and economic certainties of the postwar decades disintegrating, the failure of the ideological sinews of society to persist and regenerate was leading to a situation in which the collapse of the social order was a real possibility.
Samuel Huntington’s section of the report, focusing on the United States, struck a similarly pessimistic tone. He lamented that government no longer had the latitude to act in effective ways, due in part to the hyperpoliticization of certain segments of the population in the 1960s (principally students and racial minorities) but also emergence of a much more critical approach on the part of the media. The latter complaint is wholly unsurprising, given that The Crisis of Democracy was composed in the waning stages of the Watergate scandal, in the course of which pressing questions from the new media had brought down a sitting president.
For Huntington, the underlying problem was what he described as a “democratic distemper.” Governmental activity was expanding, particularly with the growth of the welfare and military industrial functions of the state. At the same time, governmental authority was in decline. He can be seen a similar theme to that expressed by Crozier. The deference toward figures and institutions of authority that he underpinned the functioning of democracy heretofore was in a state of precipitous (perhaps terminal) decline. The democratic surge of the 1960s had dealt a severe blow to this traditional legitimacy and it was unclear what could be done to rebuild it. There was a sense, Huntington claimed, in which democracy itself was the problem:
Al Smith once remarked that “the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Our analysis suggests that applying that cure at the present time could well be adding fuel to the flames. Instead, some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy — an “excess of democracy” in much the same sense in which David Donald used the term to refer to the consequences of the Jacksonian revolution which helped to precipitate the Civil War. Needed, instead, is a greater degree of moderation of democracy.
There were two areas in particular which Huntington saw as proper for moderating democratic impulses. The first was the universities. There, Huntington insisted, the rise of student power could only be accomplished at the expense of proper functioning and meeting the technical goals of the institution. Second, Huntington argued that the political system itself needed greater apathy from certain marginal elements of the populations (such as racial minorities) in order to function at optimal efficiency:
Democracy is more of a threat to itself in the United States than it is in either Europe or Japan where there still exist residual inheritances of traditional aristocratic values. The absence of such values in the United States produces a lack of balance in society which, in turn, leads to the swing back and forth between creedal passion and creedal passivity. Political authority is never strong in the United States, and it is particularly weak during a creedal passion period of intense commitment to democratic and egalitarian ideals. In the United States, the strength of democracy poses a problem for the governability of democracy in a way that is not the case elsewhere.
Joji Watanuki’s section of the report, focusing on East Asia and specifically on Japan, contains rather less of the conservative ressentiment that characterizes the other sections of the report. The Japanese state had been in the grips of the hegemony of the center-right Liberal Democratic Party since 1955. Its economy was performing relatively better than those in the United States and Europe. The idea that two decades of growth would be lost to the collapse of the asset price bubble in the early 1990s was not on anyone’s radar, cirtainly not Watanuki’s. The story that he told was one of fraying of the decent drapery of traditional society under the impact of industrialization and demographic change. But it was clear from his account that the problem of ungovernability had not reared its head in Japan to the degree that it had in Europe or North America.
Looking back, with the benefit of knowledge of the cycles of boom and bust, and the waning of the political movements of the 1960s, the concerns raised in The Crisis of Democracy seem almost quaint. The authors were correct to note that the combination of traditional value orders and Keynesian economic management were losing traction in the transition from high growth to low growth economies. But all three of the report’s authors significantly overestimated the importance of the state’s role in preserving and promoting commitment to traditional ideological structures. The politics of the postwar world had been shaped by the struggle between anticommunism and a conservatism chastened by the experience of National Socialism. The result was a commitment to one version or another of what in Germany was termed the social market economy, a mostly free market doctrine that purchased social stability by knocking the hard Hobbesian edges off of capitalism.
Viewed in a certain way, ungovernability was a strategy of the left, or a description of such a strategy by its opponents. The voicing of moral and political demands from within the institutional structures of established power, the raising of the critical tenor of media coverage, and the generalized attack on the governing nostrums of society were all outcomes of an increasingly politicized culture in the world of industrialized democracies. But, as with so many of these strategies the passage of time would show that they could as easily be employed by the right as by the left. Neoliberalism is less concerned with the capacity of the government to keep secrets and have adequate latitude for action, and more concerned with shifting the locus of decision making out of the realm of the political altogether.
Herein lies the transition from the old conservatism to neoliberalism. Old style conservatism had a distinctly statist tendency, such that in its earlier incarnations it could come close to socialism. One is reminded here that Otto von Bismarck once informed a representative of the Habsburgs that in order to secure Germany, he would be willing to put himself at the head of a mass movement of the proletariat. For neoliberalism (and it is not unlike fascism in this regard) the existence of a free -standing state amounts to a limitation on the latitude of action. Similarly, in the neoliberal mode, the hypercritical press is not so much problem when it is politically segmented and the strong rightward bias of the class position of its membership is allowed to come into play.
The Crisis of Democracy was correct to identify the tendency of elements of the old order to disintegrate under the stress of the changing conditions of late capitalism. What it did not foresee, what its authors could not foresee, was that the forces that were tearing the old order apart could be turned to the advantage of the class fractions that the old order had served. Democracy was and is under threat. But it is the mark of the modern age that the threat has moved from the left to the right. Whereas the left sought, in the words of Willi Brandt, to dare more democracy, neoliberalism is constantly in the process of daring less.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.