We Are the Classic Free Riders

Is democracy in decline? The British sociologist Colin Crouch sat down with Martin Eiermann to discuss partisan gladiators, political PR, and the British dislike for Europe.

The European: We have witnessed mounting political discontent around the globe. Do you think that the frustration is justified, that the democratic deficit has objectively deepened and parliamentary rule has become more dysfunctional?
Crouch: I think it is important to speak about post-democracy rather than the decline of democracy. We live in a period when a lot of democratic institutions are stronger than they were in the past; transparency, accountability, or the protection of basic rights. But the energy of the political system has left the democratic arena and has gone to deals between political and economic elites. Democracy is strengthened, but politics is emptied of content.

The European: Politicians have always sought to make deals. Can we distinguish the phenomenon you describe from the social democratic tradition of postwar labor-management accords?
Crouch: One of the things that has happened now is that politics is stage-managed by spin doctors and PR people. There is an ongoing struggle between the demand for transparency and professional well-funded efforts to avoid that transparency. I see the thirty years after World War II as a heyday for democracy. It was the first time when politics really responded to the needs and autonomously generated demands of ordinary working people in a systematic manner. But when you talk to women, they might say that their emancipation has happened since then. So rather than talking about overall decline, I want to look at specific things that we can say: “This is now worse than it used to be.” In many cases, I see an increase in manipulation.

The European: We cannot talk about manipulation without mentioning the rising influence of money in politics…
Crouch: When globalization got underway, power shifted from labour to capital because capital is mobile while labour is not. And if labour becomes mobile, barriers are erected to prevent workers from moving across borders. In most countries inequality is increasing and labour receives a declining share of national income. Those shifts have tangible consequences: Moneyed interests increasingly control the political agenda through manipulations of the democratic polity. But secondly – looking at it sympathetically from the view of politicians and political parties – it is quite hard for them to know what the population wants. In post-industrial societies, voters are not really articulating their views well. Politics becomes increasingly isolated and self-referential and relies on professional consulting instead of direct knowledge. Politicians increasingly find themselves in the hands of firms whose business it is to understand potential markets – which in turn means that techniques of market research are now the main form of communication about politics.

The European: Market logic might be appropriate for selling cars, but not for governing a country?
Crouch: It would be good to see a better understanding of the limits of the market analogy. What we are getting is the opposite: As politicians are increasingly alienated from their constituents, they are straining the market analogy beyond the point of usefulness.

The European: So why go and vote?
Crouch: The single most important value of elections is that they protect the rule of law. Countries without elections have more torture and more police violence. At the very least, the fact that politicians have to submit themselves to periodic public judgment has a precious civilizing effect. You have to hold on to that, as its value remains even when your choice is between two meaningless alternatives.

The European: There seem to be at least two different ways to criticize contemporary politics. One would be the standard criticism of the American system, that politics has become a spectacle void of content. And the other criticism would be a European variant that sees politics as reduced to technocratic administration, void of energy. Where do you stand?
Crouch: You have picked up on a rather paradoxical difference. It used to be that the criticism was reversed: Europe was seen as marked by deep ideological conflict while the United States seemed to be governed by a technocratic two-party system. That has changed fundamentally. US politics is not just a spectacle, but also marked by the unashamed role of big money and the influence of religion. Europe, after centuries of war around religion and race, has become weary of that and says today, “down that road lies extreme danger.” But I would not necessarily see the two criticisms you mentioned as being in conflict. When things become very technocratic but you still need to energize voters, one way to do that is by creating a spectacle. To return to the US example, apart from a few issues like abortion, the two main American parties don’t differ much. To put it crudely, Obama relies on money from the financial sector, the Republicans rely on money from various polluting sectors. They all rely on big money, so they all have to make the public feel that they are participating by producing spectacles.

The European: Let’s stick with Europe for a bit. Is the current crisis a failure of politics, or a failure of the market?
Crouch: Good question. The European Union is a real political paradox. On the one hand, it has to be very inclusive. It could never exclude trade unions, for example, from the political discussion, because those interests might be strongly represented in one of the member states. What explains the dislike of Europe among the British right is that the EU can never engage in the exclusionary politics that they rather like. On the other hand, the European project is primarily about making markets. Negative integration of markets is the easiest way to build a union. It is much harder to pursue positive integration that builds new institutions. The problem of Europe is that the logic of markets and the logic of politics go in different directions.

The European: My impression is that recent debates within the EU have tended to focus mainly on the pros and cons of different market strategies. Politics, we hear, is something for when the flood has been contained.
Crouch: Normally, market integration and regulatory policy are not necessarily in contradiction. But with the decline of the European social agenda, we are now reaching a position where the expansion of the EU has become synonymous with the expansion of markets. Their integration is driven from Brussels, and it is left to nation-states to tame them. But in a time of globalization, you cannot drag things back to a more local level. For me, the only way forward is to re-establish the European social agenda. To take a very important topical example, simply making the Greeks work for less money might by itself not actually help to strengthen their economy. Austerity might work for an export economy like Germany, but the model cannot simply be exported to other states.

The European: Increasingly, cutting certain countries out of the Eurozone seems to be a viable political option. Is it economically viable as well?
Crouch: I lived in Italy for ten years and saw how that country approached the challenge of joining the Euro. Italy had made its way in the first post-war decades with low labour costs and high inflation. The problem of inflation was tackled by repeated devaluations of the Lira so that it became almost a joke currency in the end. This enabled the country to compete on price, but, in many sectors, at the expense of trying to compete on quality. Italians had come to see that there was no long-term future in that as producers with far lower costs were appearing in Eastern Europe and the Far East. Entering the Euro was seen as a means of bringing to an end the strategy of repeated devaluations, forcing Italian firms to compete on quality. The country has partially succeeded in doing this. The point of joining the Euro for countries like Italy and Greece was to force them to go upmarket. If they returned to the Lira or the Drachma, those currencies would be almost worthless, but those countries would find themselves competing with countries that have far lower standards of living, and they would be caught in a worse downward spiral. Their former economic model is neither viable on its own nor compatible with the European project of economic integration.

The European: David Cameron seems to have entered a big wager: If the Eurozone survives, London will be shut out of the Berlin-Paris axis. In order for Britain to succeed, the Euro must fail.
Crouch: Yes. I suspect that the British elite don’t want just to contain the Euro, they want to see it destroyed. But even if the Eurozone were to collapse, the British would lose the few successful exports markets we have.

The European: So why the British exceptionalism?
Crouch: The British have the curious tendency to see trade rather like a sporting competition where winners win and losers lose. But trade competition among countries is not like that. You don’t have an interest in destroying your trading partner. One of the positive views of globalization is that we can all gain from another’s success, and we have to cling to that view. In the end, the British will find themselves in the position that we always find ourselves in: Wanting to join something after it has been clearly established. We are the classic free riders, in a sense. It surprises me how much good will towards the British still exists in Europe.

The European: As someone who is not from Britain, I am still surprised by the analogies of sports and war that portray politics as a sort of gentlemanly contest. It strikes me as rhetoric that clings to the idea of British dominance despite the geopolitical shifts of the past sixty years.
Crouch: I am quite surprised myself by how strong that aristocratic legacy still is. The British are caught in a curious bind, where we don’t want to join the European alliance, and the partner we are eager to work with – the United States – will always treat us as a junior partner. But the most damaging aspect of those analogies is that we tend to reduce political questions to personality. The issues someone stands for are tied to how he or she performs in modern gladiatorial contests. It tends to make political discussion rather trivial.

The European: Do you see any signs of resistance to that trivialization?
Crouch: I am quite encouraged by the growth of civil society institutions in this country. You can see it pessimistically as a reaction to the frustration with the political system, but you can also see it optimistically as the creation of new political spaces that are less tied to personality.

The European: A lot of discussions in 2011 were about new political spaces. How do we move from talking about politics to tangible change?
Crouch: We don’t know the answer to that question yet. However, it is notable that inequality is now back on the political agenda, and even a few Conservatives are worried about it. Or take the “Workfare” proposal of the British government that would have required people to work without pay to keep unemployment benefits. Within a few days, that proposal produced so much criticism of leading brand-name companies benefiting from the arrangement that several of them withdrew, and the government then abandoned the negative parts of the policy. The interesting thing was that the campaign was not directed in the first instance at the government but at customers who were shopping at companies that basically employed forced labor. That is unruly, post-democratic politics.

The European: Isn’t that the logical conclusion of your earlier argument about manipulative politics? If politicians matter less than PR experts and corporate lobbyists, it makes sense to focus your criticism there.
Crouch: There’s a Hegelian dialectic in this: The thesis is parliamentary politics, the antithesis is the corporate takeover, and the synthesis is that campaigning moves out to the corporate sector. All we can say now is that it is interesting.

The European: Eventually, the nation-state might become a rather porous concept. Already, London strikes me as a city that cannot be understood except by embracing its multicultural heritage.
Crouch: Very much so. You can listen to the different languages as you walk down the street – more than 100 languages are spoken in London. You can probably go a few hours without seeing someone who embodies the image of the British.

The European: What does that do to the British national identity?
Crouch: The imperial myth is still very strong. But there has been so much immigration, so many mixed marriages and friendships since the 1960s that those old ideas hardly reflect reality – indeed, we have quite happily embraced the influx of immigrants for a long time. There’s an English football song that includes the line “We all eat vindaloo” as a symbol of English identity. Vindaloo is an Indian curry. This is a good symbol of multiculturalism. Now, the more recent waves of immigrations are from European countries culturally much closer to us than the earlier Commonwealth patterns, but there is a new form of resentment that takes the forms of Islamophobia and Europhobia. To put it crudely, the earlier immigrants were from our own Empire, these aren’t.

The European: Final question – are you a democratic optimist?
Crouch: As an academic and analyst, I am a pessimist. But you cannot live your life like that. Even if you only see a little glimmer of hope, you have to rush to that as a citizen. When we become really pessimistic, we begin to exclude the possibility of improvement. You must never let that happen.


comments powered by Disqus

More Conversations

“Architecture is an expression of values”


Sir Norman Foster is the mastermind behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings. With Max Tholl, he discussed how architecture helps us communicate, where our fascination with bigness stems from, and why we need to do more with less.

with Norman Foster

“Everybody holds the key to unlock the mystery”


The films of David Lynch will leave you baffled and pondering. The good news: he feels exactly the same. Lynch talked to Max Tholl about mental fishing trips, torturing audiences, and our obsession with mystery.

with David Lynch
Most Read