The Blurb On The Back:
Liberals blame the global retreat of liberal democracy on globalisation and authoritarian leaders. Only liberals, so they assume, can defend democratic rule against multinationals or populists at home and abroad. In this provocative book, Adrian Pabst contends that liberal democracy is illiberal and undemocratic – intolerant about the values of ordinary people while concentrating power and wealth in the hands of unaccountable elites.
Under the influence of contemporary liberalism, democracy is sliding into oligarchy, demagogy and anarchy. Liberals, far from defending open markets and free speech, promote monopolies such as the new tech giants that undermine competition and democratic debate. Liberal individualism has eroded the social bonds and civic duties on which democracy depends for trust and cooperation. To bank liberal democracy’s demons, Pabst proposed radical ideas for economic democracy, a politics of persuasion and a better balance of personal freedom with social solidarity.
This book’s defence of democratic politics against both liberals and populists will speak to all readers trying to understand out age of upheaval.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Adrian Pabst is a Reader in Politics at the University of Kent and a leading thinker in the ‘Blue Labour’ movement. In this disappointing polemic that relies on straw man arguments, generalisations and doesn’t define what he means by “liberal democracy”, he parrots the known arguments about the rise of populism and the disconnect between voters and politicians and offers a “solution” of return to grassroots mutualism that no one is asking for.
The central thrust of Pabst’s book is that liberal democracy sows the seeds of its own destruction by engaging with oligarchic, demagogic and anarchic elements that dismisses criticism and serves to insulate economic liberalism from accountability. However he never actually sets out what he means by “liberal democracy” in this book, at times equating it with economic liberalism (where there is definitely an overlap) and at others equating it with capture by self-interested groups, such as oligarchs. This lack of definition means that it represents whatever he wants it to represent for the purposes of his argument, which I found to be intellectually weak, especially given that many of his arguments about the wrongs of liberal democracy can equally be made against totalitarian or one party states.
Making “liberal democracy” such a catch-all, sweeping generalised term is an approach he re-adopts throughout the book, e.g. his railing against monopolies and demands to break up large tech giants. Part of the reason this irritated me so much is that I don’t disagree with a lot of his diagnosis (which, to be fair, is no different to what a lot of other authors have also said). Concentration of corporate ownership should be looked at, the disconnect in wage growth and rise in income inequality has undoubtedly led to greater disillusionment with political elites and the influence of tech giants over public opinion (including their ability to manipulate through data harvesting) is a massive cause for concern. However, he misrepresents facts to suit his points – e.g. he seems to attribute the Carillion collapse in 2018 to corporate greed on the part of senior managers and shareholders rather than examining whether some of it was to do with failures in the outsourcing market and the stock market more generally (see Interserve and Kier for examples of other companies struggling in the sector in part because of government cuts and short-selling). He also betrays his lack of understanding of how businesses work in his promotion of tech company break ups by his utter lack of consideration of the difficulties in doing so from a financial point of view or how to prevent reintegration later.
A number of political theorists get mentioned in the book, notably Alexis de Tocqueville who Pabst relies heavily on. As a casual reader with no background in politics, I can’t comment on the relevance of the political philosophers to his arguments but I did find that these sections really bogged the book down and, at times, read like trying to bolster the intellectual credentials of his arguments.
Pabst’s prescription for fixing the travails of liberal democracy lie in reinvigorating social trust through that old Labour chestnut of promoting union membership, along with other cooperatives such as universities and hospitals and increasing worker participation within broad structures. He also proposed reforming Parliament to have larger constituencies organised on “local identity” lines represented by 2+ members and transferable voting along with higher salaries for MPs and more time to scrutinise legislation. For what its worth, I agree with his view that the voting system needs to be overhauled, but he overlooks the failure of the referendum to do just this only a few years ago. His solutions also overlook the extent to which such groups can themselves be co-opted by special interests (e.g. the scandal at VW in Germany where union high-ups got cosy with directors and participated in bungs and prostitution parties) and seems unaware of how his promotion of local assemblies and reform of Parliament will increase bureaucracy and red tape, which few people are likely to vote for.
Ultimately, I just found it very difficult to engage with this book and while I understand that as a polemic, it is intended to overstate and make sweeping pronouncements to provoke discussion of the author’s ideas, I found those ideas on the whole so divorced from reality that I found it difficult to take seriously such that it became a struggle to keep turning the pages.
THE DEMONS OF LIBERAL DEMOCRACY was released in the United Kingdom on 1st March 2019. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.