The End of Democracy? — Dimitris Kaltsonis

In the early 1990s, the “end of history” and the “victory of democracy” constituted a certainty of mainstream scientific thought. The progress of democracy was measured numerically. “So many democracies, despite their imperfections, have taken the place of authoritarian regimes”, mainstream views argued. [1] On the one hand, the “dictatorial, authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe” had been overthrown. On the other, several Western dictatorships, like those in Latin America, were in retreat. The latter development was, of course, related to the decline of revolutionary movements throughout the world. Dictatorships were no longer as necessary for the preservation of capitalist relations of production.

But soon the clouds began to thicken. The bureaucratic degeneration of revolutionary democracies in the former Soviet Union and the rest of eastern Europe gave way to democracies that fell short of even the bourgeois-democratic criteria of the 1980s. Let us just consider the example of Poland, Hungary, or the Baltic states. Let us look at the political system in Russia, both in the Yeltsin period and in the Putin period. Consider the violent fragmentation of countries such as Yugoslavia, to which Western powers made a decisive contribution. Let us ponder the imposition of protectorates in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo, which are far from meeting even the most elementary democratic criteria. [2]

In western European democracies, too, the omens were alarming. As early as the 1990s, a series of changes in the criminal law introduced exceptions to the democratic acquis of previous decades. This included the introduction of the concept of “suspicion” through membership to the Schengen Agreement or the Europol Convention, which made serious inroads into the presumption of innocence. Then, following 9/11, anti-terrorist legislation further reduced the scope of democratic freedoms.

Economic Crisis

After the outbreak of the economic and subsequently the public health crisis, the crisis of democracy is now more than visible, irrespective of one’s analytical standpoint. [3] The forms, pace, and scope of changes differ depending on the country and period. They are influenced by each country’s position in the global division of labour, the correlation of social and political forces, its historical development, and its national peculiarities. However, despite the variety of forms and paces, the development of a common trend and its basic characteristics can be safely discerned.

The first characteristic is the de facto restriction of constitutionally and legally guaranteed democratic freedoms. What needs to be stressed here is the phenomenon of unlawful police violence, which in countries like Greece has been long-standing but which has continued to intensify significantly. The violation of constitutional provisions by those in power is intensifying. Examples include the unconstitutional ratification of the “economic adjustment” memoranda in Greece, the annulment by the Greek government of the July 2015 referendum vote, the unconstitutional ouster of the presidents of Brazil and Paraguay, and the unconstitutional concentration of power in the person of the US president. [4]

The general violation of laws by rulers and the economically dominant is intensifying together with their impunity. [5] Observing the Trump phenomenon, which does not concern the United States alone, it is not hard to see how topical Marx’s analysis is: “Clashing every moment with the bourgeois laws themselves, an unbridled assertion of unhealthy and dissolute appetites manifested itself, particularly at the top of bourgeois society.” [6]

The second characteristic is the de jure restriction of freedoms. Following the aforementioned developments of previous decades, new legislative changes can be observed in many states. These changes are designed to restrict freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. They are also designed to increase police powers. In particular, the right to assembly, a fundamental freedom crucial for democracy, is in the spotlight.

The Erdoğan regime is an example of such developments. [7] The same developments can also be observed in western European states. For example, the Spanish law on demonstrations, adopted in 2015, imposed excessive financial penalties on participants in a gathering at the margins of which violent events transpire. In France, a country with established democratic traditions, the security bill currently under consideration constitutes another step in an anti-democratic direction. In Greece examples include the new draconian law on demonstrations (Act 4703/2020), which introduces restrictions beyond those allowed by Article 11(2) of the Constitution [8], the law on the abolition of university asylum, and, more recently, the law on the establishment of police presence within universities and draconian disciplinary rules for students (Act 4777/2021).

These legislative assaults on democratic freedoms are becoming more and more reactionary. EU directives on combating “hate speech” or “public incitement to commit a terrorist crime”, as well as national legislation incorporating them, are broadly worded, leaving the door open to the criminalization of criticism of the government, as the recent example in Spain shows.

Increasingly, legislation also tends to include prohibitions directed against revolutionary parties, symbols, and ideas. Examples abound from the EU (e.g. Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states), Brazil, and elsewhere. The jurisprudence of courts in many jurisdictions is also changing towards the adoption of anti-democratic interpretations of legislation or selective enforcement with a stronger class orientation. In parallel, the exclusion and slander of radical critics and revolutionary views by mainstream media is intensifying further.

To this must be added increases in the selective application of the law, the ambiguity of many legal provisions, the expansion of the concept of public interest, and the strengthening of administrative discretion. [9] Especially in light of the pandemic, laws and practices on digital surveillance and personal data have become increasingly intrusive. At the same time, the interpretation of constitutional texts with a focus on the protection of the right to property, which is informally elevated to a super-right, is enhanced. [10]

A third characteristic is the shift of the political party system towards more conservative directions. Traditional bourgeois parties incorporate elements of the extreme right into their political discourse, action, and membership. The examples are many, with variations of course: from the governments of Austria, Hungary, and Poland to Brazil, Germany, Spain, the United States, and even France, where the centrist Macron incorporates the views and practices of the far-right Le Pen. Social democracy adapted to neoliberalism long ago. The minimal elements of reform, where they remain, do not change the overall picture.

Simultaneously, far-right or purely fascist parties are gaining strength, and state authorities display increased tolerance of their criminal activity. The extreme right is fully integrated into the political system. It becomes a government partner or even the sole administrator of governmental power.

This shift in the political party system is the product of a conscious turn and choice. Far-right parties are generously funded by big capital, or at least a dominant part of it. Their views are systematically promoted by the mainstream media. This can be illustrated with Trump in the United States; his rise was achieved with the funding and support of powerful businessmen. [11] The same happened with the far-right AfD party in Germany [12], with Vox in Spain, and even with the neo-Nazi views and actions of “Golden Dawn” in Greece. [13]

A fourth characteristic is the questioning of even the most basic democratic processes, such as elections. At this point the shrinking of democracy almost reaches the level of dictatorship. Consider the method of “fourth-generation warfare” devised by the United States. [14] Elements of this military doctrine are employed to overthrow legitimate foreign governments. This is achieved through a combination of quasi-democratic practices such as demonstrations, intense propaganda with the help of the mainstream media, internal economic sabotage, and international economic exclusion. Ultimately, these are tied to a ανατροπή της κυβέρνησης–a violently enforced coup achieved by paramilitary-type groups, usually with the assistance or tolerance of the security forces and other state forces. Examples include the “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, and elsewhere. The same approach was used in the invasion of the US Capitol in January 2021. [15]

A similar attempt was made in Venezuela a couple of years ago with the unconstitutionally self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó, who tried unsuccessfully to provoke a coup or US military invasion. [16] The overthrow in 2019 of the re-elected Evo Morales in Bolivia was of a similar type, combining the methods of “fourth-generation warfare” with those of the traditional military coup. [17]

In general, milder versions of unconstitutional coups are preferred at present, without eliminating the possibility of classic military coups (as in Venezuela in 2002). One such example was the unconstitutional ouster of the former Brazilian president and the former president of Paraguay. The imposition of an extra-parliamentary technocratic government, such as that of Prime Minister L. Papademos in Greece, is another example of mild but unconstitutional interventions .

A fifth characteristic is the increased concentration of power in the executive, or in extra-institutional centres. This is done either through constitutional change, as in the case of Turkey, or through more informal processes.

Finally, a sixth characteristic concerns the intensity of interventions by economically and militarily strong states in the affairs of weaker states, partly to determine social, political, and economic developments in the latter. These interventions include classic military interventions, sponsorship of military or other forms of coups, economic warfare, dictation of political decisions by international credit organizations, pressure from the internationally dominant media, and more. [18]

“Iron-Clad Democracy” and Its Causes

In the current historical period, the tendency for the formation of a new phase can be seen more and more clearly. We could call it the phase of “iron-clad democracy”. It started timidly after the crisis of the 1970s, but the effort could not be fully realised at the time. Socialist states still existed then, and despite their bureaucratic degeneration, they constituted an awe-inspiring adversary.

As mentioned above, after 1990 and especially after the outbreak of the 2007-8 financial crisis, this process began to accelerate, evolving in parallel with another process, namely the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Before the crisis, 1% of the global population controlled 40% of global wealth. Today it controls more than 50%, and such socio-economic inequality continues to intensify.

This parallel process also provides us with the key to explaining developments in modern democracies. The ruling classes are trying to dismantle all the popular gains that are burdening to them, both at the level of labour relations and at the level of democracy. They need this because of the economic crisis. They must combat every challenge to the measures that radically redistribute wealth to the detriment of the weakest.

Such a dramatic reversal has been possible due to the disunity of forces within the lower social strata. The aim is to discard all the victories of the twentieth century, the fruits of the labour movement, the Russian Revolution and other socialist revolutions, and the great anti-fascist successes of 1945. Oligarchies “yearn for the former more incomplete, more undeveloped and precisely on that account less dangerous forms of this rule”. The bourgeoisie is forced “to annihilate, on the one hand, the vital conditions of all parliamentary power”. [19]

The charm of authoritarian methods of government is also evident from the peculiar attraction of the governing methods of the Chinese political system to the ruling classes. [20] This is despite the fact that there is often criticism in the West of human rights violations in China, largely for geopolitical purposes. Nevertheless, iron-clad democracy retains its parliamentary mantle and neutralized multi-party character. This provides it with extended possibilities of legitimacy, which is necessary especially in Western countries with long democratic traditions. At the same time, however, in many bourgeois states around the world, all forms of dictatorships and one-party regimes continue to flourish.

The Future of Democracy

Is humanity marching towards the end of democracy? This is a crucial question that needs to be explored. I think there is evidence to support the possible development of three intertwined tendencies.

First Tendency

In the short term, the tendency towards the establishment and consolidation of iron-clad democratic regimes will be enhanced. Depending on the circumstances, one cannot rule out the possibility that several democratic regimes might be abolished should the risk to the stability of the socio-economic system increase. Wherever there is no such risk, Bolsonaro- and Orbán-type regimes can easily carry out the task of safeguarding the system and intensifying the further exploitation of labour. But even iron-clad democracies can be sidelined and replaced by imposed dictatorships if the ruling classes feels threatened by socio-political upheaval.

On the other hand, overcoming the economic crisis through the destruction of productive forces may be accomplished through the effects of the pandemic, regional wars, and perhaps through a more generalized conflict. [21] However, this factor by itself is not sufficient to generate a shift in the field of democratic struggle. On the contrary, the ruling classes have every reason to seek to consolidate iron-clad democracy.

It seems, then, that a set of iron-clad democratic regimes will prevail, along with even more anti-democratic dictatorial-type regimes, theocratic (such as the Gulf monarchies) or sui generis authoritarian regimes such as China and Singapore.

Second Tendency

According to a second scenario, the overcoming of the economic crisis will in some cases enable democratic gains. The overcoming of the economic crisis and the relative reduction of unemployment will create better conditions for the rise of demands by the working class and the weaker social classes. Consequently, the pressure to improve conditions for democratic participation, and to restore some democratic and social gains, will increase. The strengthening of the working-class movement and popular struggle in general, i.e. the shift in the balance of social and political forces, is likely to improve the state of democracy.

Third Tendency

A third possibility is radical social change in some countries. The factor that may disrupt the prevailing historical trend today is a radical change in the correlation of social and political forces. It is obvious that the elements of a deep political crisis are making their appearance in different countries, albeit at different paces and degrees. Managing the economic crisis leads to the devaluation of the political system–the inability of the dominant classes to continue to rule in the way they have done in the past. [22] On the other hand, the dominated classes are experiencing a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions. This is observed–although with less intensity–even in the industrially and technologically developed countries, despite the fact that these countries, due to their dominant positions, have the ability to redistribute a part of the super-profits they derive from their international activity.

These elements do not constitute sufficient conditions for revolutionary social change, at least not at present. There is a lack of mobilization and participation in the political activities of the dominated classes. And there is also a failure to formulate convincing alternative political proposals and construct renewed forms of political subjecthood. However, nothing rules out the possibility that these will emerge out of the deepening of the economic and political crisis. In such a case, new revolutionary democratic demands could appear, in the vein of the revolutionary democracy of 1793, of the Paris Commune, of the Soviets. [23]

Such a development could involve revoking the elected at any time, their rotation or control from below, as well as the abolition of all privileges enjoyed by the governing elites, the reduction of their remuneration to the level of an average salary, and the dynamic intertwining of representative democracy with peoples’ and workers’ assemblies. These are the sine qua non conditions for the implementation and long-term consolidation of a policy of socialization of the basic means of production and the consequent radical redistribution of social wealth.

Were this tendency towards revolutionary democracy to appear, the ruling classes’ fear of the overthrow of the socio-economic system would in some cases lead to larger concessions, as has happened in the past. In other cases, however, authoritarian tendencies could develop in order to address the danger .

In any case, I believe that the severity of the current crisis, the enormous challenges facing humanity, and the need to preserve the natural environment will trigger struggles and significant changes. Humanity’s laborious path to self-determination through substantive democracy and the fairer distribution of social wealth will continue.

Dimitris Kaltsonis is Professor of State Theory and Law at Panteion University.

[1] S. Levitsky and D. Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Penguin, 2018).

[2] C. Papastylianos, “To Syntagma tis Vosnias-Erzegovinis” [The Constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina] and Z. Barita, “Politiki kai Syntagmatiki Thesmi sto Kosovo” [Political and Constitutional Institutions in Kosovo], in D. Kaltsonis and N. Kanellopoulou-Malouchou (eds), Syntagmatiki kai Politiki Thesmi ton Valkanikon Kraton [Constitutional and Political Institutions of Balkan Countries] (Athens: Pedio, 2015), 85, 107.

[3] Indicatively see R. Reich, “Biden Cannot Govern From the Center–Ending Trumpism Means Radical Action“, The Guardian (17 January 2021); T. Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin, 2017); D. Runciman, How Democracy Ends (London: Profile, 2019). 

[4] Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die.

[5] Indicatively see S. Vidali, N. Koulouris, and C. Papacharalampous (eds), Egklimata ton Ischiron [Crimes of the Powerful] (Athens: EAP, 2019).

[6] K. Marx, “The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850”, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, vol. 10 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 51.

[7] See the constitutional amendment of 2010, in K. Mirodias, “The Constitutional System of the Turkish Republic”, in D. Kaltsonis and N. Kanellopoulou-Malouchou (eds), Syntagmatiki kai Politiki Thesmi ton Valkanikon Kraton [Constitutional and Political Institutions of Balkan Countries] (Athens: Pedio, 2015), 366.

[8] Article 11(2) provides that “[outdoor] assemblies may be prohibited by a reasoned police authority decision, in general if a serious threat to public security is imminent, and in a specific area, if a serious disturbance of social and economic life is threatened, as specified by law”.

[9] X. Kontiadis, Pandimia, Viopolitiki kai Dikaiomata [Pandemic, Biopolitics and Rights] (Athens: Kastaniotis, 2020), 60.

[10] See the most characteristic version of this phenomenon in Chile, S. Ramirez, “Constitución chilena y gubernamentalidad neoliberal” 5 (2019) Derecho y Critica Social 82.

[11] Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die; R. Reich, “No crea el bombo anti-Trump: La sedición corporativa todavía pone en peligro a Estados UnidosCubadebate (17 January 2021).

[12] Melanie Amann, Sven Becker, and Sven Röbel, “A Billionaire Backer and the Murky Finances of the AfDSpiegel International (30 November 2018).

[13] D. Psarras, Mavri Vivlos tis Chrisis Avgis [The Black Book of Golden Dawn] (Athens: Polis, 2012), 192; K. Papadakis, To allo akro sto edolio: dikaiosini i atimorisia ksana [The “Other Extreme” on Trial: Justice or Impunity Again?] (Athens: Topos, 2020); C. Papadopoulos, Orthios se dimosia thea [Standing in Public View] (Athens: Topos, 2020).

[14] P. Haro Ayerne, “La guerra de cuarta generación y las amenazas asimétricas” 134 (2019) Revista Politica y Estrategica 104.

[15] D. Cohen, “Cómo un golpe de estado en Serbia apoyado por EEUU inspiró la insurrección del Capitolio“, Cubadebate (5 February 2021).

[16] R. González Morales, Estados Unidos y la «guerra 4G» contra Venezuela (Caracas: Ocean Sur, 2019), 8ff; R. González Morales, Bolsonaro y Trump (Caracas: Ocean Sur, 2019), 40, 48.

[17] H. Moldiz, Golpe de estado en Bolivia (Caracas: Ocean Sur, 2020).

[18] See D. Kaltsonis, Dikaio, Oikonomiki Krisi kai Dimokratia [Law, Economic Crisis and Democracy] (Athens: Topos, 2014), 164.

[19] K. Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, vol 11 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 129, 139.

[20] F. Fukuyama, “The Future of History”, (January/February 2012) Foreign Affairs; J.P. Cabestan, Demain la Chine: démocratie ou dictature? (Paris: Gallimard, 2018), 211ff.

[21] D. Haynes, “Risk of New World War Is Real, Head of UK Armed Forces WarnsSky News (8 November 2020).

[22] V. I. Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International”, in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol 21 (Moscow: Progress, 1974), 213.

[23] D. Kaltsonis, Estado y democracia en el siglo XXI (Madrid: Muñoz Moya Editores, 2018), 69ff.