Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Book Reviews

There Are Only Alternatives

On squaring a goal of system preservation with the truth that the same system is responsible for present instability.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary

The English Radical group known as the Diggers.

There was once a liberal dream: “A free society of equals, based on the proliferation of opportunities for individuals to lead lives characterized by personal independence from the domination of others,” as Elizabeth Anderson writes of the Levellers during the English Civil War. In Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, the liberal dream, limited as it might have been, has noticeably narrowed.

Mounk, a lecturer on Government at Harvard University, takes as his subject the now ubiquitous crisis of liberal democracy. A nebulous we are suddenly faced with illiberal democracies and undemocratic liberalism. Mounk sets out to guide our economic-political elite to a better understanding of the grievances of “the people.” Elites must learn to hear the dissatisfaction of the people and also become better messengers who can communicate the fundamental goodness of the existing order in the people’s language. In turn, “the people” must learn their natural limitations. Some issues—trade, regulatory environments, and climate change, for instance—are too complex for “the people” to understand. Here, they must defer to expert opinion. Mounk and similar noble-minded intellectuals are there to help both sides understand their proper place and role.

But all their careful work is being undone by “the populists,” who offer “simplistic” solutions to “complex” problems. They divide the world into the good “us’s” and the evil “them’s.” But worst of all, the populists introduce the people as demos, as participants, even as rulers in their societies, and so upset the efforts of elites-whisperers like Mounk to provide the missing connective tissue between natural rulers and ruled. In Manichaean terms worthy of Star Wars, agents of chaos, hucksters of hatred, and merchants of mendacity face off against the forces for order. In this epic battle, there is no time for antiquated concepts like left and right, no difference between the Front Nationale and Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.

Indeed, Mounk excoriates ungrateful intellectuals who “for decades…have enjoyed the freedom to write whatever they want. Instead of cherishing this privilege, all too many secretly wished for a time in which their freedom would be more embattled.” Now is the opportunity to rise to this challenge: “to return to the boredom of times in which the stakes of politics were, at most, medium-high.” The implication is clear: Anyone who associates the prelude to what a few of my colleagues and I have taken to calling “the Long Now” with anything other than (moderate) prelapsarian bliss is clearly an agent of chaos.

Although the text is structured in three overarching sections, Mounk essentially lays out his political theory in a six-point argument. First, he asserts that the people are incapable, unwilling, and unable to rule; second, he commits to a set of claims about norms and institutions; third, he reveals an understanding of democracy as deceptive marketing; fourth, he propounds a mode of economic thought best described as market naturalism; fifth, he asks for a return to Cold War–style liberal nationalism; and sixth, he delivers a paean to a strange form of technocracy.

The book is riddled with factual errors, historical amnesia, cliché, and questionable argumentation, and—like so many similar books, particularly those written in the United States since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump—is clinically incapable of squaring its goal of fundamental system preservation with the truth that its prized system is an underlying cause of so much of the present instability. Which is to say, there is much to learn from The People vs. Democracy—but almost none of it to be found in the actual arguments.

For Mounk, as noted above, the people are invariably stupid, apathetic, and uninterested. He writes that “voters do not like to think that the world is complicated,” that “today’s citizens are no more inclined to vote and deliberate than were the citizens of 1960 or those of 1830,” and even that “today’s citizens may not be as invested in the outcome of debates on public policy as they are in who gets voted out of the Big Brother house.” These are bizarre, ahistorical claims. Not only is there no evidence that broad-based popular participation undermines either liberalism or democracy, the opposite is almost certainly the case. Mounk asserts that for younger generations raised on “Twitter and Facebook…Big Brother and American Idol,” political institutions are cumbersome. (There does not appear to be any credible study linking American Idol, Twitter, and respect for “political institutions.”) Justice and democratic order come, rather, from benevolent institutions on high: For example, readers learn that “the Supreme Court ended segregation in schools and universities” in 1954. Although Mounk eventually comes around to the stubborn fact that Brown v. Board of Education did not, in fact, end segregation, completely absent from his discussion is the mass mobilization of African Americans and a multiracial coalition of supporters. He also ignores that this Supreme Court victory literally had to be enforced at gunpoint because a mobilized people demanded it. 

“Rhetoric matters,” Mounk writes at one point, but for Mounk rhetoric matters above any other consideration. Thus, while he identifies three key societal transformations—social media, economic stagnation, and identity—their effects are not measured in terms of empirical human outcomes (the author preferring not to dwell overlong on the track record of Actually Existing Liberal Democracy) or considered as socioeconomic causes of contemporary crises. Social problems are, for Mounk, important because they weaken gatekeeping powers and give populists visible reasons for agitation.

Instead, his analysis focuses on norms and institutions. “For the first time in its history,” he states, “the oldest, most powerful democracy in the world has elected a president who openly disdains basic constitutional norms.” Even setting aside Andrew Jackson, however, nothing Trump has done or said comes close to, say, Lincoln suspending habeas corpus (or indeed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation itself) or Franklin Roosevelt threatening to pack the Supreme Court. Even if we restrict ourselves to recent history, we’d still have Richard Nixon’s radical expansion of war powers, Ronald Reagan’s circumvention of Congress to support right-wing fanatics, George W. Bush’s illegal war of aggression in Iraq and international regime of torture, and Barack Obama’s expanded surveillance, drone war, and detention programs—all of which represent disdain for norms. Mounk and like-minded authors cannot countenance that many of Trump’s worst qualities have precedent within American history, and norm transformation is a common, vital part of every significant period in that history (for good or ill).

For all his talk of institutions and the rule-of-law, Mounk has a blinkered view of these as well. Mounk only really addresses three institutions: the judiciary, central banks, and, oddly, regulatory and security agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In a book that purports to be about liberal democracy, this selection is baffling. Within the United States there are remarkable institutional shortcomings and needed liberal reforms. These might include reducing the number of “veto players” in the American constitutional order from the highest number among developed democracies or increasing the representativeness of Congress; abolishing or reforming the Senate; ending gerrymandering; or abolishing the Electoral College, which, for the second time in two decades, has installed an unpopular and deeply destructive candidate of the right over the will of the people. Even if deeply insufficient, these are quite needed and perfectly liberal reforms of democratic institutions.

But take the FCC (Mounk addresses it at length). It is not like European Union regulatory bodies; it does not set down binding rules to which there can be no democratic response (see, for example, the contentious debates about net neutrality). Meanwhile, Mounk gives an at best misleading account of the virtues of the “independent” central banks as demonstrated during the 2008 financial crisis. Though these banks did move to shore up the system in 2008 and subsequently, they did not do so simply to “boost economies” or reinstate “regulations on the banks and markets they had let roam free in the years prior.” Rather, they moved to bail out financial institutions and a tiny class of stakeholders therein, which was not the most rational response but rather the one that allowed fundamental system preservation. After all, instead of buying trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds, banks could have simply given the money away to individuals, purchased the assets themselves, or even bought and nationalized key financial institutions.

Mounk similarly misunderstands the EU. If the United States is supposed to suffer from a surfeit of democracy, then the EU is Mounk’s perfect manifestation of “undemocratic liberalism.” Here, Mounk is closer to the mark but still misunderstands the fundamentals. The EU is not some liberal system of perfect governance, pure law without input; it is a set of binding institutions that answer to concentrated private power. This is, in part, why it exists at all: While the EU, to borrow Mounk’s term, was not a “conspiracy,” it was nonetheless founded primarily in the interests of German and French industrial monopolies to facilitate more profitable trade arrangements and prevent the “spread” of socialism in member states. When Mounk writes of rule-of-law, he seems rather to mean something closer to deference to authority. As Frank Pasquale has argued (eerily echoing Franz Neumann some seventy years earlier), quasi-legislative power is found not in our administrative agencies but in the concentrated monopolies of this era.

Renewed state power with popular mobilization could theoretically help implement a series of solutions from the left-liberal position of trust busting (discussions of antitrust issues or monopolies are completely absent in Mounk’s account) to twenty-first century arguments for turning energy providers and platform media into public utilities, cooperative labor initiatives, market socialist alternatives, or, indeed, central-planning.

It is here that we come to the third plank of Mounk’s political theory, his peculiar understanding of democracy. Early on, Mounk offers a relatively anodyne definition of democracy as “a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy.” Mounk’s clarified position comes later in the text and is a fundamental pillar of his argument: “As long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule.” As he goes on to argue, letting the people think they rule, promising to prevent “tyranny of the majority,” and ensuring “economic elites that they will be allowed to keep their riches” are the key components of “liberal democracy.” To paraphrase Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, this is democracy as mass deception.

So, unsurprisingly, Mounk is tolerant of those—like “moderate Republicans” or British Conservatives—who support long-standing efforts to decrease democratic participation and curtail liberal rights. Liberal democracy is fundamentally dependent on an economic-political elite’s benevolence, rational governance, and “the people” responding with gracious legitimation. This is to the right of Lockean liberalism. This is Edmund Burke rhapsodizing on the false but—alas, necessary—“pleasing illusions which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society.” Mounk’s attitude—like Burke’s—is fundamentally antidemocratic but, even more oddly, illiberal. It is a conservative case for modern aristocracy, and one that is well suited to our neofeudal age.

Accompanying this strange understanding of democracy is Mounk’s aforementioned “market naturalism.” Mounk is no crusading neoliberal, no Hayek, Friedman, or Buchanan. Although Mounk admits that “the economic gloom of the past decades is often described as though it has been caused by natural forces over which politicians have no control,” he laments that “there is a large grain of truth to this story,” and that “the underlying trends are indeed beyond the control of national governments.” This is because the underlying trends are market based, and the market’s form is simply beyond question for Mounk—like gravity or the moon.

Mounk trots out familiar bon mots of the top income decile: Globalization has lifted a “billion out of poverty”; free trade benefits “everyone.” These assertions really would be true only if they were phrased something more like: “The model advanced by the Chinese Communist Party since the late 1970s of a heavy mixed economy characterized by state control and ownership over key sectors, unique property forms (particularly in rural areas), and an extremely counter–Washington Consensus engagement with the world market has lifted some 680 million, at minimum, out of poverty.” Because, as anyone can tell by basic math, more than two-thirds of the proverbial billion are to be found in China and the evidence outside of China, meanwhile, is extremely thin.

It is historically true that poverty rates have been falling across the world. How much of this is attributable to the specific forms of neoliberal globalization most people associate with the term is—in the words of the noted far-left extremists at the International Monetary Fund—oversold. (Incidentally, the IMF downgraded the “billions” or “billion” elevated from poverty to a much more believable “millions.”) While inequality has decreased across states, inequality within states is increasing. For instance, a globalized hyperelite has rapidly risen and the East Asian middle class has enjoyed a decent growth rate, even as the globally worst-off have either experienced economic stagnation or seen their condition deteriorate. Simultaneously, there is a precipitous decline not only in raw economic indicators among marginalized classes and groups in the Global North, but in many places, the United States in particular, a decline in overall human development indexes across the board for all but the richest citizens.

Mounk’s market naturalism leads him to some comically right-wing economic proposals. “One important way to address the housing crisis,” he writes, “is quite simply to increase the stock of available homes.” He proposes decreasing regulation and removing local jurisdictional powers. There are currently seventeen million units of vacant housing in the United States. In New York City alone, some 250,000 units stand idle. Unregulated free-market construction in places like New York City does not solve housing crises. It’s not even really creating housing; it’s creating safe investment vehicles for the ultrarich. Even when Mounk is willing to consider public housing, he cites by way of example Theresa May and the joint political platform of the Tories and the nationalist and frequently violent Democratic Unionist Party. If Mounk’s head is going to turn from the centrist path, it seems able to turn only right. 

And so, unsurprisingly, the fifth plank in Mounkian soteriology is ethnic homogeneity and liberal nationalism. Here Mounk adopts the pose of a teller of difficult truths: “To an extent we often prefer to disregard, the functioning of democracy may have depended on…homogeneity.” To say that this idea is hotly contested within even mainstream political science literature is an understatement. As Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz noted, “One of the most dangerous ideas can be summed up in the maxim ‘every state should strive to become a nation-state and every nation should become a state.’” This is not simply a reasonable normative claim. In 1972, for example, approximately thirty-two countries could, on the basis of common criteria, be characterized as democracies. At that time, a mere twelve countries in the whole world could be categorized as ethnically homogeneous. Similarly, M. Steven Fish and Robin Brooks, who set out to study this precise phenomenon, found that with regard to democracy and political openness, “ethnic fractionalization” is not “statistically or substantively significant.” Mounk takes an empirically thin account and turns it into an ideologically convenient truism, moving into truly dystopian territory. In one of the passages from the book that is worth considering in full:

There are many reasons why democracy in countries like Italy and Germany failed in the 1920s and the 1930s and started to take firm root in the 1950s and the 1960s. But it hardly seems a coincidence that they had been reasonably heterogeneous when fascists pushed aside parliamentary institutions in the name of the people—and reasonably homogenous by the time a large swath of the people was ready to embrace the norms and practices of liberal democracy. Ethnic homogeneity not only contributed to the success of these new democracies; as importantly, it shaped how these democracies came to define themselves. In stark contrast to the multinational empires that had dominated European politics for the previous centuries they were thoroughly monoethnic. To be a German or an Italian—or for that matter a Swede or a Dutchman—was to be descended from a particular ethnic stock.

For Mounk, demands for ethnic homogeneity are reasonable, democratic, and necessary. He backs up these positions with real policy. Sometimes these are familiar liberal positions. He re-creates Barack Obama’s draconian immigration policies with the hope that this may placate xenophobic tendencies. He makes the right noises about opposing the Muslim ban or protecting existing minorities—within reason. But though markets are immutable features of nature, possibilities abound for a starkly ethnic-majoritarian demos. One policy Mounk prefers: “making sure a large number of [immigrants] are highly qualified.” This, of course, is Donald Trump’s stated immigration preference.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. Like Mounk, I think rhetoric matters. Obama conducted his record-breaking deportation and migrant detention system in relative silence (although this can hardly be praised); Trump’s unabashed nativism and xenophobia—while hardly unprecedented—have resulted in a sharp uptick in hate crimes and are celebrated among many on the far right (as well as many regular Republicans) as an empowering “coming out.” This mobilization of the far right seems to have fizzled, but—like a good critical theorist—I think fascism is latent in the economic, political, and cultural bones of this society. But Mounk’s rhetoric vanishes into thin air the second he hears subaltern classes speaking as equals. He lambastes the very idea of, for example, “microaggressions” as a threat to the “hallowed principle of free speech.” College protests or Wesleyan students arguing about the cultural propriety of sushi—surely, well, free speech—are inexplicably fundamental threats to the Republic.

But anything beyond criticism of regular, interpersonal racism and discrimination goes far beyond Mounk’s boundaries of inclusivity. He argues: “if African Americans face discrimination in the job market, if they are given higher prison sentences for the same crimes, or even if they are at higher risk of being shot by the police, the reason is not a difference in legal status. Rather, it is that the neutral principles of the law are, in practice, administered in a discriminatory manner.” If. Even if the perfectly legitimate claims of critical race theorists, and others, are set aside, this is untrue. The recent government reports on the administration of criminal justice in Ferguson, Missouri, offer an exemplary microcosm. The city implemented an elaborate system of court fees and fines as a new revenue stream, drawing from the basic functioning of the criminal justice system. Individuals with few resources found themselves trapped within an endless cycle of compounding fines and fees. These individuals were, almost without exception, African American and poor. It was their racialization, not any neutral principle, that underwrote the existence of the system. Throughout his book, Mounk justifies his hostility to popular participation and mobilization as part of a system to protect religious and ethnic minorities from the tyranny of the majority. But when minorities point out that “race and identity should be at the heart of the legal system,” Mounk is patronizingly dismissive.

This is the extent of inclusivity in Mounk’s liberal nationalism. The people may think they want self-government, but what Mounk would like to sell them is a nationalist dreamworld. Of course, there is nothing particularly new about liberal nationalism. It was the essence of American Cold War identity and reached fever-pitch levels in the post-9/11 era. It promises national regeneration with clear boundaries and clear (foreign) enemies. Mounk’s language (rhetoric matters) gives his imperial imagination away: “Until recently, liberal democracy reigned supreme”; “it was under its watch, and in the context of the miraculous transubstantiation between elite control and popular appeal which it afforded, that democracy conquered half the globe.” No other homogeneity—not class, certainly, or even myriad potential new subject positions of the twenty-first century—is conceivable.

The sixth and final part of Mounk’s antipopulist theory of liberal democracy revolves around what would be commonly termed technocracy. Just as with his theory of democracy and his market naturalism, Mounk’s position on what counts as expertise is not in fact backed up by anything more than a concatenation of the “common sense” opinions of the top income decile. The question of climate change is the case in point. Mounk seems to think that expert opinion is consistent with items like the 2015 Paris Agreement, EU environmental regulations, or proposed carbon markets. But few credible natural and social scientists would agree with this assessment. In addition to being nonbinding, the treaty goal that came out of the 2015 Paris climate change conference, a temperature rise of less than 1.5oC over the next eighty years, was already unreachable within its framework on the day the treaty was signed. Even achieving a less than 2oC scenario is highly unlikely. These are catastrophic facts that do not accord with Mounk’s simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Even if one does not give deep consideration to the interlocking social and natural systems through which the effects of anthropogenic climate change ripple, such a world is unquestionably one of inter- and intrastate conflict, mass human migration, collapse of food and energy systems, extreme inequality, unlivable geographies, human and nonhuman niche exhaustion, and far more. These are very real forces of chaos, looming far greater than an errant tweet or uncivil parliamentary exchange. In various ways, climate experts—from oceanographers to economic ecologists, but also sociologists and even business school professors—are largely in agreement that capitalism as we know it will have to radically change. Except for a few extreme techno-optimists and the most dogmatic economists, there is broad agreement that there must be a shift to a low- or no-growth economy, or, at the very least, an economy with zero or even negative emissions. Mainstream economists have noted the increasing unlikelihood of a return to long-term high growth rates in Global North countries barring a major world catastrophe.

But Mounk’s model of liberal democracy promises a return to sunny days: “When economic growth is rapid, everyone can be a winner.” And in contrast, when slow, things become zero-sum. In Mounk’s ideal vision, the benevolent elite, duly chastened by understanding “the people’s” frustrations with inequality, will rely in part on cheaply priced consumer goods and a highly improbable—and certainly unsustainable—return to lasting high 3–4+ percent annual growth rates. And unless severely controlled by mobilized popular power expressed through highly coercive state action, high growth does not translate into less inequality and greater equity in other areas. Cases from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states since the late 1970s are not the only obvious example; developing economies are equally instructive. For instance, since the late 1990s, India has experienced stratospheric growth rates, but its rank on the UN Human Development Index has actually fallen. Indeed, the example of the Indian state of Kerala between about 1960 and 2000 is one that Mounk and other prophets of democratic doom should take notice of: Despite a low rate of economic growth and a very low per capita gross domestic product (GDP), incredibly high human development levels were achieved, not in spite of but because of mass democratic participation and radical politics. In a broader subcontinent riven by divisions based on ethnicity, caste, class, and religion, the Kerala model is more democratic and more politically and civilly liberal, and has been, until very recently, largely egalitarian.

Mounk’s moderate approach is precisely the opposite of what expert opinion would suggest: making an extreme, mandated switch to sustainable energy and zero emissions as quickly as possible concomitant with decommodified basic social goods—health care and housing, for instance—coupled with switching measures of well-being away from growth and consumption indexes to focusing on human development, social justice, equity, and sustainability. Such social goods are remarkably cheap if well implemented; the maintenance of the extreme inequalities of our current system are not.

Mounk laments a democratic deficit as a sad but perhaps necessary feature of climate change policy. But it is because of democratic deficit that in this key area, necessary policy decisions—which would require mass mobilization and radical change—are not possible. It is only through the mass organization, mobilization, and participation of “the people” that a public power sufficient to overcome the private power and self-interest of capital is possible. In the skew of today’s politics this sounds like fire-breathing Marxism, but it is actually simply democracy. It is not, necessarily, the abolition of markets but, rather, in the words of one of Mounk’s least favorite “populists,” John McDonnell, “an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people.” Like the vision of the Levellers nearly 400 years ago, this is simply a demand that we understand democracy—and liberalism—not as unqualified goods in themselves but as tools for a more equitable, more sustainable, better life in the here and now.

Why spend so much time on a book that fails so spectacularly? The philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote that text itself is a pharmakon: simultaneously, and irresolvably, many opposing things: remedy, recipe, poison, drug. When considering Mounk’s book alongside other interesting textual artifacts of our moment like Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason or Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, it is tempting to take Derrida’s proposition literally. These books are consummate pharmaceuticals. They are prescribed for the same patient: a newly uneasy part of the top income decile feeling suddenly exposed, insecure, threatened. Pinker offers a benzodiazepine: Read this, sweep away the anxious cobwebs, and realize that things have never been better. Peterson, an antidepressant: Read this, fix your own damn life; the world is as it always was and eternally will be. Clean your room; get a job. Mounk, ADHD medications: Keep focused, don’t stray from the path, be fearful, teacher knows best. All three texts explicitly lay themselves out as cures for the ill of thinking the world could be other than it is now. As a habitual lover of texts and other intoxicants, I do not wish to sully any of these necessary substances, only to put the individual remedy within a larger social landscape.

For a set of readers who perhaps find themselves to Mounk’s vast left, The People vs. Democracy is indeed a real remedy, just not the one he imagines. In its poison contours there is a lesson: All those things Mounk claims to take seriously but doesn’t—institutions, trade, treaties, laws—represent work to be done. Mounk is wrong that left democrats are dangerous totalitarians in waiting; but he does have a point that some of the finer points are muddled. Although it may dismay some to hear it, carving out a sustainable human niche will require the coercive power of the state. Some who dream a little too fondly of OECD social democracy in the postwar era will run into many of the same problems—of both nationalism and the addiction to accumulation and growth—that plague Mounk. Some doctrinaire Marxists will have to come to terms with the reality that the One True Revolution doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon; the world quite literally can’t wait. Liberals—true ones—will have to admit that capitalism as we know it is going to have to fundamentally transform.

But such changes are not unimaginable. If one squints when looking even at some of the most loathed globalist institutions, say, the IMF or World Bank, one can imagine versions that embrace global governance necessarily predicated on democratic participation, liberal recognition, and ecological and economic flourishing—in other words, on a far different set of values and parameters than those of their current formations. None of these will be the proverbial “cookshops of the future,” but these, and not fatuous system preservation, are the task at hand. One of Mounk’s favorite phrases is “difficult to imagine.” A constricted imagination, a crippling of the capacity to imagine—perhaps even more than a generalized contempt for most human beings—is perhaps the most crucial thread that runs through the text. If there is one, overarching, redeemable quality to our moment, the Long Now, it is that ours is a time in which Margaret Thatcher’s proclamation and Francis Fukuyama’s prophecy are reversed. There can only be alternatives.