Monday, 21 January 2019
Charles Taylor - The Challenge of Regressive Democracy
McGill University Beatty Memorial Lecture October 12, 2017
Taylor is McGill University Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy. Born in Montreal in 1931, Taylor earned a B.A. in history from McGill and as a Rhodes Scholar studied political science, philosophy and economics at Oxford University where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1961 under Isaiah Berlin. Taylor has taught in numerous institutions and has written 20 books, including Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), The Ethics of Authenticity (1992), and A Secular Age (2007) His research focuses on modernity, pluralism, multiculturalism, the question of identity, secularism, and language. Taylor is the author of a now classic essay “The Politics of Recognition” (1992), and in 2007 Canadian Premier Jean-Charest appointed Taylor and the sociologist Gérard Bouchard to Co-Chair a one-year Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodements reliées aux différences culturelles to study and explore the widespread, highly charged debate centering on the social accommodation of religious and cultural minorities in Québec. The commission published its 300-page report in 2008.
Abridged Transcript - The Struggle for Democracy: Three Vulnerabilities to Regression
The Escalator View of Democracy is an Illusion
In the last century, we’ve had moments when we really believed in this, when this seemed to be plausible. I’m thinking of 1919 at the end of the First World War, the war to protect democracy or to defend democracy. 1945 – after 1945 various decolonization movements in the various European empires also encouraged this thought. More recently, in 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communist regimes really gave it a fresh impetus, and it looked in the 1990s that “We’re on a roll!” And it didn’t happen. On the contrary, we’re in a rather grim situation today. I think we have to recognize that this hope – let’s call it the escalator view that somehow things are moving that way – is really an illusion. So, democracy is not an escalator going up. Democracy is a perpetual struggle to maybe keep what we have and maybe advance a few more inches and not suffer retreat.
1- The Drift Towards Elite Control
So, the first one of these I want to talk about is democracy can begin to lose its quality as democracy if we drift towards elite control or, to put it in other terms, if the non-elites play less and less of a role in society. Non-elites. Well, that’s of course translated into Greek, demos. What the Greeks meant by the demos was not the whole population, but the non-elites of the society. So, to keep ourselves from being confused we have to see there are two meanings of democracy. In one, when legally and by the established law and so on, power, the ultimate power to elect, is in the hands of the whole people, as against aristocratic, oligarchic or dictatorial rule. .
But, in another sense, the notion of a demos comes in and people can ask the question, “Well, are the non-elites really playing the role that they ought to be playing? Do they have their share of power which goes with their numbers?” There, as against the first concept of democracy which is pretty well an on-off – either the laws give the vote to everybody or there’s some mode of control from on top. You can say, “This country is a democracy. That country isn’t.” Among the countries we think of as democracies in that sense, there are big issues arising as to the degree of elite control. This is something which can never be resolved once and for all.
In the early 19th century, in America, property and commercial success is what made you part of the elite. Then there were movements, the Jacksonian rebellion and so on, in which there was a push-back against this. But then the economy changes and we get an economy based on large industry, large corporations, robber barons, and we get a situation of great inequality arising. Then, in the 20th century in the ‘30s and the aftermath of the Second World War, there’s a push-back against this overwhelming power, and we have trade unions and social democratic governments and so on. Then, after 1970, we find ourselves slipping back again. One of the indices of this is that the distance between the rich and poor becomes greater and greater. We get the power of finance playing a role.
So, there isn’t a lever B, a final resolution of the problem of equal distribution of power. What there is – and that I think is very important – is a sense people have of what the direction is. Are we moving towards – in this sense of an equal distribution of power – a more democratic society? Or are we being pushed away from it? It’s very clear that in the 30 years after the Second World War, what the French call Les Trente Glorieuses, the years of great prosperity after the war and of various gains of popular legislation, welfare state and so on, people had a sense that we’re moving towards [democracy]. [But] since 1975, 1980, the sense is very powerful that we’re sliding away.
The Loss of a Sense of Citizen Efficacy
This sense of citizen efficacy has been slipping, and this kind of move can have a self-feeding quality. That is, if people feel they can’t really do anything serious in politics, they will both tune out more and more and, in many cases, stop voting. So, we see a steady direction in all western European democracies, since roughly the ‘70s or ‘80s, for a lesser participation in the vote. Up and down, but the general trend is clear. But, of course, that enhances the imbalance of power. That – the non-voting of a large part of the demos – gives greater power to those who are in the elites.
Then the tuning politics out in general gives a much greater power to money because you need money to reach people through television and so on and then, again, the imbalance of power gets intensified. So, we have here a real danger. It’s not something that can just be easily reversed. It’s a trend towards degeneration, the lowering of democratic morale which can feed on itself.
2- Membership: A Narrowing Definition of the People
The second one is the notion of the plebs, of the people, in the sense of the demos, is captured by a restricted definition of who the people really are. So, we get a discrimination between the real people and certain others in the population who are really outsiders and don’t belong to the real people. That’s of course what we see today in contemporary populism – almost everywhere in the western world, that kind of development of a narrowing definition of the people to the real people, to the core.
And it happens for various reasons. An important part of many western societies has been immigration. Particularly in European societies that weren’t used to immigration, and therefore there can be this reaction: “They’re not really part of us. They don’t really belong to our culture.” And to some extent in Québec we’ve got something similar. But I think we have to see that that flip, that move toward a kind of nativist outlook is, in a sense, built into modern democracy for a reason I don’t think we adequately focus on normally.
Democratic Societies Require a Common Bond/Identity
That is, democratic societies are a peculiar kind of society. They require a very strong sense of common identity. We are linked together because we have important common moral beliefs about democracy and so on; and, because we have a history together of forging and upholding these democratic principles. There’s usually a sense of identity, a level of principle and a level of identification of us as a particular project – an American project, a French project – of realizing democracy. Now that is essential. You couldn’t have a democracy without a very strongly felt common bond. Just look at places where it doesn’t exist. The attempt to get a vibrant democratic life with elections in the European Union has not got off the ground because there isn’t a European people, there isn’t a people who identify primarily, and have a strong identification, with that whole.
Or there can be societies which are split as was threatened in the case with Canada between two segments. One segment was French and many people were saying, “We don’t belong. We’re not really respected. We’re not part of this.” So, we had a great movement for independence in Québec.
Moreover, democratic societies really require a certain amount of solidarity and help, that those in a good situation give to those in a bad situation. Even in the United States, where I suppose the sense of solidarity is the weakest of any western society, it has – when you get these huge catastrophes, hurricanes and so on – the sense that we should help each other. But most of all, democratic societies need to generate trust in the sense that I can trust all of you that, when we’re deliberating together to think about the general good, you’re including me, and not simply you. So, it’s very important to have this emotionally powerful sense of the people as the whole people. But that emotionally powerful feeling can easily slip into being the people are the original people, the real people or the people who are originally here.
Conceptions of Inherent Hierarchy
Or, they can be infected by – this is something very hard to pick up on but I think it’s eminently working – conceptions of inherent hierarchy or precedence. Take the fact – extraordinary to our children – that in the whole development of democracy, male universal suffrage came well before the extension to women, and in a very conflictual way at different times and in different places. Only very recently in the Swiss cantons and only in 1940 in Québec and so on.
Because there’s an inherent hierarchical sense that the real operative agent in the family is the man. That hierarchical sense somehow just, as women say today, blinded people to the fact that democracy, as manhood suffrage, was incomplete. But you can see how other notions of hierarchy, or precedence, operating today, like very powerful notions in the United States, which you see being exploited by Trump and that movement. It’s a very subtle notion of hierarchy. It’s a notion of precedence that certain people need to be served first. Natives rather than people who just arrived. In the South, whites as against blacks. Still, for many people, men as against women. Original Americans, etc., original Anglo-Saxons, Scotch-Irish Americans versus others, and so on.
So, when these begin to play a role, the basis for the very thing democracy thrives on – which is a strong sense of common identity – gets captured and narrowed, and becomes something destroying it from within by dividing people. So, put these two things together, which is what we’re living with today. That is, the neglect of non-elite power, and the lessening of non-elite power, and the sense of dissatisfaction arising from the lack of felt citizen efficacy, on the one hand; and, on the other, the sliding of the sense of who is lacking in efficacy, who is the demos, into a narrower confine. And you get the basis for the kind of mobilization Marine Le Pen pulled off in France, Trump pulled off in the United States and in Holland.
3- Misinterpreting Majority Rule
So, let me mention a third one, the third mode of decline. It’s when democracy gets misinterpreted as majority rule. You can see this can arise easily along the second slide. If you’re thinking of the people as this group and then you think that this group, which is the demos which must be ruling, then there’s no need to think of negotiation or discussion or sawing off certain differences with the rest of the society that isn’t really belonging to the people. So, the successful democracy gets reinterpreted as majority rule in the sense that this majority movement is now in power. But the others are not treated as fellow citizens, as people you have to negotiate with. An obvious manifestation of this is a decline in civic language where you get extreme language, branding people as enemies, they can’t be talked to, and so on.
Now, in a sense, you’re seeing in the West a kind of perfect storm, if I could put it that way, in which these three kinds of degeneration are, as it were, working together. Certainly, the sense of loss of citizen efficacy is feeding the various modes of populism that is defining the populists as narrow. That, in turn, is feeding the idea that what we’re dealing with here is enemies, outsiders, so what we need is the people to rule, and for them to ride roughshod over these outsiders. Whereas a real democracy, in the proper sense, is a deliberative community in which we nourish the sense of mutual recognition that can allow for a real discussion in which people respect each other and so on and can arrive at some kind of general conclusion, for the moment – a conclusion that may be determined by the majority, but it is understood that the discussion goes on with these other people. They aren’t enemies. They are people who have temporarily lost the battle.
What Are We Going to Do About the Triple Slide?
The first is we have to look at what produced the discontent on the economic level in places like the Rust Belt or various parts of England that voted for Brexit, and so on. The Rust Belt is perhaps the major factor here. Parts of the French working class that rolled over from communism to support Le Pen are precisely from areas that are de-industrializing.
We may have to look at something much more radical. I don’t mean in the sense of rallying people on the barricades. But much bigger changes than we have thought of before. Is it going to be possible -- in an age of globalization and extreme automation -- to insure self-respecting jobs for everybody without changing very considerably the way we remunerate work, the way we can help to support voluntary work, the way in which communities can determine their own needs and set up programs of contribution, [volunteerism and preservation] which are funded from the center but which are not necessarily paid work?
The second very important feature of any real solution is the recreation of a sense of deliberative community, which requires working seriously on our public sphere – the sphere in which we discuss with each other, exchange ideas, and exchange propositions and so on. The public sphere is really in a very sick condition for two reasons, which we all recognize. One is that we no longer have media that are read and contributed to by the whole spectrum. We have media now which constitute kinds of echo chambers, Fox News against MSNBC, etc., where like-minded people get their information, get their opinions and so on – and never hear what happens elsewhere.
Well, if you believe in the escalator it sounds devastating. If you cease believing in the escalator -- things are automatically going up – it could even be exhilarating. Because these are things that can be fought against, you can fight back against. And in some cases, as in the Macron election, it can be faced and defeated. But we have a lot of hard thinking to do if we’re going to move the needle back so people have a sense that, yes, we can, and we are moving towards a more democratic society as against sliding away.