We’re living at a transformational moment in history. The survival of open societies is endangered, according to George Soros, founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations.
“As I argue in my recent book, ‘In Defense of Open Society,’ in revolutionary moments, the range of possibilities is far wider than in normal times. It is easier to influence events than to understand what is going on,” he told the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos on January 23, 2020.
As a result, outcomes are unlikely to correspond to people’s expectations. This has already caused widespread disappointment, which populist politicians are exploiting for their own purposes. But the tide turned against open societies after the crash of 2008, because the global financial crisis constituted a failure of international cooperation. This in turn led to the rise of nationalism, the great enemy of open societies.
From protest to politics
The recent wave of protests shouldn’t be viewed as a negative thing but rather a dynamic force of democracies, according to noted historian and author Adam Tooze (above).
“I don’t measure the success or failure of democracy by the level of protests. I would think of that as an integral part of a deep flourishing democratic culture,” Tooze, a professor at the Columbia University, told BloombergQuint at the World Economic Forum:
Protests are an articulate way for a mobilized population to express their interest and arguments. But it should not end there, said Tooze [author of Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed The World]. At some point, protests should then translate into active political participation electorally. “Not because that’s the be-all and end-all. But because we have so far not come up with any better mechanism for articulating governance except through party competition.”
The current crisis of democracy is also a reflection of the inevitable and well-established tensions between the formal political equality of democratic polities and the stark socio-economic inequalities generated by markets and corporate competition, Tooze adds, in a review of The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality by Katharina Pistor.
The very form of a corporation, “by encouraging risk taking, by broadening the investor base and thereby mobilizing funding for investments, and by creating the conditions for deep and liquid markets for the shares and bonds that the corporation issues,” maximizes profit. And though today we live in a nominally democratic society, Pistor argues that a “feudal calculus” extends to our age: superior legal coding—that is, fancy private lawyers. Using the central institutions of private law, they make certain assets more valuable, and more likely to create value, he writes in The New York Review of Books.
“Rising inequality is the logical conclusion of a legal order that systematically privileges some holders’ assets, but not others,” Pistor contends. “The logical result of such a system is rising inequality and the disenfranchisement of the democratic constituents.”
Democracy is indeed retreating worldwide at unprecedented levels, according to the annual Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The average global score for democracies fell from 5.48 out of 10 in 2018 to 5.44 in 2019 — the worst level since the study was initiated in 2006.
The index confirms Francis Fukuyama’s observation that the world is experiencing a “‘democratic recession,’ with reason to worry that it could turn into a full-scale depression.” Today, there are two opposite trends in the world, he writes in The Journal of Democracy:
- The first is social fragmentation and its concomitant, the decline of the authority of mediating institutions, primarily in established democracies.
- The second is the rise of new centralized hierarchies in authoritarian states.
Surviving the present means rebuilding the legitimate authority of the institutions of liberal democracy, while resisting those powers that aspire to make nondemocratic institutions central, Fukuyama concludes.
The opening of the Pandora’s box in the third wave of democratization was always likely to plunge much of the world into a prolonged era of instability, argues Pankaj Mishra, author of “From the Ruins of Empire” and, most recently, “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.” Unshackled from great power rivalry, history since 1990 has accelerated crazily, and often calamitously derailed, instead of coming to rest in the terminus of universal democracy, he writes for Bloomberg:
Even in countries with routine elections and peaceful transfers of power, such as India, uneven economic growth and high inequality have corroded the few democratic norms that existed…..It is clear now that, with governments shrinking social welfare and marketizing public goods, and moneyed special-interests entrenched in legislatures, many citizens became militantly disaffected with their political representatives and institutions, and vulnerable to demagoguery.
But there are also grounds to hope for the survival of open societies. They have their weaknesses, no doubt, but so do repressive regimes, argues Soros.
“The greatest shortcoming of dictatorships is that when they are successful, they don’t know when or how to stop being repressive,” he adds. “They lack the checks and balances that give democracies a degree of stability.”
“If 2016 was notable for the populist insurgency against the status quo in the developed democracies, 2019 was defined in large part by a wave of popular protest in the developing world,” she said. “Both expressed a demand for more popular sovereignty and better political representation and both hold out the potential for a regeneration of democracy.”