Looking around the world it is obvious that there are concerns about the growing success of the populist movements; mainly right-wing but occasionally arising from the left wing of politics. America has been rocked by Trump’s victory and Britain by the Brexit Referendum, across Europe far-right parties have entered the governmental chambers and in Hungary and Poland taken power. This is not a problem limited to the west; Latin America has seen Brazil fall to Bolsonaro and in India Narendra Modi’s religiously tinged populism has proven electorally very successful.
Though local factors often colour the appearance of the local populist groups, and they do vary a little between them (Podemos in Spain leans to the left as do factions of the 5 Star movement in Italy), the causes seem similar much the world over. There is an increasing disengagement between the governed and those who govern them. People feel increasing disempowered from decision making which seems like more and more a remote activity over which local people have little say. As this has occurred, public involvement in society and its governance has declined with a serious reduction in the amount of community participation in government at any level. Indeed in many developed nations the number of the populace who turn out to vote has fallen by alarming levels, These changes have coincided with a growing wealth inequality so that the relative gap between rich and poor has widened greatly. All of these change provide a fertile ground for a world view that proposes the real battle, the real class war, is between us and them – ‘us’ the poor, the masses, the populace and ‘them’ the rich, the others, the elite.
This book explores the development of these changes and details them well. It does not shrug off the fact that they have occurred. It is correct that the power of the working class has waned (trade unionism is at an all time low), it is correct that power has been taken away from national democratic bodies and now resides with international, corporate friendly, agencies without democratic responsibility and that structures which previously gave support and strength to the masses (family, church, society) have been greatly weakened by by the growth of individualism and the fracturing of societal bonds. These changes have been promoted by the development of a “management elite” (as described by the one-time Trotskyist James Burnham ) or “technostructure” in the words of J.K. Galbraith whereby an oligarchy, a small group of people, hold concentrated power and run an increasingly unequal society with only the semblance of true democracy.
To this point the book is much like many, bewailing the populist advances and recognising the problems which have started this wave of protest. However, the book then proceeds to propose how society might avoid this. Not simply making a diagnosis but also suggesting a treatment. This is based upon the idea of “democratic pluralism” which looks for societies built up of a number of groups with significant power ;-
“For democratic pluralists, the state – usually a nation state, but sometimes multinational state or independent city state – is not a mass of individuals to whom a general will can be attributed, but a community made up of smaller communites.”pp148
The three main foci of power he considers are the “guild” (labour and the economy), the “ward” (government) and the “congregation” (culture). The book discusses ways that these groups in these areas could work to create balanced power groups :-
“In the economic realm, the guild would would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against employers and investors. In the realm of government, the ward would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against organized money and organized expertise. And in the realm of culture, the congregation would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working class citizens against overclass media elites and overclass academic elites.”pp 136
Using a different approach in considering the power imbalances in our society, and the need to tackle the divide in inequality, the book proposes different solutions to perennial problems such as funding the welfare state, or managing immigration, which could defuse right-wing populist growth by rejecting racism and isolationism in favour of communitarianism and cooperation. He summarises the problem well –
“Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.”
There are many books listing the problems we have. Many philosophical tracts describing the state we are in. However, as Karl Marx correctly said it is not enough just to describe the situation “the point is to change it” and the outline of a better, fairer system is sketched out here.
The practicalities of how we push for these changes is not the subject of this book but it may not need the upheaval of a revolution to attain it. As he is aware, under democratic pluralism there will still be a managerial elite although one with a positive and democratic philosophy. And, to end on a positive note :-
“Most members of the elite under the new policy regime will have been members of the elite under the old one. The fact that most ruling classes include large numbers of opportunistic careerists is a blessing in disguise. It means that radical revolution in policy can take place, without a radical replacement of personnel.”pp167