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Jonathan Lear reviews Degenerations of Democracy

Craig Calhoun, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, and Charles Taylor. Degenerations of Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022. 368 pp.

Review by Jonathan Lear

Degenerations of Democracy provides a valuable framework in which to think about the problems we face in contemporary democratic life.  A theme running through this book is that democracy should be understood as a "telic" concept (pp. 19–21). The word comes from the Greek telos, meaning end or purpose, and the basic idea is that we cannot understand democracy simply by looking at the actual facts of governmental organization, constitution, frequency of elections, and so on, but must also look to the ideals, values, and purposes towards which government aspires. Three of these crucial ideals are liberty, equality, and solidarity. Of course, these ideals are enigmatic, contested, and shifting with changes in historical circumstances. There are also pressing challenges regarding how they could all possibly fit together. It is precisely the shared living out of our conflicted commitments to these values that is the heartbeat of democratic political life. Crucially important, this telic conception of democracy opens the possibility of inquiring into direction: are we moving towards our ideals or away from them? This allows for an orientation of ourselves in historical time that would otherwise be impossible.

As the title suggests, the authors argue we have been living through a period of moving away. But they do so in the spirit of reversing direction. There is a practical hopefulness running through the book that is summed up in their claim: "The problem is not that democracy is necessarily weak.  The problem is that democracy has degenerated" (p. 15). There are, Taylor argues, three major paths of degeneration. First, it is internal to democracies that they must ever be in the process of renewing their sense of what their ideals mean as part of the ever-demanding process of renewing commitment to them. In the current period, "The Great Downgrade," beginning roughly in 1975, the dramatic growth of inequality has left a wide swathe of the citizenry coming to the resigned conclusion that democratic ideals are a sham, in large part because they have no say in determining how those ideals shall be lived (pp. 32, 26). Second, the sense of political identity has been moving in an exclusionary direction: us increasingly means and not them. It then becomes impossible for  democracy as a whole to share a sense of solidarity. This contributes, third, to a distortion of the rule of the majority: gerrymandering, discouraging voter turnout, manipulating byproducts of the electoral college, and other tactics are used to craft a bare majority that rules at the expense of a large minority. This is what it is to lose sight of what democracy really means.  And polarization becomes unavoidable (see p. 47).

The book is very insightful in showing how, in a period of degeneration, values that once promoted democracy can be distorted so as to work against it. Two prime candidates are authenticity and meritocracy. While at an earlier time such concepts could be deployed to encourage a sense of opportunity for those who took individual responsibility, in recent neoliberal times they have come to legitimate inequality. Here is one example the authors give as a symptom: "London's Financial Times, a business-oriented newspaper, took to publishing a special monthly supplement catering to the rich under the title 'How to Spend It'. The rich seem to need not only ideas of what to do with their money but intelligence on how other people are spending theirs, what will confer the most cultural capital. The market for watches has long since ceased to be about telling the time." And they issue this plea: "Can this unfortunate fusion of authenticity and the neglect of the less fortunate be broken?" (p. 139)

But maybe the times are changing. The very day that I sit down to write this review, my copy of the FT arrives and the magazine no longer has the above-named title.  Instead it is simply "HTSI," the first letter of the words of the previous title. To the uninitiated, the new title can mean absolutely nothing. Is this a first indication that the editors have become embarrassed by such a blatant celebration of excess inequality? Are they trying to erase the title while maintaining continuity? Or, conversely, are they upping the ante, introducing yet another layered intimation of who is really in the know? For to understand the current title you need to already know it, or you need to find out. The major headline on the cover is: "How to Give It." The cover photo is of Melinda Gates, and there is a secondary tag: "A Philanthropy Special."[1] How are we to understand this change? The question deserves a detailed answer of its own. The important point for now is that Degenerations of Democracies gives us the means to reformulate it: Does this microcosmic shift signal that we are still moving away or that we are just now reversing direction and moving towards our core democratic values? This is the gift of orientation.

There is so much to celebrate in this book but I shall close by mentioning its plurality of voices. The authors share certain core beliefs, but their views also disagree and radiate out in different directions. One example is Gaonkar's skepticism about democracy's own long-standing fear of "the masses," the "crowd," the "beast," and the tendency of elites to gain unjust power via simulacra of representative government (pp. 72, 211, 173). From Gaonkar's perspective, the unruly disruptions of spontaneous "direct actions," rather than a horror to be avoided at all costs, can serve to disrupt what he calls "ugly democracies" (pp. 197, 167). It can be a constituent moment in an oscillation that shifts direction from moving away to moving toward democracy (see pp. 166–74).

It is this plurality of voices that instantiates the values the book commends.  Degenerations of Democracy sings out with the committed voices of regeneration so central to democratic life.


[1] “HTSI,” Financial Times, 10 Dec 2022.