07 November 2006

Soft dictatorship

How mediocratic academia (deliberately?) misses the point

Robert Dahl is said to be one of the most distinguished political scientists alive. His tenure as Professor at Yale led to their politics department becoming one of the most influential in the world.

In his latest book, reviewed in the TLS, he notes that Western democracies have begun a slide into what de Tocqueville called 'soft dictatorship' - a society in which most people have given up an active role in determining their lives and surrendered power to an interventionist state. So far, so good.

But then Dahl - according to reviewer Dr. Stein Ringen (sociology don at Oxford) - goes on to spend the rest of the book blaming economic inequality for the decline in democratic participation and resulting risk of authoritarianism.

I strained to find in Ringen's review any convincing arguments for a link between the growth in soft despotism and the supposed rise in economic inequality, but I couldn't see any, except the idea that political parties rely more on donations these days. But I don't find it very plausible that rising authoritarianism in the UK has much to do with the Labour Party's increasing dependence on donors like Bernie Ecclestone.

So, unless there are key arguments in Dahl's book which Ringen fails to mention, we have here the old dogma that economic equality and democratic accountability somehow go together - as they clearly don't, for instance, under communism.

An alternative argument might be that it takes a relatively dominant middle class intelligentsia to demand and maintain civil rights, and that in a mass culture such as ours (clearly more egalitarian in some ways), interest in liberty, accountability etc. declines. I haven't yet read Dahl's book but I very much doubt he considers this argument. Ringen certainly doesn't.

Dahl argues that a democratic vacuum created by voter apathy is filled by economic power (i.e. nasty rich people). This completely misses a much more important point: that in the absence of active interest in seeing what our political masters are doing, and keeping them on a tight leash, it is political power which fills the gap. In other words, it is (as de Tocqueville predicted) the employees of the state apparatus, not the wealthy, who will take up the control over our lives that we ourselves fail to assume.

The link between democratic decline and economic inequality is presumed rather than proven. That is no doubt because it fits with egalitarian prejudice. It is one of key myths invoked by cultural output in a mediocracy (as in a communist dictatorship) that the 'ruling class' are those with capital rather than the political elite.