Power to the people, really?


“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.” Abraham Lincoln

Democracy, sovereignty. Bureaucracy, globalisation. The Brexit debate has brought forward a whole gear of concepts that have been massively over-used, in an urge to give some intellectual weight to each side’s arguments. The EU? a bureaucratic machine – a loss of sovereignty for its member states. The UK? A country that can face the winds of globalisation on its own, with Brexiting finally allowing its population to make choices on a democratic basis. Is it a euphemism to say that some of us have felt betrayed by the striking emptiness of these claims? That it felt like complex notions such as sovereignty and globalisation have been overly simplified and used as smokescreens to justify all sorts of self-interested political moves?

Democracy is an interesting one. On one side the Leave campaign was shouting at will that the sprawling EU machine had led to an atrophy of democracy. Leave to regain control! On the other side, it was fascinating to observe how a flurry of disdain and cynicism from the remain supporters blew on social media after the referendum results, as some claimed that this is democracy in action – or, give a voice to the people and that’s what they do with it. So what’s the diagnosis here? Too much democracy? Or not enough? 

Too much? Not enough? Either a regime is democratic or not, no? Some will say that either power is vested in the people, be it exercised directly or through elected representatives, or the regime is tyranny. Simple. But not that simple actually. As while a regime can be democratic in the way its institutions are set up, in practice it can range from some minimal version where people get to vote on a regular basis to elect their government, to more maximal forms where an active participation and regular consultations of the mass population guarantees that it is this one, and not the elite, who shapes the agenda of public life. And that is where lies the rhetorical trick.


The work of the political scientist Colin Crouch on the concept of post-democracy is precious in this regard. Crouch analysed that while our societies remain democratic in appearance, some factors have helped power to be increasingly concentrated into the hand of an elite, detached of the people’s needs. The equal political capacity, or the ability to affect political outcomes by all citizens, has been hindered.

As he explains, “the idea of post-democracy helps us describe situations when boredom, frustration and disillusion have settled in after a democratic moment; when powerful minority interests have become far more active than the mass of ordinary people in making the political system work for them; where political elites have learned to manage and manipulate popular demands; where people have to be persuaded to vote by top-down publicity campaigns.”

How have we come to that? Is the EU the sole factor at play in this, as the Leave camp so thoroughly loved to decry? Of course not. A whole set of complex and enmeshed factors has led to a recess of democracy. And, as it appears, globalisation is a major one –  much more than the EU bureaucratic tendencies in my opinion. This approach renders the Leave campaign’s promise that exiting the EU will bring back control to the people rather…flawed. Oops, it looks like the anger has been channelled into the wrong direction.


Globalisation, or rather the kind of globalisation that we have entertained over recent decades in the UK and that has been coined neoliberal, have led to an atrophy of democracy. I have written at length on neoliberalism so I will keep it tight. To resume things, one could say that embracing globalisation in its neoliberal form includes a set of practices that rely on one crucial idea, which is to elect the market as the supreme decision maker of all areas of life – to make the principle of competition the sole decision-making power. So: reducing state intervention by privatising pretty much everything, opening your economy to foreign competition and investments, electing macroeconomic models that favour supply side effects over Keynesian models, etc etc…

While the link between the kind of globalisation we’re in and democracy might not have jumped out to everyone, it here becomes very clear. Neoliberalism is about concentrating the decision-making power increasingly in the hand of a globalised private sphere, away from governments. It transforms politics into management. Simple. And for the few areas that remain under the control of our politicians, you can rest assured that the logic of competitiveness that lies at the core of the neoliberal dogma will prevent any new regulation that is a drag on profit to see daylight. So any bold environmental law, safety rule, or progressive workers rights will be considered a threat to the logic of competitiveness, undesirable elements of managerial politics.

Where does democracy sit then, when our officials have already reduced the universe of choices to one single imperative, which is to remain competitive, regardless of the societal and environmental costs to the population? Not surprising then that a large part of the population feels increasingly disenfranchised, disillusioned by day to day politics.

Let’s look at some of the decisions that have been taken by the Conservative leadership before the referendum results, such as allowing fracking (even under national parks), or negotiating an infuriating deal with Google over a corporation tax of £130m while launching an attack on disability benefits. Have these decisions been forced upon us by some bureaucrats in the EU? No. Have they been made with some strong popular support? Absolutely not. They were the result of a handful of politicians committed to making the UK a haven for private interests under “la loi du marché global”.

This is not to say that some European institutions such as the Eurozone are not increasingly neoliberal in their construction and process. A majority of Western countries have embraced neoliberalism, with varying intensity and shapes. But in some cases the European Union was acting as some form of last resort protection against the ultra neoliberal furry of the UK. In the Google case, the European Commission had promised to look into the SNP and Labour complaints about the special tax treatment it had received, with the potential prospect to force the giant to pay more.


So – will Brexit mean more democracy if we consider things in light of this analysis? Surely not. Exiting the EU will automatically allow for some regulatory processes to fall back under British legislation, but that is not the point here. The neoliberal ideology that prevails will ensure that the UK continues its race to the bottom as it navigates the heavy competitive winds of an ultra globalised world, with more pressure on the government to align to the interest of multinationals.

And Osborne has already started laying out his five point plan earlier this week, as he announced that he would cut corporation tax to a ridiculous 15% in a bid to boost the UK’s competitiveness and attract investors. All looks rosy on paper, doesn’t it? Well, not if you consider that this reform will happen as Osborne remains committed to maintaining Britain’s fiscal credibility (albeit having reviewed his previous target of achieving a surplus by 2020). Read that as: more tax favours to businesses and more austerity for the people. Who said there is no redistribution happening in the UK? Just do not ask which way around it works.

Democracy is and has always been a discursive punchbag; a floating concept that has been so used and abused that it is sadly loosing its meaning(s). Invoked in the toppling of Saddam and other disguised military interventions, and recently a major card to play in the Brexit campaign. But claiming that exiting the EU will allow for more democratic choices is nothing more than a nicely put rhetorical trick. If we look in details, none of this claim is either logic nor trivial.
And if there is a scenario whereby Brexit offers a regain of democracy in the long run, this one would require a bold and visionary form of leadership to emerge. One with a big pinch of intellectual honesty and committed to bringing back some form of accountability in the decision-making processes that have been highjacked by the logic of competition. A leadership therefore ready for a complete overhaul of the neoliberal ideology that currently underpins politics in the UK. Pro-globalisation, pro-big business, and pro-democracy…really? Let’s start with unveiling the emptiness and dishonesty of this clumsy discourse. As political scientist John D.Robertson said, “democracy is the most valued and also the vaguest of political terms in the modern world.” He couldn’t be more right.

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Photo credit to Tim Green. No changes we made.


One thought on “Power to the people, really?

  1. Good analysis Marie. Leavers were sold on the “democracy” and “take back control” but they have just swapped a distant elite for another.

    Switching to neoliberalism now – I do not think was a topic at all in the Brexit debate, but it appears to be your main concern. You’re correct that the EU was acting as a counterweight to some of the UK’s most pro-market policies. But why is it then that Labour (and Corbyn in particular) were unable to make that case? They bear their fair share of responsibility for the Leave victory.


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