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WESTERN democracy came about as a political device preventing the broader population — for the most part illiterate and poor at the time — from having any say in shaping policy and the economy in particular, asserts Adam Przeworski in this book.
He quotes the fourth US president James Madison, Simon Bolivar and Henry Kissinger as believing that “the people” cannot be trusted because they can “err.” That is what upset Kissinger when Chileans “irresponsibly” elected Salvador Allende — or the Grenadians Maurice Bishop, for that matter.
Such inconveniences are quickly remedied by the elites who shift from “proposing” themselves to the electorate to “imposing” its will on it. Examples abound across all continents.
Przeworski traces the current crises of so-called democracy to the imposition of the “Washington consensus” ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which ended all wealth-distribution or trickle-down pretence and led to political stagnation, economic impoverishment for many and “democracy’s” gradual loss of credibility among a disfranchised electorate.
The author is evidently concerned at the rise of far-right parties and their promotion of all manner of intolerance. In this context, it’s worth noting that fascist regimes in the last 100 years never threatened the economic supremacy of the elites — if anything, they helped consolidate it in times of popular unrest.
In the very last sentence, Przeworski admits that he doesn’t see the current discontent being “alleviated” by elections and he finds it “ominous” that the roots of the crises are in the economy and society.
More ominous perhaps is that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s policies are not mentioned once as a plausible solution to precisely the economic inequity or social dislocation Przeworski so dreads.
Even so, the wealth of information and lucid narrative make Crises of Democracy an informative read.
Published by Cambridge University Press, £19.99.
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