Crisis can be thought of as a moment of transformation or rupture. This conception of crisis as not merely a condition of uncertainty, risk, threat and rupture but also as a moment of decisive intervention has become blurred amidst the instantaneity of events that are filtered through social media and television news.  In other words, when it comes to current trends in democratic governance a clear distinction between transformation and rupture cannot be drawn. Furthermore, the role of politics as mediator of processes is tainted by highly polarized environments and public policy politicization.  Politics need leadership, governance needs institutions and collective change is more legitimate under a democratic system. Consequently, it makes little sense to speak of a crisis or rupture of democracy, without first recognizing the problem and identifying an agency capable of making decisive interventions towards a solution.  Any transformation can be thought as a process of destruction and construction, an inherently dialectical moment of transformation.  As Norberto Bobbio suggested, the dynamic of transformation, particularly the one involving political power, can essentially be thought as the emergence of new communities in old political orders. So, what we are currently experiencing in democratic governance is it transformation or rupture?

Transformation or Rupture?

There has been an attempt to understand the distinction between crisis (perception of failure) and transformation (a moment of decisive political intervention) in democratic governance.  Seyla Benhabib for example, argues that that difference can find its origins in Marx’s implicit distinction between system and lived crisis. This was taken up by the Frankfurt School and ultimately mirrored in Jürgen Habermas’ distinction between rationality and legitimation crisis.  Whereas Marx conveniently overlooked the link between system and lived crisis, Habermas assumed a simple correspondence between a rationality deficit and a withdrawal of societal legitimation. In both cases the dualistic separation of system and social integration, system and life world are reproduced.

Distinguishing degrees of transformation can further helped explain the difference with rupture.  Transformation can involve intentional decisive intervention in response to perceived failure or unintentionally, setting into play what chaos theorists refer to as the “butterfly effects.”  The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon. Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon.  As such, applied to democratic governance it helps explain how completely  deterministic  systems  could  create unpredictable behavior, and as a result, different degrees of transformative events.  For example, decisions to go to war, not to respond to a pandemic, or raise taxes; the acceptance of corrupt behavior; opting to misinform; restriction of liberties; or the signing of a trade agreement.

Antonio Gramsci’s notion of a catastrophic equilibrium, in which the old is dying yet the new cannot be born, provided another level of distinction better transformation and rupture.  A great variety of morbid symptoms appear, but death does not occur is an apt description of the current situation many democracies are facing. For many old and new electoral democracies this can be characterized as a period of protracted economic/equality/inclusiveness failure, yet not conceived of in terms of a political crisis.  Manuel Castells in his recent book, Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy, provides inputs to the notion of rupture. Manuel Castells tries to make sense of today’s political scenario, which, for the author, is characterized by the rupture of the relationship between those who govern and the governed.  The rupture for Castells is the lack of trust in political institutions, like governments, and that is the heart of the crisis of liberal democracy, which delegitimizes the traditionally accepted models of political representation.

The Contours of the Democratic Crisis

Older and new electoral democracies find themselves today in a moment in which the unity of and coherence of their societies is at risk.  The dilemma explained in simple terms; relatively transparent and fair elections bring leaders to power who claim they can represent people’s best interest, but once in office, voters realize these leaders do not necessarily represent their best interests.  Polarization, tribalism, autocratic rule, identity politics, and citizen disengagement and restrictions on freedoms, like a virus, descend and corrode the legitimacy of democratic governance principles and systems, creating a sense of crisis.  Populists offer an alternative anti-systemic choice to voters, blaming outside forces, implying frivolously they can quickly fix the problem, but without addressing the root causes of the problems or offering decisive leadership to initiate a process of transformation.  By nature, populism, nationalism, and isolationism are divisive and destructive.   

Before fixing a  problem, there needs to be a recognition of the problem by those that are part of the system and those that have the power to transform the system.  Also, there must be a demand to change from those who are not happy with their elected representatives.  This is the agency needed to change and transform.  When and if that occurs,  two paths are available; first, strategic restructuring and second, piecemeal adaptation.  Irrespective of which path is taken, change needs to effectively redefine the responsibilities and boundaries of government and citizen relations, setting in place new parameters or what Claus Offe has called “conjunctural politics” or the day-to-day democracy.   

These are chaotic times where entire systems are unified in crisis and awaiting transformation as a condition of its structural evolution, and the formulation of a new democratic governance project.  Over the last five decades, but more intensively during the last couple of decades, systemic constraints affecting democratic governance transformation revealed a much more complex relationship between the state as an actor and the surrounding world at the global and local levels. In great part, it is the speed of internal change in political communities that has constrained transformation.  Internal politics seem to be outmatched by lasting demographic and economic changes partially or totally out of the direct control of politicians. People today are more educated, have access to more information, have higher aspirations, are freer to take decisions, and tend to be more open to diversity and inclusion.  

However, neither institutions or political parties have managed to align their response to this new reality, and this is another sign of the crisis.  The lack of anticipation and looking forwardness is as much a response to fear to change the status quo, as well as a reflection of the incapacity of the democratic governance system capacity to respond.   The dimensions of change, such as globalization and decentralization need to be reconsidered as a plural rather than a singular process. These are setting new challenges with new dimensions.   The national state and its actors are facing new interactions between external as well as internal factors. The period of the national state, (17th and 18th Centuries), which was characterized by non-democratic rule and a clear demarcation between the internal and the external field is over. This does not mean, however, that the “state” has lost its main functional relevance that is immutably linked to its raison d’être.  The state already adapted and adjusted, for example by accommodating more democratic elements.   In as much as there is some validity on a declining role of the state in macro-matters, there is a similar weight to the argument that the state is carving a new democratic role at the meso and micro levels

As was argued by Jan Aart Scholte the public authority erosion of control in internal and external issues, such as security, health, electoral intervention, is a manifestation of some loss of effective governance monopoly inherited from a time when the state’s territories were clearly geographically determined.  The public sector seems then to be unable to be conceived in a credible way in the Weberian perspective of a “rational and rationalizing” public service.  There is a growing gap between the state and borders.  The monolithical notion of the state conceived as a national territory, culture and institutions is in crisis. With it, several fundamentals of democratic life are also being affected. There are declining signs of legitimacy, growing fragility of electorate support for traditional parties and increasingly difficult for policymakers to convert words into action, consensus and political projects.  Policymakers and citizens face a paradoxical expectation of citizens torn between, on the one hand, a desire to see governments efficiently and competently manage policy, and, on the other hand, an aspiration for more participation and accountability in public decisions.

The Reshaping of Democratic Governance

The long-term absence of any political action capable of reconciling economic goals with social objectives has encouraged some forms of attachments to the past and to some forms of populism, nationalistic and autocratic rule.  In some countries the debate has aroused the questioning of the state as guarantor of collective values and an incarnation of general interest and as omnipotent in political and administrative spheres.  In others, the debate centers on re-defining cultural identity.  Moreover, in other cases there are tensions between a past where the state had a defined role and a present in which it must define a new role, for instance, in social policy, job creation and safety nets.  Furthermore, in most countries classified as democracies, there is growing tension between their current political systems and electorate defiance, as well as ineffective political parties and representation.

In his analysis on the nation-state in Western Europe, Stanley Hoffmann observes that: “nation-states – often inchoate, economically absurd, administratively ramshackle, and impotent yet dangerous in international politics – remain the basic human political unit in spite of all remonstrations and exhortations. They go on faute de mieux (at the lack of something better) despite their alleged obsolescence.”  Indeed, whatever transformation is taking shape will not necessarily mean the end of the state, and as in the last four centuries the State of the 21st century will continue to be rather a hybrid form of the model inherited from the 19th and the 20th centuries. The state is still the converging point of many social, political and economic expectations.

Moreover, in describing the current state of the state, Wolfgang Streeck and Philippe C. Schmitter suggested that the modern state is an amorphous complex of agencies with ill-defined boundaries, performing a great variety of not very distinctive functions.  Similarly, Bob Jessop would argue that the state does not really exist as a fully constituted, internally coherent, organizationally pure, and operationally closed system but as an emergent, contradictory, hybrid and relatively open system.  However, it might be more appropriate to suggest that the state comprises a plurality of institutions (or apparatuses) and its unity, far from being a given, has been continuously re-constituted politically. There are more states recognized today than ever before, and yet more than 10,000 ethnic groups can be identified across these states. Therefore, the organic reconstitution of the political community is always naturally underway.

As it was experienced in the last five centuries, the state has continuously evolved.  It did so not only because the sphere of action and, thus the plurality of institutions have gradually expanded, but also because its unity has been continuously re-constituted politically as a result of centrifugal and centripetal forces or variables.  As it is illustrated in Figure 1 below, since the mid-17th century the state expanded its sphere of influence from the international to the intermediate and local dimensions.  Its expansion and transformation have also been shaped and reshaped by centrifugal (outward) and centripetal (inward) forces.  These forces reflect the political dimension, the constant disaggregation and aggregation of power, the levels of political will and legitimacy and the evolution of institutions and communities.  The trends of transformation have been more intense and complex in the last 150 years and given current centrifugal and centripetal forces at play the intensity and complexity of state transformation is expected to increase.   

Today the state is being re-shaped by centrifugal forces, through which power, legitimacy, will, and institutions are being expanded from the center of the state outwards into the international and regional dimensions.  Globalization, while criticized, still appears to be a dynamic factor of the evolution of the state.  There is no global government to speak of, although there are global political mechanisms already in operation, such as the United Nations (75 years old), the regional political organizations (i.e., European Union, Organization of American States) and the international financial organizations.  Whether they are still relevant or effective is another matter, but the multilateral architecture is there to serve as basis to transform it and make it relevant to the current realities and challenges.

There is no evidence of a global society either, or states are not yet accountable to a global type of law.  There is some global ethos, such as human rights, climate change, anticorruption and some mechanisms to help interpret and sanction international law.  However, is spite of these limitations and evolving trends, there are many centrifugal forces at play today shaping the transformation of the state.  For example, states are being pressured by a myriad of economic and technological factors.  Similarly, international trade has transcended boundaries.  A regional and global culture in the anthropological sense has gradually begun to take shape, especially in the areas of policy dialogue (i.e., human rights, poverty, debt relief, war and peace issues, gender inclusion). The classical conception of sovereignty has evolved, parallel to the process of consolidation of economic integration efforts. In reaction, there are increased tensions in some states to bring back nationalism and isolationism.  

The state is also being re-shaped by centripetal forces, through which power, legitimacy, will, and institutions are being expanded from the center of the state inwards into the regional and local dimensions. Democratic processes, decentralization and deconcentration are slowly evolving, and unlike the outward dimension, the space in the inward dimension has greater levels of governance.  Democratic governance aspirations have helped to create structures of decision-making and mechanisms for citizen participation. Today, centripetal forces are also at play and are shaping the transformation of the state.  While most states are gradually surrendering some of their control in macro-economic and trade matters to global structures, regional and local political entities are also beginning to acquire more autonomy and self-reliability and determination.   Decentralized entities more and more are dependent on local and regional interactions and inputs.  In these spaces of the state, exchange of human values has intensified, and it is increasingly link to micro power structures.  These in turn are becoming more sophisticated and complex, as control and citizen participation mechanisms are being reinforced.

As the state experiences a process of transformation, so do the structures of power.  The classical and traditional functions assigned to the state and the public sector, are becoming more disaggregated.  There are of course variations in intensity and trends across states, and scope of disaggregation is dependent on other variables, such as level of institutional development, centralization/decentralization and economic development.  The underlying argument is that responsibilities, conflict management, and policy choice all still lie within the sphere of the state, although the state has ceded certain responsibilities to localized and globalized structures.  In its own way this dynamic is signaling a change from an era marked by the undermining of state intervention to one that brings together new multi-level socio-political actors and strategies that can launch new actions to promote social integration, economic development and respect for cultural rights and differences.  Put it more emphatically, perhaps the most significant pattern discernible in the reallocation of state authority involves process of bifurcation whereby political mechanisms at the nation-state level are, in varying degrees, yielding space both to more encompassing forms of democratic governance at the local level and to narrower, less comprehensive forms at the global level. This has been confirmed by the current dynamic of Covid-19. 

*Source of the photo: Pexels, 2020

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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