Ominous Change: Underway to the Elites-Democracy
By Wolfgang Storz
[This article published in: Freitag 03, 1/19/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2007/03/07030101.php
The danger that democracy is going to the dogs has grown enormously though it is little discussed. The president of Germany gave a great speech about the condition of this democracy and building citizen participation. What hypocrisy! The dwindling of voter participation is often reinterpreted as a strength of democracy as though an essential contentment were expressed there.
Some tendencies chronically weaken democracy and therefore are easily forgotten in everyday political life. The parliament, the only directly elected group, has a very hard time exerting an influence. The political bureaucracy itself, the leaders of parties, associations, lobbyists, important media and the leaders of governments and government fractions, usually play the decisive role. The shift of power in favor of the executive intensified when powers were handed over to European and international groups that have the great disadvantage for democracy of being hardly legitimated by either elections or parliamentary controls. Parliament’s loss of respect goes along with its loss of influence reinforced by an inexorable national and international economic concentration. Big concerns are concentrated economic and political power preventing competition and weakening the position of the middle class and consumers. In their research laboratories, they control tens of thousands of employees, guide investment streams of billions upon billions of Euros, influence public consciousness with their marketing measures and decide over the future of everybody. This is accompanied by a powerful privatization of functions once handled by the state or the public authority. This privatization almost always coheres with a loss in public control. Thus the equation is corroborated: more privatization = less democracy.
The elites do everything to run down the state. Democracy needs a strong and respected state. As a state of law, it safeguards the rules according to which democracy can function. As a social state, it creates the material foundations so civil rights are both formal and material rights. This disparagement reflects an ideological description of reality that emphasizes “practical necessities” and the alleged lack of alternatives. If that were true, only sheer bureaucracy would be possible, not politics.
That the welfare state is exposed to serious shocks and that working life is basically changed are added to this latent endangerment of democracy. The welfare state protects from the injustice of the free market and creates an identity for those who must claim its benefits. Recipients are treated as legal persons and not as petitioners. This status fought for over a long time is cancelled bit by bit. That this process concerns democracy is often mentioned but usually only at the margin. Cutting social rights makes difficult the life of citizens and democracy.
What kind of democracy is envisioned? In true democracy, citizens feel invited and not only scared off by elites. In an elite-democracy, a party- or economic elite is entrusted with the business of government.
A study of the Friedrich Ebert foundation published in the middle of 2006 titled “Society in the Reform Process” presents two important statistics. 63 percent of the surveyed said the social changes made them afraid. Nearly half (46 percent) speak of a permanent struggle for survival. That cannot be surprising. Today’s world of work has basically changed. Businesses dismiss employees because their profits are too small. Businesses dismiss people because they cause losses and they want to make even greater profits. Then there are businesses that hire people part-time, for a limited time, for a project, for a very trifling wage or at the employees’ own risk. Businesses like to offer limited, poorly paid part-time projects and at employees’ own risk. Permanent employees are worried about the next wave of dismissals. The others adjust and strive to extend their project or their limited assignment.
All strength is used to master the present crisis or prepare for the next. Businesses become zones of dictatorship in this way apart from the fact that this development represents a vast waste of resources, engagement and creativity. Joint determination is attacked whenever it occurs and is no longer held up as an essential of social democracy and the social market economy. This is accompanied by the state organized privatization of life risks (pensions and health). Thus an addition of risks at the expense and burden of employees takes place. The special consequences for the younger generations, the challenge of organizing their own life, were never as great as today and its course was never as uncertain. What does it mean to live democracy?
Is democracy in acute danger? Many political elites have changed their once powerful confession of democracy into a vague democracy of plural elites. Classical middle class liberal thinkers like Ralf Dahrendorf (“theft of the rights of participation”) voiced their misgivings, not only leftist scholars like Elmar Altvater and Noam Chomsky (“modern form of totalitarianism”). The acclaimed sociologist Helmut Dubiel warns: “The danger of the authoritarian derailment of liberal democracy always exists in the political apathy of citizens in the elite-democratic system.” Only the historian Paul Nolte, one of the leading conservative thinkers, is jubilant. A silent shift of the legitimation of democracy has occurred in Germany. Accordingly democracy “is not the public affair, the res publica or the vita activa but that system best enabling life in private insulation.”
The left and the unions denounce all the serious economic and social changes and present alternatives. However the consequences for democracy in everyday political reality are not addressed. This could be disastrous since democracy’s essence threatens to be devoured in a long-lasting and dangerously unspectacular process.