Democracy was a great political theory but it did not work 'democratically' in fifth century Athens that had an underclass of women, non-residents, and slaves outside of the political mainstream, and only those who could afford the luxury of direct political participation did so. Representative Democracy, as opposed to direct democracy of Athens, does not work any better today in the Western world. This is because it has never been in practice what it promises in theory to all people; it is not the all-inclusive system that it claims to be. At best, what we have today, what John Adams had in his day, namely, oligarchy of the financial and political elites that control the institutions which determine the lives of the rest of the population. The French nor the American Revolutions produced bourgeois democracies in which the propertied classes dominated society. And to be realistic about it, maybe the best humanity can hope for is a form of benevolent dictatorship, as opposed to a form of tyranny cloaked in 'democratic clothing'.
Of course, the topic of 'modern democracy in crisis' is hardly new. In modern times, democratic political theory has been challenged by varieties of other models from Nazism, military dictatorships, bureaucratic socialism, one-party state authoritarianism, and theocratic authoritarianism. The culture, history and traditions of the nation determines the nature of modern-day democracy as well as the threats to its institutions.
There is a presumption that 'open societies' have external checks on the state and public sector, that is, mechanisms of accountability outside the bureaucratic structure that is accountable to the citizens and which serves public welfare. The presumption is that such checks on the state broadly represent all sectors of society and work toward the goal of what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called 'general will' (general welfare). In reality, the only meaningful check on the state comes from the business sector that the state is committed to represent because it identifies the national interest (general will) with the business interests that own the economy.
There is clear evidence that democracy is under threat across southern Europe and Ireland in 2011. Undergoing austerity measures formally or informally and severe contraction in living standards, the EU is deeply divided and in search of mission as either the agent of banks and large multinational corporations or a broader political and economic union committed to an agenda that takes social justice issues into account and acts on them. In Spain and Greece, the population is questioning the social contract, the very foundations of bourgeois democracy that is in the service of banks. Crisis is also evident in other parts of Europe where mass demonstrations have taken place in 2010 and 2011, against government policies that shift the burden for carrying the corporate welfare state from the business sector to the middle class and workers.
As one of the pillars of Western bourgeois democracy, 'merit-based opportunity' is disappearing. This is especially dangerous for people who know that: a) college education will cost more in the future; b) it will be more difficult to secure a job amid an over-educated population and there is no guarantee that the college degree (s) will translate into upward mobility; and c) the social contract presumably under the current regime calling itself 'democratic' is tyrannical because it serves a small minority of the population.
Academic institutions are increasingly becoming as enslaved as think tanks beholden to corporations. Students know the reality in their lives as their parents and they sacrifice for education that no longer yields the dream of fantastic returns as it did half a century ago. On issues such as education, wages and benefits, raising retirement age and cutting social security benefits all western democracies are in the same boat, showing signs that the system is slowly failing and that it is masquerading as 'democratic' when it is in fact plutocratic.
Political polarization and apathy have won over the majority of the population that bourgeois democracy has lost. More and more people have no faith in what are invariably regimes that change hands from one party - conservative - to the other more centrist - but the policies have little impact on peoples lives. This is the case not just in Southern Europe, but northern and central European countries as well as the US. In the US and northern EU countries, the crisis is manifesting itself with a sharp rise in extreme right wing parties that have gained popularity in recent years.
There is a convergence of crises, as I wrote in an essay a few weeks ago when I analyzed the roots of the current global crisis. Globalization is one major cause of democracy's destruction as it represents the unmitigated hegemony of corporations over governments, of multinationals over people. There is a growing realization by people that democracy is in crisis because it is has evolved into a form of tyranny against the majority.
The political economy of globalization based on social and environmental injustice is creating grass roots dissent at one level and extremism at the other, thus depriving institutions of the 'democratic consensus facade' that they enjoyed for more than a century. It is clear to people that sovereignty does not rest with the governed, but with the corporate elites from around the world. Governments do what is in the interest of international capital at the expense of their own populations - whether in an advanced capitalist country like US and Germany, or in semi-developed like Portugal and Greece, or underdeveloped like Mexico and Chile; all claiming to be 'democratic'.
The US-led 'war on terrorism' further eroded any semblance of democracy, and the US continues to operate under the US Patriot Act, despite bin Laden's death. Militarism and police state approach to politics manifests contradictions between rhetoric and reality. Further evidence of this contradiction is found in wars intended to impose hegemony on underdeveloped countries, though the claim on the part of the Western democracies is that the wars are intended to foster democracy.
Popular rebellions took place across Arab countries in 2011, but the US and its Western allies chose to support some of those (Egypt and Tunisia), intervene militarily in others Libya, while generally ignoring still others (Bahrain and Yemen), and maintaining complete silence on the worst authoritarian regimes (Saudi Arabia). This only makes people at home and around the world cynical that 'democracy' is what the 'hegemonic' powers define it is.
As much as the corporate owned and homogenized media tries to project the image that society is democratic because it operates in a 'free market' environment, instead of corporate welfare regime, people see the reality is something different. The internet presenting alternative perspectives helps in this respect, but the catalyst is the quality of peoples' lives and prospects for the future. Print, established cyber-media and TV trying to project the image that there is equality of opportunity and everyone can be rich and famous just as the American Idol finalist is not convincing people.
In the US, neo-McCarthyism is a tool used to silence those who dare question the quasi-police state.In Europe, with a history of fascism and authoritarianism, smaller extremist political groups have emerged on anti-Islam, anti-foreign, anti-progressive platforms designed to attract the masses guided by fear, ignorance and insecurity about the future. Right wing populist demagogues tend to become increasingly mainstream with each cyclical economic crisis that leaves people question the present and longing for 'the good old days' of 'traditionalism' when the masses obeyed authority and all worked just great.
Populist demagogues are challenging bourgeois political elites that come from the business elites, or become wealthy in the process and join the business elites, or carry out policies to strengthen the business elites because the entire government structure is set up toward that goal. Similarly, government bureaucracies and public institutions ultimate goal is to perpetuate the privileged elites at the expense of ordinary people, a point that both extreme right wing groups make as well as the varieties of leftists, many that have lost faith in traditional leftist political parties and are concerned about the waning democracy and emerging polarized society.
Ultimately, the question is whether people believe that institutions under their 'democracies' function to best serve the people or a small segment that makes up the elites; and if bourgeois democracy is waning, what kind of anxieties does that create for society. In the next contracting economic cycle, there will be further erosion of what people associate with 'bourgeois democracy' and a greater tilt toward authoritarianism concealed beneath the facade of democracy.
What happens to the social fabric if in the next contracting cycle Western democracies will need to spend more than half of the GDP to bailout corporations? Western democracy as the world knew it in the second half of the 20th century is rapidly changing; maybe for the better, maybe not. What will evolve in its place depends on the contradictions that develop within the market economy and the emerging social structure to which such a political economy gives birth. Social discontinuity is unfolding before our eyes, but what emerges in a decade from now is unclear.