Can we reform liberal democracy?

15 April 2023

Review: Martin Wolf, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (Penguin Press, 2023)


Martin Wolf, the veteran chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, lauded by global business folk and a habitué of Davos, has written a cri de coeur. It begins with his fears for his grandchildren. He was, he tells us, a child of catastrophe, born to parents in postwar London who had fled Nazi persecution in Austria and the Netherlands respectively.  Yet he fears a different kind of catastrophe for his grandchildren: that they will end up in “an Orwellian world of lies and oppression. This is the world emerging in China and in many other countries, even in leading democracies.”

At the heart of Wolf’s concerns is the breakdown of what he calls democratic capitalism, the once-happy (or at least happier) coexistence of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism that prevailed after the Second World War. Both are under threat.

Is this something with which you would identify, and if so, do you feel it is failings politically that have undermined faith in democracy. Disappointing growth and “left behind” regions in The United Kingdom were seen to be key factors in the vote for Brexit in 2016, the  negation of mainstream parties in Italy, the rise of Marine Le Pen in France and in the US, the election of Donald Trump.

A Trump comeback after his humiliating trouncing to Joe Biden remains thinkable, but was thrown out of kilter by the November midterm elections. Boris Johnson is still a populist who could conceivably be the comeback kid, although the chances of that are somewhat inflated by his supporters. And his locum tenens, Rishi Sunak, is just that, neither a populist nor decidedly popular. Keir Starmer, labour leader whom hustings suggest is Sunak’s odds-on successor, is the last person one would declare as a populist or a force for democracy.

Is Martin Wolf right to be concerned in doubting if America will continue to be a form of circadian justice by the close of the decade? Democracy is a form of government pro tempore, says Thompson. It panders to self-interested majorities. Those with myopia.  Are these the new politics of time?

Can we reform liberal democracy and retain your form of liberal democracy so admired throughout the world?

Wolf’s formula for restoring a capitalist economy — “a rising, widely shared and sustainable standard of living; good jobs for those who work and wish to do so; equality of opportunity; security for those who need it; ending special privileges for the few”, remains aspirational. Some would counter it is the stuff of guardian angels and Gordian knots.

Images of the attack on democracy: rioters storming the US Capitol in 2021, remain as vivid as ever.

Inequality is unacceptable for those at the lower end of the economic scale —  and this is not some kind of thespian art nor simply an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. The top 1 percent luxuriate in a  correspondingly large share of pre-tax incomes in Britain, Germany, Japan, Spain as in Switzerland, albeit quietly on the side. Yet a prospect in which democracy is replaced by tyranny or a plutocracy, which Wolf posits are “normal human political patterns”, is neither inescapable or ordained.


Image credit: The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism [cover] (Penguin Random House), Fair Use.


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