The ‘surprise’ election of Donald Trump to succeed Barack Obama in the White House is rocking the foundations of the American political system and of the international order. But the anti-establishment uprising it symbolises and that is spreading across the Western world also signals that democracy as a system of human governance may have entered a period of protracted decline and decay.
America and the world are slowly trying to come to terms with the seemingly unexpected outcome of the U.S. presidential election. The success of Donald Trump, elected to be the 45th U.S. President and to succeed Barack Obama in the White House, has left the country’s ruling class in a state of profound shock. The political, business, media and academic establishment are all puzzled and lost for words to express their utter, definitive dismay. “How on Earth can this be?” seems to be the rallying cry. How could U.S. citizens put their trust in such man, so “uniquely unqualified” to be president”, so stranger to public service and so manifestly ignorant of public policy, who “has run the worst campaign in modern history”, who has ’lost’ the debates and who didn’t even deign spending half what her opponent splashed out on the contest? How could they fall prey to the abrasive, abusive, divisive, simplistic and incoherent rhetoric of a serial liar? Of a boorish billionaire masquerading as the champion of the struggling working class? Of a real estate tycoon parading as a model of American entrepreneurial success, but who in fact inherited the core of his business empire and made regular bankruptcies an integral part of his business model? Of a reality TV buffoon who insults pretty much everybody, gloats about groping women or avoiding taxes, and faces dozens of lawsuits for alleged fraud, rape, and harassment? How could voters not detect and avoid the blatant trap? How could they take that chance?
Donald Trump’s victory has also been received with total disbelief and outrage outside the U.S., at least in Western democracies where the new President-elect is widely seen as a caricature of everything that is gross and vile about American culture. “What the f**k, America?”, a whole world seems to be wondering as a political abyss is opening and vertigo sets in.
These reactions to the election result in the U.S. establishment and part of the population, as well as in the international community, show a striking similarity to what followed the UK referendum to exit the European Union last June. The same kind of shock and disbelief at the ‘surprising’ outcome – that the pollsters had failed to forecast and that nobody had apparently seriously anticipated. The same kind of cluelessness about the implosion of a political system that seemed solidly established, and of powerlessness at doing anything to prevent it. The same kind of anger and rage at a result that shatters the present and jeopardises the expected future. The same kind of obvious disconnect between the ruling elites and the ‘silent majority’. In the U.S. as in the UK, many suddenly and painfully realise that they truly didn’t understand the country they live in, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman admitted. In the U.S. as in the UK, some refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the result, taking to the streets across the country to protest against the detested President-elect. “Not my president”, they say, while others claim, ironically, that “the system is rigged” as it once again denies victory to a democratic candidate who has won the popular vote. Petitions are being circulated asking the electoral college to withhold their support for Trump when they meet on December 19, or calling on some coastal states to secede from the Union.
In the U.S. as earlier in the UK, journalists, intellectuals and political analysts dissert at length on the causes and consequences of the political cataclysm, which most of them describe as a tragedy, a disaster or a catastrophe, a crushing defeat for intelligence and reason, or more modestly as the “biggest upset in U.S. history” and a “stunning repudiation of the establishment”. As earlier in the UK, the blame game is in full swing and bitter recriminations are flying around in all directions. Some blame the Republican party for its continuous obstruction of Barack Obama’s administration and for inciting fear and hatred among voters ever since his election eight years ago. Some blame the Democratic party for its decades-long embrace of neoliberalism and its abandonment of ‘Middle America’, as well as for spectacularly misunderstanding the country’s mood and picking the wrong candidate, a Wall Street-cosy “party hack they’d chosen because it was her turn”. Some point the finger to the rise of the ‘alt-right’, the eclectic community of weirdos who reject mainstream conservatism and spread conspiracy-filled far-right ideologies online. Some accuse FBI chief James Comey, who dared to re-open an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server story just days before the vote. Some blame Russia for trying to hack the election, or WikiLeaks for exposing the alleged wrongdoings of the Democrats and their candidate. Others blame the corporate media for giving Trump a platform, or social media for isolating the urban elites in their liberal echo chambers and for degrading the national political conversation. “I suffer: someone or other must be guilty”*, right?
The election of Donald Trump, however, is orders of magnitude more consequential than Brexit. While the Brexit vote has thrown the UK into a period of uncertainty and exposed the fragility of the ailing European project, Trump’s victory lays bare the extent and depth of the fault-lines that are tearing apart the social fabric of the world’s ‘indispensable nation’ and undermining the viability of its democratic system. It blows up the long-standing foundations of both American politics and the world’s international order, and amounts, for America and the world, to a big, bold jump into the unknown.
In the U.S. as earlier in the UK, many admit that they had underestimated the ‘yuge’ generational and territorial divides that this surprising election result spectacularly exposes. A majority of younger voters and the coastal cities voted for Hillary Clinton, while older citizens and voters in rural and suburban America, in particular in the ‘flyover states’, voted massively to “Make America Great Again”. Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of more than 200,000, but Trump came first on over 80% of the country’s territory. America, it appears, has broken down into two strikingly different countries, which are drifting apart and increasingly despise or even abhor each other. In the U.S. as earlier in the UK, this split largely overlaps the divide between the winners – or perceived winners – and the losers – or perceived losers – of neoliberal globalisation. The former are largely concentrated in major cities, and tend to be rather young, educated and cosmopolitan. The latter tend to live in suburban or rural areas and to be rather older, less educated and less open to the world. The former are integrated into big cities’ vibrant service-based economies and benefit from related social, economic and cultural opportunities. For the latter on the other hand, employment opportunities have dried up in many areas, real incomes have been stagnant or even falling for decades, and job and social insecurity have spiked since the financial crisis.
In the U.S. as in the UK, these two constituencies have widely diverging perceptions, attitudes and experiences concerning pretty much everything, in particular free trade and immigration. For young urban professionals free trade represents a welcome expansion of economic opportunities and social experiences, while for the disenfranchised working class and the marginalised suburban middle class it means deindustrialisation, vanishing job opportunities, social relegation and decreasing living standards. Attitudes, perceptions and experiences diverge similarly concerning immigration and, more generally, ethnic diversity. For young urban professionals, diversity represents cultural enrichment, and minority or migrant workers, legal or otherwise, provide the willing and malleable workforce needed to power the service economy they navigate in as well as to cap the price of a number of services they value and want to have access to. For the struggling rural and suburban working and middle classes on the other hand, migrant workers are typically perceived as an illegitimate competition for scarce jobs, housing and public services, which undermines the value of their labour force, threatens their welfare and sometimes the liveability of the communities they live in.
In the U.S. as in the UK, but even more than in the UK, the political, cultural and media establishment spectacularly misjudged the extent and depth of the anger that was boiling under the surface. The growing resentment of Middle America largely slipped under their radar, when it was not purely and simply dismissed as irrelevant, unjustified or not worthy of consideration. This indifference or even overt contempt of the coastal ruling classes for the plight of Middle American citizens played a major role in laying the foundations of the populist backlash. In 2008, Americans had wanted to believe in ‘Hope and Change’, but too many of them then saw little change and gradually lost hope. The ‘Too Big To Fail’ banks that nearly brought down the U.S. and global financial system in 2008 and had to be bailed out by the taxpayers, have become even bigger, and their political influence has continued to grow under the Obama administration. Courtesy of the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ ruling in 2010, big corporations have further extended their already massive influence over policy-making. The lobbying and influence industry, whose practices have in the U.S. become hardly distinguishable from legalised corruption, has continued to flourish. Inequality, which was already reaching staggering levels before the financial crisis, has continued to increase as the continuous re-inflation of financial assets triggered by the Federal Reserve’s accommodative monetary policy has channelled ever more riches towards the top of the wealth and income pyramid. The ‘recovery’ meanwhile, never really reached the shores of small town America, which has remained stuck in a spiral of growing economic and social desolation. Well-paying manufacturing jobs have continued to evaporate, and Middle Americans increasingly got left with access to ‘shit’ jobs only, when young urbanites can at least aspire to grab one of the countless ‘bullshit’ jobs that continuously sprout up in the service-based urban ecosystems.
‘Hope and Change’ President Obama was probably condemned to disappoint as he had set the expectations bar far too high – but hey, that’s surely what was needed for a black man to enter the White House. However, he is obviously not the sole responsible for the disenchantment and resentment of Middle America. After the 2010 mid-term elections, his administration faced a continuous obstruction from a Republican-dominated Congress, preventing him from enacting the change he had imprudently promised. Most of his decisions since then have been implemented as executive orders, which can be swiftly repealed by his successor – and probably will. His Democratic party, however, became the main target of a mounting popular anger. The Democrats were indeed supposed to be the champions of working and middle classes, but increasingly chose to focus on other clienteles instead, largely urban, in particular affluent liberal service sector professionals and minorities. Under pressure from ‘socialist’ Senator Bernie Sanders, her challenger in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton incorporated in her presidential programme a number of measures aimed at luring back Middle America, but it was too little, too late, and probably also too insincere coming from a candidate with close and long standing ties with Wall Street and big business. She couldn’t even count on getting the benefit of the doubt.
Donald Trump perfectly diagnosed the resentment that was brewing across the country and masterfully instrumentalised it. He didn’t create it, unlike what some liberals want to believe, but he unashamedly exploited and incited it – but hey, that’s surely what was needed for ‘The Donald’ to enter the White House… He perfectly understood that Middle America had had enough of being taken for granted and wanted things to change, fundamentally and immediately. He perfectly understood that a rising part of the country’s population was in a ‘f**k you’ mood, and he undertook to become that big, fat ‘f**k you’ – as film director Michael Moore warned before the election, Trump’s victory is probably “the biggest ‘f**k you’ recorded in human history“… He also understood that after having been so many times promised shiny bright futures that had consistently failed to materialise, a growing part of the population was feeling that the country was on the wrong track and had changed for the worse in recent decades. Hence his pledge to “Make America Great Again”, a slogan that seemed silly when he first floated it but ended up becoming a powerful rallying cry for his campaign.
Obviously, Donald Trump also perfectly understood that crisis-stricken Middle America was largely white, and that it was not only longing for a return to the past glory days of full employment and economic progress, but also to the days when America was more socially cohesive – meaning, consciously or unconsciously, less multicultural and more white. Alongside generational, territorial and class divides, racial and cultural divides have in fact played a major role in the outcome of the election. Quite surprisingly, Donald Trump did better than 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney among minorities, expanding the party’s share of both African American and Hispanic voters. However, his victory was essentially built on a “unique coalition of white voters”. Eight years after the election of the country’s first black president, the advent of Donald Trump probably constitutes a racial backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama, a sort of reactionary revenge against the presence of a black man in the White House. In fact, some resentful white voters never admitted Obama’s legitimacy and were waiting to “take their country back”. Donald Trump gave them the opportunity to do so. Fundamentally, his victory may be seen as a reaction of America’s white population against its long-term demographic decline. Due to continued immigration and the persistence of birth rate differentials, racial and ethnic minorities – in particular Hispanics – have accounted for most of the nation’s population growth in recent decades. As a result, non-Hispanic whites are forecasted to cease being the majority group in the total U.S. population by the middle of the century. It is very likely that a significant number of white voters decided to seize what they perceived as being probably the last opportunity to reverse the trend and prevent this from happening. Donald Trump masterfully played this card, promising to close the southern border and to deport millions of illegal immigrants – thus erasing their future American progeny – and frequently presenting his candidacy as the ‘last chance’ – for the country and the Republican party, but perhaps more importantly for the white majority to assert or restore its claim to power – what some call ‘white privilege’. More than anything else, “Make America Great Again” in fact meant “Make America White Again”, and was understood as such by those to whom the message was destined. Trump’s victory gives angry or fearful whites their revenge and exposes the theory of America’s supposedly “post-racial society” as what it always was, i.e. a fallacy.
What happens next in ‘Broken America’ is anyone’s guess. The President-elect has shown such overt contempt for facts and such disregard for even mildly coherent ideas that it is impossible to know whether he really intends to do what he said he would do, to what extent he will be able to actually follow through on his campaign promises, and what else he will come up with during his mandate. His economic policies are likely to focus on lowering taxes for the well off and for corporations, and on deregulating all swaths of economic activity, in particular fossil-fuelled energy. Far from a reversal of the neoliberal policies that fractured Western working and middle classes, it would amount to supply-side and ‘trickle-down’ economics on steroids. If you find yourself in a hole, keep digging, you may end up finding gold… Trump would however maybe combine this supply-side revival with a massive fiscal stimulus, focusing in particular on infrastructure investment. The new administration may also be intent on trimming down government, repelling or reforming the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) and possibly other aspects of the social safety net. Trump may also try to put some restrictions on free trade as he promised during his campaign, or maybe not. His aides insist that he is not an ideologue but a pragmatic businessman who will do what works best for the country. Whether and to what extent his policies will end up benefiting the common people that he pretended to champion during the campaign remains to be seen, but is highly doubtful. Whether and to what extent American society will willingly put up with these policies and their consequences or on the contrary descend into some form of disobedience and possibly political violence is also an open question.
The same uncertainty prevails concerning Donald Trump’s foreign policy. In his victory speech the President-elect assured the world community that “while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone. All people and all other nations”. He stated that America “will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us. (…) We will have great relationships. We expect to have great, great relationships.” How he will build and manage these ‘great relationships’, however, is unknown at this stage. Apart from Syria and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, few countries around the world seem to be thrilled about having to deal with President Trump. European allies, in particular, are very anxious about his commitment – or lack of commitment – to the Western alliance. During his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly criticised NATO, calling the military alliance ‘obsolete’. He also suggested that America might not defend fellow NATO countries that wouldn’t pay their fair share, i.e. reimburse the U.S. for the cost of its troops and bases in Europe. Nobody knows, however, if and how he will translate his campaign rhetoric into action. What seems most likely at this stage is that he will bring the era of American liberal interventionism to an end, reverting to a ‘balance of power’ approach to global affairs, favouring bilateral ties and ‘deal-making’ over multilateral alliances and cooperation, and possibly prioritising relations with the ‘Anglosphere’. He might renege on trade treaties and negotiations, on the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris Climate Agreement – or maybe not: once again nothing can be known for sure at this stage. His policies are however likely to put a nail in the coffin of the era of neoliberal globalisation, of which the U.S. was the indispensable driving force. They might also, more generally, upend the American-dominated and orchestrated international order, i.e. what some call ‘Pax Americana’, the ‘American Empire’ or simply ‘the world as we know it’. Whether this will increase or decrease the risk of major global conflicts is unpredictable at this stage.
What seems pretty clear however is that the new president will probably have considerable leeway to do what and how he pleases. The Republicans have maintained their control of Congress, and the party establishment is now likely to try to make up with Washington’s new strong man – who doesn’t owe them his triumph – and to show its loyalty after a campaign that tested the party’s unity. Trump will also rapidly restore the conservative hold on the Supreme Court, ensuring the future direction of the Court’s rulings. Unfettered from any political bond or allegiance to his party’s establishment, networks or donors, Donald Trump will probably, when making key decisions, speak to himself and listen to his own “very good brain”. A potential drift towards arbitrary rule is far from impossible.
Unsurprisingly, many now fear that American democracy may be in great danger, especially as the new president may be tempted to silence his critics by weakening First Amendment protections of free speech and ‘opening up’ libel laws so that public figures, such as himself, can sue and win cases against media companies more easily. A number of observers see this year’s presidential election as confirming the views of political scientist Juan Linz, who warned in 1990 of the perils of presidentialism, observing that presidential regimes are inherently less stable than parliamentary ones, and that presidential liberal democracies almost always collapse over the long term due to civil war, military coup, or a descent into illiberal dictatorship. Some therefore fear that U.S. ‘presidentialist’ democracy might be in the process of failing and that Trump’s rise might signal the dawn of authoritarianism or even fascism in America. Some even believe that a second American Civil War may now be brewing. Time will tell whether those fears are founded or overblown, and more generally how the system of check and balances enshrined in the U.S. constitution will pass the test of the Trump presidency. What is clear is that the rise of Donald Trump marks a historical rupture and a change of era for the U.S. and the world. Some call it another American revolution, the death of American exceptionalism, the demise of the American Dream, or the downfall of the American empire. Needless to say, Trump supporters view things quite differently and want to believe that their champion will, on the contrary, restore true free speech, revive American exceptionalism, renew the American Dream, and reassert American power in the world…
Sophisticated state failure
The meaning of Donald Trump and of the wider populist surge across the Western world will undoubtedly be debated for months and years to come, especially as this populist wave doesn’t seem likely to abate anytime soon. These debates will however largely miss the mark if they, as is probable, continue to analyse the populist phenomenon primarily or even only as a sudden disease of the democratic system, a sort of virus attacking the body politic of liberal democracies and threatening to kill it. This view is of course understandable: it is the natural reaction of an established system to something that it did not see coming, that it doesn’t fully understand and that it even thought was unthinkable. And of course the natural reflex is to fight back, to try to find the cure to this terrible disease. As Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, democrats should “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.” This reaction is rooted in a vision of human history as a continuous fight between those who know “what’s right” and the others, with the prevailing of the former over the latter being the main cause of what is commonly referred to as ‘progress’. Donald Trump’s election is a setback, but if the good guys now fight back as they should, the story goes, progress will eventually resume its march.
However understandable this reaction is, it probably misdiagnoses the populist surge and thus has little chance of defeating it. In fact, Trump is not only a pathogen but also and more fundamentally a symptom. Or rather, the populist outbreak he symbolises may be compared to a condition that undermines the body politic of democratic societies, but it is akin to a sort of political AIDS, i.e. a condition that can only develop because the body has already been infected by an HIV-type virus that has seriously weakened its immune system. The populist surge that is underway, in other words, would not be occurring now if the democratic system had not already been severely weakened by a pre-existing infection.
In fact, what we are witnessing across the Western world is what an observer has called a phenomenon of ‘sophisticated state failure’, i.e. a sort of progressive dereliction of democratic political institutions, which maintain a semblance of functionality but are getting increasingly incapable of solving the major issues facing complex societies and seem to be at the mercy of evolutions and forces that are largely beyond their control. This phenomenon is of course complex and has multiple causes, including maybe some incompetence of those who know “what’s right” and the malevolence of those who don’t. Most of these causes, however, can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to a fundamental phenomenon that is shaping the world we are now living in: the slow-motion extinction of economic growth. Almost a decade after the onset of the financial and economic crisis, the global economy remains in fact weak and the hoped-for ‘recovery’ elusive. In the U.S., the post-recession rebound has been the weakest on record, and the economy is still struggling to reach and maintain ‘escape velocity’ even as warning signs of an approaching new recession multiply. According to most estimates, global economic growth now barely reaches 3% a year, well below pre-crisis levels, and is trending even lower. No return to pre-crisis growth rates is in sight; on the contrary, lower growth seems to have become the world’s new reality.
This global dearth of economic growth is causing significant disruption and generating several mutually reinforcing major challenges for societies across the globe. In particular, it hampers the rise of living standards as economic expansion fails to keep up with population growth. It exacerbates income and wealth concentration and inequality as the process of capital accumulation, which lies the at the heart of the capitalist system, increasingly takes place in a context where the economic pie is not expanding enough to satisfy all needs. It increases financial instability, volatility and distress as revenues, incomes and profits fail to keep up with expectations. It makes it increasingly difficult to maintain fiscal sustainability as the tax base grows more slowly than planned while spending needs keep mounting.
Most economists now recognise that this economic malaise actually predated the financial crisis and even contributed to it. Over the last few years they have come up with elaborate narratives for the persistence of sluggish growth, such as the ‘secular stagnation’ narrative, which sees the cause of slow growth in either a chronic shortfall of demand resulting from population ageing and the rise of income and wealth inequality, or in the diminishing returns of technological innovation. Others state that economic growth is primarily hampered by a ‘debt overhang’ – i.e. a state of excessive, generalised indebtedness of economic agents, public and/or private – and/or by the deflationary effects of the debt deleveraging process. Others still blame low growth on the process of ‘financialisation’ of the economy, i.e. the expansion of a ‘parasitic’, extractive and predatory financial sector – aided according to some by misguided government and central bank policies. These various narratives differ in focus and emphasis, but they all probably have some degree of validity and can be seen as various ways of examining a same situation from different perspectives. None of them, however, is sufficient to explain why economic growth is slowly getting extinguished at global level and why the economic policies conducted in the last few years have largely failed to trigger the economic recovery that was hoped for and expected after the ‘Great Recession’.
In fact, these narratives tend to focus on developments that, even if they act as mutually reinforcing drags on economic growth, are symptoms of the world’s economic predicament rather than their deeper root causes. The chronic shortfall of demand, the decline of productivity growth, the relentless pile up of debt and the seemingly unstoppable financialisation of the world’s economy can all be seen as the various symptoms of a deeper and more fundamental erosion of the world economy’s capacity to expand. This erosion results from a set of developments that largely slip under the radar of most economists, who thus remain puzzled by the economy’s failure to pick up.
Even more than from what most economists usually look at, i.e. constraints on capital and labour and on the productivity of their use, the slowdown of global economic growth since before the financial crisis might indeed be resulting from factors that they typically ignore, i.e. constraints on the supply of energy and other biophysical resources that feed into the economic process and impact its functioning. In fact, the world’s capacity to create additional wealth is getting increasingly eroded by biophysical boundaries that over time tend to raise the acquisition costs, constrain the quantity and degrade the quality of the flows of energy and natural resources that can be delivered to the economic process, as well as by the constantly increasing costs of some of the economic process’ side effects (i.e. ‘negative externalities’ including environmental degradation and climate change), and the growing need to ‘internalise’ them into the price system. These biophysical constraints, as they increase, tend to weigh more and more on the economy’s productive capacity, thus eroding the potential for productivity and output growth. In other words, we may have reached or be approaching the kinds of ‘limits to growth’ that some scientists warned us about a few decades ago, but that we conveniently chose to ignore or dismiss.
The limits to democracy
This extinction of growth poses specific challenges to democratic societies. Significant research has been dedicated to the relation between democracy and economic growth, but almost always to enquire about whether democratic governance might be better or worse than other political regimes to foster economic growth. The key issue, though, is probably the reverse: could economic growth be a necessary condition for democratic governance to be established and sustained? This question is not new; in fact it is as old as democracy itself. Contrarily to what many in the West want to believe, democracy is not a relatively new mode of governance that has become reality over the last couple of centuries because those who know “what’s right” have successfully fought – particularly in America – for their ideals. Government by popular will is a much older idea that has been tried long ago, in ancient Greece in particular, and that has consistently failed to develop sustainably and take hold until the modern era. As Pericles already found out in the fifth century B.C., democracy can only become solidly established and stable if and when economic opportunities consistently expand for all the participating population – failing that, democracy inevitably tends to degenerate into some form of oligarchy. It is therefore no mystery that democratic governance, following the downfall of Athenian democracy, only underwent a real revival where and when economic growth really picked up and finally made it possible to improve the lot of the whole population, i.e. in Europe and North America starting with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. The enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were concomitant and related, but it might be the latter that made the success of the former possible rather than the other way around.
Even then, though, Western democracy remained fragile and unstable for a long time, and experienced a number of important setbacks, in particular in periods of economic crisis. It’s only after the Second World War, when the world fully entered the ‘age of oil’ and could benefit from the resulting formidable economic boon, that democratic rule became more firmly established and then extended beyond its modern cradles in Europe and North America. It’s also only in the second half of the 20th century that ‘liberal democracy’ really became ‘liberal’: to a large extent, increased tolerance and the extension of the realm of individual freedom in recent decades have been by-products of rising prosperity and of a widespread faith in a better future.
During that same period the world became so much accustomed to rapid expansion that economic growth came to be considered as the ‘normal’ and almost ‘natural’ state of things, i.e. that the constant increase of output, incomes and profits came to be viewed as a sign of economic health, whereas non-growth is perceived as a sign of economic and societal disease and distress. In the West in particular, businesses assume that their revenues and profits will grow, consumers that their purchasing power and living standards will go up, governments that their tax revenues will naturally rise over time and make it possible to fund their policies and spending plans. Lenders and investors assume that borrowers will be able to repay their debts, and businesses to pay dividends. All make their spending and investment decisions, as well as related long-term financial commitments, on the basis of the widely shared assumption that the economy ought to grow, and that they will be able to get their share of an expanding pie. Voters, in turn, assume that political leaders will maximise economic growth and use its proceeds to constantly increase societal welfare.
The assumption of – and need for – continuous and significant growth has in fact become so much embedded in the world’s established economic, political and social order, that growth has become a key requirement for this order to keep functioning and to remain stable. The dearth of growth therefore naturally tends to increase the risk of political/geopolitical dislocation or fragmentation, potentially leading to conflicts between competing groups, nations or blocs for scarcer growth proceeds, as well as to significant displacements of population. Economic growth has also become even more of an essential requirement for the democratic system to keep functioning. By default, the way of ‘solving’ problems in Western democracies has become to ‘grow out’ of them. Growth has in particular made it possible for many decades to avoid difficult questions about wealth and income distribution.
To a certain extent, growth has come to form part of the Western social contract, and its disappearance is thus being perceived by an increasing number of citizens – those who drop out of the growth bandwagon or are at risk of doing so – as a breach by government of its tacit contractual obligations. This increases social tensions and political polarisation, leading to popular discontent and voter revolt, the rise of populist or authoritarian movements, social unrest and even potentially violence in some cases. The resulting democratic crisis can only be particularly acute in the U.S., which more than any other country has elevated economic growth to the pinnacle of its national mythology: without economic growth, the American Dream quickly becomes exposed as nothing more than a pipe dream, something that is “called a dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”, as late American comedian George Carlin used to say. The end of growth, in America, was always going to trigger violent reactions – or in other words, something like Donald Trump was always meant to happen.
Of course, a number of conditions need to be met for democracy to develop and work sustainably, and economic growth is only one of them. The relation between democratic governance and economic growth is, in addition, a two-way street, meaning that each one typically favours and reinforces the other. But as much as democracy may have been more conducive to growth than other political regimes in the past, it is now the extinction of growth that is undermining the viability of democratic governance. Democratic leaders still hope – or rather sell the hope – that they can revive economic growth. They hope – or sell the hope – that “a rising tide lift all boats”, as former U.S. President John F Kennedy once said, and that they know how to trigger such tide. This is probably the rule of the game in a modern democratic system: voters demand ‘solutions’ and politicians have to oblige if they want to stand a chance in the electoral process.
Obviously, no Western politician will therefore ever admit that there might be limits to growth. They will continue to pretend that they will be able to restart the growth engine if people vote for them. Donald Trump just got elected to the White House by promising to deliver a ‘yuge’ growth, a ‘beautiful’ growth. He has repeatedly vowed to double U.S. growth from its current level of around 2% per year to around 4%. During the last presidential debate he even said that the “tremendous economic machine” he would build would push growth even higher, to 5% or 6%, a level not seen since the Second World War… It is actually not impossible that his policies may boost the U.S. growth rate, at least temporarily, but they will then inevitably end up stacking more problems and resentment for later. As increasing biophysical constraints tend to weigh more and more on the economy’s productive capacity, whatever efforts we now make at boosting economic growth are yielding diminishing returns – i.e. we have to invest or ‘sacrifice’ always more to obtain less and less growth in return – and whatever growth we manage to achieve comes with ever-higher costs – i.e. financial costs in terms of ever-rising debt, social costs in terms of rising inequality, or environmental costs in terms of environmental degradation including climate change. But hey, that’s the price to pay to Make America Great Again…
The limits to economic growth might therefore also signal the limits to democratic governance. Without sufficient growth, the pretence that a democratic society can be governed for the benefit of all its members does not hold for long. Only a few die-hard ideologues now stick to the idea that unfettered free markets are all what’s needed for all free citizens to win – a fiction that bears no relation to any observable reality in human history. In the real world, throughout history and under all latitudes, complex societies are composed of various people and groups whose interests are often opposed and sometimes incompatible, meaning that someone has to lose for others to win. This has been somehow obscured in modern liberal democracies where we prefer to say that people have different ‘values’, but in fact people’s values tend to be closely dependent upon and aligned with their actual interests. In non-democratic political regimes the arbitration and mediation between those conflicting or opposing interests typically takes place by way of authoritarianism and, sometimes, coercion. In democratic regimes it can be achieved by way of popular consent, but only provided the lot of all parties can tend to improve over time, i.e. only provided sufficient economic growth occurs. Absent economic growth, democracy loses its edge over other political regimes in terms of its capacity to peacefully arbitrate and mediate between conflicting or opposing interests or values, and thus tends to degenerate and break down.
This is where we are and this is what Donald Trump’s victory, coming after the Brexit vote and other populist advances across the Western world, tells us. We are probably living the autumn of the modern version of democracy. We see leaves falling from the democratic trees, slowly tumbling to the ground. Some find the overall landscape powerfully evocative, others rather depressing. Something, in fact, is dying. What comes next is likely to be a long and probably chilly winter.
* Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’.