Democracy in decline and its fate after the crisis: economic waves and democratic procedures (1)

12:12 11.11.2020 • Vasily Koltashov , an economist and historian specializing in economic crises from ancient times to the epochs of commercial and modern industrial capitalism, Head of the “Institute of a New Society”, Professor for the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics

An economist and historian specializing in economic crises from ancient times to the epochs of commercial and modern industrial capitalism. Head of the Institute of a New Society, Lecturer at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. In early 2008, he gave a surprisingly accurate analysis of the current crisis, a long-term painful fracture, a major crisis transforming the world economy and the life of society. The forecast of changes caused by the crisis continues to be realised, confirming the theory of cyclicality of big crises. Koltashov headed the drafting of numerous analytical reports. In his book The Crisis of the Global Economy (2009), he spoke about the logic of the first wave of global instability, warning that the crisis will return. In 2013, at the beginning of the second wave of the crisis, the author returned to Russia after six years of analysing the economic catastrophe in Greece. In the same period, he began to study the connection between major crises and the great modernisation revolutions of the era of capitalism. Thus, for the first time, an economic and socio-political analysis of such phases as the restoration and glorious revolution was carried out.

In the 21st century one could observe the rise of democracy. In the 20th century for a long time it also seemed that democracy was developing steadily moving from the formal to the real. However, the big crisis of 1973-1982 led to a historic turn in its fate. Everything turned out to be more complicated than previously thought.

A brief pedigree of democracy

The emergence of democracy was associated with the development of the Greek polis economy. This happened after the "dark ages" that followed the great economic crisis of the 12th century BC. The old economic system collapsed whereas the new system had not formed yet.  It took several centuries of decline and degradation for it to occur. Another great crisis in the 3rd century dealt a severe blow to the municipalities of the Roman Empire with their democratic practices stemming from earlier city states. In history the great and big economic crises (they appeared after the great crisis of the 14th century) had a huge impact on social structures and relations, which are usually associated with the concept of "democracy". The era after World War II is no exception. From that time to the present, democracy as a form of power and organisation of social structures has undergone enormous changes.

The concept of "democracy" is used widely, but is very controversial. It would be much more accurate to speak in most cases about the republican form of state, party and other structures, public consciousness and relations. But the word "democracy" always remains in fashion in politics, even if it is not created by the social "lower strata", but the "elite" of nations or even the nomenclature of parties. The rejection of its widespread use will cause misunderstanding, although it would be right to treat it with extreme care. Finally, the anarchist extreme is also harmful: the belief that genuine modern government could exist in modern and even earlier socio-economic realities, not burdened by either bureaucracy, professional politicians, or oligarchs (the USA, for example, is an oligarchic republic) nor by faith in leaders and missions.

Democracy in the 21st century, no matter how contradictory this concept is, will eventually bloom. However, its current state and immediate prospects can be estimated only after analysing all the changes that have befallen it. And one should start with the crisis of democracy itself, the way the world knew it in the 20th century. It was in crisis when citizens of the former USSR saw it in its US-European liberal format.

The way 20th century democracy worked

In 1989-1994 alternative elections of heads of state and assembly of deputies, freedom of speech and press seemed the universal rules of democracy to many people in Eastern Europe. They were seen as Western standards, characteristic of a free, open, and pluralistic society. Western Europe and North America themselves seemed standards of freedom, where states flourished in democracy. Have not peoples fought here for broad public freedoms since the 18th century? Did not this struggle have results so attractive to residents of the Eastern bloc countries?

In fact, in the West, as they say in Eastern Europe, a necrosis of what is commonly called representative bourgeois democracy was taking place. No one formally abolished freedoms, like no one abolished many political freedoms in the USSR, but democracy became more and more liberal, even neoliberal, almost one-party, but most importantly, increasingly pushing the "bottom" away from decision-making. This is not to say that the “lower strata” did not cut themselves off from participating in governance, supporting neoconservative professional politicians. But most of all, they were cut off by processes in the economy. They reduced industry and the concentration of workers. But was this the only thing? Did only the dispersal of workers weaken their structure?

The concepts of “liberalism” and “democracy” have a weak connection. Democracy emerges as the power of a large number of people, while liberalism was largely an elitist trend of supporters of political freedoms, which should not be used by the "lower strata". Therefore, it was not the power of the liberals that gave the world universal suffrage. It is known that Otto von Bismarck used universal (male) suffrage against liberals. Previously, Napoleon III had done this in France. However, the growth of industry gave rise to the development of trade unions and parties of the Social Democratic type, and later of the Communists. They made up the structures that ensured the flourishing of democracy in the West, that is in North America and Western Europe. With their help, the “lower strata” received not only the universal right to elect and be elected, but also the opportunity to have their own deputies. At least, as was the case in the United States, workers' organizations participated through their superiors in transactions with non-worker's parties and candidates.

Some called these deals beneficial to the working class and they actually improved its material and political position. Others called them rotten opportunism, and the masses perceived them as less and less interesting maximalists. This reformism in old industrial countries was based on the will of the working people themselves and not on deception on the part of left-wing leaders, which was remarkably shown in the book “Marxism and the Polyphony of Minds” by Andrei Koryakovtsev and Sergei Viskunov[1]. However, everything has its limits.

The crisis of 1973-1982 and a neoliberal turn

The “world revolution” of 1968 should probably be considered as the peak of the onset of democracy and social reforms. Then, students, not yet subordinated to the logic of capital by virtue of their student status, as Herbert Marcuse noted, rose to the struggle.

Many professors in the USA, Great Britain, France or the Federal Republic of Germany remembered the amazing wave of political activity of those who previously spent more time at their desks. Students demanded and sought participation in the management of universities, freedom of assembly in them and other rights. However, it would be a mistake to see in this a culmination of the struggle of employees. They often did not know what to do with the radicalism of the young. This is remarkably reflected in the film directed by Elio Petri “The working class goes to heaven” (1972): the working people solved economic problems, while the young maximalists demanded much more from them. For some time, the two streams merged and this led to an increase in wages in France and other countries. Of particular importance here was the struggle against right-wing dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece. The success of these revolutions was part of the general upswing of the end of the era of economic growth of the 1950-1979s, when much seemed possible.

Finally, society was satisfied with what was achieved and the "revolutionaries" got tired. How fatigue accumulated in them is perfectly shown in the modern film “Something is in the Air” (2012). They were disappointed in the workers. Notes of this disappointment are heard in John Lennon’s sad song “Hero of the working class”. It is not difficult to see it in the transition of the hero of the Paris barricades of 1968 the anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit to the ranks of adequately systemic environmental parties in France and Germany. Now in the cohorts of “green” there are many critics of the neoliberalism of the 2000s. The most striking figure here is Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, the author of the book "Shock Doctrine" that denounces neoliberalism. Though, this was later... In the 1980s many parents were happy to see their “wised up” children in the ranks of office staff, among buyers of new cars, homes and aspiring to a corporate career. Hippie's long hair was cut, and the recent criticism of parents for their commitment to the "consumer society" was forgotten.

The turnaround did not happen overnight. In the years 1973-1982 the world experienced an acute economic crisis. In the book “Capitalism of crises and revolutions how formation epochs alternate, new long waves are born, restorations die and neomercantilism advances” I dwell on its essence in great detail[2]. My colleagues from the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics repeatedly pointed out in analytical reports that: the current crisis is very similar to that crisis. It was also emphasised in the report “Donald Trump and the Economic Situation”, where in 2016 it was shown how difficult it is to overcome such a crisis[3]. But the crisis of 1973-1982 according to the apt expression of the French historian Fernand Braudel was similar to a flood, and did not resemble the hurricane crisis of 1929-1933[4]. This was due to the fact that the state struggled against the manifestations, but not the causes of the economic crisis.

Almost a decade of economic crisis was enough to launch serious changes. The time had come for financial globalisation, the transfer of industry to the Third World countries and the growth of financialisation of Western economies. There industry contracted and the service sector expanded.

How the crises decide instead of us

People often look at democracy as a product of their own activity. In this sense, its development is perceived as the result of smart agitation and the rational organisation of collective interaction, and weakening as the result of incorrect actions. But history has laws and these laws are primarily economic laws. One of these laws concerns the change of long waves by Nikolay Kondratiev. These waves of development last for 20–25 years and are replaced by particularly severe, major crises. Such crises appeared after the great crisis of the 14th century. However, their regularity can be traced from the 1770s, when under the influence of the great crisis, an industrial revolution took place in England.

The development of the economy of capitalism is wave-like and can also be called cyclical. The Great Crisis of 1973-1982 is on a par with the crisis of 2008–2020, to which the analytical report “The Crisis of the Global Economy and Russia” was devoted. The report was written under the guidance of the author and reflected his understanding of processes in the world economy[5]. This report was released in early June 2008. It contained a predictive analysis of events, which were subsequently confirmed in many ways, and most importantly confirmed the correctness of the concept of big crises, an area of my research. Such crises existed before. Their full range is: 1770-1783, 1810-1820, 1847-1850, 1873-1879, 1899-1904, 1929-1933, 1948-1949, 1973-1982 and 2008-2020. In Figure 1. their place in the development process can be seen.

Figure. 1 Large economic crises before and after the industrial turn of 1770-1783.

Rallies, demonstrations, strikes, occupation of campuses and slogans at lectures in the name of democracy everywhere and always all this remained in the past by the end of the crisis-era of the 1970s. The turn was painful, difficult and most importantly (it always happens) there have been such shifts in the global economy, and then in technology that weakened the old industrial regions of the West. The removal of industry to peripheral countries, the growth of office facilities in the old centres of capitalism meant a change in the sphere of social relations and ideas.

Neoliberal withering of democracy

Immanuel Wallerstein could write volumes about the “1968 revolution,” but big business was the real winner. But its victory was dictated not so much by a clash with the “lower strata” as by failures during the years of the crisis of 1973-1982, which showed the need for fundamental changes in economic policy. Keynesianism has used up its historical resource.

With changes and for the sake of change neoliberal forces came to power, demanding the market to be unchained to complete freedom and the role of the state in regulation to be reduced. The main idea was simple: let the central banks rule with the help of monetary instruments. From the point of view of democracy, this means abandoning an extremely important sphere out of public control. Later, the United States will impose on countries the independence of central banks from the authorities, and Naomi Klein in the book “The Doctrine of Shock” will devote many pages to uncovering the negative consequences of such changes[6].

If central banks are independent or almost independent of the government, they are very little dependent on society. But did this mean that Western democracy shrank like the shagreen skin from Honore de Balzac's work only due to this? In the 1980-1990s the importance of trade unions declined and the importance of left-wing parties simply collapsed. Being very serious during the crisis of the 1970s, with the collapse of the USSR they turn into parties on the political sidelines or adopt neoliberal programmes. From that moment on, all influential forces can be divided into open liberals and those masquerading as socialists, social democrats and even communists. The Green are a special type of disguise, a very effective one. The masses lose confidence in parties and the parties often lose their mass origins. They do not lose touch with their clientele, they even develop it, but they cease to be agents of the “lower strata” in the political system. The party nomenclature is adjusted to the time politically and the "lower strata" economically.

All this undermines the foundation of the very bourgeois democracy in which the propertied classes were forced to take into account the demands of the masses, since these masses had strong agents. The masses themselves were their strength. With the decline in the industrial organisation of the “lower strata,” their role in public life also deminishes. Now they are required to vote in the elections, the procedural instance of procedural liberal democracy, having even lost the indirect and largely formal power of the “demos”. But this "demos" seems to betray its former self. It follows neoliberal ideas and forces, turning away from radical left or national-conservative preachers.

When procedures prevail

Without taking into account the fact that the majority of citizens of industrialised countries followed neoliberals, such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, it is impossible to understand the causes of the crisis of Western democracy and its basic structures. Of course, one can believe the version that the “lower strata” were insidiously deceived, blindly followed the masters of hypnotic phrases and therefore lost faith in their own strength, the strength of their structures and in the chance of democracy. However, the truth seems different: the working class abandoned democracy and the basic working structures following the temptation to leave its class.

In those days, it was about turning people into owners of state and municipal housing (privatisation), creating small business, corporate careers, or just working in an office, which was very different from working in a factory. The temptation included the ability to dress in business style, dine in cafes and restaurants, and generally increase consumption. Many were not concerned about democracy. They did not turn against it, but its transformation into procedural democracy was not stopped.

It is amusing, but the Western working class surrendered its democratic and highly conditional dictatorship to bourgeois political management almost as quickly as the working class in Soviet Russia in 1918-1919 in a deal with party nomenclature exchanged its democratic dictatorship for new opportunities. They also included vertical mobility for some: opportunities to go up the social ladder. As a result, in the West the model of liberal democracy was established, a procedural democracy and much more formal than the form that preceded it. And if the electorate could choose parties or candidates at will, they would still get the same result, since ideologically the elections had almost no alternative. And the liberal spirit of this “democracy" was most expressed in this.


[1] Koruakovtsev A. Viskunov S. Marxism i poliphonia razumov – Ekaterinburg, «Kabinetnyi uchenyi», 2016 – p. 663.

[2] Koltashov V.G. (2019). Kapitalizm krizisov i revolutsii: kak smenyautsja formatsionnye epohi, rozdautsja dlinnye volny, umiraut restavratsii i nastupaet neomercantilizm, M.: "RuScience".

[3] Report of the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics “Donald Trump i ekonomisteskaya situatsiya: strategiya kandidatov v presidenty i Vroraya volna krizisa v SSHA”  // Institute for globalisation and social movements. – URL: (publication date: 28.10.2016; reference date: 27.08.2018).

[4] Braudel F. Materialnaya tsivilizatsiya, ekonomica i kapitalizm XV-XVIII . Vol. III. Vremya mira — М.: «Progress», 1992. — p. 76-77.

[5] Report of the Institute for globalisation and social movements. (IGSO) «Krizis globalnoy economiki i Rossiya» // Institute for globalisation and social movements.. – URL:  (publication date: 09.06.2008; reference date: 28.01.2020).

[6] Klein Naomi.  Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism  – M.: «Dobraya kniga», 2009, p. 890.