Democracy in decline and its fate after the crisis: why will the big crisis kill liberalism with or without the demos (Part 2)

12:41 12.11.2020 • 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

Being praised as never before, democracy was in crisis. The reality of the economic problems of 2008-2020 led to a new critical moment. All this makes us think about the meaning of the word "democracy", about the economic logic of history and much more.

Twilight of a new big crisis

The countries of the core of capitalism had to face a new big economic crisis in 2008. In semi-peripheral and peripheral countries, democracy was outwardly similar to the central, with the difference that it was much more formal, implicated in falsifications and did not exclude coups and turmoil, though formally they started as a struggle for fair elections. Neoliberalism in a broad sense had no alternative and could only be mitigated in some countries. Therefore, due to its strength and rootedness, the encounter with the crisis was delayed and turned out to be completely unpleasant. In 2020, this story has not yet been concluded.

Neoliberal doctrine and ideology brought market and commercial freedom to the forefront, while public interests were pushed to the background. Under the pressure of neoliberal reforms, the social structures supporting democracy, as known in the 20th century, weakened, mass participation in them declined. People resorted to private life and the elites boldly practiced manipulations. The protest became anti-globalist with faith in social networks and a growing mistrust of “rotten parties.” The criticism of neoliberalism and the democracy that it subordinated, namely liberal democracy by the "stars" of anti-globalism was spectacular. It was not effective, as its countercultural pathos did not prevent it from fitting into the mainstream.

Not everything looked unequivocally gloomy in the era preceding the 2008–2020 crisis. When Bill Clinton came to power in the United States and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom a considerable number of ordinary people felt a certain turn. In France, such a feeling was created later by the victory in the elections of socialists led by Francois Hollande. In Greece by the election of the party "Syriza" and Alexis Tsipras. In practice, the turn did not occur, everything turned into manipulative simulations, convenient for continuing the old course. They undermined faith in the seemingly existing democratic mechanisms. Might the opposition have found a solution to the neoliberal mainstream? Wasn't there an alternative to the "outdated" base organisations of trade unions and parties, the idea of network organisation? In the 2000s it was widely cherished in Europe and America.

Alas, the networks did not become the basis for the revival of “genuine democracy,” and faith in them only helped conserve the opposition of neoliberalism. In these networks it rotted, telling itself from time to time not to follow the way of old parties, they were all evil, they killed the egalitarianism of a genuine popular movement and not to suggest designs instead of the people and for the people (all these congresses, committees and commissions) for in this way the true spirit of democracy will be completely ruined. As a result, the “genuine spirit” existed only in imagination.

When the time of social networks on the Internet came, it showed how much they enable the control over individuals and how little horizontal connections of individuals mean to them. With such networks it was easy to organize a wave of protests and after a change of power (a coup by order of the United States or the Eurocracy) to return the mass participants to their places.

Democracy in an era of crisis once more in crisis

In 2008, the time of sustainable financial globalisation ended and the great global economic crisis began. The waves of crisis came one after another until 2020. And then it finally became clear that the seeds of the anti-globalist alternative give rotten seedlings even in the United States: Bernie Sanders withdrew from the elections at the most dramatic moment for his people in the 21st century. Before that there was a series of unsuccessful attempts by society to influence the process in Europe. It turned out that he has no structures and understanding of the mechanics of their work and personal work in them, lacks solidarity and understanding of the situation. As a result, the liberal elite retained dominance over "democracy".

But liberal political constructs have become an obstacle in the fight against the crisis. And if in Russia and China the shift from neoliberalism to a new practice neo-mercantilism started from above, without the help of republican mechanisms set in motion by the people (the starting point were the problems of economic development),  the situation was different in the West. The manipulative liberal democracy preserved the crisis, blocking attempts to change politics. Even Trump, with his conservative transformation plan, came up against the resistance of liberal forces from the Democratic Party and its adherents in the power system. He could not overcome the checks and balances.

An extensive programme about which my colleagues and I in the Department of Political Economy and the History of Economic Science of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics spoke in the report “Donald Trump and the Economic Situation” back in 2016[1]. In another report, entitled “A Society Without Opposition,” prepared with my participation in the Institute of the New Society, many vices of the left were revealed that prevented them from acting as the main force of transformations[2]. One of the problems lies in the desire to apply ready-made schemes to new historical conditions and the belief that capitalism cannot have anything new in itself, nothing that would not have happened before.

“Revolution or reform?” and myths about the ways

The disappointment in democratic mechanisms brought the old question, which in 1918 was included by Rosa Luxemburg in the title of her pamphlet "Reform or Revolution", back to life. Reforms over the past 40 years have been neoliberal, and therefore the word "reform" often evoces negative emotions in people. In Russia, it is difficult for many citizens to accept the fact that the socio-patriotic reforms that are taking place in the country are not liberal, they are not shattering, but strengthening society. Therefore, the question remains valid.

But this question is false. However, it seems logical to many, as since the 1980s it was suggested that there are two ways that contradict each other: a seemingly tough and a seemingly soft one (identical to liberal democracy). In another interpretation: a progressive and an opportunistic, destructive or reactionary. Neoliberal reforms inspired the latter understanding, as they were destructive and antisocial in nature everywhere. However, under the influence of the global crisis of 2008-2020 at its very end, that is presently, reforms of a different type are now becoming possible. They are associated with the need to overcome the protracted era of economic crisis and the resumption of a sustainable growth and development. Naturally, they should increase the stability of the states in which they are implemented and, as a result, make them stronger in international rivalry.

Reforms of a new type and dictated by the new era became possible. In Russia they have already begun and with them another social reality started to form. But what about cliches? And what about the vulgar, but in practice voluntaristic understanding of revolutions based on disappointment in liberal democracy?

In the book “Capitalism of crises and revolutions how formation epochs alternate, new long waves are born, restorations die and neomercantilism advances” I devoted many pages to the complexity of such a phenomenon as the great modernisation revolution, as well as the Great Russian revolution. Here there is a unity of both revolutionary, evolutionary and reformist stages (not methods!). Voluntarists of "revolution" will never understand nor accept this. For them, all sorts of reforms of Russian or other capitalism will be a deception of the masses, and their support will be a betrayal of the “cause of the liberation of the working people” or a reactionary measure. There is no dialectic in such a vision of history. That is why voluntarists, adherents of maximalist phrase, are not related to real social revolutions with their complex diverse consequences.

In the United States, Britain, Western Europe and Japan, the situation is special. There neoliberalism has gone far in influencing society. From manipulations with the help of liberal institutions, it proceeded to the destruction of the basic norms of morality and relations, not centuries-old, but largely cultivated in the 20th century. Nuclear family was attacked as “slavery of the patriarchy”, trade unions as fetters to the market, the right of the majority to laws in its interest as the anti-democratic egoism of white men, discriminating minorities. Minorities themselves were nurtured and helped to fragment a society in which, as the events of 2008–2020 showed, no forces were found to overturn neoliberalism from the bottom in a left, reformist or more radical way.

Without being defeated, neoliberalism will die from the fact that its time has passed. This is already evident in some parts of the world, but not obvious in others. However, the impossibility of overcoming the crisis on the basis of neoliberal policy is the absolute proof of this thesis. And then what about democracy?

Neo-mercantilism is approaching

Left-wing intellectuals love to write phrases like this one: the struggle for social and cultural reforms, for another world with opportunities for every person to creatively find themselves, to be free, to control power and not be afraid to be poor, will continue and lead the world to success. In parallel, they can criticize the national conservatism of the “right”, and talk about the benefits of diversity in society, without which there can be no democracy. But truth requires adding at this point the story of Socrates. Athenian democracy did not at all tolerate his liberties and forced him to drink poison. His disciple Plato was forced to behave more carefully with the people. In modern realities, we must be prepared for a democratism that is conservative in spirit.

Neoliberalism has created a moral opposition in society, the foundations of which are considered traditional. The liberal left is indignant about this unrighteous, in their opinion, way of denying globalisation and the ideas of "free trade" in all spheres of life. However, conservatism is very limited here. It is not very religious, since society in countries with developed markets is not very religious, and the protection of family values and the importance of marriage is more like the defense of the Soviet understanding of relationships and lifestyle; it should be borne in mind that the emancipation of the 20th century is irreversible, universally recognised and inseparable from society, and these are not “patriarchal mores,” but the product of modernisation. Though this modernisation took place not so long ago. Therefore, anti-neoliberal conservatism does not at all refer to old morals, and only because of the love of religious justification of its position can be called right. However, there is also a reference to the national values and interests of nations, opposing the interests of global financial structures. And here it is important to finally accept the fact: neoliberalism hit the organised working class, the old class and left structures (including their structure) so hard that it left only a limited number of means to eliminate itself. The dismantling of neoliberalism is not a socialist act, but a bourgeois measure ensuring the further development of society. Another thing is that in the process in some countries a revival of the social state is possible.

The era of globalisation has taught many people to view democracy as something universal. Neoliberalism has replaced the dictatorship of modernisation in the countries of the semi-periphery and periphery of world capitalism. There was not much personal freedom and public freedom in them. But with neoliberalism, the local elites were able to cover up their rule with the word "democracy". The plans of the elite of the countries of the centre did not include the transformation of part of the countries of the production periphery into new centres of development of capitalism, as candidates to play part in the core of the global economy. It was not part of the plans of the old centres that the local top officials should search for support in the "lower strata", largely due to the rejection of the neoliberal course and reliance on social and patriotic measures. And the bold and independent behaviour of the highest bureaucracy, grand bureaucracy, is absolutely perceived in Washington and Brussels as a riot.

But it is precisely this rebellion that sets the limit to neoliberalism politically. Leaning or trying to rely on the majority of the country's population (especially in Russia), it is democratic in its own way, reflecting the demos' requests for social policy, the revival of national pride and the growth of prosperity based on the patronage of the state to its market, production and its mass buyer. This turn from neoliberalism, however, is not a turn created from below, that is, formally democratic, organised not under the pressure of society, but by society itself. In this regard, it is necessary to acknowledge the failure of attempts to end neoliberalism from below in many countries. With a firm commitment of the "upper strata" to this policy, it is not eliminated from above either. Even the split of the upper strata in the United States with the advent of Trump to the White House did not lead to such a development of events, the processes were blocked. Therefore, neoliberalism has not yet completed its history, it simply has lost economic efficiency and cannot be the basis for the exit of certain countries from the era of the great crisis. But this is not its complete end.

Democratism instead of democracy?

Nevertheless, the end of neoliberalism is inevitable. In some cases it will come in the form of a conservative in shade, and a socio-patriotic in form turn. In another case, problems in the economy will bring about movements that can either be such as in countries claiming to be new centres (Eurasian countries), or society will be able to move from an unstable and weak in content movement like the French "yellow vests" to something stronger and more productive. Finally, there is a scenario where popular intervention in politics will be like an outbreak such as in Argentina in the early 2000s. But in this case, progressive shifts will be the fruit of a new grand bureaucracy, simply not neoliberal.

All these paths are not easy. Democracy in them will probably be expressed not in procedures, but in mass support for the new agenda. It is hardly to be expected that the “lower strata” will restore the forms of organisation and practice that were characteristic of the 1930-1970s. In this sense, the prospect of the triumph of “pure democracy” soon seems doubtful. Republican procedures and structures will live, as society is agitated everywhere. However, even overcoming neoliberalism from above to a greater extent than from below will become a common scenario for overcoming the era of the great crisis, it should be taken into account: economic growth and social development in general will work for future democracy.

Formal Republics, where development does not stop and degradation does not happen (which is possible for some countries) will become more social. Relying on social unity, on the construction of nations and their associations, for example, during the Eurasian integration process, administrations will awaken reformist activity in society. As a result, formal Republics will move towards real Republics, where people influence processes not only through expression of mood. This will be the beginning of a new revival of democracy.

Here it is necessary to summarise. It was said enough by virtue of what economic processes neoliberal democracy (the right format of ideas and practice) found itself in a crisis, and was unable to provide a mechanism for leading the countries of the old core of capitalism out of the crisis and ensuring a change of power in Russia, China and other Eurasian states, claiming to be new centres of capitalism. There, the neoliberal "democrats" at the top are increasingly oppressed by the neo-mercantile grand bureaucracy. It can restart the growth of economies and this growth will continue for about 25 years. The big crisis will end and a new upward wave of development will begin; only shortly will commercial crises interrupt it, none of which will be similar to the era of 2008–2020. The establishment of a non-mercantile economic reality in the world launches a mechanism for mastering the practices and ideas of democracy in the conditions of strong national states of Eurasia, solving the tasks of continental integration and rivalry with the old global leaders. How the process of democratisation or the revival of democracy will develop is not yet clear. But economic recovery will be a better environment for this process than the last big crisis.

On the whole, the history of democracy is not only incomplete, but by and large is just beginning. And if in most countries in the era of neoliberalism democracy was a pure imitation, in a different era everything will be different.


[1] 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).

[2] Report of the Institute of the New Society "Society without Opposition: the crisis of the left in the era of neoliberalism and afterwards"// Institute of the New Society. – URL: (publication date: 28.10.2016; reference date: 27.05.2020).