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The making and unmaking of European democracy

If there is anything that we have learned over the past five years of political turmoil in Western countries, it is that large numbers of people across the political spectrum are increasingly dissatisfied with the workings of modern democracy. These trends reflect, as numerous surveys illustrate, deep distrust of established political parties and, more particularly, those individuals whose careers amount to a series of revolving doors between elected office, government service, the academy, and politically-connected businesses.

What’s often missing from this discussion is consciousness of democracy’s relative newness in Western nations and the various and often surprising ways in which democratic arrangements emerged and developed. Understanding how this occurred in the Old World is central to Sheri Berman’s book, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019).

The great strength of Berman’s book is that it outlines, in exhaustive detail, that there was no single path towards the establishment of principles such as majority rule or the institutionalization of practices like regular elections. Nor, she argues, does the process of democratization itself imply anything “about the durability or health of democracy.” Determining when a democracy has achieved what Berman calls “consolidation” can be difficult. Should this be decided on some quantifiable basis such as attaining a certain number of fair general elections? Or should we be making qualitative assessments of the breadth and depth of participation in political life? Without understanding the particular manner in which democratic arrangements became the norm in a given country, making such determinations is a perilous exercise.

Back to the Ancien Régime

A firm grasp of history, from Berman’s perspective, is often more important than theory whenever we attempt to answer such questions. I’m inclined to agree.

It matters, for example, that Britain’s path was one of gradualism (albeit one which didn’t lack violent and revolutionary episodes such as the Civil Wars that engulfed the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1642–1651), compared to the establishment of democracy in Germany after the failure of Weimar and the ensuing Nazi catastrophe. Indeed, Berman shows that gradualism was not the European norm. The more common “political backstory,” she writes, is “one of struggle, conflict, and backsliding.”

But Berman does see some shared patterns at work. One shared contextual factor to democratization throughout Europe was that it involved overcoming the pre-1789 ancien régime that started emerging in the Middle Ages and came to dominate much of Europe’s political landscape. Following Alexis de Tocqueville, Berman argues that there is no possibility of understanding European democratization without comprehending the ancien régime backdrop.

According to Berman, the ancien régime amounted to 1) “a type of political dictatorship justified by a particular type of ideology” (i.e., the Divine Right of Kings) as well as 2) “a social, economic, and cultural system.” I am quite convinced by the second part of her definition, less so by the first.

If by dictatorship, Berman means absolute power invested in one person that allows them to do whatever they want, I don’t think this captures the legal, economic and political dynamics of European absolutism as personified by the regimes of figures ranging from Louis XIV of France to Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Absolute rule along the lines outlined by political theorists like Jean Bodin (1530-1596) may have been their aspiration. But European rulers in the business of building and maintaining large sovereign-states with powerful war-fighting capacities had little choice, as Berman establishes, but to engage in a more-or-less continuous co-opting of groups (such as often-fractious nobilities, assemblies of lawyers, and clergy quite accustomed to exercising secular power) to get their way. This suggests that the word “dictatorship” isn’t the right description. Berman herself notes that “most European monarchs were unable to completely defeat those opposed to the centralization of authority.”

Alongside a certain degree of coercion, Berman points out that numerous compromises were made between rulers who were intent upon consolidating power and those who might obstruct such changes. In the case of the Hohenzollern kings and Prussia’s Junker nobility, the relationship effectively amounted to a symbiosis rather than one party subverting the other. If that is the case, describing the ancien régime as a type of dictatorship seems like overkill.

Overcoming Privilege

What was central to the ancien régime—and Berman demonstrates this convincingly—was the confirmation or granting of legal privileges to particular groups, most notably the nobility and clergy, by European rulers. This sanctioning of legal privileges (such as noble and clerical exemption from taxation or giving the aristocracy a formal monopoly of appointments to the officer corps and the civil service) was an effective way for monarchs to gain such groups’ acquiescence in, and even support for, the ruler’s centralization of power.

Herein, however, lay some of the roots of democratization, inasmuch as, to cite Berman, “changes in one sphere had inexorable consequences on the others.” Any chipping away of noble and clerical privileges or, conversely, any attempt to impose substantive limits upon the ruler’s powers was bound to initiate a type of political chain reaction.

This helps explain, for example, why there is a more-or-less straight line between the efforts of Louis XVI’s Controller General of Finances, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, in 1786 to impose a universal land tax from which the nobility and clergy would not be exempt, and the National Assembly’s abolition of feudalism’s remnants and its issuing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 4, 1789. King Louis’ courageous but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to tackle the French state’s colossal financial problems involved breaking the longstanding fiscal deal between the monarchy and much of the aristocracy. Once the implied agreement—privileges in return for general support for a powerful and centralized monarchical state—was compromised, it did not take long for the whole edifice to start unravelling.

The demolition of privilege is not the whole of Berman’s democratization story. The emergence of ideas associated with the various Enlightenments and growing calls for greater religious toleration and economic freedom had their effect. But Berman also elucidates just how much the particular forms assumed by democratization throughout Europe were highly conditioned by particular national circumstances, specific personalities, economic and cultural changes, and haphazard events. She brings this to the fore in successive chapters which trace the pressures for and against democratization in key European nations (France, Germany, Britain, Spain, and Italy) before World War II, before turning to the transition to and consolidation of democracy in Western Europe and then East-Central Europe in the decades after 1945.

An Uncertain Future

Berman highlights both the scale of the success of these transformations and their apparent unlikeliness. Consider, for instance, Spain. After the disaster of the Second Republic, a persistent and deep left-right fracture, a brutal Civil War, and the Franco dictatorship, Spain’s makeover into a stable and functioning democracy in the late-1970s and early-1980s seems positively miraculous. So too does liberal democracy’s emergence in East-Central European nations like Poland following the collapse of Communist totalitarianism.

Yet Berman recognizes that all is not well with contemporary democracy in Europe. She sees the emergence of populist parties on the left and right as symptomatic of deeper dissatisfactions with the democratic status quo in Europe. Berman partly attributes this to the influence of what she calls neoliberal economics and the consequent decline of the social democratic arrangements that, she contends, succeeded in reducing some long-standing social and economic tensions that fueled anti-democratic movements in the past.

Given that governments in most Western European countries continue to control directly or indirectly over 40 percent of national GDP, it’s doubtful that economic liberalization was as widespread as Berman claims. Europe’s economic problems, I would argue, have much more to do with, among other things, declining economic competitiveness, rigid labor markets, and the difficulties experienced by governments of left and right as they have tried (and usually failed) to reform their welfare states—not to mention a noted reluctance on the part of Europeans to replicate themselves. Social democracy is turning out to be a handicap for many European nations, not a stabilizer.

Berman is, however, right on the money when she underscores how the European integration project’s essentially technocratic character has helped corrode satisfaction with liberal democracy throughout Europe. Government-via-technocracy has effectively insulated, Berman points out, decision-makers from widespread discontent with the effects of their policies, thereby increasing many Europeans’ sense that they are effectively disenfranchised in what are, after all, supposed to be democracies. Nor does it help, one might add, that EU officialdom and its supporters at the level of national governments are widely perceived to be hell-bent on thwarting the democratically-expressed will of electorates whenever that will doesn’t fit their plans for Europe’s future.

Is that future guaranteed to be a democratic one? Berman believes that Europe’s post-war democratization reflects many lessons learned from the continent’s bloody first 50 years of the twentieth century. This is undoubtedly true. Yet it’s not at all clear to me that many of Europe’s present political leaders know how to forge paths forward which 1) address some of the immense economic and political challenges facing their countries while 2) being sufficiently cognizant of and attentive to citizens’ wants and needs.

Successfully combining these skills to navigate these competing pressures is what it means to be a statesman in a democratic world. Alas, there appear to be no such figures in Europe’s political present, let alone on its horizons. Technocracy, it seems, is the new ancien régime.

This article first appeared on May 11, 2020, in Law & Liberty, a project of Liberty Fund, Inc., and was republished with permission.

Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg is Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research and serves as affiliate scholar at the Acton Institute.