Reflections on ‘The Problem with Democracy’

by | 15 Dec 2015 | The Blog | 0 comments

Parliamentary Affairs has just published an interesting public lecture by Matthew Flinders, along with responses by Jack Corbett and Ian Marsh. The lecture brings together a whole host of complaints that have been targeted at advanced liberal democracies in trying to understand nose-diving levels of trust in politicians and voter turnout among young citizens. It is a systematic and insightful piece that ultimately leads to a passionate call for real citizenship education, taken seriously (and resourced seriously) in all schools. This is undoubtedly welcome, and the Sir Bernard Crick Centre that Flinders directs at the University of Sheffield is clearly doing some important work in promoting the public understanding of politics. In this post I want to briefly bring Flinders’ account into conversation, or perhaps collision, with the critique of democracy that has been developed in detail by participants in a range of social movements over the last two decades.

The seven interrelated problems Flinders highlights include: (1) a changing civic culture reflecting increasing individualism in liquid modernity that (2) provides grist to the populist anti-politics mill and (3) reflects the dominance of market thinking over almost all policy domains. Meanwhile, the presentation of political issues as technical problems requiring expert solutions leads to (4) democratic denial among elites, who increasingly depoliticise policy and outsource decision making to the whole gamut of quangos, regulatory and monitory institutions. For Flinders this can produce too much of the wrong kind of (5) hyper-democracy, wherein short-term swings in public opinion in combination with the many competing institutionalised voices that lay claim to a policy area generate a ‘crisis in decidability’. The emphasis of voice over listening generates (6) a problem of hearing loss, where knee-jerk reactions to moral panics overcome any possibility for genuine deliberation and reflection. Finally, to the extent that both voice and listening in democratic institutions increases the aspiration and potential for influence this increases the need for civic education in the context of what Flinders sees as a widespread (7) problem of political illiteracy. To sum all this up, Flinders states that

‘if there is a problem with democracy it relates to a loss of what we might call our democratic or political imagination. By this I mean our capacity to re-imagine a different way of living; to re-connect with those around us; to re-interpret challenges as opportunities or to re-define how we understand and make democracy work’ (182, italics in original)

Overall, then, ‘by far the biggest problem with democracy is the growth of apathy and disengagement,’ but increased engagement can only be on the basis of increased understanding of the political process lest it simply lead to disillusion (199-200). The reinvigoration of political imagination based on more widespread understanding of the processes and practicalities of democratic politics is an attractive vision. But the political imagination is already being exercised outside of the political mainstream: developments in the alter-globalisation and social forum movements and, latterly, among the indignadas of Spain and the Occupiers of public squares across Europe and the US signal an additional perspective on the problems Flinders identifies. I wish to highlight three issues in particular: representation, institutional change and the internet.

The notion of representation barely gets a mention in Flinders’ lecture, but is squarely in the sights of those for whom some form of direct democracy, usually based on consensus based decision making (CBDM), is part of their activism. These practices have their ideological roots in anarchism, although for many practitioners that may be a less relevant grounding than the fact that, for them, it fits with a deeply held value of respect for the individual as sovereign bearer of rights. Anarchist-inspired values and practices have overtaken revolutionary socialist ones in influence in most of today’s critical social movements for a reason Flinders would recognise: the conditions of liquid modernity makes individualism make sense for people in understanding their lives. All activist groups over time develop some elements of collective identity, but the attachment to particular collectives can be fleeting and pragmatic. On this basis the very notion of representation can be problematic: delegation of powers that rest with the individual may be acceptable but as strong forms of collectivity are barely recognised representation is inherently troubling. Indeed, because representative democracy requires majority rule and therefore the suppression of the desires of the minority, such activists would likely agree with Oscar Wilde’s depiction of liberal democracy as the ‘bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people’. Of course, as Flinders points out, democracy always involves conflict and the enforcement of collective decisions that may be to the detriment to some individuals.  Despite the name, CBDM also recognises the permanence of conflict and has a range of ways of either resolving conflict (through seeking creative, if temporary, compromises) or instead identifying ways in which resolution can be made unnecessary (e.g. by granting smaller groups autonomy rather than enforcing unnecessary decisions).

I do not make these points to suggest that national or transnational democratic structures should look like CBDM practices, but to sharpen the analysis of individualism that Flinders begins. Disengagement with party politics is at least partly fed by the fact that for many there is no satisfying way that a party (let alone an individual MP) could represent their values across all policy issues. While some have lamented the phenomenon of issue-based activism, this orientation does in fact allow individuals to address the polity on the issues that are most important to them. It also reflects the reality of decision-making under multi-level governance in which separate issue-based policy domains focused on climate, trade or security at the transnational level influence relatively fragmented departments at the level of the nation-state, who in turn create issue-based regulatory structures. Joined-up thinking across domains is certainly required, but just because an activist focuses their resources on, say, climate change does not mean that they fail to take account of the way that phenomenon overlaps with issues of corporate power, global inequality, geopolitics or anything else. So the dominant institutional structure of representative democracy, with its blend of representation-via-geography with representation-via-political tribe is inherently unappealing for the denizen of the liquid modern: for many it is not education that is required but institutional change.  Certainly Flinders accepts that education is not, by itself, ‘the answer’ and also that,

‘It could be argued that the creativity that has been shown in the market place has rarely been matched by equal and opposing creativity in the democratic sphere. Put slightly differently, our institutions and processes of democracy seem to evolve and change at a glacial pace while the world around it seems to move at an ever increasing pace. Is it any wonder that people seem disconnected?’ (189)

Flinders’ argument also highlights the vicious circle produced by disengagement: when the young and the poor feel disaffected they do not vote, so political parties do not address their interests, making them even less inclined to vote. Perhaps political education is a way out of this particular cycle. But outside of mainstream political channels the activist autodidacts have already recognised that the ‘young and poor’ are hardly a homogenous group, even if they share the objective conditions of precarity. Perhaps they also recognise that even if there were an effective party of the precarious, the very one-dimensionality that would make it appealing to the young and poor, would be the feature that made it problematic in relation to a whole gamut of other policy domains.

Now, I certainly don’t have ‘the answer’ either but in exercising my own political imagination I would seek answers that do not attempt to overcome individualism or issue-based politics but embrace them and turn the deliberation they encourage to the service of the (inherently collective) polity. And it is perhaps within the networked communications encouraged by the internet that we might find practical ways forward in thinking through how this could work. Flinders’ lecture gives the internet rather short shrift because of its tendency to create ‘increasingly extreme echo chambers  … but where does it cultivate listening to those views that you might not agree with?’ (195) Yet for a very large number of (especially young) people in the advanced liberal democracies the online and offline are now so thoroughly intertwined that pretty much the whole of the human experience is reflected in, and partially lived through, online networks. Genuine deliberation does indeed happen online (as Iceland’s recent constitutional experiment showed), but that may be less important than the networking logic that online life seems to be encouraging. If individualism is trumping the organised collectives of the political world, that is not necessarily because individuals fail to recognise their interconnections with other people. Instead, a networking logic encourages recognition of one’s membership to multiple, overlapping networks. Canny activists can make use of the fact that these relationships are already imbued with meaning and target messages appropriately. This is how, for instance, when academic publisher Elsevier diversified its trade fair business to include DSEi and other international arms fairs the critical response spread rapidly from the usual suspects in Campaign Against the Arms Trade to academics, medics and lawyers invested in Elsevier’s other products like the British Medical Journal and LexisNexis. The activation and combination of different kinds of networks is possible without the internet, of course. But as scholars such as Jeffrey Juris (2008) and Manuel Castells (2015) have shown, internet use makes people more aware of the nature of the multiple networks they are involved in as well as the shared interests, experiences and worldviews on which they are based. It is precisely the networked nature of movements that have sprung up across the world since 2011 that mean that individuals can recognise both the particularities of their political circumstances and the commonality of the bonds they have to others. These movements remain relatively marginal in liberal democracies and have had limited direct impact on mainstream political thinking. Nevertheless, to return to Flinders’ words, they have begun to re-imagine different ways of living, to re-connect with those around them and to re-define how they make democracy work.


Castells, M. (2012). Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Flinders, M. (2016). The Problem with Democracy. Parliamentary Affairs, 69(1), 181–203.
Juris, J. S. (2008). Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization. Duke Univ Press.


Kevin GillanKevin Gillan

Kevin Gillan is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester and Editor in Chief at the journal Social Movement Studies. He has interests that overlap between social movements scholarship and economic sociology.