How Democracy Ends

David Runciman

Profile books £14.99

Review by Iain Macwhirter

“CONTEMPORARY representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving clumsy and frequently ineffectual”. So says the Cambridge academic and broadcaster, David Runciman, who believes democracy is on its way out. But don't think that what happened when democracy failed in the past to be any guide to the future. Don't expect military coups, goose-stepping fascism or other forms of overtly authoritarian rule. Runciman believes we're more likely to find ourselves in a “zombie democracy”, which still goes through the motions.

This is a disturbing obituary for what we should remember is a very recent form of political organisation.

As Runciman points out, until the late 19th century democracy was widely regarded as possibly the worst form of government. It was derided by political thinkers from Plato to Max Weber, essentially because they thought that allowing stupid people to vote would lead to government by demagogues and charlatans. That view is gaining ground again in the 21st century, he says, following Trump and Brexit.

Runciman isn't an advocate of what he calls “epistocracy”: the idea that people should only get the vote if they are sufficiently educated to use it. He's right to dismiss this: the current campus fashion for no-platforming should be warning enough that highly-educated people can be very stupid indeed. Nothing could be worse than being governed by a claque of preening, querulous academics.

Rule by experts, in the form of technocracy, has been tried very recently. Bankers effectively took over government in Italy and Greece during the banking crisis, but that is not a viable form either in Runciman’s view because it lacks legitimacy.

Indeed, one of the problems with this book – which is highly readable, thoughtful and filled with fascinating observations on contemporary politics – is that it is never entirely clear what David Runciman actually thinks is going to happen when democracy ends.

He considers China's “authoritarian pragmatism”, then Russia's, “illiberal democracy”. He toys with the idea that we may end up with a form of Silicon Valley techno-authoritarianism ruled by digital behemoths. “Mark Zuckerberg is a bigger threat to American democracy”, he says at one point, “than Donald Trump”, though it's not entirely clear he really believes that.

Nor does Runciman have any answers – indeed he makes a point of not proposing any solutions to democracy's malaise. He says that what he calls “solutionism” is part of the problem. He clearly dislikes direct democracy by referendum: “A referendum looks democratic but is not”. He dismisses online anarchism, as practised, he says, by the Occupy Movement, and he has little time for “accelerationism” – the idea popularised by the journalist Paul Mason, that technology will soon satisfy all our material needs and bring about the end of class conflict. This is sometimes called “fully automated luxury communism”.

In fact, it's not entirely clear that, deep down, Runciman, really believes democracy is about to end. He suggests that it may just enter a long-drawn-out senility, which might not be all that disagreeable.

“Japan and Greece” he says, “now offer the best guides to how democracy might end up”. They are both aged societies with low growth, and pretty obvious social care problems, but are democratic and remain civilised and stable.

Japan, Runciman points out, is the least violent society on earth and despite all the recent turmoil, the murder rate in Greece is lower than in the UK. He seems to be echoing the current cosmological thinking about how the universe will end: not with a bang or a crunch but a gradual fade to grey.

The purpose of this book is to warn against the widespread assumption on the left that the populism of Trump is a prelude to fascism. Coups just don't happen in countries with lots of older people, he says. This explains why there has been no military coup in Greece, like the one in 1967, despite the country recently suffering a worse economic crisis than the Great Depression complete with 50% youth unemployment. Greece is one of the oldest countries in the world, after Japan, with an average age of 47. In Egypt, where coups and revolts are a way of life, the average age is 24. As a Middle Aged White Man myself – a “gammon” to use millennial slang – this idea that we should be glad to be grey is rather consoling.

Runciman also says that military coups never happen in countries where the GDP is more than $8,000 a year, (Egypt's is $4,000), which is fascinating, though it seems a little too good to be true.

His observations about the decline of “catastrophism", and how we seem to have learned to live with the bomb and climate change, are also striking and original. He reflects on the growth of identity and how the “politics of recognition” as practised on the internet has destabilised our political culture – but not in a good way.

However, Runciman's reluctance to offer any prescription for the future makes for a rather unsatisfying ending to an otherwise admirable book. You rather wish, after all his deep thinking about democracy's demise, he might have a few thoughts on what we should do about it, rather than a handful of rather banal bullet points such as: “the history of democracy will not have a single end point”. Most current books on politics use obscure language to conceal their lack of substance and true meaning; Runciman is always clear about what he means, even when he admits he has no answers.