Requiem for liberal democracy

Image: Emre Can Acer


Liberal democracy cannot maintain an egalitarian and free society with an exclusive and private economic system


Capitalist liberal democracy is dead, at least since the American subprime financial crisis in 2008. In fact, contrary to Francis Fukuyama and his mythical essay on the victory of liberal democracy and the end of history,[1] since the beginning of the 1990s, thinkers of the caliber of Robert Kurz[2] and Jacques Rancière[3] they already proclaimed the decline of the current legal-political-economic framework for the reproduction of capital.

However, despite the strong evidence at the end of the cycle, no one dares to touch on this subject in a forceful way. And when he does, he quibbles in search of a half-truth. A good example of this is the (great) book by professor at John Hopkins University in the United States, Yascha Mounk.[4] In fact, over more than three hundred pages, this author made a well-founded defense of liberal democracy, pointing out its current problems and possible solutions.

The big problem with the book, in my opinion, is precisely the fact that the author does not seriously address the glaring inconsistencies between the political model of liberal democracy and its current economic arm – neoliberalism. But let's go in parts, so that the reader can gather some theoretical basis that allows him/her to draw his/her own conclusions.

As we know, Francis Fukuyama wrote his classic in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, in the early 1990s. At that time, it made sense for him to plead for the final victory of liberal capitalist democracy. After all, the previous decade saw the United States assert itself as the world's only superpower, as its main rival in global terms, the Soviet Union, fell apart behind the “iron curtain”.

In effect, Russia saw the majority of the Warsaw Pact member states side with the capitalist West, after Gorbachev finally resigned as president, recognizing the failure of his reforms and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 25 December 1991. In this sense, the end of history for Francis Fukuyama represented, in short, the global supremacy of liberal democracies and free market capitalism, in addition to signaling the end of humanity's sociocultural evolution.


Now, in a book published at the same time, German intellectual Robert Kurz warned of the imminent crisis in the world economy. For him, the crisis of modernization would be due to the fact that the West and the East were lying to each other: while the East waited for a Western economic boom along the post-war model to save it, the West hoped for that the new markets of the East could save the logic of infinite capital accumulation, but which, “surprisingly”, was stagnant.

For Robert Kurz, the crisis set in as the two beliefs failed to succeed. Even so, until the great crisis of 2008, the Western fantasy prevailed that the new markets in the East would enable a new “recovering primitive accumulation” in the West resulting from scientificization and intensification of productivity, as announced by pro-market theorists of a modern division international labor market, at a time of constant crises in the third world.

The point, for Robert Kurz, is that all types of primitive accumulation, from the ancient processes in Europe in the 17th century, have one thing in common: “the violent expulsion, carried out in barbaric forms, of the traditional 'direct producers', mostly of peasant origin, their means of production and the 'torture' they suffered when forced by the status of wage workers, which demands the modern commodity system as status of large masses”. (KURZ, 1992, p. 177).

In this sense, for him, all regions of the world that underwent primitive accumulation only have a temporal difference in the historical process of modernity. But this fact is extremely relevant, as the currently exacerbated scientific progress has promoted not a new round of the substance “work” in the capital’s productive process, but the very limit of this capital, to the extent that it began to exclude work as “more- value” of development and relentless increase in productivity.

In other words, liberal capitalism, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, has had enough time to transform itself countless times, with the blessing of representative democratic politics, like a kind of technological “Frankenstein” that has dragged the masses from all parts of the globe , starting with England – which was the precursor – and which, in a second movement now of globalization, became the system that produces infinite goods, with an unparalleled speed of the productive force of capital that became unattainable by human beings.

Hence Robert Kurz's pessimism regarding the future of this world system – which he called “moribund” –, which combines a “liberalizing” democratic policy for those in power and which takes away the rights of citizens internally in each country, whether developed or not. , with a neoliberal economic-financial policy that exceeded its own limits of global integration, without ever managing to unify the planet in the utopian search for the end of the immanent destructive logic of financial capitalism without the labor force, but predominantly robots, or, as David said Graeber, just with “shitty jobs” for humans.[5]


More recently, Algerian philosopher Jacques Rancière caused a stir with his work on hatred of democracy. His opening sentence about this new hatred installed in the hearts and minds of a large part of the citizens of all Western countries, which is “there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilization”, is like a bomb in the hearts of those who , like Yascha Mounk, still think that a liberal capitalist democracy can handle such a chaotic world. Intellectuals like him do not admit that it was precisely the advancement of capitalism without borders, supported by the national political-legal framework of each country and internationally, through the countless agencies of supranational deliberations, under the watchful eye of the only world power, that has taken our planet on the verge of collapse.

Until recently, especially in the post-war period, liberal democracy was seen as the bulwark of the new civilization that emerged from the rubble of a horror-filled first half of the last century. It is true that the USSR was an important counterpoint to this dominant narrative of Western civilization. However, despite the Cold War, few thinkers on this side doubted the final victory of the American model. It was the golden phase of “American way of life”. In this sense, Jacques Rancière's merit is to put a brake on this frenzy of announced victory, whose peak occurred with Francis Fukuyama. Jacques Rancière recalls that some more skeptical experts at the time considered the “democratic paradox”, that is, that democracy as a way of life is the realm of excess and that this excess is the cause of the ruin of democracy.

Jacques Rancière understands that democracy provides politics with that excess that is fundamental for the transcendence of modest societies into gigantic and globalized societies, as it abandons the politics of exception of the wealthy few for a politics of the many eager for more wealth. But, however, he states that: “The democratic scandal consists simply in revealing the following: there will never be, under the name of politics, a single principle of community that legitimizes the action of rulers based on the laws inherent to the grouping of human communities ”. (p. 67)

In this way, democracy could not serve as a good example of the future of humanity for two reasons: the first is democracy's own inability to represent a good government, since the excess is the people themselves, this ethereal, deformed being, demystified the golden qualification needed to govern a community; the second is the inability of this democratic excess represented by the people to be unified by the liberal excess of the capitalist economy.

In this sense, if this horde was not successful in the small Athens of Pericles, where the entire population of free men could fit into a single square, it will be much less successful in modern times, when voters are counted in the millions in the most populous countries. It was this demographic/geographic impossibility that led to the emergence of representative democracy.

However, for Jacques Rancière, representation was never a political way to alleviate the growing desires arising from population growth. In other words, the idea of ​​representative democracy did not use the trick of representation to adapt the desires of the growing population to the interests of those in power. On the contrary, representative democracy facilitated common business for oligarchic sectors.

This is why liberal representative democracy has been so long-lived. By mitigating the people's access to the political order only through sporadic elections, and satisfying them with various material fetishes, it guarantees that economic and financial contrivances are safe from other people's snooping. For Jacques Rancière, universal suffrage is not a natural consequence of democracy, and does not even definitively meet the greater objective of popular participation in the nation's affairs. On the contrary, in the postmodern world the power that the people exercise is always below the legal-political form of democracy.

Therefore, far from the liberal discourse that democracy always seeks greater political intervention in society, it began to be used beyond the very forms that inscribe this popular power by strengthening government relations in the public sphere, with the aim of transforming it. in the private sphere of the interests of politicians and parties. In this way, for him, the double domination of the oligarchy over the State and society is established.

If democracy is not a form of government, in its strictest sense, as it never promoted equality among all, but only one of the many successful forms of taking power by the old or new class of oligarchs, it is possible to say that every State, whether ancient or current, has only represented, in fact, two forms of power: the more authoritarian form of the monarchy and the diluted form between a dominant class that, even occasionally submitting to the popular will for greater participation in general affairs, maintained power in the hands of the few considered excellent, that is, of an oligarch minority of different shades throughout history. Consequently, in essence, what we usually call democracy subverts (almost) all the necessary requirements for real popular participation, with the oligarchic elite appropriating public affairs through a solid alliance between the two oligarchies, namely, the public and the private.

It is possible that many readers, faced with my initial statement in this text, that liberal capitalist democracy is dead, turned up their noses. After all, its wild economic-financial arm, neoliberalism, is still at full steam. Like a zombie that no longer has a life of its own, but still survives by infecting whoever comes its way, neoliberalism remains active in people's daily lives, bringing into the world of the undead all those unwary who prefer the destruction of the planet, as long as they can have their 15 minutes of fame and/or material wealth.

At this point, it doesn't matter that the world is falling apart into fratricidal regional wars, that potential new viruses may be emerging through the destruction of natural habitats, that the planet is being cooked alive by ever-higher temperatures, or that half of the world's economically active population land is unemployed or in precarious/temporary jobs.


The problem of the end of capitalist liberal democracy is even more real when one of its defenders exposes his insides, even if he cannot put his finger on the most important wounds. In effect, when Yascha Mounk blames the loss of strength of the democratic myth of liberal institutions on the rise of populist politics, he is being partial, or rather, he is telling half-truths, just like the populists. It is a fact that liberal capitalist democracy is facing its most severe crisis since its post-war heyday.

I agree with him that we live in an era of radical uncertainty and that the assumption that things would remain immutable, so popular today, has always been part of the routine of contemporaries. However, I disagree with him when he predicts that the battle against populists is a matter of life and death for democracy. Perhaps it is even for liberal democracy, the supreme goddess of the “neoconservatives”, but not necessarily for the democratic system, not even for capitalism.

As we know, liberal democracy is premised on Enlightenment thought and the ideals of the French and American Revolutions. Thus, the republican institution is engraved in liberal democracy, in addition to the principles of equality and freedom. So far, liberal democracy seems like a bed of roses, doesn’t it, dear reader? The problem is that it also defends the free market and private property. These last two are the pillars of capitalism.

Consequently, the great paradox that has never been resolved by liberal democracy is how to maintain an egalitarian and free society with an exclusive and private economic system. In effect, there is no equality for all before the law, political pluralism is restricted by the “chiefs” of each party, political transparency serves as an electoral discourse for conspiracies among the powerful and supposedly free elections have often been tainted by the interests of the economic power, the famous “market”.

Now, even knowing all this, Yascha Mounk never presents any innovative idea for overcoming the basic contradiction of capitalist liberal democracy. Check it out: “Today, on the other hand, the experience of economic stagnation leaves most citizens apprehensive about the future. People watch with great concern as the forces of globalization make it increasingly difficult for states to monitor their borders or implement their economic policies. And, just as their nations seem to no longer be able to make their own decisions, they also feel like pawns of economic transformations that are beyond their control. As jobs that once seemed stable are shipped abroad or become redundant due to technology…, work no longer provides a secure position in society.” (p. 258)

It is regrettable, therefore, that he only claims that there is “an important grain of truth in the criticisms that some of the academic left raises against liberal democracy” (p. 296). The “important bit” is a euphemism for the avalanche of criticism that liberal democracy, linked to capitalism, has been receiving from all ideological currents in contemporary times. I have already mentioned two important thinkers, Kurz and Rancière, who have different views of the world and who cannot be classified within this so-called “academic left”. Like them, an infinite number of new thinkers could be named here, but that is not the objective of our article.

In fact, Yascha Mounk himself envisions the end of liberal democracy. As he himself states, at one point all political, economic and social paradigms ended in the course of history, to give way to a new paradigm that will reign, for a short or long period, until a new end.

In this sense, obviously, we cannot predict exactly when Western society will realize that only carcasses are left of its governance model. The vultures of neoliberalism, legally supported by a liberal democracy that would make Adam Smith's “invisible hand” blush with shame (in a figurative sense), are recycling these carcasses across two fronts: the first is financial digital capitalism, which has gained body and speed since the emergence of the internet; the second is, precisely, the scientific progress that promoted the new industrial revolution 4.0, which, for the first time in the history of humanity, became a negative revolution for human work.

In other words, it is the first industrial revolution, since the first one back in the 18th century, to remove human “surplus value” from the production chain that generates more value.

As a consequence, with each passing day, each month, each year, more and more people will lose their jobs to highly technological robots. Anselm Jappe's autophagic society,[6] to quote another important thinker of our time, it is the exploitation of human beings on gigantic proportions, to the point of creating a superfluous society, or, as he says, a rubbish humanity that becomes completely outside the dominant system, and becomes It therefore becomes the biggest problem of capitalism. If this persists or even increases, there will be no government, no democratic nation, whether liberal or not, capable of preventing humanity from devouring itself.

I would like to conclude this brief text with a message of hope. If I'm still writing these lines, it's because everything remains more or less undefined, even though the scales are tipping towards the tendency towards human autophagy. Yascha Mounk knows this, but calls for models that will only mitigate the imminent catastrophe: democracy without rights (illiberal) or rights without democracy (anti-democracy). I think that both illiberal democracy and anti-democracy will be just stages to something much worse if nothing is done.

If the “geological fault line of history” of democracy (p. 8) can be clearly seen from what the new report of Freedom House called the 13th consecutive year of a “democratic recession” – that is, in the last 13 years the number of countries that have moved further away from democracy than towards it has increased (p. 9) –, it is not enough to just try to recover the option that is already dead, namely capitalist liberal democracy itself.

Furthermore, history shows that, despite being cyclical, it does not necessarily return to the starting point. Even if we entered a predominantly illiberal or antidemocratic era, there is no guarantee that it would later return to the splendor of the liberal capitalist democracy of the 20th century. It could, for example, go back even further and fall into some model similar to feudal times. After all, what do the new owners of the ultra-technological world seem to want? Hence the need to think about new governance that goes beyond market dogmas.

It is necessary to promote greater popular inclusion in decision-making in each society. Perhaps the most interesting idea in Yascha Mounk's book, which may have gone unnoticed by most readers, was that of the “virtual agora”. In fact, we can use technology to our advantage, to establish periodic virtual plebiscites to deliberate on city issues, for example. This would facilitate communication between all interested parties, in addition to rescuing a custom lost since the Athenian era of popular participation.

If we achieve this, we will make a qualitative leap towards better local living conditions. I know the Orwellian big brother of world government is lurking. However, our best alternative for survival is to deconstruct it through common life among more modest communities.

* André Márcio Neves Soares is a doctoral student in Social Policies and Citizenship at the Catholic University of Salvador (UCSAL).


[1] FUKUYAMA, Francis. The end of history and the last man. Rio de Janeiro. Rocco Publishing. 1992;

[2] KURZ, Robert. The collapse of modernization: from the collapse of barracks socialism to the crisis of the world economy. Rio de Janeiro. Editora Paz e Terra, 1992;

[3] RANCIÈRE, Jacques. Hatred of Democracy. São Paulo. Editora Boitempo, 2014;

[4] MOUNK, Yascha. The people against democracy: why our freedom is in danger and how to save it. São Paulo. Publisher Companhia das Letras. 2019;

[5] GRAEBER, David. Shitty Jobs: A Theory. Coimbra. Editions 70. 2022;

[6] JAPPE, Anselm. The autophagic society. Capitalism, excessiveness and self-destruction. Lisbon, Editora Antígona, 2019.

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