I suppose it will seem perverse, or very pessimistic, that I have argued in various places that democracy is the only feasible route to resolving our ethical and normative conflicts, whilst I do agree with the sociological thesis that the return of high (and probably still rising) levels of inequality is bad for democracy. Incidentally, I also believe very high levels of inequality – especially when they concentrate power in a few hands – are corrupting and dangerous in many other ways too. So, how do I get around to saying democracy has a future and is actually necessary, inequality notwithstanding? Here are a few thoughts on that question.
To begin with, I have thought for years that long-standing arguments around democracy and citizenship ignore the massive overlap between political and moral arguments in the present world as we see it. One effect of that, reflected in the proliferation of campaigning groups on a seemingly unlimited range of secular and religious issues, must be to draw into public spaces many people who would not see themselves as interested in ‘politics’ as normally understood, but who do have moral and ethical concerns. No one knows whether this can turn democracies as we see them (so-called ‘liberal democracy’) into something more direct, but morals certainly run wider and deeper than politics. Another point, which arguments around democracy do take note of, is that most of the world has abandoned other forms of legitimacy for government so that even dictatorships or oligarchies typically claim some sort of ‘democratic’ basis for their position. Even if these claims are specious and insincere, in a world where success and glamour are themselves a consumer accessory it is hard to see where other kinds of legitimacy will come from. The jury is still out on the rival claims about markets and democracy, but markets do not produce other forms of legitimacy in the way that heredity or sacerdotalism could.
Very important is that we have abandoned other forms of (political) legitimacy which claimed a permanent order (which democracy does not and cannot). That means our only firm pillar of trust is now truth. I mean that as an ethical and sociological point, not a metaphysical one. I am not promising we can find The Truth out there, only saying that the only alternative to having speech and writing that we can trust is to fight things out. There is one alternative to wise judgment: brute strength.