Reflections on ‘The Fourth Revolution’

I’ve just finished reading The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race To Reinvent The State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both from the classical liberal magazine The Economist. It’s a cavalcade of the usual arguments typical of the new right about how important liberty is, and when they are tired of pursuing the case for more liberty it becomes a case for more freedom. Freedom and liberty! Of course, it is a classical liberal view of freedom, the kind of negative liberty championed by Isaiah Berlin, in which freedom is defined as being left alone by the state (even if this becomes a freedom to starve). Theirs is a reading of a number of historical revolutions in politics that have given rise to state sovereignty, a concern to limit state sovereignty via liberalism, the (horror!) ascendence of the welfare state, and a ‘half-revolution’ carried out in the final quarter of the 20th century, the reforms of Thatcher and Reagan. Added to this are a few looks into Asian models of governance found in Singapore and China, and the various Scandiwegian post-socialist models of government.

All well and good.

What is of concern to our interests here at the Grievance Project are the ways in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge advocate for a decrease in the level of demands placed upon democracy and the state. Various special interest groups are in for a bit of finger-pointing, but more concerning for us is their conclusion that it is citizens—voters—who are most to blame for overloading the state with their concerns. The problem with democracy, they conclude, is that there is simply too much of it.

Indeed, the state as they see it is over-burdened with democratic demands. In their estimation the state attempts to respond to these concerns by trying to please everybody but, due to the public sector’s inefficiency in providing services (a natural feature of the state, apparently… better to privatise them), the state is unable to please anyone and as a result citizens lose faith in democracy. For the Western democratic state to survive the 21st century citizens must be encouraged to simply expect less from it.

Absent from the book is any mention of the fact that these concerns revisit arguments that are decades old, and most forcefully given voice in the Trilateral Commission’s reports from the 1970s in which they warned that democracy was in “crisis”—a crisis that was caused by an “excess” of democratic demands. The efficient running of the state, as ultimately conceived by all of the thinkers above, should serve as a conduit for global capitalism and little more. Welfare, whether in the form of pensions, unemployment benefits, or health care, should all be outsourced, and, wherever possible, to voluntary organisations at that. Citizens should expect very little from the state at all, and it would be better if citizens privatised their grievances accordingly. These arguments are typical of the logics of individualisation that permeate neoliberal Western democracies in which individuals are behooved to become entrepreneurs of the self, without any recourse to the state to solve their problems. Grievances must be solved, by this logic, by those burdened by them.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on ‘The Fourth Revolution’

  1. Hambro says:

    Have you read or are planning to read Ranciere’s work as part of this project? IIRC, in the tiny bit of Ranciere I read, he was arguing against these ‘new right’ theorists and their notions of democratic excess. Dr Jillson would obvs be the point man on offering a better summary.

    • Scott Bridges says:

      We’re planning on having a very thorough chat with Jillson for this because there’s obviously some significant overlap with his stuff. We haven’t told him that yet, though.

  2. Thanks for the review. This is an interesting problem for poli-sci-IR people thinking through some some of the current questions around democracy. In terms of some of your claims/suggestions here I was reminded of the globalization literature of the 1980s, wherein there appeared to be a ‘crisis of democracy’ and the burgeoning New Right took this on as a problem to do with the rise of multinational corporations. It seems that once the corporations were ‘tamed’, ie. the New Right [neo-conservatives and neo-liberals as they were seen at the time – emanating from the Thatcherite and Reaganite policies] got a piece of the action, it became a problem of how to reduce the size of the state so that these corporations could function with impunity. In my view, the latest development seems to be an argument for the reduction of state intervention, with the important exception of security organisations of various kinds. Even with the recent ‘torture report’ from the US, there still seems to be a large amount of support for the continued expansion of security services in the guise of ‘border control’, anti/counter-terrorism, and surveillance systems. At the moment, I don’t see a way out of this worrying set of developments.

    • Stephen Owen says:

      Thanks Dr. Imre.

      Yes I think you are right on all counts here. I should say that one of the lines of critique that Micklethwait and Wooldridge run against the right is the ever-expanding securitisation industry in the forms of private prisons and the military-industrial complex, so they themselves are pointing the finger at the right for allowing the state to become bloated. I’m not sure that there is a way out either, but this isn’t the exact nature of my concerns here. I’m trying to, I think, deal with democracy as a normative good, and the consequences of trying to delineate what is considered legitimate/illegitimate expressions of democracy–something for which I think is itself quite anti-democratic. This is doubly concerning when it is uttered by those who would most champion the cause of ‘freedom’, while taking away the freedom to express whatever democratic impulse.

  3. Sean Minney says:

    I’ll run a risk & just wade in here.

    I’d argue that the idea of individualism is itself inherently flawed. Contra Thatcher there is no individuals only society. The argument rests on understanding identity. Identity is usually what those who promote individualism rely upon to hold their argument. “We are all individuals” seems to be self evidently true, but it isn’t, rather, a conflation of an individual & identity has occurred. We have unique identities as no two of us has exactly the same experiences, but does not make us discrete individuations, rather we build our identities within contexts located inside cultures & epochs. To argue that “there is too much democracy” I suspect is to argue that there is too many interests other than mine wanting grievances addressed. Let’s strip out the sophistry of the new right. The cry of freedom is meaningless if nasty, short & brutish subsistence is the natural state of sanctified & inalienable sovereignty of “individuals”.

    • Stephen Owen says:

      Thanks Sean.

      I agree that there is a problem here with the liberal concept of identity in the form of the Lockean subject who is self-contained, a product of reason, and an atomistic subject apparently in control of their own self. I think the various (for lack of a better word) postmodernist accounts of the subject that stress the co-constructed nature of subjectivity, and its construction within various power relations and as a product of discourse offer far more compelling accounts of identity in the present. But I digress. Actually maybe I don’t… I would argue that those who champion the Lockean conception of identity wilfully ignore the power relations within which subjects are formed/shaped, and as such are able to persevere with things like the myth of meritocracy in which an individual’s efforts are celebrated as the cause of their success, overlooking any structural benefits that might also give them a leg-up. And here of course the opposite is true, and why I would suggest that those marginalised by structural oppression are also marginalised by those who might seek to exclude redress through the state.

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