‘Managed Democracy’ is a term usually used to refer to the variously oligarchic post-Soviet eastern European govts that have sprung up in the wake of vast privatisation, and economic and national dislocation. Yet in the wake of the 2019 election and the 2020 covid crisis, the UK looks increasingly like it is moving towards this state of governance.
It is a term additionally used by the liberal establishment in the west as a symbol of the perfidious and dark east, that will swallow up the assuredly democratic countries if only we give into the vague danger of ‘populism.’ Despite the fantasies of British liberalism, it does remain a relevant question, as the nature of what system of governance we are residing in should change the strategic concerns of the wider left.
However, if we want to ask whether we are living within a managed democracy, we would first be better off defining what we mean by that.
The usual definition relies on the contradiction in a state which is formally democratic — a state which possesses structures associated with western liberal democratic states — but is governed in a manner that is autocratic. What defines ‘autocratic’ is somewhat of a matter of personal taste, but the general assumption is that the public at large has little to no direct input on policy, and no means of effecting policy changes.
This is a somewhat broad definition, and presupposes the legitimacy and universal applicability of the western liberal democracy. The term itself is not necessarily a modern one. The concept originated in the 20th Century, related to the Sukarno government of Indonesia’s ‘Guided Democracy’ which was intended (at least publicly) to benefit minority interests in a diverse country. This was a very different system from that intended by the use of the term today. The delegitimisation of Indonesian democracy, and its contrast to western governments, was part of the propaganda campaign that lead to the coup of 1965 and the following genocide.
What defines a managed democracy as different from those of the west may be simply that the west describes it as such. We may instead look at Russia as the Ur-managed democracy, and compare where Britain is similar to it.
The Russian managed democracy is characterised by a number of discrete elements. From my observation, some are more specific to the subjective conditions of Russia as a country, whilst others are far more generalised:
A dominance of the media and civil society by the state and establishment, both through formal control of organisations, and through the control of media companies by wealthy individuals connected to the state.
The creation of a strata of professionalised govt officials, with little barrier between employment in the public sphere and the private.
A formal and informal suppression of participation in the electoral process. Both direct ballot stuffing, and less direct methods such as delegitimisation of the opposition, general voter disincentivization, and commercialisation of electoral processes.
A reliance on, and incorporation into the state and establishment of interest groups, usually though appeals to nationalism, religious, or ethnic identity, but also through patronage based on the last shreds of austerity-hit welfare or nationalised industry.
An insistence on the part of the establishment on government through dealmaking and technocratic management at the highest levels.
Spectacle and nostalgic display being highly instrumentalized and cynically leveraged in order to deflect from government missteps, or to justify present policy.
Additionally, a simultaneous employment of an instrumentalised form of cynicism and detachment from the state and society.
The universalisation of corruption, and the common knowledge of such.
If we are to compare to the United Kingdom, we can see that almost all of these characteristics are present in some form within British society.
The Conservative party dominates the state broadcaster, as almost all positions of leadership and management have now been given to either previous employees, family members of party officials, or former members and leaders of party youth and student organisations. Outside of the state media, with some notable exceptions, all national newspapers, and most local newspapers are owned by wealthy individuals associated with the party.
The interaction between these two media sources, with the state broadcaster using privately owned sources to set the news agenda, reinforces a media culture that is inherently sympathetic and supportive of the party.
Additionally, there have been systematic attempts to undermine investigative reporting within the media. Whilst this does not generally lead to the direct involvement of state actors, liberal opposition outlets have been targeted by internal security agencies when their investigations harm the establishment. Editors have been forced to resign for being seen as not compliant enough with state interests, and commentators have been fired for writing articles critical of establishment politicians.
The prominence of commentators in general is no surprise. Writing in supposed news sources allows commentators to push and create news narratives.
In order to cover up regime failings over the novel coronavirus outbreak, for instance, commentators in government friendly newspapers whipped up a story about a yearly patriotic celebration of the nation’s imperial past being disrupted by the supposed concerns of ethnic minority individuals and the illegitimate left. This was then magnified by the state broadcaster on the same day as a story was made public concerning regime officials issuing ‘no resuscitation’ orders for elderly and disabled individuals infected by the virus.
The pantomiming of opposition is another shared characteristic. A managed democracy requires a managed opposition. This does not necessarily need to be a party, it could instead be civil society organisations.
The United Russia party worked to manufacture a well known left-wing opposition party in an attempt to divert votes from the Communist Party into a pro-establishment institution. The latter was once a serious threat to the establishment, but has since then been largely incorporated into it, with its most recent presidential candidate being an agribusiness and property billionaire who’s previous political career had been as a member of United Russia. It now largely serves as an interest group for retirees and sections of skilled workers within specific sectors of Russia’s economy, presenting petitions on their behalf to the government, and negotiating occasional concessions.
Not that this prevents criticism, the Communist Party released a study following the election that showed that 80% of media stories about their candidate had been negative. Even a candidate selected for their broad appeal and relationship to the establishment was subject to a vicious smear campaign.
As regards to the liberal opposition, it has been alleged that much of Russia’s liberal media is in some way funded and managed by those close to the establishment, and serves as an important vector of ideas, forms and discussion which can appear woefully disconnected from the realities of Russian life. Opposition is as such corralled into either acceptable forms that are not overtly antagonistic to the establishment, or intentionally isolated and alienated from the general population.
Within the UK, crossover between the political and media establishment is blatant, but less remarked upon is the crossover between the state and business establishments.
Since the 1980s, it has become common for the civil service to accept secondments from financial and accounting institutions amongst much else. These individuals assist in writing the taxation and regulation codes, and subsequently return to their businesses, where they advise how to evade the rules they have put in place. A more blatant example of the crossover in recent years is a former economy minister returning to their position at a large financial institution without resigning their seat as a member of the national legislature.
What is key here is how this establishment transcends the petty ambition of a simple political party. It is not only one party rule, it is rather a shifting bloc of interests, each useful to the establishment at the moment. These practices continued under the opposition uninterrupted.
In the most recent election, efforts were made to delegitimise and encourage violence towards the opposition, now regarded as a possible threat due to their embrace of a large progressive youth movement. State broadcasters fabricated stories of youth activists from a civil society organisation as attacking regime officials. Lurid conspiracy theories linking opposition leaders to terrorist attacks were published in newspapers edited by former regime leaders. Previous to this, hints from the military establishment of potential coups were leaked by the press.
State broadcasters targeted social media messages at young people, encouraging them to abstain from voting. Suppressive voter ID policies were unveiled in areas with high proportions of ethnic minorities considered to support the opposition. Shadowy dark money organisations funded by financial oligarchs and government linked businessmen released fraudulent guides to so called ‘tactical voting,’ which encouraged voters disenchanted with the regime to vote for a party formerly in coalition with the government.
On election day itself, state media reported hints of postal ballot totals, itself a breach of the country’s election law. The election coverage was hosted entirely by former members and employees of the ruling Conservative Party, and consisted of gloating and castigating the opposition. In the following days, government ministers used sympathetic media to describe opposition activists as a ‘cancer.’ Of course, this infrastructure wasn’t entirely in place for the election two years prior. This was due to the establishment being complacent in the threat from the opposition, and it did not make the mistake again.
One thing that many liberal commentators intentionally misunderstand about Russia’s managed democracy is that its infrastructure reaches far back longer than the Putin administration. The seeds are from the 1993 constitutional crisis where the military and paramilitary organisations were used to forcibly dissolve a national legislature resistant to implementing austerity. The real foundation of the system, however, was the 1996 election, where the Communist Party showed the potential to upset the austerity regime.
Western experts, not to mention capital, were put into place to support the crumbling Yeltsin government. Using IMF resources approved by the Clinton administration, almost all Russian media was either purchased by allies of the government, broken up, or put under control of state broadcasters. The campaign became a dazzling affair of misinformation and fabrication, perhaps reaching its nadir when Yeltsin fell into an alcohol induced coma for three days, whilst a ‘virtual Yeltsin’ created by the media from stock footage kept up the illusion that all was normal.
During the 2019 election in the UK, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived drunk to a commemoration of British war dead, and placed a wreath at a war memorial upside down, the state broadcaster made sure to dig up their own ‘virtual Johnson’ from stock footage of his time as London mayor.
The system in both countries was put in place in order to protect an establishment from a popular movement to prevent austerity, and to deliver on the general democratic will of the country’s population. However, these systems cannot be dismantled so easily once that threat has subsided.
Today, the infrastructure intended to prevent the Corbyn movement, is put in place to simply shield the government at all costs, and to deliver for the interests that it represents. The bizarre kitsch: cities flown over by antique war planes painted with slogans commemorating a healthcare system being actively dismantled by the government, newspapers using children to shame office workers into putting themselves in danger to maintain property values, state broadcasters jovially commentating desperate refugee’s attempts to cross the channel — all are recent side effects of the increasing strength of the system.
Corruption has become far closer to being universalised and systematised. Party donors are rewarded with noble titles and positions in the national legislature. Government contracts are handed out to sympathetic business people, and state privatisation is increasingly to the benefit of those closely linked to the party.
This helps to reinforce a culture of cynicism. If it is clear that the government and politicians are only out for themselves, what does the average person gain from voting, or engaging with such? Cynicism is a function, encouraging people to turn away from political action, and towards personal, individual and spiritual activity instead.
When taken together, there is an unmistakable shift in the UK, towards some kind of system similar to that which characterises Russia. The questions that this will raise for the left, in broad terms, will be the questions of how movements can operate in a system without prospects of democratic participation, and under increasing formal suppression.
However, we should be skeptical that this is entirely novel, or even worse, that this is imported through some kind of ‘populist international’ the liberal media occasionally brings up the spectre of. What we are seeing, and what is important to come to terms with, is that this is the heightening of already existing capitalist structures of control and management due to pressure from interlocking economic and social crises. The means by which these elements are put into place will naturally be dependent on British history.
Of course, to an extent, I am speaking in hyperbole. We have not reached a system that is identical to Russia. The Conservative Party does not found mass youth organisations, it does not (allegedly) poison and murder questionable journalists or opponents, it does not have (so far as we know) direct links to organised crime. And not perhaps entirely to the benefit of the left, it could still lose an election.
By drawing out these examples, my goal is not to be catastrophist or alarmist, but it is to suggest that the left will have to be more flexible as regards our position in civil society, and our relation to the state and civil society. The British left has little experience acting under situations where it is not considered a legitimate part of the state. One of the great missteps of Corbynism was its occasional, and hopelessly naive belief that the establishment would treat it like any other opposition. Indeed that the neutral establishment existed.
We are not in such a dire position as we could be yet. We are not yet in a managed democracy, but the democracy is being increasingly managed, and perhaps the line that divides the two is far less clear than we would like it to be. We may yet avoid a slide into a more autocratic form of government. But to do so, we have to learn from the experience of comrades in countries that have organised under similar constraints.
Tom Alexander Mann is a worker in Brighton, UK. This article was originally published here.