What comes after democracy?


Large-scale protests have engulfed the world over the past few years. People across the globe took to the streets as the effects of the global financial crisis became visible at the end of 2008 and especially in early 2009. People in and beyond the Arab world revolted and in some cases occupied public squares to demand the fall of their regimes in 2010 and 2011. A few months later, people all over Spain assembled en masse to call for “real democracy now” on May 15th 2011. That same year, the Occupy movement followed suit in the United States by gathering in Zuccotti Park near New York City’s Wall Street on September 17th. One month later, at least 951 squares were occupied in over 82 different countries as part of an internationally coordinated “day of rage” on October 15th.

Although some might interpret this upsurge of public participation as an indication that democracy is alive and well, if we look closer we see it might indicate the opposite. We may have come to an historical period defined by the end of democracy as we know it.


A key point raised by social movements responding to the crisis, at least in Europe and the United States, is that powerful elites have disproportionate influence within politics and they use this influence to benefit a small set of interests at the expense of the majority of the world’s population. And this is true no matter whom you vote for. Colin Crouch argues in his 2004 book “Post-Democracy” that electoral debate is a “tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals … considering a small range of issues selected by those teams”. Behind this spectacle, he argues, “politics is really shaped in private by interaction between elected governments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business interests”. Post-democracy, then, is a political system that “increasingly cedes power to business lobbies, [where] there is little hope for an agenda of strong egalitarian policies”. The notion of post-democracy is useful for analysing how and when existing governing structures are not democratic, but imagining what might come after democracy is nearly impossible.

Post-democracy, then, is a political system that “increasingly cedes power to business lobbies, [where] there is little hope for an agenda of strong egalitarian policies”.

Still, the current financial crisis highlights two trends that offer some indication of what post-democracy might look like. The first trend – authoritarian repression – is characterised by increased acceptability of far-right ideologies and pre-emptive, militarised policing, both of which make protest more dangerous. The second trend, by contrast, involves the refusal of many social movements to express their demands through traditional democratic channels, such as elected representatives and referenda. These movements have designed elaborate decision-making procedures that promote a form of radical equality dubbed horizontality, which is viewed by many participants as a potential replacement for political systems based on representation and electoral politics.

An increasingly repressive state

The trend towards a repressive state has been in the making for at least 10 years. In its most extreme form, this repression has been carried out through an open collaboration between the far-right and the state. I, as an anthropologist researching social-movement responses to the crisis, have watched two simultaneous dynamics unfold. First, I have seen a willingness of people – both within and outside the state apparatus – to openly admit that they support authoritarian rule. In Spain, for instance, as I stood among tens of thousands of people protesting police repression, the Franco flag appeared on a nearby building, raised high in the air above the mass of protestors. “Look,” numerous people told me, “we’re heading back to fascism. See there, someone is flying the Franco-era flag.” In Greece, fascism is tied to attacks on migrants and also to directing policy in parliament. (For a documentary on the post-crisis rise of fascism in Greece, featuring interviews with lawyers and activists, watch “Greece’s Uncertain Future”.) In the last elections, Golden Dawn, a far-right Nazi-esque party that has coordinated physical attacks on migrants and other so-called undesirables in the streets, won 7% of the vote and now holds 18 seats in parliament; the latest polls show that its support has grown to nearly 14%. A senior Greek police officer interviewed by The Guardian confirmed what protesters have known for some time, that Golden Dawn has infiltrated the police. Police and politicians in Greece today operate in a political climate where it is no longer necessary to hide the fact that representatives of the state advocate the eradication of people based on race, nationality, sexuality or political beliefs.

The second dynamic has been a shift towards the repression of protest through, on the one hand, pre-emptive policing that aims to make protest impossible and, on the other hand, the militarisation of the police force. Under these circumstances, the state is post-democratic not only because it is unable to represent the interests of the people, but also because its role as repressor is becoming more central to the many functions that the state embodies. When footage of police brutality went viral following protests outside the national congress in Madrid on September 25th 2012, the government did not denounce the use of excessive force by the police. Rather, it suggested changing the law to ban photographing, filming or reproducing images of police and state security forces on duty and gave the Police Merit Medal to the head of the riot police.

In both Greece and Spain, where the memory of dictatorship still is present, having ended only in the mid-1970s, protesters quickly draw the connection between the current repressive tactics of the government and previous regimes. The growing acceptability of fascist ideologies combined with pre-emptive, militarised policing indicates a dangerous shift in the way the state governs its people. While democratic forms of governance emphasise, at least in principle, the need to protect and control citizens (who have rights), state representatives now openly frame the debate in terms of defeating enemies (who have no rights). This shift should set off alarms across the world.


This repressive vision of what might come after democracy is not the only vision available when we examine the political transformations taking place in the wake of the crisis. The repressed protest movements also offer new ways to think about equality in the 21st century. Since the 1960s, social movements have experimented with new forms of decision-making to develop a political system that better fulfils the values of equality, participation and diversity. These models of democracy have many names – most commonly “participatory” or “direct” democracy and more recently “horizontal” democracy. The last term is used within Occupy movements, where horizontal democratic models became key organising structures.

The repressed protest movements also offer new ways to think about equality in the 21st century.

Horizontal democracy, also called “horizontality”, refers to a system of collective decision-making that assumes that declaring all people equal does not make all people equal. Horizontality sees such a system as reproducing inequality and asserts the importance of ensuring that people are equally capable of participating in decisions that affect their lives. Horizontality embodies a radical notion of equality that rejects the idea that inequalities can ever be fully eradicated. That’s because people always will have different strengths, weaknesses, resources and prejudices, and these inequalities affect people’s ability to actively participate in public life. This, however, does not make inequality acceptable. Horizontality is a political system in which everyone who participates has to take responsibility for continuously limiting power inequalities as they arise between participants. In practice this is translated into a set of anti-oppression guidelines to which all participants must adhere. For example, racist, sexist and homophobic behaviour or language is prohibited. Horizontal decision-making also introduces values such as autonomy and decentralisation, which are key to understanding the governing structures being developed.

The main innovations of horizontal decision-making are its rejection of representation as a fixed structure and its utilisation of networks – instead of nation-states – as the basic structure for democratic governance. The network structures for horizontal decision-making take many forms, though two have stood out. One includes the use of decentralised working groups networked through a general assembly or a “spokescouncil” (that is, a meeting of members from each working group). The other involves neighbourhood assemblies coordinated through larger inter-neighbourhood assemblies. While most decisions are taken within working groups or neighbourhoods, the larger meetings bring together the working groups or neighbourhoods to discuss proposals and coordinate actions.

This system of governance is not perfect; no system of governance ever has been. Horizontality, however, creates interesting potentials. Horizontality transforms democracy in three important ways. (For a more thorough analysis, see the 2009 book “The Will of the Many”.) First, horizontality shifts assumptions about equality. In governing systems based on horizontality, it is assumed that there can never be perfect equality, and that an authority cannot mandate it. Within horizontality, inequalities become something that all participants have the responsibility to perpetually limit as much as possible.

Second, horizontality fosters and helps express the diversity of the public. Rather than trying to minimise differences through the standard democratic tendency towards agreement and uniformity within a geographical region, network structures allow for people to collectively coordinate multiple and divergent courses of action and produce multiple solutions to a problem. Because a network structure can split into multiple hubs without compromising the unity of the network as a whole, people involved who have widely divergent interests can pursue different solutions to an issue without resulting in political instability. This aspect of horizontality is based on the assumption that even if people face the same problems everywhere, the solutions to these problems might be very different depending on who and where they are.

Embracing conflict also means that proposals leave room for multiple solutions and courses of action; this which allows for the inclusion of conflict without turning conflict into a competition between different interests.

Finally, horizontality involves incorporating conflict into the decision-making process. Contested opinions are not debated in order to find the best solution for all, nor are they not voted on to eliminate less-popular positions. Instead, diverging opinions are brought together, and whenever possible new proposals are written collaboratively by those who wrote the original proposal and those who disagree with it. Embracing conflict also means that proposals leave room for multiple solutions and courses of action; this which allows for the inclusion of conflict without turning conflict into a competition between different interests. The lesson here is that truly equal outcomes of political decision-making are usually multiple outcomes that allow for the diversity within a polity to flourish.

It is true that the argument presented here is polemical. But it is analytically and politically important to view the current period as a moment of post-democracy. Doing so broadens our understanding of the current inability of our leaders to govern in our interest and of the forms of protest that we are witnessing and are likely to see more of in the coming years. Protesters in Egypt use far-more-confrontational tactics than those in Madrid use, but the Egyptian protesters usually are framed as peaceful and pro-democracy, while those in Madrid have been accused of staging a coup against democracy. This framing of the Egyptian protesters is made possible by our perception of them as acting in a non-democratic context. While one group is perceived as pre-democratic and the other as post-democratic, we should understand that all of these movements act against and in response to the non-democratic. What they will bring in the future remains an open question. But if our current system of democracy can no longer represent the interests of the people, then a new system is likely to emerge and the question of what comes after democracy becomes frighteningly relevant. Understanding the options on the table will help to maximise the potential of radical equality and challenge the tendency towards authoritarian repression.

1    I would like to thank the coordinators, Joanna Cook and Nick Long, and the participants of the panel on “post-democracy” at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in San Francisco from November 14th to 18th 2012 for reminding me of the analytical value of this timely concept.