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Entering the Late Phase of Late Western Democracy

It is 9 November and there are a few other things going on in the world, but here I am in Prague at the ECREA 2016 conference, which opens this evening with a couple of major keynotes. Time to put the shock about the electoral success of naked neo-fascism in the United States to one side and explore the broader trends in late western democracy, in a keynote by Peter Dahlgren.

He begins by suggesting that the events of today represent a historical rupture; late democracy has become a whole lot later, and the times are a great deal darker than before. We must be worried and angry, even, but also embrace an obstinate optimism that develops a vision for the future. We are now in a qualitatively different situation.

The idea of late democracy highlights certain tendencies: a transformation away from existing frameworks and towards an as yet not fully understood new environment. This is related to changes in media, democracy, and civic engagement. Democracy has moved through several historical transformations; late democracy began to emerge in the 1970s but has fully asserted itself only in more recent times; this reconfigures the relationships between power elites, media elites, and civic participation.

In particular, new voices and subjectivities – new modes of doing democracy – have emerged; there has been an onslaught of a new neoliberal power and democracy is on the defence and in retreat. In some younger democracies there is an authoritarial nostalgia that harks back to earlier days, constraining and deflecting civic participation.

Some of this is related to the problems of media industries, the decline of trust and respect for elites amongst ordinary citizens, the decline in control of public debate by elites and the increased polarisation within such debate. Populism has grown in response to these changes; it is often motivated by legitimate grievances that may be political, economic, or cultural, which are mobilised and redirected against scapegoat targets.

This is also related to the re-transformation of public spheres in the wake of the decline of professional journalism and its blurring with entertainment and popular culture; similarly, the boundaries between public and private are being renegotiated and personal concerns are being politicised. If the everyday is now highly political, this opens up huge new areas of contestation.

Neoliberalism has been crucial in driving these transformations. It indicates a post-Keynesian phase of capitalism, and an altered relationship between state, capital, and labour; this is now a global development and has uncoupled power from politics, increasing global inequalities. It imposes 'economism' on all areas of human life, transforming political into economic considerations and thereby quietly undoing basic elements of democracy. This is the single greatest threat to established democracies today.

But we must avoid developing a reductionist, totalising, pessimist narrative on these matters. Agency has not (yet) been eclipsed, and we must continue to focus on political and democratic agency where it can still be found. Civic cultures continue to matter; these are affected by power and economy. New structures of feeling, new forms of subjectivity, new paths to identity are emerging here, but are as yet little understood. Those born in the digital age are being understood not in and of themselves, but with reference to earlier generations.

In particular, social media are now embedded in the practices of everyday life, including self-presentation, disclosure, performance, and other aspects; where there are social media there is politics, and users are finding new approaches to dealing with this, including the development of more secure and disconnected spaces, including public sphericules and privately public spaces. This is a new mode of civic agency, with consumerist inflections.

There is a problem of efficacy in all this. Social media allow us to express ourselves, but does this lead to anything beyond talk on social media itself; can it transcend the boundaries of the platform? Does this still represent meaningful and constructive communication, or is it increasingly a dangerous, uncivil form of engagement?

Are there also longer-term transformations in cognitive processes that are related to changes in the forms and formats of communication – a shift towards shorter and more visual texts, for instance? What are the implications for rational democratic deliberation from this? How does this affect the process of acquiring knowledge? This is not to denigrate affect; we need it to engage and should not expect to see purely rational deliberation, but there is the flipside of a highly emotionalised form of communication that can be destructive.

In addressing these issues, we must move beyond the mere celebration of resistance and protest. We need to examine the present historical juncture in other ways, charting the dizzying transformations of the digital media world and pulling these together to build a more comprehensive theoretical picture. We need more and not less theory, building on but also advancing beyond the digital positivism of mere empirical data work. The intellectual scaffolding that theory provides must not be marginalised. At the same time, we must also avoid essentialist arguments (for instance, about the 'nature' of social media), and must always contextualise our observations.

This also goes for democracy, which is a contested and multivalent concept. What aspects of democracy are valid in a given setting – can the adjective 'late' help as a qualifier here? What do we mean by participation? By networks? How can we best counter the techno-celebratory discourse? Indeed, who is our subject in all of this? How do we view power relations, at macro, micro, and meso levels? How do we problematise these, and explore the expression of counter-power?

In doing so we must move beyond a focus on the Internet, and instead ask what dilemmas democracy itself faces (and how the Net might help). How can we make representation more meaningful, enhance civic efficacy, strengthen organisation and coordination, and reshape power relations?