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The global crisis of representation intensifies

Elections have become a mode of regime legitimation rather than a mechanism of renewal

Economic CrisisEuropeWar ZonesUSA Politics

Demonstration against Sweden becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Stockholm, Sweden, April 22, 2023. Photo by Patrick Ekstrand/Xinhua.

This is the year of elections, with 4.2 billion citizens eligible to vote in 76 countries. These include some of the most populous and consequential, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, the United States and the European Union (and perhaps even Canada). Unfortunately, this festival of political participation does not indicate the health of democracy. The electoral procedure is now the universal mode of governance legitimation. Authoritarian systems, military dictatorships and liberal democracies alike use the mechanism to consolidate their rule.

This is also the year of intensified militarism. NATO is gearing up for its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War. Operation Steadfast Defender 24 runs for four months until May, with the participation of 31 states (including Sweden) and 90,000 troops. In January 2024 a spate of commentary called for societies to prepare for war with Russia. The top NATO official, Admiral Rob Hauer, warned that a larger war with Russia and other adversaries is a real threat against the background of the war in Ukraine. In his first major speech UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps similarly alerted that “the era of the peace dividend is over.” He argued, “We are moving from a post-war to a pre-war world,” where “in five years’ time, we could be looking at multiple theatres [of conflict] involving Russia, China, Iran, North Korea.” A host of commentary talked of preparations for a long war with Russia.

The result is stark. We now find ourselves lost in the foothills of the third world war, with no clear path downwards. On the contrary, Euro-Atlantic leaders daily push the narrative upwards, towards the intensification of conflict. It is as if the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons no longer matters.

The fates of electoralism and militarism are entwined. In conditions of renewed cold war, the choices on offer and the potential range of policies and programmes are constrained by national security considerations and the shifting alignments of bloc politics. The voice of constituencies who believe that peace and development should be the priority remain unrepresented. In the early postwar years, such sentiments were expressed by leftist parties of various stripes as well as, in a different idiom, conservative internationalists. At their best, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy gave voice to these aspirations. There is now a void where once belief in an alternative resided.

Instead, the spate of elections this year will only confirm the impasse. The election held in Bangladesh granted Sheikh Hasina a fourth term as prime minister, while the forthcoming election in India will only confirm the dominance of Hindutva nationalism over the country’s traditional secular democracy. The March election in Russia will grant Vladimir Putin a fifth term as president. He will become the longest-serving leader of Russia since Catherine the Great. In Ukraine, it is the absence of an election that is significant. The presidential election due to be held in March has been cancelled. Martial law prohibits the holding of elections in wartime, but they could also threaten the current leadership. In Israel, successive elections have only radicalized the extreme nationalist right, intensifying the various security dilemmas that exploded in the horrific Hamas attack of October 7, 2023. The subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza has so far led to some 25,000 deaths, the majority of whom have been women and children.

Elections should provide an opportunity for leadership renewal and policy change. With rare exceptions, the elections this year are notable for the absence of either. They will only reinforce the current political stagnation, and intensify the crisis of representation. This is starkly in evidence with the two likely candidates in the US election in November, Joe Biden who is 81 and Donald Trump, 77. The Biden administration has been an exemplary case of the dominance of the liberal interventionist strand of the American warfare state, defending US global hegemony from ‘the left.’ In his first term (2017-21), Trump reinterpreted this from ‘the right,’ recasting it in terms of ‘greatness.’ US hegemony was more brutally asserted in the form of mercantilist and transactional dominance. Neither broke with the enduring bipartisan view that American exceptionalism and pre-eminence should be defended. However, Trump’s awareness that the costs of geopolitical ambition fell primarily on American shoulders resonated with voters, sparking hope that he represented forgotten constituencies and aspirations.

What is a crisis of representation? It is when elections become primarily a mode of regime legitimation rather than a mechanism of renewal. Political pluralism is undermined. Classic models of polyarchy, as advanced by Robert Dahl, give way to oligarchy. Representative government gives way to technocratic governance—the classic neoliberal gutting of the representative functions of the contemporary state. Managerial functions are enhanced to enable market relations. Material inequality increases and precarity becomes part of the desperate lifeworld of millions. Cold war and its associated militarism becomes normalized and woven into the texture of everyday politics.

Organized opposition, formulating genuine alternative programmes, gives way to bland consensus or extreme polarization. The two are the opposite sides of the same coin. When a political system cannot give adequate voice to unrepresented views, then the resulting stagnation focuses as much on the struggle to control the institutions of democracy (including the judiciary, electoral mechanisms, the media and even the security apparatus) than about changing fundamental policies. This is accompanied by the shift from class politics and associated redistributive and egalitarian notions of political and social inclusion to a politics focused on identity issues and ‘values’ voided of their social content. In a weightless world, described by Zygmunt Bauman as “liquid modernity,” superficial differences and abstractions become life and death struggles.

The crisis of representation is not confined to electoral systems, but affects broader populations and constituencies whose voice cannot be heard. Who reflects the views of the oppressed and humiliated in Gaza and the West Bank? Not Mahmoud Abbas at the head of the Palestinian Authority, who at the age of 88 has not faced a general election since 2005. Not Hamas, which consolidated its power since winning the election in Gaza in 2006. Not the broader Israeli political system, whose occupation regime and violent settlers in the West Bank killed 57 Palestinians in 2023 even before the events of October 7. And not the ‘international community,’ especially since the US displaced the Quartet (the UN, the EU, Russia, as well as the US) to ensure its ‘leadership’ in West Asia.

In Ukraine, the oligarchs at the heart of patronal politics aligned with the government to resist the Russian invasion, but the war destroyed the foundations of their dominance. In its place, the war consolidated the nationalist regime that came to power in 2014. The ability of Russophone Ukrainians to shape the polity has been further undermined. This is accompanied by a kulturkampf against everything Russian—language, culture, statues and trade. Instead of the usual meaning of ‘decolonization,’ entailing hybridity and complexity, it has been defined as a programme of excision and simplification.

The former presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych, who from 2023 became a stern critic, in an interview in early 2024 argued that “The main problem of Ukraine is that some politicians starting in 1991 [sought] to transform Ukraine from a poly-cultural and poly-national state, into a more mono-ethnic and mono-cultural country.” He argued that Ukrainian nationalism, of the monist sort, attracted fewer than 20 percent of the population, while the rest supported “a multinational and poly-cultural country … [because] we are all Ukrainians even if we speak different languages.” If Arestovych is correct, then there is no one left in Ukraine to speak for the 80 percent. Their voice is certainly not welcome in the political West, because it would suggest that the fundamental premise on which Western policy is constructed is based on a falsehood.

In the Euro-Atlantic region, the crisis of representation has reached crisis proportions. This reflects the larger geopolitical impasse. The failure to create an inclusive pan-European security order in the post-Cold War years generates pathological symptoms of its own. Atlanticism not only triumphed over European pan-continentalism, but reshaped the very meaning of ‘Europe.’ Long before the current war, Russia was written out of the script. Its security concerns were delegitimated, and the very language in which such concerns could be expressed was denigrated. Leaving aside realist notions of the balance of power, spheres of interest and the like, even the concept of ‘indivisible security,’ at the heart of all the fundamental normative documents on European security since the Helsinki Final Act of August 1975 and the Charter of Paris in 1990, is dismissed as a ‘Kremlin talking point.’

In the modern era, wars tend to begin incrementally and develop in fits and starts, but are no less dangerous for that. This was the deeper meaning of the interminable discussions about ‘hybrid warfare’ and the blurring of the lines between war and peace. Our era is characterized by endemic conflict in which multiple layers of antagonism are superimposed and reinforced. This is what makes the second cold war so much more dangerous than the first.

The voice of the ‘war’ faction in the political West drowns out those calling for dialogue and diplomacy. The peace faction in the West has never been so poorly represented. The British Labour Party under Keir Starmer is an extreme example of this. He effectively declared that opposition to NATO is incompatible with Labour Party membership. He forgets that peace organizations and ideas have long been a prominent and respected part of the ‘movement’ that was once the Labour Party. Instead. ‘peaceniks’ are now expelled wholesale.

The Russo-Ukraine war can be interpreted as a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis, but managed with far less skill than the crisis of October 1962. So far, nuclear escalation has been prevented, but the potential for the nuclear taboo to be broken increases by the day. The attempt to maintain the primacy of the political West generates insecurity and ultimately undermines the political West itself. The imposition of sanctions has reached epidemic proportions, and their sheer volume means that instead of acting as the substitute for war, they have become the key instrument in economic warfare. The weaponization of Western financial instruments has provoked a rush to de-dollarize and to conduct trade in local currencies. International law has been replaced by appeals to the ‘rules-based order.’

Long-term trends interact with immediate crises. The instrumental use of the institutions of the Charter international system has provoked the greatest crisis of the UN system since its inception in 1945. This undermines not only the legitimacy and efficacy of the Security Council, but the entirety of the system, including the body of international law that it generated. If the Charter system can no longer represent the highest aspirations of humanity for peace and development, the objective that inspired the creation of the system in the first place after the most destructive war known to humanity, then the crisis of representation may prove terminal.

Richard Sakwa is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. He has published widely on Russian, European and global affairs. Recent books include Russia against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2017), The Putin Paradox (I. B. Tauris, 2020), Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War (Lexington Books, 2022) and The Lost Peace: How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War (Yale University Press, 2023).

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