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The Demons of Liberal Democracy, by Adrian Pabst

03 May 2019

Martin Gainsborough finds a clear agenda

I READ this book in the lead up to the General Synod’s February group of sessions, when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York tabled their State of the Nation debate.

It struck me then what a timely and prescient book it was, offering real wisdom for our times. The book doesn’t just offer insight into how we might escape the problem of Brexit, which, let’s not forget, is just a symptom of a wider problem, but, rather, sheds light on our national (and global) malaise more generally, and offers clear pointers in terms of reforms. Moreover, that Adrian Pabst does this in just 171 short pages is impressive.

Pabst’s argument is that, while liberal democracy has delivered many good things, there are tensions within it as a political philosophy, which can lead it to degenerate. That is, liberal democracy has a dark side to the extent that it is capable of existing alongside oligarchy, demagogy, anarchy, and tyranny.

One of the problems that we have at the moment is that we struggle to talk about our politics without degenerating into bi-partisanship. Pabst avoids this. Speaking about the metropolitan elites and the populists, he does not pull his punches, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of writing off our political class.

While Pabst is clear that the reforms needed to tackle our problems are many, what we don’t need, he says, is more liberal democracy or more populism. Liberal democracy has gone awry because of its tendency to put freedom over solidarity, individualism over reciprocity. Consequently, we have lost the social bonds and civic ties on which a vibrant and functioning democracy depends. This is serious, and points to much hard work that we all need to make a commitment to if we are to turn things around.

Pabst is undoubtedly talking sense. One question, however, would concern how far down the road of the erosion of social bonds we have gone: i.e., just how bad is it? Here we should check our gloom. Clearly, there are problems, but, as anyone involved in parish ministry will know, community is not dead. So, there is something we can nurture, and build on.

Pabst is exciting for the clarity of the reforms that he offers that liberal democracies such as the UK might begin to recover: an economy committed to social ends, not just private profit; media reform, in relation to the tech giants as well as other media; devolution of power; and greater participation by civil society, including churches, in the public sector, i.e. the co-delivery of public goods. But, clearly, the question is how. Who is going to take on this agenda and drive it forward? We may not have answers here, but these are questions for us all, as we seek to build the kind of communities that make society work.

Canon Martin Gainsborough is Chaplain to the Bishop of Bristol and a member of the General Synod.


The Demons of Liberal Democracy
Adrian Pabst
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