Institutional Independence or Undemocratic Depoliticisation?

A discussion on Twitter on the Euro being a political decision and the aims of the ECB started by @europeansunited as a response to comments by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing that Greece should exit the Euro, has reminded me of an analysis of institutional independence I included in my 2013 book. It is worth remembering that in discussing regulatory reform we must recognise that the regulation of the economy is not just a matter for law and economics. Regulatory interventions, or the lack thereof, can have severe consequences on the political economy of a state and changing popular perceptions of the functions of law can have direct effects on the democratic legitimacy of institutions. The substitution of state regulation by independent regulators is an example of the negative effects of de-politicisation on perceptions of legitimacy. Independent, non-state regulators are meant to achieve the aims of market support without abandoning the still dominant perception of the market as primarily self-regulating. The creation of allegedly non-political, independent institutions however means institutions isolated from the political and by extension democratic process. The ECB for example prides itself in not seeking or taking instructions from European Unon institutions or bodies, from any government of an EU Member State or from any other body, in determining its price stability policies. Considering however the effect on the economy that the setting of interest rates has, some degree of political input in the Bank’s decision making would be at least desirable, if not required. It is no wonder that the institutional independence of the ECB does not improve public perceptions of the EU as a democratically deficient structure.

A times of severe economic crisis and recession, selecting types of self-regulation over political control can be a particularly politically dangerous route to follow. As suggested above, using the example of the ECB, central bank independence ensures that monetary policy is determined solely by ‘economic’ concerns. This ensures the pursuit of policies deemed good for the ‘investment climate’. It also, however, dis-empowers governments; they are less able to control the economy or to pursue expansionary economic policies necessary to achieve wider social objectives. When elected representatives are unwilling or unable to deal with fundamental economic issues, there can often seem to be little difference between democratic and authoritarian government. De-politicisation creates a legitimacy vacuum which can damage people’s belief in democracy. Is it really beyond explanation that the Greeks, faced with the longest depression the world has ever seen, abandon traditional politics in favour of extreme, even fascist alternatives? Further reforms aimed at addressing these problems often create a new set of difficulties, not least because they usually seek to build on structures which are little respected. This risks a downward spiral that affects legal and institutional structures alike. If the traditional parties of power have become transmission mechanisms for policies demanded by international lenders, would you vote for someone so anti-systemic so as to be against democracy itself? In 2012 in two successive elections 7% of Greeks voted for the neo-nazi group ‘Golden Dawn’. Have we come to a point where the institutional structures of financialised capitalism point to an abandonment of democracy? What is one to make of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s pronouncements that the Greek Bailout Programme targets are to be respected despite the express wishes of the Greek people as marked on 25.1.15?

One consequence of the de-politicisation of economic decision is to make many citizens today quietly contemptuous of democracy. Either one considers that others are not competent to be consulted as to how a country should be run, or one thinks that whatever people think is irrelevant, as the political system is captured by an ‘establishment’ that renders democratic processes a sham. This nihilism is a very dangerous aspect of our times. Being disinterested in democracy is a threat to the survival of the only workable idea of government we have left today. After having tried different versions of authoritarianism, from paternalist dictatorship to self-interested oligarchy, the world seems -by a process of elimination- to be left with liberal democracy. This has been claimed to signify a so-called ‘end of history’ according to authors like Francis Fukuyama. While talk of an end to history is of course non-nonsensical, the question nevertheless remains: is there an alternative to democratic capitalism available? The opposing doctrine of course is not theocratic dictatorship as implied by easy to digest, yet empirically false claims of a clash of civilisations, but an evolution of liberal democracy along a different path. Such path cannot open however unless we are willing to re-examine how we got here and whether we want to use our democratic institutions to determine where we want to get to. Does Syriza in Greece and the efforts of Prof. Varoufakis point the way?

@iGlinavos

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