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Analysis #30

Brexit as Fugitive Democracy

James Hodgson

3 July 2019

Political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s ideas are a useful guide to thinking about the EU’s “managed democracy” and Brexit as an instance of “fugitive democracy”, a sporadic rebellion against elite control. This helps understand why Brexit is hard to achieve, but also provides lessons for the left on future organising.

“Democracy didn’t end after the referendum!”

We often hear these words from steadfast Remainers who wish to reverse the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. It is a refrain most commonly deployed as an argument for a second referendum, with the implicit belief that it would yield a different outcome. It has the air of a truism. And in one sense, of course, it is true: democracy as an institutional formation featuring periodic elections did not end with the Brexit vote. But what if democracy is understood differently, in more radical terms: not as a ritualised form of government by socioeconomic elites, but as an episodic phenomenon that is inherently disruptive and in which ordinary citizens become active political agents?


This is the conception of democracy – known as “fugitive democracy” – advanced by the political theorist Sheldon Wolin (b.1922 – d.2015). A renowned critic of American politics and economy, Wolin’s political thought is instructive in helping us make sense of our current moment and the forces which led us here. In this article, I argue that the vote for Brexit can be understood as an instance of fugitive democracy, aimed at contesting the legitimacy of a status quo in which ordinary citizens are economically marginalised and excluded from political power. Wolin was primarily focused on the American case, but I want to suggest that we can extend his arguments to contemporary Britain as well.


Managed Democracy and Inverted Totalitarianism

To fully understand the concept of fugitive democracy, we must look first to its counterpoint: the system of managed democracy or what Wolin called “the ‘smiley face’ of inverted totalitarianism”.[1]


What is “inverted totalitarianism”, the political form that Wolin believed was prevalent in the modern USA? Wolin was not claiming that modern America was some facsimile of Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. Indeed, the point of inverted totalitarianism is that many of the features of classical totalitarianism are turned upside down. Where classical totalitarian regimes took the form of a state captured by totalising groups looking to use its power to regiment the economy and social life, inverted totalitarianism involves economic forces capturing a state and directing it to their own purposes. It is a system which symbolises the unholy marriage of the modern state with technology, corporate power and wealth.


Where classical totalitarian regimes were inseparable from the charismatic authority of the leader, within inverted totalitarianism the leaders are products of the system rather than its architects. The system will survive the death of any one leader, much as a corporation will survive the death of its CEO. And most importantly, where classical totalitarianism celebrates its rupture with the previous form of government and explicitly rejects democracy, inverted totalitarianism both emphasises its seamless continuity with governing traditions and trumpets the cause of democracy worldwide. Where classical totalitarianism is explosive, inverted totalitarianism is insidious.


Managed democracy is the acceptable face of inverted totalitarianism. In this system, democracy is a problem to be managed, much like the delivery of healthcare or the supply of products to consumers. One of the key features of inverted totalitarianism is that it depoliticizes its subjects, turning them from active citizens into passive consumers. In this model, electoral politics is contained: it is “cool, even hostile to social democracy beyond promoting literacy, job training, and other essentials for a society struggling to survive in the global economy”.[2] The rituals of democracy must still be observed, but they are shorn of any real meaning. Come election time, we are faced with “a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives”.[3] In this manner, inverted totalitarianism uses the rituals of democracy to legitimate itself, while at the same time sublimating authentic democracy.


To be clear, Wolin was explicit about which form of totalitarianism is to be preferred. The classical totalitarian regime was openly murderous and xenophobic. By contrast, inverted totalitarianism may result in material improvements in the lives of citizens, when this is also in the interests of corporate power. It also freely incorporates foreign workers into its economy, albeit as economic units to be exploited, and seeks to open new markets for development. Therefore, inverted totalitarianism may be benign for most people, most of the time. But it is far from being truly democratic. 


Fugitive Democracy

Occasionally, however, democracy breaks out. On Wolin’s understanding, democracy is “a project concerned with the political potentialities of ordinary citizens, that is with their possibilities for becoming political beings through the self-discovery of common concerns and of modes of action for realising them”.[4] Democracy is but one form of the political, the idea that diverse societies can enjoy moments of commonality when power is exercised for the collective good. Politics, by contrast, refers to the legitimised and public contestation over access to resources by unequal social groups. Politics is ongoing and continuous, but the political is episodic and rare.


It is not surprising, according to Wolin, that writers in the history of political thought have viewed democracy with suspicion, linking it to disorder and outbreaks of violence. As James Madison warned, for instance:

[pure] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths. [5]


In intellectual memory, the image of democracy was merged with that of violence and revolution, argues Wolin, precisely because democracy required (and still requires) transgression of established social and constitutional boundaries that purposely excluded and marginalised whole classes of people. Without shattering these systems of exclusion, the demos could not participate in politics. Revolutionary transgression is the means by which citizens make themselves into political beings. Further, against a background of unequal social and economic powers, democracy “is first and foremost about equality: equality of power and equality of sharing in the benefits and burdens of social cooperation” [6]. Democracy may be violent, then, and be carried on the waves of a revolution. But this is not necessarily the case; democracy may occur in any moment of public protest or revolt.


Democracy is an inherently temporary phenomenon, however. One reason is prosaic: most ordinary citizens cannot sustain political activity over extended periods. For much of the time, most people are preoccupied with making a living, tending to their families, and so on. They do not have the time or resources to devote themselves to politics. Another reason is more philosophical: democratic freedom encourages the expression of diversity, and this necessarily results in the fragmentation of the demos. Thus, the commonality gained during the demotic moment slips away thanks to the freedoms unleashed by democracy. Democracy in this conception is therefore “fugitive”: not a permanent form of government, but a fleeting moment of popular empowerment.


Brexit and the European Union

What can we learn about the situation in contemporary Europe from Wolin’s political thought? While I do not wish to make too close a comparison – the US is not the same as the EU, with a very different history and different political traditions – I do want to suggest there are observable parallels between the growth of inverted totalitarianism in the US and the ways in which politics is commonly structured in the EU, especially in the UK.


The relationship between the EU’s institutions and corporate power is complex, to be sure, but the latter’s dominance makes it a case of inverted totalitarianism. The EU is sometimes labelled “a capitalist club”, and there is much truth to this. The history of European economic integration is one of the decoupling of the economy from political control.[7] (See Analysis #1 - The EU's Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty and Proposal #2 - Quit the Single Market: How the EU Throttles State Aid and Industrial Policy). Similarly, given the inability of the EU Parliament to initiate legislation, it is difficult to see the election of its members as anything other than ritualised democracy. The EU’s record clearly shows that it sees democracy as a problem to be managed, rather than a virtue to be encouraged. Admittedly, the EU is less focused than the US on projecting military power beyond its borders. Yet, for decades it has projected its “civilian power” and “normative power” into the Balkans, Eastern Europe and its wider “neighbourhood”, demanding neoliberal governance reforms as the price of access to its markets or EU membership (see Analysis #19 - We Already Had Empire 2.0: It’s Called the EU). Such interventions have brought Europe to the brink of confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. Meanwhile, federalists like Emmanuel Macron and Guy Verhofstadt are intent on turning the EU into an “empire” to rival the US, China and Russia, equipped with its own armed forces.[8]


If the diagnosis of inverted totalitarianism seems to account for the EU as a whole, it is also apposite in the particular case of the UK. We can see this in the hostility to even moderate forms of social democracy from within the political establishment; in the emphasis placed on economically “useful” subjects such as science and technology in our secondary and higher education systems; in the austerity regime imposed on the public as a result of the financial crisis, and the privatisation of many heretofore public institutions; in the Thatcherite drive to treat citizens as passive consumers; and in the consequent alienation experienced by many citizens from the political realm. It is little wonder, then, that the British demos used the EU referendum to register its dissatisfaction with the inequalities of power that pervade British society, coalescing around a message of the public taking control (see Analysis #2 - Popular Sovereignty and “Taking Back Control”: What it Means and Why it Matters and Analysis #6 - Why Did Britain Vote to Leave the EU?).


Of course, voting to leave the EU was deeply transgressive of established social, economic and constitutional structures. Hence, it is not surprising that the hallmarks of managed democracy and inverted totalitarianism are most visible in the personnel of the Remain campaign. (If there was any doubt, the marriage of state power, corporate power, and technological power was surely consummated in the form of arch-Remainer Nick Clegg’s appointment by Facebook as its “head of global affairs”.)[9] Members of the political and economic elite, including former prime ministers and the governor of the Bank of England, have lined up to chastise the British public for daring to disrupt the harmony of the single market. Their acolytes in the media and elsewhere repeat calls for a second referendum. They usually clothe themselves in the rhetoric of democracy: a second referendum, after all, cannot just be another vote; it must be a “People’s Vote”. And after years of doom-mongering, we are told the people are entitled to change their minds. Is there a purer manifestation of inverted totalitarianism?


Between Past and Future

Seeing the vote for Brexit in Wolin’s terms helps us to comprehend both its nature and the reaction to it. It also goes some way towards explaining why there has been little sustained momentum behind Brexit after the vote was won. After all, fugitive democracy is inherently episodic and rare; under its own logic, it is short-lived. However, Wolin’s conception of democracy is not a counsel of despair. It teaches us what we can expect, what we can hope for, and what we can realistically work to achieve.


What, then, are the prospects for democracy? Given its internally diverse nature, Wolin claims, the demos can never dominate politically. Mass, modern societies are dependent on political elites and their modes of engagement. What is imperative, however, is the distinction between fugitive democracy and elite-managed democracy. Much like the “enclosure movement” that began in early-modern England, in which  wealthy elites and nobles erected hedges around agricultural land that, by custom, was not owned by particular individuals but was freely available to local people, elites inevitably move to enclose the political sphere and privatise it for their own ends. Fugitive democracy involves periodic attempts to “open up” politics for common purposes, against the elite’s continual efforts to manage the system. 


However, this does not mean we are doomed to live under a regime of inverted totalitarianism. According to Wolin, a renewed political order in which democracy acts as a counterweight to elites is both possible and achievable. What is required first is for citizens to recognise that the care and fate of the polity are issues of common concern; to think “publicly” rather than privately. As Wolin puts it: “the democratization of politics remains merely formal without the democratization of the self”.[10] This act of democratic self-creation is best accomplished at the local level, where commonality is experienced on a daily basis. Of course, the formation of democratic citizens must be buttressed by broadly national social, economic, and educational institutions, including increased leisure time to devote to common endeavours. But the ecology of democracy must be nurtured at the grassroots level, for a vibrant local democracy can help bridge the distance between representative government and its constituents. The more this ecology decays, the more state and society become decoupled, allowing national elites to pursue their own interests. 


Secondly, a more vocational counter-elite of democratic public servants must be nurtured and encouraged. This does not mean a vanguard of technocrats who seek to be “above politics” and provide “impartial” advice to politicians, but public servants who are institutionally committed to defending democratic values, ameliorating social inequities and nurturing a democratic political environment. In the context of the elitist and deeply-held anti-Brexit outlook of the British Civil Service, most notably the Treasury and the Bank of England, and after a decade of austerity for the public and Quantitative Easing for the financial sector, such an aspiration may seem rather utopian.[11] Nevertheless, it is a model towards which a post-Brexit vision of British state institutions might aspire. 


In conclusion, Wolin’s conception of democracy provides a riposte to those who see democracy as an ongoing process that must be managed by elites and implicitly managed for the benefit of elites. The opposite is true: democracy is a moment that disrupts established structures, transgresses exclusionary boundaries, and makes elites far less comfortable and complacent. And while the demotic moment is temporary, we might take comfort from Wolin’s thought that such moments can reoccur so long as there are those who remember it. Permanence is no guarantee of beauty, still less of moral and political rightness.


[1] Sheldon S. Wolin (2008) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. xvi.

[2] Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, p. 47.

[3] Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, p. 66.

[4] Sheldon S. Wolin, Fugitive Democracy and Other Essays, ed. Nicholas Xenos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 100.

[5] The Federalist, no. 10; cited in Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, p. 105.

[6] Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, p. 61.

[7] Christopher Bickerton, The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (London: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 115.

[8] Angelique Chrisafis, "Emmanuel Macron calls for “real” European army at start of war centenary tour", The Guardian, 6 November 2018; "Team Europe’s Verhofstadt Debates in Maastricht", ALDE, 30 April 2019.

[9] Mark Sweney, "Facebook hires Nick Clegg as head of global affairs", The Guardian, 19 October 2018.

[10] Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, p. 289.

[11] Ashoka Mody, "Ignore the Brexit scare stories – they have no basis in sound economics", The Independent, 6 December 2018.

About the Author

James Hodgson holds a PhD in Politics from the University of York.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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