We are watching the enshitification of democracy

by | 14 Jun 2024

This election is detaching politics and politicians further and further from the electorate. Unless we take major steps to modernise our democracy, the direction of travel is really worrying.

First published by Common Weal

As I leave for two weeks of family holiday a very long way away from the UK General Election, I can only look in the rear view mirror and assume that, for everyone except Douglas Ross, this has all been a rip-roaring success. Well, Douglas Ross and the voters. Oh, and the planet.

Is this now as good as electoral politics can get? Is it a choice between this and the drift to the authoritarian right which is taking place across Europe? Can we find a better way to go about governing ourselves?

Douglas Ross is an outlier in this election. I tried really hard to think of a political party leader who has ever resigned during a campaign before and came up blank. This is an interesting innovation and to be honest, right now, I’d quite like to see a lot of other parties adopting it. Except they seem to be up to other things.

Keir Starmer is trying to persuade you that he is the most boring moderate Tory in British history. John Swinney seems to have concluded that in a choice between saying anything interesting and any risk of shooting yourself in the foot, not shooting yourself in the foot any more is fine. That is a U-turn since the start of the campaign.

Ed Davy clearly has a whiteboard somewhere saying ‘no-one cares about us – we need to do literally anything to get noticed, no matter how degrading’. And I can only assume that Rishi Sunak desperately wishes he wasn’t Prime Minister and so is utterly committed to losing and shaking off the curse. Which means, on all fronts, this election has been overwhelmingly super-duper.

For the politicians. Literally only for the politicians. You must have heard of Starmer’s ‘ming vase strategy’. That is when you creep slowly and carefully across a slippy floor while carrying a £1.99 Dunelm Mill ‘feature vase’ while pretending it’s Ming Dynasty. And, given that the SNP are selling their role as ‘influencing a government which has an astounding majority (i.e., you can’t)’, there isn’t a lot on the table.

Yet there are four matters of giant importance which are at stake in this election and the debate about them has been so insufficient that I am deeply worried about the immediate future. The four big issues are the failure of our economy to serve the population, the unacceptable corrosiveness of inequality, the existential risk of climate change and the unbearable pressures being placed on our public services.

Well, you could add the disillusionment with democracy and public institutions resulting from all of this to the list too. These represent a mountain to climb and our politicians are doing it in business suits.

I have explained elsewhere why the economic debate we’re having is so insufficient. That focussed on the nonsensical commitment to doing more of the things that got us here in an attempt to get us out (which is to say grow GDP by increasing corporate profits at any expense). But almost everyone I’m speaking to these days is talking over and over and over about what is becoming known as ‘enshitification‘.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, read its originator Corry Doctrow. He explains clearly how the invasion of private equity capital into every aspect of the economy is driving a strategy of ‘create monopoly by using massive amounts of private equity money to destroy opponents through underpricing and then, once you have a monopoly, recover all the money and much more by rapidly reducing quality and increasing costs’.

In this election, who is talking about the way that every bit of our economy is getting less customer-friendly – adverts interceding more and more into streaming TV that you were told you were paying for to keep it free, useless chatbots instead of proper customer service, airline tickets designed to gouge money from you at literally every stage of your journey, poor quality products and services you can do nothing about. The politicians’ economic strategy is to have more of this.

The only reason the politicians can engage in lesser-evilism because they have, between them, created a monopoly of power, what the Silicon Valley investment set would call a ‘walled garden’

Meanwhile they all say they want to end poverty, yet the problem is not just poverty but inequality and none of them will utter the word seriously. And none of them are actually serious about poverty – they always, always say that the first step in solving poverty is to increase corporate profits (which caused the problem in the first place) and then tax them to help the poor.

Except corporation tax keeps coming down so the true political priorities undermine the politician’s rhetoric. The Scottish Government just announced (deep breath) half a million pounds across Scotland to support anti-poverty work. To put that into perspective, that’s what the Water Industry Commission was spending on MBAs for its top staff, or the size of the contract for a very basic tweak to an IT system, or a single contract to KPMG to design a corner of a National Care Service.

Climate change isn’t even being taken as a serious issue in this campaign. Every climate scientist in the world would concur that no party is proposing action which is even nearly sufficient to reach the scale of action we need to achieve. Really, the big winner in this election is the oil industry which has managed to turn the whole debate into oil jobs and the need to drill forever. The unions have been appalling.

Meanwhile no-one will accept why public services are going down the tubes. It’s capitalism. No-one will mouth any truth here; the NHS is dying in large part because of Ultra Processed Foods, care services are collapsing because of the impact of our economy on mental health, and that is putting undue pressure on all the other services like policing and local government.

Clearly that’s not the whole picture, but it is a good summary of the complete picture. Everyone wants to tackle every issue in society so long as it doesn’t interfere with the financial interests of the elite. That’s what ‘prioritise economic growth’ and ‘oil is essential to a just transition’ mean.

Party loyalists can shout at me all they want on the basis of ‘you must vote for us on the basis of lesser-evilism’, because lesser-evilism simply means you always get evil. If you’re being told you need to hold your nose to vote, the problem isn’t with you.

We need a different kind of democracy. I write a lot about this but I now want to increase the urgency; the way we are running our society is breaking a social deal in which the population consents to being governed on the basis that those governing them to do things which are in the public interest. That is no longer what is happening (if it ever was).

If an election has so many big and important issues dominating the agenda yet so many political parties which are not putting forward programmes of action which are in any way near sufficient to address those issues, then we need a democracy that enables us to do that in other ways.

This is, literally, the enshitification of democracy. The only reason the politicians can engage in lesser-evilism because they have, between them, created a monopoly of power, what the Silicon Valley investment set would call a ‘walled garden’ where ‘consumers’ (i.e. voters) have their power and choice taken from them.

It is made worse in Britain because of first past the post voting and in Scotland because all the parties have been able to sweep aside debate over domestic policy by rallying their base around constitutional issues.

In a couple of weeks the politicians will be back in their walled gardens and you will stop mattering to them again

The only options I can see now are balance, decentralisation and participation. The power of national politicians must be balanced. They cannot be permitted to lock the door on their walled garden once an election is over. 

Balance – there must be a powerful democratic challenge to political power and it must happen on a daily basis. That is why I desperately want to see a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament made up of citizens and so not controlled by the same political parties.

Decentralisation – if centralising politicians won’t do work on climate change then we must empower municipalities to do it instead. We need powerful regional government and we need a proper new layer of local democracy. The need for that is also driven by the managerial disinterest in place, our communities now being managed as nodes in a spreadsheet in an office miles away.

And in all this, when we create new democratic structures we must build in an absolute right of ongoing participation by citizens. The farce of government consultations is barely even a facade of participation and empowering citizens during policy development and implementation is something they can give and take away – and there isn’t much giving. That can be changed by law.

It’s not enough. There is so much wrong. We need a national, democratic Consumer Agency to give citizens power over the experience of the economy which they would use to kick back against enshitification. We need governments to strip managerial bureaucracy from public services and be honest about the underlying causes of our crisis – it’s not ‘sedentary behaviour’, you cannot ‘jog off’ UPF-related obesity, the care crisis is not ‘because of Brexit’, the oil industry is not a ‘crucial partner’ in decarbonising the economy.

We have had an election in which no politician will challenge power and will therefore distract you by suggesting its about something else. Because in a couple of weeks they’ll be back in their walled gardens and you will stop mattering to them again. 

When I say I’m delighted to be leaving this sorry election campaign far, far behind, it is most certainly not because I’m a bad democrat but because I’m a good democrat, one who actually believes that it is our last, best chance as a species.

Party apparatchiks – feel free post me in your explanations of how all this is my fault for not supporting you with sufficient zeal. I’ll put them with the others I’ve amassed over the last 35 years. Then go and ask yourselves why you are the least trusted generation of politicians in democratic history. Or lock your doors and build up your pensions while public faith in democracy falls further.

It is genuinely in your hands. Oh, and SNP, more or less everything I’ve suggested in this piece is within your power to do tomorrow. I’m utterly, utterly sick of everyone’s excuses and I am reaching a point where I am no longer willing to play along.

Other than that, I’m off to hunt out the Factor 50. See you all again in a couple of weeks. 

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This