Under really extreme time pressure, I’ve thrown together an essay reflecting on the place of historical thinking in the current discussion of a crisis of democracy. Hedwig Richter and Tim Müller have been shepherding the essay along, but I would love to get feedback from others who know better and have thought more deeply about these things than I have. Footnoting and wording are still rough around the edges. The quotes are far too long. All of that will be tidied up. I need your comments, ideally, by Sunday morning East Coast time. Yup, the deadline really was pressing!

Democracy’s Twenty-First-Century Histories

Adam Tooze

February 2018

Draft for comment

Our current crisis of democracy is a crisis of power, governance and legitimacy. It is also a crisis of political knowledge. Political scientists and political experts were caught unawares by Trump, Brexit and the attenuation or even disintegration of the established party system across much of Europe. The voters who have flocked to the “populist parties” were, it seems, off the radar. They are now commonly described as “the forgotten” or “the ignored”. Anthropologists undertake expeditions to faraway places like Louisiana to discover what makes a native Trump voter tick.[1] Meanwhile, teams of forensic investigators reconstruct the electronic traces of Russian meddling. Beneath the apparent cornucopia of the digital public sphere we discover a labyrinth of profit-driven algorithms. No wonder that for many commentator this moment marks a break “in the narrative” of the West. We are at a turning-point of historic significance. But if that is the case, must we not turn the question back on history? If we are living through a crisis of political knowledge, is it a crisis of historical knowledge as well? How do history and historical writing relate to the current sense of democratic crisis? Can historical experience serve as an antidote to immediate panic? Or did complacent narratives help to make the democratic impasse possible?

To address those questions, the following essay offers a highly selective review, which does not attempt to survey the huge field of historical writing about democracy, or democratic theory. Instead, it sketches a series of connections between prominent works in which the relationship between thinking about democracy and history has been foregrounded.


Academic history is a slow moving business. Scholarly essays in journals can take years to appear. Books even longer. The current sense of democratic crisis is only a few years old. Historical writing will take a while to catch up. But such a simple view of timing is misleading. If one looks back over historical writing about democracy in the decades since the end of the Cold War, the sense of an immediate crisis may be relativized, but what replaces it is a sense of unease that stretches back at least to the 1990s. Historians may lag somewhat in their response to our current concerns, but they have been worrying about democracy for some time.

Of course, the news is not all bad. Both politics and the historical profession have been changed if not transformed by the empowerment of women, the civil rights revolution and the rollback of discrimination on grounds of sexuality. This has produced histories of struggle, inspirational narratives and warning voices, reminding their readers that the process is still very far from complete. Histories also continue to appear that celebrate the politics of the old era – monumental histories of democratic politics and (male) politicians. But these tend to be confined to national audiences. When a historian like John Bew writes about the history and theory of Realpolitik he addresses himself to a trans-Atlantic world of international relations.[2] When he writes a biography of “Citizen Clem”, his audience is British.[3] Caro’s gigantic biography of Johnson was an all-American historical event.[4] Similarly, it is hard to imagine a European counterpart to the American craze for all things Alexander Hamilton.[5]

But for the labour movement and socialist politics – the most powerful force of democratization for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the only force to operate both inside the major states of the West and to construct a true transnational presence – recent decades have been a period of decline and disempowerment. The texts that have reached the widest audience thus tend to be darker in tone. Howard Zinn’s People’s history of the United States was one of the bibles of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements.[6] Millions of copies have been sold.[7] Probably the most celebrated general history of the 1990s was Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes.[8] It was translated into dozens of languages. Retaining a Marxisant perspective Hobsbawm was far from sanguine about the long-run prospects of the cohabitation between capitalism and democracy. With the counterweight of the Soviet Union removed from the scene and national sovereignties seemingly destined to fragment into ever smaller units, he prophesized an ever greater imbalance between capital and citizenry.

In the 1990s Hobsbawm’s attenuated Marxism resonated with a second coming of Michael Polanyi’s Great Transformation.[9] This spawned a variety of critiques of the relationship between democracy and capitalism, which saw the late 19th and early twentieth centuries as precursors to the globalized present. That there might be tensions between national democracy and real existing globalized capitalism was not a discovery of 2008 or the Eurozone crisis of 2010. Dani Rodrik’s much discussed globalization trilemma, which many today see as the key to understanding the crisis of “populism”, was prefigured fifteen years earlier. Since the early 1990s economic historians such as Barry Eichengreen or Harold James had been harping on the tensions between national sovereignty and the global financial order.[10] Populism’s first great moment of mobilization came already in the 1890s, with William Jennings Bryan’s campaign against the gold standard and his spectacular capture of the Democratic Party at the Chicago convention of 1896.[11] Even if the threat or promise of socialism was receding behind the historical horizon, the lesson was clear. There were many circumstances under which capitalism and democracy did not make easy bedfellows.

Nor were these the gloomiest predictions. Political histories that drew not on political economy but on theories of imperialism and logics of racial violence were even grimmer. Mark Mazower pitched his Dark Continent against the backdrop of the genocidal violence in the former Yugoslavia.[12] It was a minatory account of the shallow roots of democracy in Europe. Michael Mann’s study of settler colonialism and mass participation in genocide – Dark Side of Democracy – wound the pitch of despair to an even higher level.[13] The new wave of Holocaust research taught that under the wrong circumstances “ordinary men”, SPD-voting citizens of Hamburg no less, were to be feared.[14] For Christopher Browning the Holocaust raised questions not just about Germany. The parallel he invoked was Vietnam. Whether in My Lai in 1968 or in Jozefow Poland in 1942, citizens could transform not just into soldiers but into mass murderers. Many male Nazis were no doubt driven by the politics of backlash. But Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland showed how women too flocked to the Nazi party and sustained both the anti-democratic politics and violence of the regime in part through their search for self-realization and emancipation. Dagmar Herzog would provocatively invert the terms of the debate by arguing that National Socialism in fact derived a large part of its energy by its openness to a racialized form of modern sexuality.[15]

Against this dark backdrop Geoff Eley’s Forging Democracy delivered a more upbeat and rebalanced view of the history of European politics by stressing the creative and dynamic role of the left in making and remaking democracy.[16] Eley’s narrative offered an antidote to structural pessimism, but it was bitterly ironic in that it was delivered at a moment when the European left seemed utterly exhausted, Clinton, Blair and Schroeder dominated the trans-Atlantic political scene, and political scientists led by Colin Crouch were warning of a new age of “post-democracy”.[17] Peter Mair spoke of “Ruling the void” and diagnosed the “hollowing of Western democracy”.[18]

All of these texts can be thought of as political interventions not in the sense of unambiguous party political alignment, but of an engagement in the public sphere. They were produced by academics who thought of themselves as contributing to arguments over the politics of modernity, policy-making and education as crucial civic functions. In the widest sense they were contributing to the critical scrutiny of power that John Keane would describe as “monitory democracy”.[19]


The Vietnam war was one of the moments that gave birth to monitory democracy – the awareness of the need by civil society in all its forms to exercise continuous and intensified scrutiny of democratically legitimated executive power. And the twenty-first century began with a series of shocks that reinforced that point. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the Bush administration launched the invasion first of Afghanistan and then of Iraq. It did so not only to bring to justice those responsible, but in the name of regime change and democratization. By 2006 democratization was officially espoused as a strategic objective of US security policy.

The mendacious politics of the Iraq war put American and British democracy in the dock. In the US it prompted scholars to launch a searching examination of the history of military-political relations in the Republic. In the Decline and Fall of the American Republic Bruce Ackerman whose recent work had revolved around an elaborate historical reconstruction of America’s constitutional development, turned his attention to the power grab by the executive branch and its increasing militarization.[20] For Ackerman it was the late stage of the Cold War that saw the fatal undermining of American democracy by its imperial overreach and militarism. Andrew Bacevich warned of a new American militarism in which the priorities of democratic politics and the military were inverted. “The question that generals wanted to hear from their civilian masters after Desert Storm was not “What are you doing for us?” but “What can we do for you and the troops?”[21]

But the disastrous experience in Afghanistan and Iraq also called profoundly into question the entire vision of democracy promotion that the neoconservatives drove forward. Their adoption of simplistic universalized notions of democracy as policy tools were at the heart of the disaster. It was one thing to write the history of global democratization as a series of waves, as Samuel P. Huntington had done in 1993. It was quite another to actually implement democratization in the Middle East. Of course, the historical examples of the Marshall Plan and the successful “democratization” of postwar Europe were easily too hand. But it was from Europe that the loudest opposition came. Indeed, Joschka Fischer would hurl that shared history in the face of Donald Rumsfeld, demanding that America live up its own historic standards and provide evidence for its claims about WMD.

Others despaired that the gap could any longer be bridged. In the wake of the gigantic demonstrations of early 2003, Habermas and Derrida published their manifesto – “February 15, or what binds Europeans together: A plea for a common foreign policy, beginning in the core of Europe.” Rather than make the case against war, Habermas chose the occasion to found a new political community around the core of the old European Community, the Europe of the 6. In his view the early twenty-first century was witnessing nothing less than a bifurcation of “the West”.[22]

Not surprisingly the feelings were mutual. Robert Kagan accused the Europeans of retreating to their own Venusian world, a world without agonistic conflict, a world regulated by law alone.[23] To the American wielders of power it seemed that Western Europe with its perfected democratic systems and comfortable welfare states had forgotten what politics was ultimately about: the question of war and peace. Furthermore, Europe’s liberal intellectuals were conveniently forgetting the frame of hard power on which their peaceful, prosperous and democratic development since 1945 had rested, a frame supplied by America as the “arsenal of democracy”.

The further implications of that point were brought home by critical reactions to the Habermas-Derrida vision from Eastern Europe.[24] Their Franco-German vision of a unified core Europe seemed to be shaped as much by mistrust towards Eastern Europe as it was distance from America. Donald Rumsfeld had played cynically upon the distinction between “old” and “new Europe”. But the differences were real. In Eastern Europe there was, indeed, greater enthusiasm for the historic mission of NATO and a greater willingness to go along with American projects of democratization backed where necessary with military force. Habermas and Derrida’s vision revealed a failure of historical imagination. As Tony Judt and Norman Davies both argued, it was time for Europe to move on and to re-envision its history beyond the territorial demarcations of the Cold War.[25]

But, perhaps the most far-reaching intellectual reply to Habermas came from Pierre Rosanvallon, first in his inaugural lecture at the College de France and then a few years later in a powerful essay of 2008.[26] Rosanvallon agreed that historically there were different European and American conceptions of democracy as a political project. But he then went on to insist that both the American and the Franco-European model had frozen into theologically-infused, “closed universals”. Indeed, what was often presented as the revival of political theory, the trans-Atlantic project of normative political philosophy proffered by Habermas and Rawls was a third, more benign, version of the same problem. What each of these closed universal conceptions of democracy obscured were the tensions, contradictions and fissures that haunted the democratic project not accidentally but constitutively.

Rosanvallon’s intervention moved the discussion to a new level because what he was calling for were not more critical histories of American militarism (à la Ackerman), or a separate history of the European West (à la Habermas), but a reinjection of history as such into the discourse of democracy, a rehistoricization of a discourse that had become rigidified and thus exclusive even of much of Europe let alone the rest of the world.

“Only an historical approach can fully grasp politics … can take full measure of politics … only if one brings out the full depth and density of the contradictions and ambiguities that underpin it. One must thus seek to think democracy by tracing the course of its history. Yet it is clearly not enough merely to say that democracy has a history. Rather, one must take the more radical step of recognizing that democracy is a history. It cannot be separated from the task of self-exploration and experimentation, nor from an effort to understand and to build upon its own essence. … History must thus be the active laboratory of our present, and not simply its back-lighting. It is through a permanent dialogue with the past that the political processes through which society is instituted becomes legible and that an interactive understanding of the world can be born.”

If the West was to escape its self-inflicted impasse, grimly exemplified by Iraq and Afghanistan, it needed to systematically espouse a deep historical consciousness. Sounding like E.P. Thompson, Rosanvallon announced,

“In order to adequately think democracy, one must thus abandon the idea of a model in favor of that of experience. The conditions of common life and of self-government cannot be defined a priori, fixed by tradition, or imposed by an authority. On the contrary, the democratic project establishes politics as a field that constitutively resists closure by virtue of the tensions and uncertainties that underpin it. … Only such a history can bring to light the relationship between our experience and those of the men and women who preceded us in all corners of the earth. There is, according to this conception, no model of democracy with which some have been endowed so that they might institute it throughout the world. There are only experiences and the results of trial and error, which must be meticulously and lucidly assessed and grasped by all.”

History thus moved from being a watchdog to being a systemic antidote to the hardening of modernity’s intellectual-political arteries.

The initial impetus for Rosanvallon’s approach to democracy as history was critical and curative. But that stance of reflection and interrogation applied not just to democratic idolatry, but to democratic disillusionment and disappointment as well. Rosanvallon recognized the deep discontent evident in Europe in the early 2000s. “A whole series of contemporary debates coalesce, in fact, around the diagnosis of a transition felt to be dangerous: the decline of the will, the unraveling of sovereignty, the disaggregations of forms of collectivity, and so forth.” But, as Rosanvallon insisted, such sentiments were “by no means unprecedented”. They were in fact structurally conditioned by the distinction between “the political” – the act of constituting the collective – and the day to day business of real existing “politics”.

As Rosanvallon remarked, “it is never simple to separate the noble from the vulgar, the great ambitions from the petty egotistical calculations, the trenchant language of truth from the sophistry of manipulation and seduction, the necessary attention to the long term from submission to the urgencies of the moment. …. There grows up around the political, as a result, a longing that in a certain sense is impossible to fulfill. It is often as if there were at the same time too much and too little of politics, a fact which combines an expectation and a rejection. The desire for politics flows from the aspiration for the collectivity to be its own master, and the hope of seeing a community take form in which a place is made for each person. At the same time, there is a rejection of sterile conflicts and the search for a simply private happiness. It is easy to feel at once what feels like an exasperation before an excess and a nostalgia before what feels like a decline. Politics often seems simultaneously like an irritating residue, to be eliminated if possible, and like a tragically lacking dimension of life, a cruelly absent grandeur.”[27]

Neoliberalism and its politics of depoliticization no doubt exacerbated the sense of living in a “post-democratic” condition. But the problem was inherent to the very structure of modern politics itself.


But if history was the antidote to democratic fetishism that begged the question: what type of history? The type of history that Rosanvallon saw as salvation – experiential, skeptical, modest particularizing, tearing apart the frozen universals of democratic ideology – was itself the product of very particular historical and political struggle. The historiography of modern France is a field of immense complexity.[28] To cut a long story very short, Rosanvallon’s particular vision of the historical study of the political is an answer both to exalted Republican histories of the French revolution and to the social historical evacuation of the political practiced for many decades by the Annales school. With his appointment to the College de France the heirs of Lefort and Furet had reached the culmination of their long march through the institutions.

In France since the 1970s the rethinking of history and democratic politics had proceeded hand in hand. The significance of that particular, national background is highlighted if we compare Rosanvallon’s hopeful invocation of his kind of history as the answer to the problem of rethinking democracy, to the near contemporary Politics out of History by the Californian critical theorist Wendy Brown.[29] For Brown, history is not the answer to an impasse in political theory. The collapse of taken for granted historicity, is the problem. “while many have lost confidence in a historiography bound to a notion of progress or to any other purpose, we have coined no political substitute for progressive understandings of where we have come from and where we are going..”. “What is (nineteenth-century) liberal justice without a narrative of progress that situates it between an inegalitarian and unemancipated ancien regime and the fulfilled promise of universal personhood and rights-based freedom and equality? What is (twentieth-century) liberal democracy without communism as its dark opposite? What is liberalism out of these histories, indeed out of history as we have known it, which is to say, out of a history marked by the periodicity of this particular past-present-future and by the temporality of progressivism?”

Little wonder, Brown remarks that “there is … a wash of insecurity, anxiety, and hopelessness across a political landscape formerly kept dry by the floodgates of foundationalism and metaphysics.” Not that she is hopeless. Like Rosanvallon she recognizes that there is much work to be done.

“(O)ut of the breakup of this seamless historiography and ground of settled principles, new political and epistemological possibilities emerge. As the past becomes less easily reduced to a single set of meanings and effects, as the present is forced to orient itself amid so much history and so many histories, history itself emerges as both weightier and less deterministic than ever before. Thus, even as the future may now appear more uncertain, less predictable, and perhaps even less promising than one figured by the terms of modernism, these same features suggest in the present a porousness and uncharted potential that can lead to futures outside the lines of modernist presumptions.”

It is hardly by coincidence that the final chapters of this Californian investigation into the problem of historicity and political theory were devoted to Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida and Benjamin. We all have our particular histories with democracy and its histories. It is in the nature of the beast and Germany is no exception.

In postwar Germany, the lineage of emphatically “democratic” historiography was shorter than in France. It begins in earnest really only in the 1960s. But by the twenty-first century that tradition too were ripe for excavation. Paul Nolte’s weighty but elegant history of democracy, Was ist Demokratie? is the most advanced effort to do this.[30] Just as for Rosanvallon, Nolte’s starting point is to insist that democracy is not a static timeless structure but a dynamically evolving historical process capable of generating genuine novelty. Against the backdrop of the assumptions of Nolte’s teachers in the Bielefeld school, the significance of this argumentative move should not be underestimated. They were enormously invested in the project of mapping Germany’s history against a standard of “the West” which they took to be self-evident. As Nolte insists, our challenge today, and it is a particular challenge for inheritors of the mantle of the democratic history of the Federal Republic, is to come to terms with the fact that we live in democracy’s post-classical era.

The originality of Nolte’s book is not just its breath and comprehensiveness but its structure. Democracy, Nolte insists, has not one but three histories with three different Leitmotifs – Erfüllung, Suche, Krise – fulfillment, search and crisis. This may seem like a rather formal exercise and Nolte offers no more than a perfunctory explanation for his choice. The justification emerges from the argument itself. The real significance of Nolte’s triad becomes clear when we realize that his three histories of democracy are not just modes of writing history, they are modes of historicity, modes in which democracy is experience and enacted. They are in fact the three modes mapped by theorists such as Rosanvallon and Brown – the abandoned narrative of fulfillment, the crisis that comes in its wake and the recommitment to a new search – a Bildungsroman without conclusion one is tempted to say. And as modes of political historicity as much as modes of history writing, they shape the development of democracy itself.

One is tempted to say that the quest for the realization of democracy, the search (democratic history 2), is, in fact, Nolte’s start point and his end point. With his insistence on our post-classical situation, Nolte demands that we accept innovation and novelty as democracy’s most basic reality. He can barely suppress his ironic tone when dealing with America’s resolute classicism. The open-ended search for democratic self-realization is not without its dangers. The quest can go wrong, as in the case of Leninism. It is significant that Nolte includes the failed Soviet experiment – alongside Carl Schmitt’s early writings – emphatically as part of the story of democracy’s quest. But even when disasters are avoided, the relentless effort of searching begs the question of an end point. This gives rise to narratives of democracy as fulfillment (democratic history 1). Such narratives are dangerous not only because they breed hubris, as in Rosanvallon’s “closed universals”, but also because narratives of fulfillment lead to their own kind of historical exhaustion – Brown’s “end of history” moment. At that point one risks tipping over into the third mode of narrating democracy: crisis.

This dynamic oscillation between historical modes is not just a formal possibility of Nolte’s schema. It is central to his interpretation of the crises of democracy in the early twentieth century. Ninteenth-century whig progressivism was exhausted by World War I. This set the scene for the problems of contemporary democratic politics to be interpreted as terminal crises that heralded the final exhaustion of democracy’s historical development. It was the collapse of an overconfident developmentalism, combined with a resentful backlash against the actual realization of very dramatic change that prepared the way for the leap into the dictatorial dark.

The three histories clearly correspond to ways of writing the history of democracy. Whig histories of political development deliver the narrative of fulfilment. The pessimistic Dark Continent literature fits the crisis school. If one were looking for an example of history of democracy as “search” one could point to Eley’s Forging Democracy. But an even more dramatic example would be John Keane’s, The Life and Death of Democracy.[31] Keane offers not only a dramatic and sweeping reconstruction of democracy as a global phenomenon. His is a manifesto for the democratization of the history of democracy. Indeed, Keane takes the imbrication of democracy and history to its logical endpoint. It is not simply, as Rosanvallon puts it, that democracy is a history. The interdependence goes both ways. For Keane democracy as a search for human autonomous self-government is constitutive of history itself.

Nolte is undeniably sympathetic to the idea of democracy as a never-ending quest. His very last sentence invokes Dewey. But unlike Keane whose commitment is to advocacy as well as analysis, Nolte sees the role of historian as being one of balance. Nolte’s tone is by no means dry. But it is cool. His triadic reconstruction of the histories of democracy, positions him to the side of all three. In this sense he is not just writing a history, but formulating something like an ideal mixed constitution of historicity. On its own, any one of the three modes of democratic historicity harbors dangers. It is when we balance the enthusiasm of fulfillment and the restless energy of the democratic search with the sharpened awareness of crisis, that we make history safe for democracy.

And this is the critical point that Nolte addresses to the present. What irks him is not schematic triumphalism. After the end of history and Iraq, there is little to fear from that direction. As Brown describes it so eloquently, we think amongst its ruins. Nolte welcomes experimentation. For him the fashionable causes of 2011, Occupy and Stuttgart 21, were to be welcomed as typical expressions of post-classical democracy. What really worries Nolte is democratic crisis talk. Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy is his bugbear. The crisis mode of narration, unchecked by the other two – by the recognition of our investment in democracy’s promise of fulfillment and the restless open-ended nature of democratic innovation – is a mode of historicity that Nolte sees both as a harbinger of crisis and as one of its motor. Anyone engaging in unreflected democratic crisis discourse after Carl Schmitt, he sternly declares, must hold themselves accountable.


Nolte’s point about democratic alarmism is well taken. The Dark Side of Democracy literature is profoundly lopsided and its politics are indeed opaque. But if there are risks involved in raising the alarm about false crises, surely there are some crises that are real. How do we make the historical judgement? When is the right moment to ring the tocsin? And in particular what are we to make of the current crisis? Here, a comparison between Nolte and another historically minded commentator is instructive.

David Runciman begins his latest discussion of democracy and its discontents, How Democracy Ends, with a description of a meeting at Cambridge University in January 2017 dedicated to a collective viewing of Trump’s inauguration.[32] What puzzles Runciman are the mixed emotions that Trump’s bizarre speech evoked. On first viewing Runciman and his colleagues were horrified. As scripted by Bannon and Miller, Trump seemed like a manifest threat to representative democracy. But on second viewing that reaction was displaced by a strange sense of calm and familiarity.

Strikingly, Nolte is less sanguine. For all his unease with talks of democratic crises and post-democracy, Nolte is not one to hold back when it comes to “populism”. The remarkable surge of the AfD in Eastern Germany he compares to a “putsch”. It strikes him as alarmingly reminiscent of the 1920s.

“The breakthrough of the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which jumped from zero to 15% or more just since last summer, took place, comparatively, like a coup. Are there parallels in German history? As far as the drama of the process is concerned, one has to look back much further into the past than the 1980s, i.e., to the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and early 1930s. Regardless of the content of a party’s program, a historian must find it worrisome, if a new party formation jumps immediately to 24%, as the AfD did in SachsenAnhalt in March. That indicates a quasirevolutionary unrest.”[33] And what explains this disastrous shift in public opinion is a temporal disjuncture not unlike that which Nolte diagnosed in the early twentieth century. Nolte declares that “Der Kern der Bewegung sei eine Krise des Weltverständnisses. Das äußere sich in Verschwörungstheorien und einem starken AntiEstablishmentDenken.”[34] Driven by their self-confident vision of progress, the elites had left the wider population behind. The result was to unleash “catastrophe fantasies”. If only the voters in Saxony could be brought to understand that “The world is much more stable than you think! The tenacity of what you cling to is in any case structurally much stronger than whatever comes from the outside. And if traditions are threatened, for example the Christian West, then the threat really comes from inside, because the tradition is no longer experienced as vital, and not from outside.”

But if talk of post-demokratie was exaggerated, is there not something overblown about such evocations of the interwar period? Runciman for one is not convinced and his doubts go beyond the specifics of the current moment. In 2018 Runciman is no mood to deny the seriousness of our situation and like Rosanvallon and Nolte he insists on the need to draw on history to understand it. Unlike Brown, Runciman is untroubled by talk about the end of history. Unlike Nolte he does not tarry over questions of historiographical emplotment. The question for Runciman is which bit of the past to relate to:

“In arguing that we ought to get away from our current fixation with the 1930s, I am not suggesting that history is unimportant,” Runciman insists. “Quite the opposite: our obsession with a few traumatic moments in our past can blind us to the many lessons to be drawn from other points in time. For there is as much to learn from the 1890s as from the 1930s. I go further back: to the 1650s and to the democracy of the ancient world. We need history to help us break free from our unhealthy fixations with our own immediate back story. It is therapy for the middleaged.”[35]

If Trump’s populism is the issue, then Runciman looks not to the 1920s, but to the 1890s for insights. If our inability to face the possibility of existential technological or environmental risk is the issue, then the 1960s and the age of the Cuban missile crisis, Rachel Carson’s silent spring and Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil may be more telling. If what we are facing are the dramatic effects of a media revolution, then perhaps early modern history has more to tell us. None of these historical vignettes make Runciman confident about the future. But they suggest a different range of problems with democracy than the leap back to the 1920s.

One way to explain the difference between Runciman and Nolte’s use of the past would be to say that Nolte starts with the phenomenon of the upsurge of the AfD and looks for its historical analogues. Runciman by contrast, starts not with the political manifestations, but with what he takes to be the systemic challenges of the present – for instance, gilded age inequality and existential environmental and technological risk – and looks to see what can be learned from the past about how democracies cope with those threats. The result is illuminating. It does indeed distance us from a morbid obsession with the interwar period. But it also results in a fractured and episodic treatment. Historical cameos illuminate the present, they do not systematically explain how we got here.


That evasion is not by accident. If one takes democracy in a capacious way, as the topic surely demands, then asking the question of how we got here is tantamount to asking for a comprehensive theoretical history of modernity. It is a daunting task and an unfashionable one in an age suspicious of historical theorizing on that scale. The author to have attempted the task most recently and with most direct application to the question of democracy is Marcel Gauchet. A long-time fellow traveller of Rosanvallon in the collective of French post-Marxists, the two were estranged in the early 2000s. But their thought continues to exhibit interesting parallels. Like Rosanvallon, Gauchet is a theorist as much of the political as of politics. In 2007 Gauchet delivered the first of four volumes of the L’Avènement de la Democratie series. 2017 saw the completion of the project. In it, Gauchet develops a sweeping account of West European modernity from the 17th century down to the present. Its key terms are autonomy, democracy and above all secularization.

For Gauchet the “materialization of autonomy concomitant with the leaving of religion was realised in three stages and it was carried out successively by three different drivers: the political, the law and history.”[36] The state provided an earthly anchoring of political power. Law provided the basic regulator of human-fashioned relationships. Finally, “ the process that saw humanity leave religion was characterized by the reversal of the time orientation that had hitherto defined collective action. Running counter to the unconditional obedience owed to a foundational past and to the dependency on tradition, modern historicity projects humanity into the invention of the future. It replaces the authority conferred on origin, defi ned as the source of the immutable order designed to rule amongst humans with the self-constitution of the human world over time, a self-constitution that is being re-directed towards the future. Here lies what we can designate as the historical orientation, which constitutes the third driver of autonomy in so far as through it, humanity purposely comes to produce itself across time.”

So Gauchet agrees with Rosanvallon, Brown, Keane and Nolte on the centrality of the connection between historicity and democracy, but insists that its origin lies essentially in the emancipation from a frame of temporal consciousness shaped by religion.

“… the problems that characterise the democracy of the moderns essentially boil down to a matter of adjusting, of articulating, of combining these three dynamics of autonomy, political, juridical and historical. … It is arduous indeed to keep together the requirements of the political form, the demands of the individual endowed with rights and the needs of future-oriented self-creation, to make them work in unison.”

Gauchet’s locates our current moment of crisis as the fifth in a series of key stages in the history of modern democracy:

  1. The nineteenth-century liberal regime
  2. The early twentieth-century crisis
  3. Totalitarianism
  4. Postwar mixed regime
  5. Neoliberalism.

The phases are by themselves by no means new. But what is interesting about Gauchet’s model is how systematically he places historicity at the heart of this discussion. In every constellation the relationship between all three modes of realizing autonomy is in play – the state, the law and historicity. But it is the third term, the self-conscious, dynamic, self-production of society which is the prime mover. What emerged from the Sattelzeit between 1750 and 1850 under the sign of liberal modernity was the primacy of civil society and its dynamic self-reproduction, a “new type of society” in Gauchet’s words, “la societe de l’histoire (history-based society)”, a conception clearly deeply indebted to Hannah Arendt.

Against this backdrop the first fundamental crisis of the modern democratic constitution is defined as the point at which

“on the one hand democratic legitimacy won, came into effect and imposed the rule of the masses whilst on the other hand, this theoretical advance of autonomy, guaranteed by a mode of power based on universal suffrage, far from leading to actual self-government led in reality to a loss of collective mastery. The parliamentary system revealed itself to be both deceptive and impotent; society stressed by the division of labour and the antagonism between the classes, gave the impression of coming apart; historical change, as it became widespread, accelerated, intensified and escaped all control. Thus, humans, at the very moment they could no longer ignore the fact that they were the ones that made history, found themselves forced to admit to themselves that they did not comprehend the very history they were making. … A suspicion crept in, the suspicion that the move away from religion had perhaps given birth to an unruly society. The two great phenomena of the 20th century – the eruption of totalitarianisms and the formation of liberal democracies – must be understood as two responses to this immeasurable crisis.”

So, like Nolte, Gauchet diagnoses an imbalance in the forcefield of historicity as one of the principal drivers of the early twentieth-century crisis. It is a formulation reminiscent of the narratives of H Stuart Hughes.[37] It also reminds one of Perry Anderson’s reworking of Fukuyama’s end of history thesis and Lutz Niethammer’s Posthistoire.[38] But crucially, for Gauchet the crisis of unsettlement in the early twentieth century was still shaped by the shock of the first wave of secularization. That was the model of certainty against which the new experience of uncertainty was measured and for which totalitarian models of social and political organization offered a violent fix.

What for Gauchet sets the current moment starkly apart from this first phase of democratic crisis, is not just the intervening regime of the trente glorieuse in which the power of the state, law, and the historical self-production of society were happily recombined. The crucial historical development is a second and terminal wave of secularization that swept across Western Europe from the 1960s, or, as Gauchet calls it, the “re-launch of the process of disengagement from religion”. What we might ordinarily characterize as the age of neoliberalism has this comprehensive process of secularization at its core. “Only the perspective of the latter makes it possible to recognise the mutation’s manifold dimensions.”

This is what makes the analogy to the 1920s misleading. What Gauchet diagnoses is not simply one of the recurring shocks of globalization and modernization, but a new form of unsettlement framed by the new geometry of the relationship between the collective political power of the state, the law and historicity. Under the sign of neoliberalism, it is law and the regime of rights, both property and human rights that predominate. The regime of rights – both property and human rights – “is the master authority of today’s social configuration. It confers its political tone upon the liberal offensive, by laying almost as much emphasis on the exercise of individual rights as on civil society’s capacity for initiative. One can debate for a long time which of the two, in the end, exercises more influence among the forces which shape our world: economic freedoms or the politics of human rights. For our purpose, suffice it to note their interdependency.”

“One of the drivers – the law (the ultimate guarantor of the regime of rights) – seems to prevail over the others and to be able to dictate in a hegemonic fashion.”

But the collective capacities of the state remain a functional necessity and the roaring pace of economic and social change is more intense than ever. We live thus in a world governed by an “optical illusion”.

“The Nation State has remained as structurally important as ever but in a purely infrastructural mode and in the context of the disappearance of the imperative transcendental authority conferred upon it by religious structural underpinnings. Th is is so much the case that the retreat of its competences appears like a defeat (even though having ceased its command over the economy makes it serve even more as its mainstay). … Likewise, never has the perception that history is accelerating been so widespread, and justifiably so, no matter how inadequate the words used to convey it. Th e amplifi cation of historical action is indeed conspicuous. Except that this deepening of the productive orientation towards the future has the consequence of making this future impossible to grasp at the same time as it obscures the past. As this deepening severs the ties that unifi ed time it imprisons us in a perpetual present. At the very moment when the historical orientation rules to a degree as yet unequalled, all happens as if history has ceased to exist. In the collective environment only the juridical dimension remains visible.”

Gauchet’s macrohistorical vision thus provides the underpinning of Sam Moyn’s well-known critique of the history of human rights. For Moyn, the era of human rights as claims against the nation state, commences in the 1970s, with the exhaustion of the postcolonial state project and the advent of market liberalism. But by the same token, Gauchet’s schema also differentiates our moment of crisis from the first great crisis of modern democracy. Uncertainty in the 1920s and in the current moment does not mean the same thing, because the underlying notion of certainty has changed and our current unsettlement takes place within a framework of individualized rights more elaborate and solidly established than ever before.

The result, paradoxically is that “… the generalised feeling of being dispossessed that haunts life in a rights based democracy. Its logic exacerbates the divide between the elites and the people; inexorably it erodes the trust of people in the very oligarchies it pushes them to rely upon. The populist reactions such logic provokes ends up reinforcing the situation they denounce. Minimal democracy is a form of democracy that is all the more insecure and unhappy with itself for being trapped in a circle that deprives it of the means to self-correct.”

Ultimately a rights-based, legally fixated notion of democracy is for Gauchet profoundly unsatisfactory and unstable because it cannot recognize either the public power necessary to govern or the reality of the socio-economic processes with which it interacts.

“In concrete terms what this means is that the economy, under the banner of rights, imposes its rules and, in the process, changes to a very large extent the powers and freedoms of the individual. This constant dissonance consolidates the feeling that society is destined to be oblivious to itself, that the collective cannot be seized and, in the last instance, that democracy is impossible in the fullest sense of that word. How could this political community, supposing it even still exists, and which cannot be controlled because it is being pulled by incompatible demands, be capable of making choices that affect the whole? Through different paths this returns us to the idea of a minimal democracy. In an environment which definitely escapes our control, the concept of democracy can only retain one plausible meaning, the protection of the freedoms of the private individual. When it comes to the unconditional legitimacy of personal prerogatives skepticism towards collective power shifts into dogmatism.”

But not only does Gauchet allow us to differentiate systematically between epochs of crisis. He also allows us to situate the mode of historicity that is so characteristic of our moment. The sense of loss of the grand narrative from which Brown takes her starting point and the modest, cut-down, plural version of history that Rosanvallon and Nolte so forcefully advocate are both symptomatic of our moment. As Gauchet puts, in a world in which the political-theological disarmament has been taken to a new level, in a world of minimal democracy, history itself has been desacralized. We are beyond the end of the end of history.

The sweep of Gauchet’s vision is impressive. But the obvious question is how it stands in relation to its own diagnosis. Can a vision capable of proclaiming that we are “beyond the end of the end of history” really claim even to have reached the end of history? Either Gauchet’s account of the present is incomplete, or he cannot account for the conditions of his own possibility. Uncharitably, one might see it as a sign of Gauchet’s belatedness. His sprawling narrative is a souped-up version of 1970s anti-totalitarianism beached in a world which as he himself admits is well beyond post-totalitarian excitement. Even the tearing down of monuments to dictators has a hackneyed feel.

But for Gauchet himself, such dismissive responses simply fail to register his critical intent. Unfashionable though it may be, what his supervening philosophical history allows him to do is diagnose the current moment of historical fragmentation as itself an effect of the “minimal democracy” that we inhabit. Hanging on to that insight is precious because Gauchet is by no means fatalistic. What he aims for is a “recomposition” of the political. This will involve not a rejection of the “human rights moment” and its attenuated historicity, but its reflexive subsumption and rearticulation with a revived capacity for collective political action and a reenergized conception of collective historical self-production. Beyond the end of secularization, at least as far as Europe is concerned, there is no alterative to the basic triadic structure of state, law and history. The only question is how they will be combined and recombined.


What even this hasty sketch of the literature suggests is that democracy not only has three histories as Nolte suggest, but over the decades since the Cold War there have been, at least, three ways of thinking the connection of democracy and history. There is the hit and run pluralism that poses the question of democracy again and again in a variety of ways. For this monitory history of democracy, Keane provides a jubilant manifesto. Brown’s embrace of Nietzsche and Foucault perhaps points in a similar direction. Runciman’s pick and mix approach has a similar pragmatic feel. This is distinct from the systematic ontologically founded historicism advocated by Rosanvallon – “democracy is a history”. It is also distinct from Nolte’s triadic structure of fulfilment, search and crisis, which one might think of as incorporating Rosanvallon. Finally we have to reckon with Gauchet’s frankly macrohistorical birds-eye view that explains how the current configuration of historicity and political organization came to be.

This triad is itself not accidental. Each of these meta approaches to the problem of history and democracy can be defined in terms of a position taken in relation to the problem of the philosophy of history: indifference, pluralism, embrace.

Transposing Nolte’s triadic analysis to one higher level of abstraction, the next question to ask is what is the relation between these three metahistorical positions. Is it an ascending chain? Or does the logic of a balanced constitution, which Nolte invokes to found his triad of histories of democracy operate in relation to these three metahistorical modes as well? Do the three modes complement each other – the energized and engaged polemic addressed to an immediate problem, the cool recognition of historiographic plurality offset by the continued quest for totalizing explanation? Or do they in fact exclude each other?

Their historical diagnoses of the problems of the present certainly diverge. Whilst Nolte’s reference points remain classical and Gauchet waits for the latest wave of secularization to work itself out, John Keane’s global perspective leads him to focus on the challenge of democratization in China, and Runciman is driven to consider what Cold War history tells us about our likely chance of controlling Artificial Intelligence and the coming swarms of nanorobots, are they the new banality of evil?

As Mueller and Richter note, Fukuyama identified amnesia as one of the threats to democracy beyond the end of history. Citing Chris Clark’s account of 1914, Runciman invokes the notion of democracy as “sleepwalking” into crisis. In contrast to these images of the absence of mind, it is an attractive idea to imagine a general awakening to historical consciousness about democracy and the experimental possibilities that its histories suggests. But the question remains to be answered: what history do we awake into? Whose history is it? And perhaps even more basic is the essential political question of who it is that we imagine awakening. To whom is our message in fact addressed? And how will they respond to the ringing of our historical alarm-clocks? Might they not simply prefer to hit the snooze button?


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