[This article appeared in The Gazette, Montreal, July 2, 2016, and was written by Julius Grey and L.-M. Casgrain, two local lawyers.] We live in a post-democratic world. The forms of democracy, for instance, elections and courts, are still with us, but they matter less and less. Most people have no influence on government, cannot afford justice, have very little security and can only exercise limited freedom of expression.
This does not mean we have the worst society ever. Democracy, which we like to trace back to ancient Athens, did not exist in many of the societies that professed it. In Athens, only a minority of the male population had a voice. Women, foreigners and slaves had neither vote nor rights. Similar charges can be levelled at 19th-century Britain and especially 19th-century America.
However, there was a period of time, 1945-1980, described by French economist Thomas Piketty as les trente glorieuses, when a new type of democracy appeared. Citizens could correct social injustice through the ballot box, individual liberty increased, women and minorities were enfranchised and the standard of living rose.
What has happened since 1980? Everywhere in the West, progress is stalled, security concerns trump liberty, political correctness stifles serious questioning of the democratic nature of our society or of its merits. At the same time, the fact that most people live at the very limit of what they can afford breeds apathy. The reality that our career can be thwarted at any time if we make remarks considered inappropriate means people do not talk. The increasing competition for jobs and prestige destroys notions like trust or honour. Moreover, direct repression, through an increasingly harsh criminal law and through emergency legislation, becomes more perceptible despite the official ideology of liberty.
It is clearly the victory of liberal capitalism and free trade around the 1980s that brought this about. This victory moved economic power from elected national states to unelected, international corporations. One could no longer transform society to create social justice or to redistribute the fruits of the economy.
Redistribution is the crux of the matter. The glorious years 1945-1980 were the only period in recent history where the spread between rich and poor diminished. It has been rising ever since, especially in the United States, but also in other western countries.
No ideology can hide the reality that the wealthy can buy more political clout and can obtain better education and health services than the rest. In fact, the rich are beginning to form a new privileged class that lives in gated communities, and uses private health and education facilities.
The jostling for public positions between lobbies---men and women, ethnic groups, language groups---only serves to underline the fundamental inequality and injustice. What is at stake is the distribution of goods and services, which should be available to all. The inexorable application of penal laws is a reminder to anyone who might try, that disobedience is not a practical or safe solution.
The conclusion is surely that all programs for democratic reform must be anchored in economic equality. An unequal democracy cannot last. Eastern Europe, Mexico and India are all reminders that the idea that there can be democratic institutions without economic equality is a pipe dream.
Left-wing parties are being abandoned by voters all over the western world because they have increasingly become mouthpieces for identity groups and offer nothing of interest to the little man whom they used to represent when they created the welfare state.
To recover our democratic ideals, individual economic equality and redistribution must again come to the top of the agenda. The state must put itself into interventionist mode and, if necessary, must be ready to raise taxes for the wealthy and to tamper with free trade and free movement of capital.
Plato predicted that democracy would necessarily degenerate into corruption and rule of the rich. The corollary is that relative equality remains the necessary condition for maintaining liberty and social justice. The achievement of equality is not easy, and there is no simple formula. However, slogans about democracy and free markets are a contradiction. The two cannot long coexist.