The Eclipse of the Demos
The Cold War and the Crisis of Democracy before Neoliberalism
As populism presaging authoritarianism surges worldwide and political rights and civil liberties erode, pundits, politicians, and political scientists agree: democracy is in crisis. But where many blame the rise of neoliberalism, Kyong-Min Son suggests that a longer historical perspective is in order. His book, The Eclipse of the Demos, traces the crisis of democracy back to a fateful transformation of democratic theory during the Cold War, when the idea of the demos—a public body configured for the common good—gave way to a view of democracy as an instrument used by individuals to serve their private interests.
While the postwar pressures of totalitarianism and communism did not directly cause this transformation, Son contends that they did activate instrumental democracys three constitutive motifs: fear of the masses, faith in rational systemic management, and an ambivalence about the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Forged of these elements drawn from disparate intellectual traditions, instrumental democracy displaced a citizenry disposed to judge competing public claims according to the principles of the common good and political equality. In the instrumental model, citizens are seen as consumers whose political claims are equivalent—simply because each is willing to pay the same price: a vote. It is this transactional view of democracy, Son argues, that led to the unchallenged dominance of finance capital and growing social divisions that have fueled the rise of neoliberalism.
“The Eclipse of the Demos offers a striking account of the current fate of democracy in the North Atlantic world and puts paid to presentist accounts of neoliberalism and right-wing ascendance. By focusing on the distinctive contours of Cold War democratic theory and practice, the book sheds light on the historical trajectory of liberal democracy and how it relates both historically and conceptually to neoliberalism, while carefully contextualizing current modalities of democratic disaffiliation. Written with audacity and erudition, Son’s book constitutes an important contribution to an accurate and sober understanding of the current travails of democracy.”
—Antonio Y. Vázquez-Arroyo, author of Political Responsibility: Responding to Predicaments of Power
“The critique of democracy by neoliberal thinkers like F. A. Hayek is often treated as a scandal, a basic sin against the ideology of the free society. Yet Kyong-Min Son’s illuminating book shows that skepticism about democracy ran down the mainstream of scholarly conversation after 1945. There was no Golden Age. To understand the challenge to democracy posed by neoliberalism, we must reckon with the entire postwar period.”
—Quinn Slobodian, author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism
The Eclipse of the Demos envisions an answer to our present predicament: a democracy that rests on a demos engaging in collective inquiry and judgment rather than on a group of individuals concerned exclusively with their private welfare. By providing a clearer understanding of democracy before neoliberalism, this book begins the hard work of realizing that vision.