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ROAR Magazine

Fri, 14 Sep 2018 18:17:25 +0200

Ten years on, the crisis of global capitalism never really ended

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the once-mighty US investment bank whose dramatic bankruptcy on September 15, 2008 unleashed the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. A decade on, we commonly hear the complaint that little has changed since then: the banks are still too big to fail, finance continues to dominate productive activity, and ordinary households are yet to feel the impact of a sluggish economic recovery in their pockets. But this perceived continuity, while certainly valid, is only part of the story. In reality, a lot has changed over the past 10 years – much of it, unfortunately, for the worse.

In the years before the crash, the world still reveled in a credit-fueled state of complacency. During this so-called Great Moderation, UK Chancellor and later Prime Minister Gordon Brown even infamously boasted that the endless boom and bust cycles of the past had finally been mastered and overcome. From now on, there would be no more financial crises. This false sense of calm has long since given way to intensifying economic, social and political turmoil. Looking back, it is clear that much of this turmoil can be directly attributed to the disastrous way in which policymakers responded to the 2008 crash.

As governments across the globe bailed out their biggest banks and assumed the liabilities of the financial sector in a desperate bid to keep global capitalism from imploding under the weight of another Great Depression, they effectively transformed a private banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis. From 2010 onwards, they then responded to this self-inflicted sovereign debt crisis with a policy of extreme austerity, rapidly slashing public expenditure to repay private bondholders – who often turned out to be the same financial institutions that had been bailed out with taxpayer money in 2008.

This neoliberal approach to crisis management – privatizing the bankers’ profits and socializing their losses – in turn intensified a long-standing trend towards growing socio-economic inequality. Faced with decimated welfare benefits, rising unemployment and stagnant or falling real wages, many households had little choice but to take on even more debt just to cover their basic expenses.

As we now know, the gospel of fiscal austerity was to find its most passionate preachers in the European Union, where the zealous embrace of budget cuts and the resultant fall in aggregate demand led to a lost decade and several violent bouts of market panic that nearly brought down the Eurozone. Nowhere were the catastrophic consequences more painfully felt than in Greece. Placed under the tutelage of its creditors, the country slashed public spending and underwent a collapse of economic output and popular living standards worse than that experienced by the United States during the 1930s.

In Europe, as elsewhere, this economic devastation in turn fed into intensifying social conflict and political polarization. During this second stage of the global capitalist crisis, the fiscal troubles of the state were effectively transformed into a full-blown crisis of legitimacy.

In 2011, the world witnessed the outbreak of mass protests fueled by a combination of acute political and economic grievances. Starting with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a wave of popular revolts spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin and the wider Middle East, profoundly upsetting the established regional order in the process.

During the spring and summer, millions took to the streets of Greece and Spain in massive anti-austerity protests, directly inspired by the Arab Spring and in turn inspiring the Occupy Wall Street movement that would emerge in New York and quickly spread across the globe later that year. In 2013, similar uprisings convulsed Turkey and Brazil. The world was shaking.

It was in the Arab countries, however, that these spectacular social mobilizations had the most far-reaching political consequences, overthrowing or destabilizing a number of entrenched dictatorial regimes before collapsing into sectarian strife, counterrevolutionary terror and – most dramatically in Syria, Libya and Yemen – bloody civil war.

The violent conflict, foreign interventions and subsequent collapse of state authority in parts of Syria and Libya in turn fed into a major humanitarian crisis that saw millions of people seek refuge in neighboring countries. In 2015, a relatively minor share of these people briefly tried to make their way into Europe, where – despite widespread grassroots solidarity actions – they were often met with barbed wire, detention centers and an explosion of anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up by years of austerity-induced misery, in what controversially came to be known as the European “refugee crisis.”

Around the same time, a sudden outbreak of civil strife in the Ukraine brought Russia and the West to the brink of violent conflict. As historian Adam Tooze convincingly argues, these pre-existing tensions in the former Soviet sphere were also dramatically exacerbated by the economic fallout of the 2008 crash.

Meanwhile, as the social and political consequences of the crisis began to make themselves felt, and the postwar international order seemed to tremble on its foundations, the world’s leading central banks – adamant to save the skin of private financiers and avoid a repeat of the 1930s – responded with an unprecedented monetary experiment. Not only did they drop interest rates to historic lows, but they also embarked on an aggressive program of “quantitative easing” (QE) that would see the four biggest central banks pump the equivalent of $15 trillion in new money into the global financial system.

Instead of boosting productive activity, however, it soon became clear that this excess liquidity had unleashed a fresh wave of speculative investment. As a result, new financial bubbles blew up left and right: in real estate, in stocks, in student and car loans, in corporate bonds, in emerging markets – anywhere where such investments appeared to yield a decent rate of return. Apart from fueling the longest bull run in US stock market history, the vast increase in global liquidity also powered a renewed international lending boom that caused global debt to shoot up to 217 percent of GDP – its highest level ever, 40 percent above the danger zone reached on the eve of the crash in 2007.

In short, policymakers and central bankers set out to resolve a crisis caused by far too much debt – with even more debt! In the absence of sufficient productive investment, this was always going to be a recipe for disaster.

The unintended side-effects are already starting to make themselves felt in emerging markets like Turkey and Argentina, which borrowed heavily in dollars during the QE-fueled boom, leaving them particularly vulnerable to an external economic shock. Now, as the US Federal Reserve unwinds its QE program and prepares to raise interest rates, capital is beginning to flow back from emerging markets to the United States, causing growth in the Global South to slow and the US dollar to strengthen in the process. If it persists, this lethal mix of slowing growth, rising interest rates and a stronger US dollar will steadily undermine the capacity of emerging-market borrowers to repay their dollar-denominated debts, likely leading to renewed investor panic.

Although the world economy will probably be able to withstand a series of isolated emerging-market crises, there is one country whose towering debt load would, if it were to implode, pull the rug from underneath the global recovery. That country, of course, is China.

While China’s debt is mostly domestically held, its enormous credit expansion of the past decade must surely rank among the most extreme in history. Total debt is expected to reach 327 percent of GDP by 2022, double the level of 2008, placing global capitalism’s industrial powerhouse among the most heavily indebted economies in the world. The explosion of credit fueled an unparalleled construction boom that saw China pour 45 percent more concrete into its cities in three years than the US had consumed in the entire preceding century.

It proved to be a shot in the arm for commodity-exporting developing countries, and it certainly helped keep global capitalism on the rails after 2008. But the same credit-fueled boom also led to massive over-investment, leaving behind vast ghost cities and enormous surplus capacity alongside a gigantic $10 trillion shadow banking sector. Some fear that this “mother of all bubbles” may yet blow up to unleash a major financial cataclysm further down the road.

Even in the absence of such a disaster scenario, however, the combination of a Chinese growth slowdown and the end of monetary stimulus in the US is already having far-reaching repercussions elsewhere in the world. The fallout has hit Latin America especially hard, causing its “Pink Tide” of progressive governments to rapidly recede in the face of worsening economic conditions.

Brazil, for one, by far Latin America’s largest economy, has recently been battling its deepest and longest recession in history. This steep downturn has gone hand in hand with intense political instability, leading to a right-wing “constitutional coup” against president Dilma Rousseff and leaving former president Lula in prison on corruption charges, forcing him to pull out of next year’s presidential race. Similar turmoil has beset both Maduro’s socialist government in Venezuela and Macri’s neoliberal government in Argentina, highlighting the structural nature of the crisis, which is striking vulnerable countries irrespective of the ideological orientations of those in power.

The most consequential political tumult of all, however, is undoubtedly that rocking the old capitalist heartland of the European Union and the United States. There, from 2016 onwards, years of austerity-induced mistrust, decades of globalization- and financialization-driven inequality, and centuries of glorified racism, nationalism and misogyny have finally culminated in a parallel political showdown unmatched in postwar history.

On one side of the Atlantic, the isolationist wing of the UK Conservative Party, ever-nostalgic for the long-gone glory days of the British Empire, is threatening to storm out of the European Union without a proper exit deal, risking untold damage not only to its own economy but also to jittery global financial markets. Similar reactionary forces are now making serious electoral inroads across the continent, raising the specter of a potential disintegration of the EU.

On the other side, meanwhile, US President Donald Trump appears to be trying to do everything in his power to undermine the stability and future viability of his own administration. Yet despite the seemingly interminable succession of scandals and controversies, he retains control over his Twitter account and the reins of foreign policy, allowing him to stoke international divisions and geopolitical tensions amidst an escalating trade war with China.

The immense uncertainty generated by this intensification of domestic and international political conflict is in turn having a depressing effect on the global economic recovery – which on its turn is bound to feed into even greater political chaos elsewhere, setting off a vicious cycle of self-reinforcing disorder.

In short, the global firestorm unleashed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers ten years ago has by no means subsided. Not only are the consequences of the financial crash still with us today, in the form of widening inequality, rising debt and crippling political instability, but the crisis of capitalism itself also persists and continues to wreak havoc across the globe, constantly changing shape as it makes its way from one disturbance to another.

Luckily, however, not all social and political change since 2008 has been for the worse. The same destabilizing dynamics that brought the world Trump and Brexit have also opened a previously unimagined space for politics – including a different kind of politics committed to a radically democratic and truly emancipatory alternative to the present global disorder.

This new radical politics first showed its face in the global uprisings that rocked the established order from 2011 onwards. It has recently begun to consolidate itself in the form of vibrant grassroots movements, progressive political formations and explicitly socialist candidacies that collectively seek to challenge the untrammeled power and privileges of the “1 percent” from below.

Even in the midst of the Syrian civil war, the bloodiest and most intractable conflict to have emerged in the shadow of the Great Recession, in a region so often deprived of hope for a better future, the struggle for democratic autonomy by the Kurds and their allies has demonstrated the concrete possibilities of a liberatory political project in these tumultuous times.

At this point, it is still far too early to tell whether this emerging democratic politics of the twenty-first century will be able to succeed in the face of a powerful nationalist backlash. But if the dramatic events since 2016 are anything to go by, the political fallout of the global financial crisis is only just getting started. The real confrontation, it seems, is yet to come.

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Tue, 07 Aug 2018 14:36:01 +0200

Imagining a world with no bullshit jobs

Is your job pointless? Do you feel that your position could be eliminated and everything would continue on just fine? Maybe, you think, society would even be a little better off if your job never existed?

If your answer to these questions is “yes,” then take solace. You are not alone. As much as half the work that the working population engages in every day could be considered pointless, says David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

According to Graeber, the same free market policies that have made life and work more difficult for so many working people over the past few decades have simultaneously produced more highly paid managers, telemarketers, insurance company bureaucrats, lawyers and lobbyists who do nothing useful all day. Labor journalist Chris Brooks interviewed David Graeber to learn how so many pointless jobs came to exist and what it means for labor activists.

You make a distinction between bullshit jobs and shit jobs in your book. Can you talk a little bit about the distinction between the two?

Well it’s fairly straightforward: shit jobs are just bad jobs. Ones you’d never want to have. Back-breaking, underpaid, unappreciated, people who are treated without dignity and respect… The thing is for the most part, shit jobs aren’t bullshit, in the sense of pointless, nonsensical, because actually they usually involve doing something that genuinely needs to be done: driving people around, building things, taking care of people, cleaning up after them…

Bullshit jobs are most often paid quite well, involve nice benefit packages, you’re treated like you’re important and actually are doing something that needs to be done — but in fact, you know you’re not. So in that way they’re typically opposites.

How many of these bullshit jobs do you think could be eliminated and what kind of impact could that have on society?

Well pretty much all of them that’s kind of the whole point. Bullshit jobs are ones where the person doing them secretly believes that if the job (or even sometimes the entire industry) were to disappear, it would make no difference — or perhaps, as in the case of say telemarketers, lobbyists, or many corporate law firms, the world would be a better place.

And that’s not all: think of all the people doing real work in support of bullshit jobs, cleaning their office buildings, doing security or pest control for them, looking after the psychological and social damage done to human beings by people all working too hard on nothing. I’m sure we could easily eliminate half the work we’re doing and that would have major positive effects on everything from art and culture to climate change.

I was fascinated by your connecting the rise of bullshit jobs with the divorce between worker productivity and pay. Can you explain this process and how it has developed over the past few decades?

To be honest I’m not sure how new a thing it really is. The point wasn’t so much about productivity, in the economic sense, as social benefit. If someone is cleaning, or nursing, or cooking or driving a bus, you know exactly what they’re doing and why it’s important. This is not at all so clear for a brand manager or financial consultant. There was always something of an inverse relation between the usefulness of a given form of labor, and compensation. There are a few well-known exceptions like doctors or pilots but generally it holds true.

What’s happened has been less a change in the pattern, as a vast inflation of the number of useless and relatively well-paid jobs. We deceptively refer to the rise of the service economy here, but most actual service jobs are useful and low paid — I’m talking about waitresses, uber drivers, barbers and the like — and their overall numbers haven’t changed at all. What’s really increased are the number of clerical, administrative and managerial jobs, which seem to have tripled as an overall proportion of workers over the last century or so. That’s where the pointless jobs come in.

Kim Moody argues that rising productivity and low pay has more to do with intensifying management techniques, like lean and just-in-time production and surveillance technology that polices workers, rather than with automation. If that is true, then it seems like we are stuck in a vicious loop of companies creating more bullshit jobs to manage and police workers, thereby making their jobs shittier. What are your thoughts on this?

Well that’s definitely true if you’re talking about Amazon or UPS or Wallmart. I guess you could argue that the supervisory jobs that cause the speedups aren’t really bullshit, because they are doing something, if something not very nice. In manufacturing robots really have caused mass gains in productivity in most sectors, meaning that workers are downsized — though the few that remain are paid better than workers in most sectors overall.

Copies can be ordered directly from the publisher (UK/US)

Nonetheless in all those areas there’s the same tendency to add useless levels of managers between the boss, or the money people, and the actual workers, and to a large extent their “supervision” doesn’t speed up anything but actually slows it down. This becomes the more true, the more one moves toward the caring sector — education, health, social services of one sort or another. There the creation of meaningless administrative jobs and the concomitant bullshitization of real work — forcing nurses, doctors, teachers, professors to fill out endless forms all day — (I say concomitant because a lot of that, while justified by digitization, is really just there to give the useless administrators something to do), has the effect of massively lowering productivity.

This is what statistics actually show — productivity in industry skyrocketing, and with it, profits, but productivity in say health and education declining, therefore, prices going up, and profits being maintained largely by squeezing wages. Which in turn explains why you have teachers, nurses, even doctors and professors on strike in so many parts of the world.

Another of the arguments you make is that the structure of the modern corporation resembles feudalism more closely than the ideal of hypothetical market capitalism. What do you mean by that?

Well when I was in college they taught me that capitalism means that there are capitalists, who own productive resources, like say factories, and they hire people to make stuff and then sell it. So they can’t pay their workers so much they don’t make a profit, but they have to pay them at least enough that they can afford to buy the stuff the factory produces. Feudalism in contrast is when you just take your profits directly, by charging rent, fees and dues, turning people in debt peons, or otherwise shaking them down.

Well, nowadays the vast majority of corporate profits don’t come from making or selling things but from “finance”, which is a euphemism for other peoples’ debts — charging rents and fees and interest and whatnot. It’s feudalism in the classic definition, “direct juro-political extraction” as they sometimes put it.

This also means the role of government is very different: in classic capitalism it just protects your property and maybe polices the labor force so they don’t get too difficult, but in financial capitalism, you’re extracting your profits through the legal system, so the rules and regulations are absolutely crucial, you basically need the government to back you up as you shake people down for their debts.

And this also helps to explain why market enthusiasts are wrong in their claims that it’s impossible or unlikely that capitalism will produce bullshit jobs.

Yes, exactly. Amusingly enough both libertarians and Marxists tend to attack me on these grounds, and the reason is that both are still basically operating with a conception of capitalism as it existed in maybe the 1860s — lots of little competing firms making and selling stuff. Sure, that’s still true if you’re talking about, say, owner-operated restaurants, and I’d agree that such restaurants tend not to hire people they don’t really need.

But if you’re talking about the large firms that dominate the economy nowadays, they operate by an entirely different logic. If profits are extracted through fees, rents and creating and enforcing debts, if the state is intimately involved in surplus extraction, well, the difference between the economic and political sphere tends to dissolve. Buying political loyalty for your extractive schemes is itself an economic good.

There are also political roots to the creation of bullshit jobs. In your book you return to a particularly striking quote by former President Barack Obama. Can you talk about that quote and what it implies about political support for bullshit jobs?

When I suggested that one reason bullshit jobs endure is that they are politically convenient for a lot of powerful people, of course, lots of people accused me of being a paranoid conspiracy theorist — even though what I was really writing, I thought, was more an anti-conspiracy theory, why is it that powerful people don’t get together and try to do something about the situation.

The Obama quote felt like a smoking gun in that regard — basically he said “well everyone says single payer health care would be so much more efficient, sure, maybe it would, but think about it, we have millions of people working in jobs in all these competing private health firms because of all that redundancy and inefficiency. What are we going to do with those people?” So he admitted the free market was less efficient, in health at least, and that’s precisely why he preferred it — it maintained bullshit jobs.

Now, it’s interesting you never hear politicians talk that way about blue collar jobs — there it’s always the law of the market to eliminate as many as possible, or cut their salaries, and if they suffer, well, there’s nothing you can really do. For example, Obama didn’t seem to have nearly such concern about the auto workers who got laid off or had to give huge pay sacrifices after the bailout of the industry. So some jobs matter more than others.

In the case of Obama, it’s pretty clear why: as Tom Frank recently noted, the Democratic Party made a strategic decision starting in the ‘80s to basically drop the working class as their core constituency and take up the professional managerial classes instead. That’s now their base. But of course that’s exactly the area the bullshit jobs are concentrated.

In your book you stress that it is not just the Democrats that are institutionally invested in bullshit jobs, but unions too. Can you explain how unions are invested in sustaining and proliferating bullshit jobs and what this means for union activists?

Well, they used to talk about featherbedding, insisting on hiring unnecessary workers, and then of course any bureaucracy will tend to accumulate a certain number of bullshit positions. But what I was mainly talking about was simply the constant demand for “more jobs” as the solution to all social problems.

It’s always the one thing you can demand that no one can object to your demanding, as you’re not asking for a freebie, you’re asking to be allowed to earn your keep. Even Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington was billed as a march for “Jobs and Freedom” — because if you have union support, the demand for jobs has to be in there. And paradoxically if people are working independently, as freelancers, or even in coops, well, they’re not in unions are they?

Ever since the ’60s there has been one strain of radicalism that sees unions as part of the problem for this reason. But I think we need to think about the question in broader terms: how labor unions which once used to campaign for less work, less hours, have essentially come to accept the weird trade off between puritanism and hedonism on which consumer capitalism is based — that work should be “hard” (hence good people are “hard-working people”) and that the aim of work is material prosperity, that we need to suffer to earn our right to consumer toys.

You talk at length in your book about how wrong the traditional conception of working class work is. Specifically, you argue that working class jobs have more closely resembled the work typically associated with women than the work associated with men in factories. This means that transit workers have more in common with the care giving work of teachers than brick layers. Can you talk about this and how it relates to bullshit jobs?

We have this obsession with the idea of “production” and “productivity” (which in turn has to “grow”, hence, “growth”) — which I really think is theological in its origins. God created the universe. Humans are cursed to have to imitate God by creating their own food and clothing, etc., in pain and misery. So we think of work primarily as productive, making things — each sector is defined by its “productivity’, even real estate! — when in fact, even a moment’s reflection should show that most work isn’t making anything, it’s cleaning and polishing, and watching and tending to, helping and nurturing and fixing and otherwise taking care of things.

You make a cup once. You wash it a thousand times. This is what most working class work has always been too, there were always more nannies and bootblacks and gardeners and chimneysweeps and sex workers and dustmen and scullery maids and so on than factory workers.

And yes, even transit workers, who might seem to have nothing to do now that the ticket booths have been automated, are really there in case children get lost, or someone’s sick, or to talk down some drunk guy who’s bothering people… (Here the problem is the public has been so conditioned to think like petty bourgeois bosses they can’t accept that there’s no reason for people who are just there in case there’s a problem to be sitting around playing cards all day, so they’re expected to pretend to be working all the time anyway.) Yet we leave this out of our theories of value which are all about “productivity”.

I suggest the reverse, as feminist economists have suggested, we could think of even factory work as an extension of caring labor, because you only want to make cars or pave highways because you care that people can get to where they’re going. Certainly something like this underlies the sense people have that their work has “social value” — or even more, that it doesn’t have any social value if they have bullshit jobs.

But it’s very important I think to begin to reconsider how we think about the value of our work, and these things will become ever more important as automation makes caring labor more important — not just because, as I’ve already pointed out, it is having the paradoxical effect of causing those sectors to be less efficient, so there are more and more people have to work in those sectors to achieve the same effects, and not even because as a result these are the zones of real conflict, but especially because these are the areas we would not want to automate. We wouldn’t want a robot talking down drunks or comforting lost children. We need to see the value in the sort of labor we would only really want humans to do.

What are the implications of your theory of bullshit jobs for labor activists? You state that it’s hard to imagine what a campaign against bullshit jobs might look like, but can you sketch out some ideas of ways that unions and activists might start tackling this issue?

I like to talk about “the revolt of the caring classes.” The working classes have always been the caring classes — not just because they do almost all of the caring labor, but also because, perhaps partly as a result, they actually are more empathetic than the rich. Psychological studies show this, by the way. The richer you are, the less competent you are at even understanding other people’s feelings. So trying to reimagine work — not as a value or end in itself, but as the material extension of caring — is a good start.

Actually I’d even propose we replace “production” and “consumption” with “caring” and “freedom” — caring is any action ultimately directed towards maintaining or increasing another person, or other people’s freedom, just as mothers take care of children not just so they are healthy and grow and thrive, but most immediately, so they can play, which is the ultimate expression of freedom.

That’s all long-term stuff though. In the more immediate sense, I think we need to figure out how to oppose the dominance of the professional-managerial, not just in existing left organizations — though in many cases, like the US Democratic Party, I don’t even know if they should be called left — and thus, to effectively oppose bullshitization.

Right now nurses in New Zealand are on strike and one of their major issues is exactly that: on the one hand, their real wages have been declining, but on the other, they also find they are spending so much time filling out forms they can’t take care of their patients. It’s over 50 percent for many nurses.

The two problems are linked because of course all the money that would have otherwise been going to keep their wages up, are instead being diverted to hiring new and useless administrators who then burden them with even more bullshit to justify their own existence. But often, those administrators are represented by the same parties, even sometimes in the same unions.

How do we come up with a practical program to fight this sort of thing? I think that’s an extremely important strategic question.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber is published by Penguin Books in the UK and Simon and Schuster in the US.

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Mon, 06 Aug 2018 22:02:10 +0200

Mass Trespass

The Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 was one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience the UK has ever witnessed. It was an action that paved the way for our right to roam on mountain and moorland. Without it, we may not have been able to have full access to the countryside and the green open spaces we now have.

Set in the Peak District, this short film tells the heroic story of the trespassers and the change they brought about in getting us access, that eventually lead to the creation of the national parks we have nationwide. It is a film that celebrates their achievements and sets an example of how mass participation can bring about change for good. For this was a fight not only about access but about class. The wealthy landowners and the state against working-class men and women who simply wanted an escape on the weekends.

The film a great example of effective protest for today’s world.

Wed, 18 Jul 2018 23:02:41 +0200

ROAR #8: “Beyond the Border” coming soon!

Delighted to report that the editorial board of @PrincetonUPress just approved the complete manuscript of my book, which is now officially forthcoming. Just need to make some minor revisions and then we’ll go into production on Feb 15!

Thu, 05 Jul 2018 22:07:52 +0200

The Birdcage

The Birdcage revolves around the austerity measures in Greece, a few days after the historic Greek referendum of July 2015. Ten leading thinkers in democratic politics, including the philosopher Srecko Horvat, the documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, ROAR Magazine editor Jerome Roos, and writer and professor Jodi Dean take turns in a room, minutes away from the Greek parliament and the teargas of Syntagma Square, in answering the question: “How do economics affect politics today and what consequences does this have for the future of democracy?”