Rupert Read, Frank Scavelli: Eco-Authoritarianism, or Real Upgraded Democracy?

A Response to Ross Mittigas “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change”

Rupert Read is Co-Director of the Climate Majority Project, which seeks to embody the ideas set out in this article, and author of Why climate breakdown matters (Bloomsbury Press), which provides the full background for them.

Frank Scavelli is currently conducting research at the University of East Anglia on the ecological crisis and its intersection with the economy and society.


Photo: Matt Hrkac  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

What defines a democracy, and are modern, Western states suitably defined as such?  Why have these states not enacted meaningful climate policies, despite all evidence — and is an excess of democracy, as some would suggest, to blame?  In this article, at a time when the sentiments is burgeoning that perhaps democracies are not fit for purpose to the age of climate breakdown, we respond to Ross Mittiga’s prominent defence of that view. Specifically, his claim that climate breakdown increasingly (allegedly) legitimizes an authoritarian approach to government, as so-called ‘democracies’ fail to address this existential threat.  While maintaining Mittiga’s political-theoretical terminology, we argue instead that modern, Western states do not fit a definition of democracy once critically examined, and that a lack of democratic ‘contingent legitimacy’ is in fact responsible for the West’s failure to enact meaningful climate policies.  We further argue that a radical renewal of democracy will be required to address the eco-climate crisis. What is needed is not less democracy, but more – upgraded – democracy.

Section One: Introduction

Late in 2021, the American Political Science Review, probably the most prominent politics academic journal in the world, published “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change,” an article by Ross Mittiga which has since created something of a stir in the media and ‘blogosphere. A significant aspect of Mittiga’s article is an explication of political-theoretical terms, with which we take no particular issue, and will employ ourselves below: for instance, Foundational Legitimacy (FL), that the State must secure the basic necessities of life, and functioning of society, to have any legitimacy; Contingent Legitimacy (CL), that these basics having been secured, modern [Western] societies expect certain norms to be maintained, such as, according to Mittiga, ‘democracy, equal representation, protections of individual rights, social justice.It is, rather, Mittiga’s utilization of these concepts to assess contemporary political realities which we will argue against. Mittiga makes three claims, which follow from each other: 1), the political systems of the West represent ‘democracies;’ 2) despite however much ‘we may wish to resist [the] view’ that CL factors, ‘like respect for democracy… could ever meaningfully inhibit climate action, examples of this are manifold;’ 3) because democracy is standing in the way of meaningful climate action, there is real and growing legitimacy for eco-authoritarianism. Instead, we will argue that: 1) contemporary modern, Western states are not real democracies; 2) an excess of democracy is not responsible for lack of climate action, but rather, a lack of democracy is responsible for our current, mostly abysmal approach to the climate and ecological catastrophe; 3) more authoritarianism is not justified, but rather, more democracy: democracy needs to be upgraded.

If so-called ‘liberal-democracies’ fail to actually be democracies, then it would follow they in fact lack CL – and increasingly, as a result, FL too, for they are failing in their first responsibility of protecting against mortal threat. And if people feel that their government lacks legitimacy, it makes sense (and is even required by Mittiga‘s argument) that they would oppose its actions, viewing them as an expression of a malign exercise of power against their benefit or consent, including actions to ostensibly address existential crises. In this case, what would be called for then, and, contra Mittiga, legitimated by the current political reality, is more democracy, not less, both in respect to regaining governmental legitimacy, and in addressing the climate and ecological crises – the two in fact, we will argue, being simultaneous and inseparable.

In sum, far from (as Mittiga recommends) suspending CL to secure FL, we should recognise the paucity of present CL and, increasingly, of FL too, under ‘actually-existing democracy.’ In order to establish CL, we need more democracy, not less; this will make it possible to attain FL fully. We must upgrade, not downgrade, democracy, to ensure the continued functioning of society. An absence of real democracy is a central element in the now salient threat that climate decline poses to states’ continued ability to protect their populations, and thus to their having foundational legitimacy.

Section Two: What is Democracy?

Mittiga makes clear that democracy is the essential and determinative aspect of modern, Western CL. Moreover, in contrast to more attenuated conceptions of democracy associated with political liberalism, tied more to civil rights and legal equality (not to mention markets) than political power, Mittiga seems to agree that the original, radical definition of the term is what we should have in mind: ‘wielding political power over equals can only be justified if each citizen has an “equal say” in determining who will command that power, and democracy alone can provide this.’6 Democracy, then, is delineated by a radical political equality – a truly equal share of power in the political process by all members of the polity.

What would such a system look like? Ancient Greek democracy, for one, represented such an attempt at an originary formation of democracy as such, utilizing popular courts and legislative assemblies, sortitionally-selected from across the entire citizen body, which were subject to no higher authority. The radical nature of this democracy vis-à-vis modern, Western political systems is summed up by Paul Cartledge in Democracy: A Life: what we ‘essentially or substantively’ identify as modern democracy, i.e. liberal-democracy, ‘would have been dubbed, more or less dismissively or contemptuously, by a convinced ideological democrat of ancient Athens as – at best – disguised oligarchy.’ Why? The etymology of ‘democracy,’ as the term comes down to us from Ancient Greece, is, of course: ‘the people rule.’ As Cartledge suggests, it is self-evident that the people do not rule in actually-existing (pseudo-)democracies today, such that we should vary Gandhi, and, when asked what we think of Western democracy, we should reply, ‘It would be a good idea.’ Democracy is an aspiration; to regard it today as an achieved reality is to be grossly, falsely complacent.

Notoriously, democracy was also by no means fully achieved in Ancient Greece, either; because democracy is an ideal – one that a deeply sexist, slave-holding society self-evidently falls short of. But equally, the ideal, insofar as it was achieved among citizens in Ancient Athens, we should recognise as comparatively unachieved within our contemporary, wider citizenry in the modern West. Why? Just as sexism and slavery barred Ancient Athens from truly achieving a democratic society, our own society, riven by extreme economic inequalities and power-imbalances, with a captive corporate media, with powerful, psychopathic corporations, with bond markets holding politics permanently hostage, etc., is self-evidently not a democracy.

In short: a review of the radical political equality of ancient Greek democracy – albeit within a patently unjustly restricted citizenry – evinces that, by clear contrast, modern, Western states are not democracies. Rather, modern, Western, capitalistic states – ‘liberal-democracies’ – are, as Cartledge suggested, oligarchies. Oligarchy means, ‘rule by the few’ – principally the economic and social élite. Modern, Western governments adequately instantiate none of the basic attributes which define democracy. Let us explore this reality.

Section Three: The Undemocratic Reality of ‘Liberal-Democracies’

We shall now examine the undemocratic reality of liberal-democracies, in order to turn on its head Mittiga’s claim that their alleged democraticness has made sufficient climate action impossible. The figures of extreme wealth disparity, et al., are well known enough, as is the extent to which money influences the political system. Furthermore, the political structure of ‘representative democracy,’ where citizens vote for candidates filtered via party bureaucracies, based on corporate ‘news,’ bears virtually no resemblance to the Ancient Greek system described above. As opposed to their being genuine democracies, some political theorists, such as Sheldon Wolin, have characterized them quite differently: as ‘managed democracies,’ within which a system of ‘inverted totalitarianism’ expunges the political itself from public life, drowning it out in a Huxleyan, society-wide spectacle of electronic illusions and mind-numbing fantastiques, enforcing a structure in which ‘the people’ exercise no real power. This burlesque of endless consumption and distraction reinforces the idea that ‘there is no alternative’… or indeed, that an alternative cannot even be imagined.

If this assessment of liberal-democracies is true, it would follow that the measures adopted by them to ‘address’ crises would negatively impact the people, owing to their lack of political power.

Regarding the climate crisis, fuel taxes – a regressive measure disproportionately harming workers – have been the arme de choix in liberal-democracy’s (supposed) attempts to combat the use of fossil fuels. The primary empirical illustration that Mittiga uses to support his argument is the Gilets Jaunes movement in France, which arose in response to the attempted imposition of such a tax, and which Mittiga alleges is a demonstration of the popular recalcitrance to make any lifestyle adjustments in the fight against anthropogenic climate change. Yet, is it any wonder that the people – who typically rely on fuel of all kinds to get to work and thus retain access to the necessities of life – would revolt against such measures? Or does this entire spectacle – the regressive implementation of this tax, and the people’s reaction – indicate both the lack of democracy, and thereby the lack of legitimacy, of the system of ‘liberal-democracy?’ It cannot be assumed that the people do not care about having a stable and healthy eco-climatic system, for themselves and their descendants, because they revolted against a tax which was meted out without real democratic consent, and which directly impacted their livelihood – and particularly while no such sacrifice was asked of their ‘betters,’ i.e. the society as a whole, as was the case in the rationing of the war years.

When one looks more closely at the Gilets Jaunes, one finds that the crude stereotype of an anti-eco ‘populist’ revolt is largely false. There is plenty of evidence that the Gilets Jaunes did care about having a stable and healthy eco-climatic system. Consider the wording of the ‘Final Appeal’ issued by the Gilets Jaunes’s own deliberative-democratic Assembly of Assemblies, which demands:

a general improvement of salaries, pensions, and social services, in particular in respect of the nine million people who live below the poverty threshhold. Recognising the urgent need to address the ecological crisis, we assert fin du monde, fin du mois (end of the world, end of the month) — same logic, same struggle.

In other words, Mittiga, like many others, has misrepresented the Gilet Jaunes, fueling a dangerous, false, imagined opposition between democracy and eco/climate-action.

Thus, Mittiga’s only developed example of the allegedly anti-climate effects of democracy turns out, in fact, to be an example of the anti-ordinary-people effects of elite-imposed regressive policies. (To be clear: what is needed, rather, is climate justice – for measures that will not punish the poor, but that will involve the rich finally paying their fair share. This will only occur in a society that curtails the power and wealth of the rich, to move away from oligarchy and create the conditions for a real democracy.)

We take the failure of the main case-study Mittiga offers to support his argument to cast prima facie doubt on the credibility of that argument. In particular, our refutation of his crude invocation of the Gilets Jaunes undermines the credibility of his claim (2), that examples of democracy ‘meaningfully inhibit[-ing] climate action’ are ‘manifold’. His article accomplished virtually nothing towards establishing that claim.

Having by now cast doubt on all three of Mittiga’s claims, we turn to the most crucial part of our positive argument. In the Section to follow, we suggest that the superficial compliance that typically occurs with authoritarian regimes isn’t good enough in the case of climate. Climate politics is fundamentally different from certain political issues that can be solved essentially by way of elite bargaining and technological tweaks. It is different even from other major ‘environmental’ issues in this regard – for our entire way of life is so saturated by climate-affecting behaviours that there is no way through the climate crisis without real democratic ‘buy-in’ and consent.

Section Four: Sufficient climate action requires consent

Having undercut the plausibility of Mittiga’s account of ‘democracy’ in countries such as the USA, the UK and France, we now turn directly to the question of whether it is intelligible to suppose a non-democratic politics as legitimate for tackling the climate more-than-emergency adequately. An essentially non-democratic, technocratic politics was able to work for the issue of the ozone hole: thus the comparative success of the Montreal Protocol in addressing this existential threat. But technocracy has no prospects of being successful regarding the climate crisis, which requires systemic change, and thus a truly popular mandate: it requires mass buy-in by the populace, mass will to act for the common good and for the future – not the imposition of a ‘solution’ on a disengaged or reluctant public. It was always an illusion to suppose that the climate could be saved by way of international élite conferences, especially conferences (the ‘CoP’ system) that, for the sake of preserving business-as-usual, were designed not to be as effective as the means chosen to enforce repair of the ozone hole (sanctions, etc. for rulebreakers). Climate will be sorted, if at all, by actively involving the whole people, as incidentally the more successful efforts to address Covid did (see the Taiwanese model), and as occurred during the Second World War (rationing, etc.). But beyond these partial precedents, it will require fuller-scale, ground-up deliberative-democratic citizen involvement, at local, regional, national, and ultimately international levels. This is going to be incredibly difficult and may well not succeed – but there is no realistic alternative. When almost every single choice one makes about what to do, where to go, how to eat, etc., is climate-affecting – where society itself needs to transform in order to prevent catastrophe – it is impossible to imagine anything less that could work.

Let us take stock. In our introduction, we noted that Mittiga’s argument for the growing legitimacy of eco-authoritarianism is essentially as follows: 1) the West is comprised of democracies; 2) these countries have failed to address climate breakdown because of an excess of democracy; 3) we may have to jettison democracy and implement authoritarianism to prevent climate-driven collapse. In response, we’ve demonstrated that 1) the political system endemic to the West, so-called ‘liberal-democracy,’ is undemocratic – states in the West are oligarchies; 2) an excess of democracy is not to blame, but rather, a lack of democracy, coupled with a corresponding lack of governmental legitimacy; 3) more democracy is our best hope to address climate breakdown, by providing the political legitimacy that will be needed for the transformative shifts which arresting the eco-climate crisis will require. In underscoring these points: in Section Two, we defined democracy, arguing that democracy is an ideal whose alleged instantiation in our time cannot be taken for granted; with a gesture toward Ancient Greece as an example of an actually-instantiated democracy, we noted that, by comparison, modern, Western states cannot meaningfully be characterized as such; in Section Three, we assessed the empirically-oligarchic nature of ‘liberal-democracies,’ evincing thereby a lack of legitimacy in their handling of the climate crisis; in the current Section, we’ve pointed out how thoroughly this points to our conclusion – that the best chance, slim though it may be, of addressing adequately the existential threat hanging over us must be by way of achieving democratic consent for the systemic and rapid changes now required.

We have offered what is in effect a piece of informal rational choice argumentation. We’ve set out how the climate crisis is an ideal type of an entire political problematic immune to élite/authoritarian solutions, and instead requires massive, willing buy-in. Our point is ultimately a conceptual one, almost game-theoretic: there simply is no way of dealing adequately with this vastest of issues – so entire in its implications that it is misleading to call it an ‘issue’ or a ‘problem’ at all – without deep popular consent. The reader might judge that such consent is unlikely to be obtained sufficiently – but it is pointless to aim at less. We are not going to get through what is coming without it.

In the final section, we briefly examine some of the ways viable, authentic democracies could be realized across the West, in place of our present system of liberal-[pseudo-]democracy, and how as a consequence we could gain a chance of surviving together the climatically-deteriorating future.

Section Five: Upgrading Democracy

In discussing upgrading of Western democracy in response to the eco-climate crisis, it’s useful to turn our gaze toward Extinction Rebellion. XR, while struggling compared to where it was in mid-2019, remains important in our larger analysis. First, they are formed explicitly in response to this crisis. Second, they aimed at wide involvement, beyond party lines or ideological divides, recognising the unusual nature of the eco-climate crisis as one in which we’ll sink or swim together. Third, their basic premise as a group closely follows Mittiga’s logic concerning legitimacy – the ‘Declaration’ that launched XR, rich in political philosophy, was explicit in asserting that a government that had failed to keep its populace safe from an existential threat had forfeited its legitimacy. And fourth, as both a philosophical and practical solution to this crisis and the corresponding lack of legitimacy, XR explicitly calls, not for ‘Eco-Leninism’ nor for Mittiga-style climate-authoritarianism, but for radical democratic renewal. Indeed, the 3rd of XR’s Three Demands is expressly to upgrade democracy. With the government / actually-existing pseudo-democracy having shown itself chronically incapable, power should devolve back to the people to decide. Citizens’ Assemblies [CA] – empowered, expert-informed deliberative democracy on climate and ecology – this was XRs suggested solution.

Extinction Rebellion’s 3rd demand has got somewhere. In summer 2019, following XR’s first and most successful Rebellion (in April), several Select Committees of the U.K. Parliament co-created a U.K. Climate Assembly – an event without precedent. Its proposals were impressive, including a very bold policy on restraining air travel. Most significantly, it showed how citizens could effectively deliberate and decide together on these questions, which are more complex than those famously successfully deliberated on in the Irish constitutional process incorporating CAs (gay rights, abortion). Crucially, however, its terms of reference were too narrow in key respects: it didn’t meet for long enough; it wasn’t allowed to consider adaptation, let alone broader questions of ecology; critically – unlike the ancient Greek assemblies mentioned earlier – it had no power. Its conclusions were mere recommendations.

Returning for a final time to the Gilets Jaunes: far from representing a step back in terms of climate action and reasonable politics for French society, France made even further strides, in the direction of both democratic renewal and addressing climate, than did the UK in response to XR. The French Climate Assembly, formed in response to the Gilets Jaunes in a politically smart move by Macron – who ‘got’ that CAs could handle issues too hot for politicians to decide outright on – was somewhat more influential; it was able to propose consideration of a series of laws, and the government were required to be explicit on which they would seek to implement and which they would not. A number were brought into effect. Still, however, there was no provision for the CA, however unified in its conclusions, to legislate. The way called for by XR, in which – much like the Ancient Greeks – a sortitionally-chosen CA would actually decide on these matters, like a jury does, but with full prospective legally-binding force, has not yet been used anywhere on climate/nature. In our view, only once such a body is created and allowed to deliberate might a real paradigm-shift occur – outside, as it must be, the norms of what actually-existing ‘liberal democratic’ business as usual politics makes possible. To really upgrade democracy, that is what would be needed: CAs that are more than talking shops; CAs where the focus of the nation would be, and the debate concerning how to take care of the future: because the chosen citizens would actually choose, free from the fear or favour of media, lobbyists, and the like.

Deliberative democracy is the upgrading of democracy. How about we give democracy a real chance, rather than using its very lack as an excuse for even less of it?

In sum: The solution to the climate challenge is not less democracy. It is more, enriched, upgraded, real democracy. It’s the promise of democracy fulfilled. Only a government fully legitimated by the fulfillment of this promise has the potential to avoid the worst-case scenarios of climatic breakdown.

So let’s work to fulfill that promise.

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