Twenty-five years ago, Bruce Ackerman announced the ‘rise of world constitutionalism’. Can we now proclaim its fall? And if so, is that something to mourn or to celebrate? Or is it a matter of indifference?
Since 9/11, however, and especially after the global financial crisis, there has been a marked decline in constitutionalism, with concerns over the rise of executive powers, discretionary powers, emergency powers, affronts to the rule of law, and various forms of authoritarianism, all of which seem to challenge liberal constitutionalism and have in turn been challenged by constitutional courts (if to little avail). Constitutionalism has now given way to a new cottage industry, captured by the label of ‘populism’.
Did constitutionalism collapse under its own weight? Was it such a fragile accomplishment that it tumbled like a house of cards? The temptation might be to respond that ‘the chance would be a fine thing’! Liberal constitutions may have been fragile, but critics charged that they were also over-entrenched, frustrating political change and protecting vested interests. The new constitutionalism, in various stripes, empowered technocrats and experts and took place at the expense of democracy and representative politics. The constitutionalist turn to individual rights, managerialism, and modes of de-politicisation accompanied an emerging technocracy and even juristocracy. This hollowing out of democracy coincided with the encasing of the ‘free market’, growing inequality, and political disenchantment.
Constitutionalism, far from ruling the world, as some proclaimed, was only ruling a void, and increasing the democratic disconnect between rulers and ruled. When various crises hit, it should therefore have been little surprise that constitutional discourse would be swiftly revealed as barely covering an otherwise naked emperor.
If populism offered new clothes, it turned out that the political situation was more demanding. The populist turn, far from coming merely at the expense of constitutionalism, often comes with its own constitutional vocabulary and constitutional projects. As Bojan Bugaric and Mark Tushnet argue in a forthcoming book, there are versions of populism that are entirely compatible with liberal constitutionalism. The tension between populism and constitutionalism is far narrower than commonly supposed. Let’s not forget it was the conventional constitutionalism of the electoral college that got Trump elected in 2016, the popular vote going to Hillary Clinton.
And if the earlier proliferation of constitutionalism contributed to an increasingly fugitive democracy, authoritarian populism does nothing to recapture it. On the contrary, it exacerbates the democratic disconnect that liberal constitutionalism facilitated, and shows little sign of breaking from its dominant economic paradigm.
This does not, however, mean we should be indifferent to the fate of constitutionalism, or of populism. Its tribulations are instructive, but only if we get below the surface to consider the underlying material conditions.
The material constitution: exposing the void
There are coherent arguments against constitutionalism ‘as such’, but which operate through a particular kind of normative, analytical method, and which tend to focus on the illegitimacy of constitutional review by courts. If there is a generalisable antidote to ‘legal constitutionalism’ it is surely a more robust democratic constitution or simply put, more democratisation, avoiding an ideological attachment to constitutions of any stripe. We should not, in other words, fetishise the written constitution, or the unwritten one for that matter.
How can we avoid this constitutional fetishism? We can do so by remembering that formal constitutions (written and unwritten) exist in a tense relationship with what I call the ‘material constitution’. The material constitution includes the surface texts, but also the undercurrents of political unity, institutional support, social relations, and political objectives. The presence of surface constitutional conflicts between institutions, as for example in the Weiss saga, gives us clues that the undercurrents are moving in contradictory directions but these must be examined in their own right.
To examine constitutionalism in this dynamic, historical way, demands examination of the intersection of constitutional law and political economy. From that vantage point we can discern various tendencies beneath formal norms and normative postures, examine political and social tensions fermented and fomented by liberal constitutionalism which are not resolved but only concealed by authoritarian populism.
In modern politics, both constitutionalism and populism tend to suppress or bypass representative democracy and accountability in favour of strong expert-led governance (in the case of constitutionalism) or executive-led governance (in the case of populism). This also now occurs in combination, as when technocracy and political populism are mixed to give rise to a new breed of ‘technopopulism’, incorporating an anti-establishment rhetoric but retaining the prevailing constitutional structures, de-politicising strategies and political economy.
In an important sense the rise of liberal constitutionalism and the rise of executive and emergency authoritarianism alluded to above are inter-connected rather than in opposition. Constitutionalism and populism, at least in its authoritarian version, are then seen to be mutually related: action and reaction. In maximising managerialism and minimising representative democracy, both constitutionalism and populism aim at encasing the market or serving the interests of big market players, even if that periodically requires dramatic intervention under the sign of the exception in times of economic crisis.
Constitutionalism and populism, although pursued in different registers, are related forms of authoritarian liberalism, related not just in displaying family resemblances but also in a more causal, diachronic sense; constitutionalism created the conditions for populism to thrive and authoritarian populism in turn generates and provokes an increasingly authoritarian constitutionalist response.
Crises are significant, however, in that they shine a light into the undercurrents of constitutional discourse. In the long decade since the global financial crisis, this gave rise to various opportunities to contest the established order, which were for the most part wasted, notably by the failure of left populism to make its mark in Europe.
European constitutionalism: expanding the void
To pursue this point further requires an historical, contextual approach, which can only be sketched in outline here. The trajectory in postwar Europe was towards liberal constitutionalism and away from mass democracy. Postwar constitutionalism was pursued through the construction of counter-majoritarian institutions, which de-politicised increasing areas of policy, and de-democratised increasing areas of politics. It also developed through international and regional organisations, particularly the EU. This contributed to the transformation of the nation-state into the member-state, cementing a growing gap between domestic elites and their peoples.
This development also occurred informally, through the deradicalization of political parties on the left, abandoning Marxism and class struggle and embracing ideological Europeanism. If critical theory once engaged with the phenomenon of authoritarianism in diverse ways, charting the escape from political freedom and the turn to the private sphere, to consumerism and individualism, by the end of the cold war it had signalled a virtually complete retreat, accepting there was no alternative to capitalism. Discourse theory substituted material analysis.
In the academy, the discourse of European constitutionalism, far from filling the void, often expanded it, postnationalism offering a stepping stone to the constitution of a world society, in Jürgen Habermas’s influential formulation. To use Habermas’s own terminology, there appeared to be a growing mismatch between system and lifeworld, one which his theoretical and political moves only aggravated, his postnational constellation increasingly removed from any demos just as the actual demoi appeared to be shaken from their postwar passivity.Critical theorists had accepted the end of history thesis just when history was restarting in Western Europe with the end of the postwar consensus, as already announced by the social fracture in France in the early 1990’s and the petit oui on the Maastricht referendum.
This meant that when the postwar liberal paradigm was challenged, as it was in the Maastricht era, or when its norms had to be changed or set aside, as they were after the financial crisis, there was a political void to fill. This was filled in part by executive-bureaucratic and technocratic power and in part by what would be labelled authoritarian populists, often depending on whether the part was played by the liberal establishment or its rhetorical opponent. But it was also underwritten by critical theory’s detachment from the material constitution.
Thus, when Macron, von der Leyen, or Barnier more recently adopt a sovereigntist position, whether in the name of Europe or of the member-state, emulating aspects of authoritarian populism, their message rings hollow but also exposes that their opposition to the ‘populists’ is largely illusory.
So there may be significant rhetorical contestation in the EU against the vices of governments in Hungary and Poland, which itself overshadows that authoritarian populism is a much broader phenomenon, encompassing the Front Nationale in France, AfD in Germany, la Lega in Italy. But just as this group emits no real desire to leave the EU, the EU does not get serious about kicking Hungary or Poland out. On the contrary, the ruling European elite speaks about defending a European way of life against the outsider, or generates the fear of a geopolitical threat from Russia as the new enemy without, emulating the populism it otherwise distances itself from in its attempt to bolster its own liberal authoritarianism.
During the euro crisis, the sovereign emerged as he who could defend market liberalism and push the class project of austerity, even where this required sporadic state-like interventions, with EU institutions insisting on particular political-economic reforms in a way that was stridently anti-pluralistic (a trait often presented as defining populism). Was there a set of institutions more ideologically committed to neoliberalism than the ‘Troika’?
That there should be a reaction to this, and even various uprisings against it, is hardly surprising. And yet the left was so committed to an ideological Europeanism after decades of de-radicalisation that it couldn’t think politically about (let alone act on) the possibility of rupture from the system, despite that system entrenching a highly conservative economic settlement and utilising increasingly repressive tactics. Having embraced post-politics, post-sovereignty and the ‘end of history’, the euro crisis exposed the lack of coherent opposition to the status quo, the left vacating the terrain of Euroscepticism for the right, which would profit from it without needing to offer systemic alternatives.
A general crisis of liberalism
The ‘strange non-death of neoliberalism’ after the global financial crisis was already a cause of vexation for social democrats. In some ways this should have been unsurprising – as Polanyi noted in the interwar era, the tendency for liberals would always be to say the social problems were the result of liberalism having not gone far enough.
There are now signs, however, after many false alarms, that we can finally proclaim neoliberalism’s demise with more confidence, noting the dramatic and sustained state intervention in the economy since the Covid-19 pandemic. What should we make of this change?
Neoliberalism, and indeed economic liberalism before neoliberalism, always already relied on a strong executive branch and state apparatus, as Karl Polanyi laid out in the case of 19th century market liberalism. Austerity itself was always a class project, and if we look at the impact of the pandemic response so far it does little to buck the growing class divide; in fact, it appears to have exacerbated already extreme levels of inequality domestically, even if the global picture is more complex.
In Authoritarian Liberalism and the Transformation of Modern Europe, I begin with the interwar period as a crucial historical juncture in Europe. The bourgeoise and ruling elites were on the back foot after the First World War, for two reasons: first, universal suffrage in conjunction with parties that represented the working class offered the prospect of socialism through legislative supremacy; second, the attempt to extend democracy into the economy, to push from political towards material emancipation, offered the prospect of transcending liberal capitalism from below. Both these projects were frustrated by a harsh authoritarian liberalism in the interwar period, which laid the ground for the descent into fascism. One of the goals of my book is to explain this, and to examine how socialism and democracy were also suppressed in the postwar and post-Maastricht eras through a softer constitutionalist version of authoritarian liberalism, with the rise of the jurist as constitution-builder, the project of European integration, the decline of parliamentarism, and the detachment of the left and of critical theory from class struggle.
Beyond authoritarian liberalism
It is important to acknowledge that even a restoration of functioning political representation, in a context where democracy again offers real choice, would be a radical step forward. This means that ideological battles also must be fought to reclaim politics and the space for democracy, rather than for various forms of constitutionalism or populism.
So, in conclusion, where might we be looking for answers? The first thing is to say that we must understand our present situation better and that means avoiding false polarisations around constitutionalism and populism and looking beyond the easy target of neoliberalism. Material constitutional analysis is essential in this regard. The second is that we are not starting from scratch in terms of developing ‘alternatives’ to liberalism but have a long history on which to draw, whether that is from republicanism, Marxism, the socialist tradition, or radical democracy. Third, there are recent examples of movements that point in this direction, whether it is the referendum campaign for social housing and expropriation of landlords in Berlin or the attempt to re-establish the public and political nature of work through the idea of industrial citizenship. Further afield, Chile’s recent uprising suggests the possible return of the constituent power as an anti-systemic movement promising large-scale constitutional innovation.
For social and political movements that are anti-systemic on the left the challenge is to offer political as well as economic alternatives to neoliberalism. If my general diagnosis is correct, this means fundamentally tackling not just neoliberalism but the whole postwar