Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time

William E. Scheuerman

William E. Scheuerman. Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time.Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. $42.00 (cloth)

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The times, we've been told for some time now, are a'changin'. More than that, William Scheuerman tells us in his provocative, clearly argued, and well-worth-reading (if sometimes repetitive) Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time, they're changing faster and more frequently than ever before. And this general speed-up of life has, in Scheuerman's view, profound consequences for some of the core ideals -- the rule of law, constitutionalism, the separation of powers, and the nation-state -- of liberal-democratic societies.

Scheuerman's book has four main goals: first, to introduce recent social-theoretical work about social speed-up into the discourses of political and legal theory and to offer a rough account of the origins of the accelerated life; second, to uncover the rarely discussed temporal assumptions and tensions behind many of liberal democracy's basic political and legal institutions; third, to demonstrate the ways in which an ever-faster world poses serious internal challenges to the normative aspirations supporting these institutions; and fourth, to avoid another pessimistic story of liberal democracy's self-propelled descent into lawlessness by providing the rough contours of a liberal-democratic response to the challenges of a sped-up world.

Scheuerman's first chapter draws heavily on recent work by the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa. Following Rosa, Scheuerman conceptualizes the fast life across three interrelated spheres: technological acceleration, social transformations, and the heightened pace of everyday life. These three elements tend to produce a "feedback" loop whereby the whole system pushes at a faster tempo. But, Scheuerman argues, the deeper sources of social acceleration lie in modern capitalism and the competitive nation-state system. Capitalist production rewards novelties that come faster than those of your competitors. The Westphalian system puts nation-states into intense competition, in which efficient top-down bureaucracies, mobile militaries, and high-speed weapons are at a premium. Speed is an essential component of modern power and modern economic success.

Questions about the adequacy and completeness of this story aside (cultural factors get relatively little attention), the core of the book is less concerned with the sources of modern temporal assumptions than with the distinctive effects of the high-speed world on liberal democracy. The bulk of the book thus seeks to reconstruct liberal-democratic assumptions about the proper temporal organization of political and legal institutions and to determine how those institutions are structurally inclined to react to a faster and, in terms of "social space," smaller world.

Scheuerman begins by highlighting the ways in which the separation of powers involves not just a spatial separation but presumes an often-neglected temporal division: Legislation is prospective; it seeks to control the future. Judicial activity is past oriented; it interprets and applies the law after the fact. The executive is present oriented, it acts energetically in crises where immediate responses are required and existing legislation may prove inadequate to exceptional circumstances.

Scheuerman argues convincingly that this temporal organization contains an inner tension that was relatively benign in early liberalism but has become malignant due to social acceleration. Modern legislation presumes an open-ended future necessarily bringing novel, unpredictable situations. Modern legislators must make laws that endure while remaining aware that the future will outstrip their predictions. In relatively slow-moving, slow-changing societies, where the future tends to resemble the past, this is a difficult, but manageable task. In a fast-paced, rapidly transforming society, where all we really know is that the future won't resemble the past, this seems a near impossible challenge.

Several troubling consequences flow from the application of liberal democracy's decision-making logic to the challenges of social speed, Scheuerman claims. Those problems tend toward two disturbing results. First, speed encourages major increases in executive prerogative at the expense of legislative and judicial power. Since the present belongs to the executive, it responds when the moment demands immediate action, often in the breach of what could be foreseen by wise legislators. As formerly distant, slow-developing crises now require rapid-fire action, this breach, Scheuerman argues, is becoming the norm, and executive discretion increases accordingly. Second, acceleration threatens the rule of law. Legislators, faced with a "barrage of novel and unexpected social and economic trends" (50), are under pressure to create open-ended, flexible laws and to cut short "freewheeling" democratic debate. These trends threaten citizens' ability to know the law and to rest assured that genuinely representative discussion has occurred.

Scheuerman goes on to apply this theoretical framework to constitutional law, ordinary statutory legislation, and globalization. Here the argumentation gets somewhat repetitive, as similar arguments and supporting quotations are deployed against different objects in order to achieve comparable theoretical results. Nevertheless, the chapter on globalization does break new ground. Scheuerman argues that globalization discredits the Weberian claim that there is an elective affinity between the rule of law and capitalism. There may have been such an affinity in Weber's time, Scheuerman claims, when capitalists needed long periods of stability to do business. But now that transactions can be confirmed in moments, capitalists actually prefer doing business in places where unstable, unfixed, and vague laws can be turned to their advantage.

Because capitalism and liberal democratic institutions like the rule of law can be analytically separated, Scheuerman thinks that liberal democracy may be able to mount a resistance against capitalist-inspired acceleration. Scheuerman suggests that we harness high-speed technology so that legislative debate, public discussion, and popular democracy can keep up with rapid-fire events. Scheuerman is aware that this Athens on the net would require massive changes to the way mass-media operates, major increases in leisure time ("deceleration"), and an ideological shift whereby sustained political engagement replaces low-attention spans and general political apathy (also products of social acceleration). Furthermore, in order to deal with acceleration inspired by the Westphalian system, we need novel international institutions with teeth (short of a world-sate, Scheuerman is quick to clarify) in order to reduce military competition and counteract global-capitalism where liberal democracy within nation-states has proven too weak.

These are all provocative and thoughtful proposals too nuanced to discuss here. However, compared to the rich discussion of the threats of social acceleration, Scheuerman's proposed solutions remain mostly rough sketches that sometimes sound a bit utopian (a great public free-marketplace of ideas energetically debated on high speed internet connections free from corporate media involvement would be wonderful, but is it really in the offing?). And other questions remain: what would it take in practice to (peacefully) make any of Scheuerman's fairly radical revisions of liberal democracy and the geo-political order a reality, how could his more humane and faster international bodies have the muscle to do the global-capitalist taming that Scheuerman requires of them, and how will such institutions succeed at the essential political task of mediating between particular, bounded attachments and universal values any better than the nation-state has?

That said, Scheuerman has done groundbreaking work: he focuses our attention on how deeply temporality is implicated in the modern legal and political self-understanding, and he lays out the challenges we now face with force and clarity. Though he can only offer sketchy proposals to deal with these problems, his thinking ought to be a touchstone for future serious discussion of the fate of liberal democracy under modern conditions.

Daniel Silver, The University of Chicago

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