Robert Skidelsky in The Guardian:
The sense then of a “crumbling” world was captured by WB Yeats’s 1919 poem The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” With the traditional institutions of rule thoroughly discredited by the war, the vacuum of legitimacy would be filled by powerful demagogues and populist dictatorships: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.” Oswald Spengler had the same idea in his Decline of the West, published in 1918.
Yeats’s political prognosis was shaped by his religious eschatology. He believed the world had to wade through “nightmare” for “Bethlehem to be born”. In his day, he was right. The nightmare he discerned continued through the Great Depression of 1929-1932, and culminated in the second world war. These were preludes to the “second coming”, not of Christ, but of a liberalism built on firmer social foundations.
But were the nightmares of depression and war necessary preludes? Is horror the price we must pay for progress? Evil has indeed often been the agent of good (without Hitler, no United Nations, no Pax Americana, no European Union, no taboo on racism, no decolonisation, no Keynesian economics, and much else). But it does not follow that evil is necessary for good, much less that we should wish it as a means to an end.
We cannot embrace the politics of upheaval, because we cannot be sure that it will produce a Roosevelt rather than a Hitler. Any decent, rational person hopes for a milder method to achieve progress.
But must the milder method – call it parliamentary or constitutional democracy – break down periodically in disastrous fashion? The usual explanation is that a system fails because the elites lose touch with the masses. But while one would expect this disconnect to happen in dictatorships, why does disenchantment with democracy take root in democracies themselves?
One explanation, which goes back to Aristotle, is the perversion of democracy by plutocracy. The more unequal a society, the more the lifestyles and values of the wealthy diverge from those of “ordinary” people.