Saturday 9 February 2019

Filling the Void

It's a funny old game. The problem with politics these days, at least for some, is there's too much of it. Just ask Brenda. But it wasn't very long ago, less than half a decade in fact, that the best political brains and some MPs were worried there was too little. From approximately the late 1990s, large numbers of political scientists fretted about the erosion of liberal democracy because people were becoming disengaged. And parties didn't help as they pursued concerns that appeared to matter to parliamentary elites and few others, while showing scant interest in the job of representing the constituencies their parties were set up to support.

Peter Mair's book Ruling the Void is probably the best summary of these kinds of arguments. Long in gestation, it was incomplete at the time of his sudden passing in 2011 and therefore - as the foreword explains - is a bit disjointed. This doesn't matter much in the main part of the book, but the final chapter on the European Union seems a bit shoehorned - though the argument Mair makes do have an important bearing concerns the malaise (as was) of politics.

Mair sums up the problem thus:
The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, the have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (p.1)
He suggests we're in a state of non-sovereignty (or what others term post-democracy) characterised by an indifference to and a lack of interest in democratic politics. This was exacerbated by the anti-politics rhetoric of opportunist politicians and partisan media, the conscious attempt to wrestle decision making away from democratic decision-making and putting them in the hands of technocrats, and the view governmental authority was eroding thanks to the powerful currents of globalisation. For Mair this found reflection in the technical and academic literature with arguments stating that democracy was inimical to long-term planning and expert decisions, balanced by a growing literature interested in the substance and meaning of democracy.

As a political scientist, Mair is very careful to state what politics are in decline. The 'sub-politics' of Beck, or what Giddens termed as 'life politics' and today we call identity politics wasn't necessarily in crisis but institutional politics certainly were. But for Mair, disengagement was double-sided. Electorates were losing interest in politicians, and politicians in electorates. The evidence was legion. Across European liberal democracies, electoral turn out rose consistently in the 1950s. More or less stabilised between then and the 1980s, took a slight dip in the 90s and entered rapid decline at the beginning of this century. Electoral volatility, the measure of stability in party systems, was also more or less stable for most of the post-war period (with some important exceptions) but the emergence of new parties with significant support and the (partial) eclipse of the old. Simultaneously, voters were leaving behind partisan loyalties and becoming more mercenary in their voting habits, and by the end of the century party membership as a percentage of voters had halved, on average. Nevertheless one interesting trend is in party systems given to fragmentation is that in first order (i.e. general) elections they tend to band together in alliances or blocs that more or less reflect the traditional left/right divide. Italy was a prime example of this until recently.

Can we identify some key drivers of this disillusionment? For Mair, a key development was the development of the 'catch-all party'. As parties in democracies have an interest in winning votes and therefore seats for its candidates, there is a competitive necessity to grow the party's electorate. The quickest and surest means for doing this is by adopting policies and manifestos that appeal to the widest possible range of people. New Labour is the archetypal example, but it's something everyone's had a go at. The problem is if all parties submit to this competitive logic, the core of their identities and coalition of interests are increasingly displaced, parties tend to converge around a centre ground where most of the electorate are (perceived to be) located, and for voters they become more or less indistinguishable. To test whether this was the case, Mair reviews data on the number of coalition governments and similarities of manifestos and what do you know. The number of coalition governments have increased over time and statements of intent have grown broadly similar.

The additional problem of catch-all parties are their tendency to empower party elites as distance grows between them, the party membership and their constituencies. With their orientation toward office, the relationships between leaders and members - what political scientists refer to as the linkage function tethering politicians to broad constituencies of voters - are attenuated and what happens at home in the local party or local authority area is small beer compared to "real politics" at the national level. Readers can think of plenty of UK MPs who fit this mould. Facilitating this 'autonomisation' further is the displacing of donors by state funding, either on a payment-by-election-results basis (like Germany) or benefits in kind, such as access to broadcast media and free party political advertising. The result is the party-in-the-institutions is privileged over the party-in-the-country.

In many ways, the European Union is an instantiation and enabler of these trends. As an elite project from the outset, it was effectively born as a post-democratic institution. This was a place where economic and, increasingly, political integration was planned out and executed according to expert advice, decision-making, and according to their time tables. There is, of course, the European Parliament. Staffed by appointees from member state parliaments between 1952 and 1979, and directly elected thereafter it is still the case that the body is not sovereign. It has legislative power but does not possess the powers to propose legislation, and is more an elected consultative body. Furthermore, as far as Mair was concerned, it is a democratic body without a demos. There is no pan-European popular politics, which is reflected in the quota system by which EU members states return MEPs. Therefore elections to the parliament are largely seen as pointless and most voters are in the dark about its responsibilities and functions. Worst, for Mair, because it exemplifies the disconnect of voters and party elites it is vulnerable to populist insurgencies who use the language of anti-politics and the opportunity of its elections to try and blow the system up, and getting a slice of electoral office for themselves.

While an accurate summary of the era of post-politics with plenty of insights, particularly as regards the EU, arguably this period has passed. Or, to be more accurate, is in the process of passing. In Britain, in the wake of the Scottish referendum the political party started making a come back. The trend has since continued. The SNP experienced its surge in membership, followed by the Greens, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The relationship to their constituencies appear to be a more active one as well. The parties have rediscovered that responding to the concerns of their constituencies at the expense of an exclusive concern with the structures of governance is the key to political rejuvenation and, especially in the SNP and Labour cases, vital for electoral success. In Germany, the centrist coalition of Merkel's CDU/CSU with the Social Democrats have helped solidify the right populist insurgency of the AfD, but more significantly has put booster rockets under the Greens. France is seeing the centre besieged by a noisy and violent street movement that rejects all conventional politics as establishment politics. But the process is unfolding unevenly. In the UK, the Tories are untouched by the return of mass politics. They can assemble a mass voter constituency but their capacity to do so diminishes daily as their party organisation is rapidly decomposing. This is because they have become disarticulated from a mass constituency, and presently show no means of recovery let alone an awareness of their predicament.

In short, it turns out the solution to anti-politics or post-politics was more politics all along. There are still a lot of problems Mair identified that hang around. Mass politics might be returning, but turnouts and penetration of the electorate by party memberships remain at historic lows (despite their upward trajectories). The old elites habituated to the old ways are kicking around and causing trouble, and mass indifference and cynicism remains an obstacle, but it can be overcome by doing the painstaking campaigning work and community organising that built mass parties in the first place. Nevertheless, the era of ruling the void looks like it's at an end. The job now is to fill it. With what and whom is up to us.


Anonymous said...

I remember Engels saying, “the Corn Laws which are so insane that no arguments can be brought against them...” and this is how politics feels today to me. For example, Israel is such an insanity. The fact of Corbyn amplifies this insanity, so for example Corbyn’s mild and perfectly reasonable objections to Israel’s actions (not even its existence) becomes terrorist sympathising anti Semite.Hamas becomes a byword for Nazi mass murderers.

I think much of liberalism today is built on this insanity, for example we are simply to accept that there are transgender people, welcome them into the community and have nothing more to be said on the matter. Simply accept without questioning. Now I am more than happy to welcome them into the community and give them whatever rights they want but I am not prepared to just sit back and accept them as a simple fact.

For example why is it that the overwhelming majority are male to female? This would indicate to me that this is not some genetic phenomena, trapped in the wrong body, but is more akin to being alienated in some way. Of course the liberals, whose heads are stuffed full of misogyny and paternalism can’t possibly image how men could be alienated, they own the world right! And of course for saying this the liberals will now conclude I am transphobic, hence no arguments can be brought against them!

I think the internet just exacerbates this problem, politics becomes noise, insanity shouting at insanity.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

Yes, politicians bemoaning peoples lack of interest in politics without ever seeing themselves as the problem. Still you can only choose between what appears on the ballot paper so maybe the problem is with whatever infuenses that.

George Carty said...

Whatever you think of Hamas, you cannot accuse them of being sympathetic to Nazism, as their charter likens their Zionist enemies to a "Nazi-Tatar invasion", also bringing in the greatest nemesis of Islamic civilization: the Mongols.

That also got me thinking of the 1947 quotation by Arab League secretary-general Azzam Pasha, in which he predicted "a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades."

This quotation is used by Zionists to claim that the Arabs as a whole have genocidal ambitions against the Jews, but if that was really the intention, why did Azzam Pasha refer to massacres OF Muslims rather than massacres BY Muslims (such as the Armenian Genocide or Timur's slaughters of Hindu Indians)?

Anonymous said...


Is it actually true that the "overwhelming majority" of transitions are male to female, or is it just that they are (almost) all that we ever hear about?

Genuine question btw.

Boffy said...


Your logic does not hold. Its quite possible for one state whose dominant ideology is sympathetic to Nazism/fascism to be antagonistic to another of similar ilk, just as it was possible for the USSR and itrs Stalinist ideology to go to war with Mao's China and its Stalinist ideology.

The overriding characteristic of these ideologies is their nationalism, and it is the defence of their particular nationalism, not any shared commitment to nationalism as an ideology per se, which provides their dynamic.

Unknown said...

Why suddenly start on (trans) gender issues?
The BIGGER issue by far, whether people fully acknowledge it or not, is massive and seemingly unstoppable economic inequality. It was an issue normal people cared about until Thatcher managed to expunge it from the political dictionary.
The rich have taken virtually all the proceeds of growth (in the developed world) since the mid-80s.
When party politics has any bearing on inequality it is relevant. When all parties agree on it, a big chunk of democracy is put out-of-reach and the electorate will gradually disengage.

Boffy said...


"The rich have taken virtually all the proceeds of growth (in the developed world) since the mid-80s."

In actual fact, the main condition that has enabled the rich to advance their wealth since the 1980's, has not been growth, but the constraint of growth, particularly, since 2008. The rich hold nearly all of their wealth in the form of fictitious capital (shares, bonds, mortgages, and other financial derivatives), as well as property - e.g. the landed oligarchy still own the vast majority of land in Britain, as well as owning large swathes of commercial property.

The main form of increase in wealth has come from the rise in the prices of these assets. The rise in asset prices is partly a function of rising revenues produced by those assets, i.e. higher amounts of dividends/interest or rent, but is far more due to low rates of interest - asset prices are, nothing more than the capitalised value of these revenues, i.e. the revenue multiplied by the inverse of the rate of interest.

When interest rates rise, the capitalised prices fall. It was the rise in interest rates in 1994, which caused a sell off in asset prices then, the same in 2000, and most spectacularly, so far, in 2008. As interest rates have been rising over the last year or so, we have again seen stock markets begin to crack, for example, the US markets fell by around 20% last year.

When growth rises, it means the demand for money-capital rises, causing interest rates to rise, and especially when that growth causes the demand for labour to rise, pushing up wages, as was happening in 2008, that creates a squeeze on the rate of surplus value, and on profits, thereby reducing the main source of the supply of money-capital, i.e. realised profits, again causing interest rates to rise.

With interest rates at such very low absolute levels, even a small absolute rise in rates, represents a large proportional rise, and that rise in interest rates causes a correspondingly large fall in capitalised asset prices. As the rich measure their wealth in terms of the prices of these assets, any rise in interest rates, which causes a sharp fall in asset prices is seen as something to avoid.

That is why, particularly since 2008, the rich have sought to constrain economic growth, via austerity, so as to constrain the demand for additional money-capital, and thereby prevent interest rates rising. They have simultaneously sought to divert all available money-capital, and money into financial speculation, and speculation in property, so as again to constrain economic growth, and keep asset prices inflated.

One of the main means of effecting a shift in the equality of wealth, would be to simply raise interest rates, and allow those grossly inflated asset prices to collapse. If it was combined with an end to austerity, and programme of investment in infrastructure, it would further enhance that redistributive process.

Anonymous said...

"Why suddenly start on (trans) gender issues?"

It was simply for illustrative purposes.

The point about inequality doesn't quite hold because you are allowed to make arguments against inequality without being shouted down as anti this or anti that. Ok you might be called envious etc but there is little chance of a twitter storm if you say you want more inequality and there is little chance, yet, that the government will introduce laws to explicitly ban criticism of inequality (as happens in the case of Israel).

Anonymous said...

Israel literally has a department dedicated to analysing Palestinian reproduction trends.

Of course you never hear Boffy calling Israel nationalist! In fact rarely do you find bourgeois nations being categorised as nationalist by Boffy.

I actually think a superior understanding of ‘Stalinism’ to the one Boffy provides can be found in “Marxism and the National Question" by Stalin himself. It certainly provides a more thorough understanding of the relationship between Stalinism and nationalism than the ahistorical claptrap Boffy presents.

David Parry said...

To the original commenter,

Kindly take your transphobic BS elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Increasing interest rates is a novel idea, I am pretty sure the first act of the Paris commune was to abolition them!

“The main form of increase in wealth has come from the rise in the prices of these assets.”

This isn’t quite the full story. I was reading that over 70% of value created by Chinese workers is directly expropriated by Western companies, and at super exploited mark-ups.

Also they have moved the tax burden from themselves to us.

Also the financial bankocracy pay themselves in money rather than stock options, as they know the stock is ultimately going to be worthless. This means when the bailout comes and the stock values go down the plughole they don’t lose out (we do) as they have their money tied up in whatever they tie it up in, often offshored somewhere.

Also they print lots and lots of money and give it to themselves. This may be fictitious but they can still buy yachts with it!

And when the bubbles burst we will pay and not them.

So the best way to affect a shift in inequality is through the following measures:

Elect a socialist government
Closing down of all tax havens
Bringing the banks under the control of the state
Introducing a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
Abolition of all rights of inheritance