Party politics past and present

In the Roman world, as in eighteenth century British and American politics, to say that someone belonged to a political party was an insult.  The other side was a factio or a member of an organised group, but one’s own position was characterised as independent of the organization of opinion.  Political parties as a positive means of representation are a more recent phenomenon, and perhaps a transient one.

Peter Mair, professor of comparative politics at the European University Institute in Florence died in 2011, leaving unfinished his important work Ruling the Void:  The Hollowing of Western Democracy, but enough remained for Francis Mulhern to reconstitute a text.[1]  Political science has all the drawbacks of being superseded by events, and one aches to know what Mair would have made of the current situation.  However, in other areas he was prescient and his warnings now sound like the disregarded truths of a Cassandra.Mair Ruling the Void

Part of Mair’s argument is that in the construction of modern western democracy, parties were fundamental; they were organs of representation, and therefore manifested government by the people, and they secured procedural legitimacy, securing government for the people.  Their representational integrity was to some extent created by the mechanisms through which they used, and then reinforced, shared social experiences to support and sustain strong organizational networks.  Outside the overwrought politics of student unions (and judging by turnouts, even there), this has faded away (though Mair began to temper this view, and we will return to it).

This poses two challenges, one explanatory and one for governance.  Why had this happened, and how could democracy survive the fading of one of its most important constituent parts?  The explanation which Mair offered is of a mutual withdrawal.  Parties became more like each other, partly seeking to occupy a middle ground which became increasingly crowded as supranational alliances and globalizing imperatives reduced room for manoeuvre.  At the same time, the disillusion of the electorate – poorly-informed about and uninterested in abstruse technical distinctions, turned off by a debate reduced to caricature, and finding alternative mechanisms of engagement in a digitally rich social environment which renders party political events scarcely the most rewarding of options – has led in most cases to a drastic ageing and thinning of traditional party membership.

This is reasonably familiar and until the Corbyn revolution changed matters somewhat, Mair’s argument distinguished itself more perhaps by its sophistication and its rigour rather than by its novelty.  On the specific challenge that the parties’ programmes had converged, the Roman world offers a parallel.  Robert Morstein-Marx’s ground-breaking work, Mass Oratory and Political power in the Late Roman Republic, focused on the language of public meetings, contiones, where magistrates addressed some portion of the Roman people.  These events could be lively and contentious, but Morstein-Marx also identified what he described as contional monotony, a convergence on a few shared principles, and politicians then competed over which of them best represented the interests of the People, the security of Rome, the prosperity of the empire.

This monotony, in antiquity and in the modern west, was and is ultimately problematic.  In both instances, arguably, what it left out was a large portion of unrepresented people (and not just non-persons such as women and slaves).  For Rome, the problem early in the first century BC was the Italians; later the mobilization of the poor challenged elite control; and in the late Republic, the army became an audience which transcended the politics of the forum.  The emperor Augustus is notable for capturing all three audiences, and thus bringing Roman politics effectively to an end.

Events after Mair’s death would render any concept of the death of party politics apparently as accurate as Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history.  Lurking on the edges of Ruling the Void is the shadow of an anti-European sentiment which he rightly identified, and which brought politics of a kind roaring back to life.  Perhaps the phenomenon which Mair most obviously missed was the potential for at least some people to be genuinely interested in what seemed like a real alternative – the hugely successful membership drive of Corbyn’s Labour stands in contrast to the elections of both Trump and Macron, both of which happened almost in spite of any party element, and therefore more directly bear out Mair’s thesis.  However, the disconnect between the Parliamentary Labour Party  and this new membership puts Corbyn’s Labour some distance from the ideal type of party politics.

One of the most challenging elements of Mair’s argument is that the hollowing out of national party politics has been accompanied simultaneously by a collusive construction of a Europe without substantial room for either politics or parties.  Mair offers three kinds of answer to the puzzle of why Europe is constructed as it is – that any kind of democratic legitimacy would have to be found at a different level from that of the nation state because it is so exceptional as a structure; that politicians and nations have not wished to permit an institutional competitor; and finally, that Europe was needed as an alternative to democracy, because democracy at a national level was not working.

A negative version of this argument is that politicians at a national level were content to let Europe take the blame for decisions they regarded as necessary but which they could not introduce themselves.  If we accept Mair’s argument that one of the reasons why parties ceased to be so representative was because they became more closely associated with the process of  governance – that they competed over terms such as ‘responsibility’ or ‘prudence’ rather than identifying with the desires of voters, then it is immediately evident that there is a double failure here.  First, politicians have chosen to limit the area within which they claim to act responsibly to exclude some of the more difficult areas; and second that they have then weakened the legitimacy of Europe by blaming it for the difficult consequences, of globalization or migration for instance.  Merkel’s fate in the aftermath of her decision to allow a million refugees into Germany may give us an insight into why political courage is dangerous at a local level.  Similarly the success of UKIP and similar parties, even when not always translated into votes or representation, has drawn attention to the perceived abandonment of swathes of the electorate by mainstream politics.

Ultimately this takes us towards a concern over what kind of democracy we have – or should hope to have.  Democracy does not come in a single flavour.  Political scientists worry intensely over forms of democracy, and a constitutional democracy which reduces or limits the role of the people is often discussed.  Athenian democracy was unusual and was itself the subject of intense internal debate and significant transformation.  Rome certainly had concepts which veered towards a certain sense of democracy, but institutionally and ideologically they were not the same as those of Athens.  And Roman emperors would often claim the support of the senate and people of Rome even in a situation of obvious autocracy, and where lawyers and technocrats to some extent held the empire together whilst emperors came and went.

Europe’s version of democracy may well be more technocratic and distant than that of nation states – for reasons outlined above – but as Jan-Werner Müller pointed out in his perceptive LRB review, European agreements are still largely the product of decisions made by democratically elected representatives of nation-states.[2]  The tension between good governance and elected governments is an ongoing battle over the soul of democracy – and in conditions where parties are not functional, perhaps process matters more than the vagaries of the electoral game.

One can certainly see how this argument might conversely encourage a sense that the brakes needed to be put on – that the ceding of power to Brussels had gone too far, that party politics needed revivifying, that a revival of popular political engagement is good, that the ‘hollowing out’ needed to be reversed.  Only time will tell whether the shock to Europe of Brexit and other anti-European movements, the emergence of a strengthened membership of the Labour Party in the UK, or even the occasionally mooted re-ordering of the party affiliations, and the challenge to technocratic governance, will be regarded as a positive and successful sea-change, a temporary check to unstoppable processes, or something worse.  Roman senators in the imperial period occasionally called for a return to the Republic – though the experiment was never permitted.

But those who read Mair’s analysis as justifying an attempt to ‘fill out’ western democracy will need to be careful over what they wish for.  As Müller puts it, in a fight between technocrats and populists, the first will give us the same policies everywhere but no politics, but the latter will give us politics but no policies.

Mair’s golden age of party politics was also a period of cronyism and mystifying arguments over ideological purity.  The condition of its own representational function may have solidified prejudices and blocked the fluidity which we now prize.  And party democracy was only a form of democracy, with its own illegitimacies, its own exclusions, gendered, geographical and generational.  And finally, we have yet fully to understand the capacity of parties to endure when their basis rests on successful social media campaigns.  Mair barely mentions this, but it has been central to the recent phenomena of Italy’s Cinque Stelle as well as Corbyn’s Labour.  Wolfgang Streeck notes this well; the bonds formed in the world of social media are tenuous and transient.[3]  Or, as an Italian politician recently put it, a vote is not the same as a Facebook ‘like.’  If parties were to some extent formed to provide discipline and ideological consistency, we have yet to see whether social media will make such adherence more difficult, or, perhaps more terrifyingly, will make it easier for simplistic and sometimes false opinions to spread and hold.

Julius Caesar is said to have called the Republic a name only, without form or substance.  One can obviously read this as an autocratic dismissal of popular involvement in politics.  But it can also be seen as an honest acknowledgement that the fetishization of terms like party, republic or democracy, without attention to the way we perform them daily, and construct them by our own admissions and omissions, is unhelpful.  Party politics may be weakened, but that need not mean the death of democracy; we need a more balanced and honest account of what future democracy looks like, and one in which representation and administration find a new balance.

[1] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, Verso: London and New York 201

[2] Jan-Werner Müller, London Review of Books, 36 No. 10 · 22 May 2014

[3] In his review of Mair, New Left Review, 88, 2014, 121-9.


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