Ruling the Void

by Carl Rowlands

Peter Mair’s final book is a sure guide to our enfeebled ‘voodoo politics,’ in a world where raw economic power reigns unchallenged

First published: 14 January, 2014 | Category: Book Review, Corporate power, Politics, Privatisation, The State

Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, Peter Mair. Verso, 2013.  

When George H.W. Bush coined the term ‘voodoo economics’ to describe Ronald Reagan’s plan for Wall Street-inspired growth, he perhaps missed its inevitable corollary: the emergence of voodoo politics. Voodoo economics is based on a single article of faith: that the enrichment of a small minority automatically leads to broader enrichment and enfranchisement. It engenders a politics that is similarly centralised and built on minimal popular participation. In his posthumously published Ruling the Void, the political theorist Peter Mair meticulously documents what an enfeebled, anaemic ‘voodoo politics’ is beginning to look like, in a world where raw economic power reigns practically unchallenged. 

As political influence has increasingly equated to economic power, deep cynicism about the potential of politics to provide legal and social redress has eroded the basis for civil participation. In these circumstances, it isn't clear that political theorists are entirely relevant. Colin Crouch's The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, for example, devotes much optimism to the political potential of civil society, but if little or no administrative power of redress exists, or is perceived to exist, one might be sceptical about the prospects for wider participation in formal civil movements.[1]

The tendency towards post-democracy is obvious, even if, like the ailments which affect bee colonies, it is not always clear exactly which combination of factors is truly to blame. Mair, one of the most articulate theorists looking at such questions in recent years, identifies the collapse of Soviet communism in the late 1980s as a key milestone. It marked the point, he argues, where 'democracy' became ubiquitous and capitalism triumphant, masking the increasingly questionable ways that ‘democracy’ was manipulated and degraded in the course of geopolitical competition. Communism's collapse highlighted how little academic attention had been devoted to study of the practical workings of democracy, and diverted attention from studying how capitalism was able to survive and even flourish in such environments as Pinochet’s authoritarian, laissez-faire Chile.  

Post-democratic degeneration can be seen with particular clarity in the changing roles of political parties. Mair identifies an increasing tendency for parties to abandon their role in civil society as advocates for sectoral interests, in favour of an executive role as administrators and governors. These developments are analogous to the way that politics is now perceived as an occupation for a type of person, rather than an activity interwoven into the everyday lives of citizens. He documents the homogenisation of the UK Labour Party, as it has transitioned from being a dispersed federal organisation, to a centralised operation that has consistently discarded those grassroots resolutions with which the leadership disagrees—on pensions, defence policy, the social ownership of railways, and much else besides. Such confrontations at the party's annual conference have served as markers for the shift away from representative party democracy, towards the idea of the party as a piece of state apparatus, a 'spin machine' for an embedded regime.   

Mair highlights modern social democracy’s shift from public ownership towards a ‘firmly regulated’ marketplace in the utility sector, as being crucial for the de-politicization of central questions regarding the operation of the state. An operational model based upon ‘impartial’ regulators largely separates questions of utility supply and the state’s core infrastructure from political control, whilst providing an implicitly technocratic basis for the continued private ownership of these utilities. The determination of German cities, such as Hamburg, to reclaim ownership of the local electric grid, therefore assumes a large significance, as an example of how a future reclamation of such political territory might be conducted.

Mair's book examines the retreat from democratic decision-making in terms of the rise of technocracy in increasingly complex economies and an increasing premium upon predictability within political cultures. The European Union is only one of a set of institutions, which include the World Trade Organisation, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and various international agreements, to have successfully removed certain policy solutions from the reach of elected national politicians, whilst providing limited or no scope for party democracy at an institutional level. It is surely no accident that the TAFTA EU-US trade treaty is emerging at such a sensitive point in the European Union's development, as various parties aim to further incorporate and institutionalise a highly selective form of neo-liberalism into the operating ethos across the European Union. 

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Mair's account is his analysis of the EU's much-lamented democratic deficit as existing by design, rather than default. It is, Mair shows, intrinsic to the EU's development as an elite project. That this elite project is largely designed in the interests of large multinational companies is without doubt; yet it remains unclear how opposition to these aspects of the EU's agenda can avoid the perils of isolationism and the failures inherent to a 'single country' approach. That this is so is, Mair argues, an important piece of political engineering, placing opposition to aspects of the EU's policy platform outside the limited scope of EU-sanctioned party politics, and outside normal political discourse. For example, there is no scope for a political party to mount a political campaign against the European Commission’s ‘liberalisation’ (read: privatisation) of railways and postal services across Europe at a European level. Any campaign would need to be mounted either locally or within a nation state, and it would normally, by implication, be represented as a rejection of the EU as a whole. As Wolfgang Streeck has argued, the result is that 'in countries like Greece and Ireland, anything resembling democracy will be effectively suspended for many years' as part of a settlement in which propertied interests achieve total primacy within the political sphere.

There is, however, a risk of taking this analysis too far, by assuming that the EU actually works as a smooth, functioning organisation. In fact the relationship between EU regulations and member states is deeply problematic, especially with respect to the largest countries. Germany, for example, has been fined many thousands of times in the last twenty years for providing state support to its industries; if Germany is truly a model for the rest of Europe, this has perhaps depended upon German politicians’ determination to repeatedly disregard EU regulations. The reality is that the majority of industry in the European heartland is tied to government ownership and procurement in one form or another. The UK defence industry nests within the Palace of Westminster in much the same way as the ravens in the Tower of London, while the Renault/Peugeot conurbation perches in the rafters above the French National Assembly. These are the guilty pleasures of the European core members, denied to the periphery. Arguably, the most important determining features of European economies are influenced by geopolitical factors. Whatever one makes of this, it has precious little to do with technocracy. 

The more control that is ceded to non-politics and the more the political agenda is constrained, the more likely it is that politicians appear weaker and less trustworthy, even as their rhetoric becomes increasingly strident in other ways. The population, disempowered and desensitised, disengages further from the process, responding only to increasingly harsh and shocking statements of populism. Large, rotted parties with weakened immune systems become prone to small, well-funded, tightly organised groups of members, just as the Republican Party now plays host to the carefully orchestrated radicals of the Tea Party. The likely consequences of this process are anything but technocratic, which raises the possibility that the growing technocratic tendencies that Mair highlights may be only an interregnum—a fragile settlement resting upon an increasingly unsustainable consensus among a dwindling and increasingly powerless political class. 

In the absence of rational economic redress to inequality, many countries appear to be moving into the realm of ‘voodoo politics’. Mair highlights how conservative parties have, since the late 1960s, increasingly portrayed themselves as offering mass redress for real or perceived failures of social democracy; offering technocratic solutions in populist garb, with conservatism increasingly defined by the ‘conservation’ of mass prosperity. A culture of contentment, or at least, a culture of chronic un-adventurousness and conformity, makes such an approach resilient in economic downturns, especially if the message is delivered to appeal to a ‘cultural majority.’ 

Yet here, Mair sometimes hits the buffers of his discipline. He looks at the relationship between technocratic solutions and political parties from the perspective of how a technical approach to politics has served to erode the scope for democratic decision-making. But the absence of cultural analysis works to the detriment of his arguments.  A detailed study of the paths of political discourse, along the lines of Norman Fairclough's New Labour, New Language, would shed more light on how the language of politics is evolving and being mediated during such a period of apparent disengagement. [2]

The emphasis is increasingly upon charisma, on straight-talking folk heroes. In a way, we are all Southerners now, encircled by snake oil salesmen and assorted political hucksters, some of whom are absolutely genuine in their intentions, but whose policy ideas are, in effect, captured by the process of politics. Blue Labour, an approach which initially seemed to offer a re-thought labourism, can now be seen as just another attempt to negotiate liberalism through the deployment of populist elements. In the context of the existing political paradigm, and the centralised, if decayed British state, there is no guarantee that incremental leftist policy solutions, aiming for a technocratic, sensible social democracy, will be interpreted or delivered in anything like the spirit in which they are originally proposed. Advocating the building of affordable new homes is one thing. Inadvertently lending a future government credibility to join with rapacious developers in attacking what remains of the Green Belt, quite another. 

We should also consider what sociologist Stuart Hall calls the 'common sense' by which certain political questions are pre-determined, framed and presented by a practically ubiquitous mainstream media. One might expect a functioning technocracy to, for example, demand that green politics and environmental threats receive much more attention on an on-going basis than they currently do; that proposals for fracking, for instance, would be presented in terms of the impact of the process, rather than how the BBC actually presented the prospect, in terms of energy independence. Against such a backdrop of manipulation and interpretation, the argument that democracy is being squeezed out by increasing technocratic complexity is difficult to make; it is perhaps more plausible to argue that democracy is buckling under the weight of overlapping untruths. 

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.

[1] Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (Polity, 2011)

[2] Norman Fairclough, New Labour, New Language? (Routledge, 2000)

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