This year marks the centenary of the publication by Robert Michels of his great book Political Parties - which set out "the iron law of oligarchy" ie that all forms of organisation, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies (ie rule of the few). The reasons behind the oligarchization process are: the indispensability of leadership; natural self-interest and survival instincts (it’s a good life); and the passivity of the led individuals, more often than not taking the form of actual gratitude towards the leaders. These days we would add the media need for a hierarchical figure to focus on. I haven’t seen any recognition of the centenary yet. But I mentioned in my last post a paper written by a Frans Becker and Rene Cuperus a Dutch political scientist in 2004 - Party Paradox - which is the best analysis of the failings of the modern European political parties (and also the possible reasons for the various deficiencies; and possible ways for dealing with the crisis) which I’ve ever read. It might, with a bit of updating and some more international examples, make a suitable new version of the Michels classic – one hundred years on.
There have been innumerable articles and books bemoaning the state of democracy – but few to my knowledge which have identified the role of the political party in creating this parlous state. I had a long post in November bemoaning this lack of analysis.
So it’s great at last to find a good, solid paper – which I can recommend to others. Here are some excerpts -
Social-democratic politicians – even the local ones – come from a limited circle. Most are well-educated and are professionals in the collective sector. They closely resemble their counterparts in other parties as far as their education is concerned but differ from them in terms of their professional backgrounds.25 They are often well-suited for civil service and the policy-based, bureaucratically-oriented decisionmaking process and are at ease in the small inner circle of politics. The sociologist Van Doorn has described the contrast between the old and new politicians as follows. The old political elites were selected “because they had social standing, and they derived their standing from their leadership of certain social groups and core institutions: employers’ federations and employee organizations, leagues of farmers and small businessmen, dailies, broadcasting associations, and universities. In the 1960s these double offices became suspect and gradually disappeared. The “regents” were replaced by political professionals, who often had more ambition than experience. They became significant thanks to their election. A self-perpetuating cycle began: the inflow of professional politicians eroded the standing of being a member of parliament, and this diminished standing compromised the quality of the MP’s. They were selected from the crowd and lacked any competence beyond that of a low-prestige board. They almost exclusively represented their party and consequently became isolated from a society that is rapidly becoming disaffected with party politics.” Admittedly, some exceptions occur, and the good ones among them deserve their due.
Parties and politicians have come to focus increasingly on policy making. Politicians are like mechanics, tinkering at the engine of society by means of policy, without ever getting away from under the hood, as Anton Hemerijck put it at a conference of the Institute for Public Policy Research in London in 2000. Parties, having lost their social footing, do not appear to have replaced it with new alliances with civil society organizations.33 The isolation of the political parties is the predominant theme in the analysis of the Dutch Labour Party’s defeat in the 2002 elections. In the successful election campaign in 2003, Wouter Bos overcame this isolation and restored the electoral position of the Dutch Labour Party. Both a drastic change of the party culture and more structural ties with social organizations have been suggested as remedies to achieve sustained reinforcement of the party’s position.The paper finished by suggesting that
three strategies are available to these parties in their quest to retain or reclaim their role in democracy. First, to focus far more on their procedural functions. As political parties become less adept at their representative function, they will need to take on a new role as keepers of transparent and democratic public administration, where access to political and administrative decision-making remains open; private and public interests are clearly distinct, the foundations of the constitutional state are taken into account, and diversity and freedom of expression and information provision are guaranteed. Entrepreneur-politician Berlusconi’s skill in using politics and state to further his interest demonstrates that his party fails as the countervailing power required for democracyThe other two strategies were:
(a) a shift toward more direct democracy; and (b) party innovation with a capital P, which means improving professional quality and fostering a more open party style. In the case of the Netherlands a reallocation of the party landscape into a loose two-party system would be desirableIn effect citizens are no longer presented with real options by political parties at the national levels – neither in the USA nor Europe where parties have, to one degree or another, succumbed to what some people call the pressures of globalisation and others call „corporate interests”. What it boils down to is a quasi one-party State. In China (from which I recently returned), the Party has recognised that the recruitment of elected politicians has to be strictly conducted – with party members receiving strict training as well as their elected cadres. Of course any electoral system has to give scope for (if not encourage) mavericks (populists) to keep the representative part of the system operating. If necessary the Party makes the suitable policy adjustment to keep the public happy.
But I would dare to suggest that the role of political parties at a local government might be reduced – and I say this as someone who for 25 years operated as the Secretary of ruling Labour groups at both municipal and Regional levels. Frankly I saw too much of my colleagues representing either party interests or the interests of professional departments (like Education and Police) – and not enough of their representing public concerns. And local elections contests when parties are dominant means that there is no serious debate – and that voters vote on national political grounds. This is probably one of the strongest arguments for the principle of elected mayors to which the Establishment seems at last to have come round to in England (since it brings in the issue of personality) – but I don’t see the argument for it being conducted in these terms. And elected mayors are not enough – a system needs to exist which allows the ordinary citizen to believe that it is possible for her that (s)he could if she wished have a reasonable chance of getting on to the council and being listened to.