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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Political Parties as Parasites

It was in Bulgaria where I first encountered the phenomenon of proportional voting which has become such a dominant feature of Europe’s political system. Two colleagues on my project were at the same time local councillors – but not elected. They had simply been put on the party list. 
Grounded as I have been in both the political theory and practice of accountability, they were not real politicians. They owed their position entirely to their party bosses (which they could as quickly lose). 
More to the point, they had not campaigned and sought the votes of local constituents; nor held “surgeries” to hear people’s complaints and problems and thereby get a sense of public feelings. I do realise that there are a variety of PR systems available, including the mixed -member system - but my basic point stands.

In various countires I have used a diagram with a quadrant – to show the 4 very different pressures (audiences) which good politicians needed to have regard to – the local community; the party; the officials (and laws) of the particular government agency they had entered; and their conscience.
Politicians differed according to the extent of the notice they took of each of the pressures coming from each of these quadrants. And I gave names to the 4 types which could be distinguished – eg populist; ideologue; statesman; maverick. I tried to suggest that the effective politician was the one who resisted the temptation to be drawn into any one of these roles. 
  • The "populist" (or Tribune of the people) simply purports to gives the people what (s)he thinks they want - regardless of logic, coherence or consequences. 
  • The "ideologue" (or party spokesman) simply reflects what the party activist (or bosses) say - regardless of logic etc. 
  • The "statesman" (or manager) does what the professional experts in the appropriate bit of the bureaucracy tell him/her - regardless of its partiality etc
  • the "maverick" (or conviction politician) does what they think right (in the quiet of their conscience or mind - no matter how perverted) 
Each has its element of truth - and it is when someone blends the various partialities into a workable and acceptable proposition that we see real leadership 
All this came back to me as I read a paper (from 1995) which, looking at the relationship of the political party to both society and the state, nicely tracks the historical trajectory of the politician. First “grandees” (above it all); then later “delegates” (of particular social interests), then later again, in the heyday of the catch-all party, “entrepreneurs”, parties, the authors argued, have now become “semi-state agencies”. The article has some simple but useful diagrams showing how the three entities of political party, society and state have altered their interactions and roles in the last century.
We are told that proportional representation gives citizens a much stronger chance of their preferences being expressed in the final makeup of a Parliament. 
But that fails to deal with the reality of the party boss. 
Politicians elected for geographical constituencies (as distinct from party lists) have (some at least) voters breathing down their necks all year round. 
Not so those from the party lists who only have to bother about the party bosses who, in the past few decades, have got their snouts increasingly stuck in the state (and corporate) coffers.
The classic mass party is a party of civil society, emanating from sectors of the electorate, with the intention of breaking into the state and modifying public policy in the long-term interests of the constituency to which it is accountable. The "catch-all" party, while not emerging as a party of civil society, but as one that stands between civil society and the state, also seeks to influence the state from outside, seeking temporary custody of public policy in order to satisfy the short-term demands of its pragmatic consumers. In short, despite their obviously contrasting relations with civil society, both types of party lie outside the state, which remains, in principle, a neutral, party-free arena…..In the third model, parties are less the agents of civil society acting on, and penetrating, the state, and are rather more like brokers between civil society and the state, with the party in government (i.e. the political ministry) leading an essentially Janus-like existence. On one hand, parties aggregate and present demands from civil society to the state bureaucracy, while on the other they are the agents of that bureaucracy in defending policies to the public….. 
Looking at the three models as a dynamic rather than as three isolated snapshots, suggests the possibility that the movement of parties from civil society towards the state could continue to such an extent that parties become part of the state apparatus itself. It is our contention that this is precisely the direction in which the political parties in modern democracies have been heading over the past three decades. 
(We have seen a massive) decline in the levels of participation and involvement in party activity, with citizens preferring to invest their efforts elsewhere, particularly in groups where they can play a more active role and where they are more likely to be in full agreement with a narrower range of concerns, and where they feel they can make a difference. The more immediate local arena thus becomes more attractive than the remote and inertial national arena, while open, single-issue groups become more appealing than traditional, hierarchic party organizations.
Parties have therefore been obliged to look elsewhere for their resources, and in this case their role as governors and law-makers made it easy for them to turn to the state. Principal among the strategies they could pursue was the provision and regulation of state subventions to political parties, which, while varying from country to country, now often constitute one of the major financial and material resources with which the parties can conduct their activities both in parliament and in the wider society.
The growth in state subvention over the past two decades, and the promise of further growth in the coming years, has come to represent one of the most significant changes to the environment within which parties act……subventions which are generally tied to prior party performance or position - whether defined in terms of electoral success or parliamentary representation – and therefore help to ensure the maintenance of existing parties while at the same time posing barriers to the emergence of new groups.
In a similar vein, the rules regarding access to the electronic media, which, unlike the earlier printed media, are subject to substantial state control and/or regulation, offer a means by which those in power can acquire privileged access, whereas those on the margins may be neglected. Again, the rules vary from one country to another, and in some cases are clearly less restrictive, and less important, than others; nevertheless, the combination of the importance of the electronic media as a means of political communication, on the one hand, and the fact that these media are regulated by the state, and hence by the parties in the state, on the other, offers the parties a resource which was previously inconceivable.
This is one of several posts I intend to produce to deal with the widespread public unease with and distaste for democratic politics as currently being practised globally.


  1. I like your approach with the diagram, to assess the efficiency – or just political value, i.e. his/her worth for the given electorate – of the politicians. It is reminiscent of the method we use in the industry to monitor Cost of Quality, in the overal domain of Quality Management.

    However, I believe that your (standard) procedure is applicable to individuals who were in politics a quarter of a century ago: we could easily evaluate their work and grade them and compile a list with ranking everyone. Today these people are all but 1-2% gone; for the majority of the present-day politicians we will need other qualifiers: e.g. political correctness vis-à-vis Brussels, greed, career-mindedness, level of propensity to corruption, level of criminal involvement. These are the four most prominant in case we would keep the quadrant type of diagram, and apply it to the majority only; if we need to include the minority that is still out there and believes in values other than money-making, then we could stack all the parameters in a radar-type diagram, as per the industrial method mentioned above.

    It may be an interesting exercise to do that, by asking a few people to give grades of all these criteria for a group of politicians, and afterwards to publish the profiles thus created. Not that it would be a great surprise to many, but it will be the first time – at least in my recollection – to have quanified the public perception (and possibly knowledge) about their “abilities” and “qualities.” We know from the results of 25 years of “democracy” that leadership is a parameter of wishful thinking, certainly in today’s Bulgaria... And, by extension, the estimate for most foreign leaders would be just about the same: I reckon this observation has prompted you thinking about a procedure for measuring it, hasn’t it?

  2. Thank, Ivan for these thoughtful comments. You are right that my first typology was developed in - and related to (local) - conditions of the 1980s, It failed to mention financial inducement (Oh innocent days!) although the Construction industry certainly was pretty active then procuring favours. at a local level.
    It would indeed be interesting to update the typology - and for various countries - in the way you suggest.....
    And you are being very modest in not mentioning your own website which is collecting papers on modern aspects of the nomenklatura - at http://www.zaedno.mobi/Zaedno/Foreign_Reports_on_Nomenklaturocracy.html
    Success with that!