Institutions and Ideology

The decay of political institutions, particularly of the mainstream parties of the post-war settlement, has been evident for some time. The most dramatic manifestation of this trend is the widespread public mood of distrust of politicians and even of politics.

Commentators like Francis Fukuyama have noted that the process of decay has significantly damaged public institutions in the United States. However, the American Congress is only the most prominent exemplar of institutional stasis and disorientation. In Europe, governments have sought to compensate for their lack of authority by hiding behind technocratic experts and non-governmental organizations. In recent decades the institutions of the European Union are often deployed to assume responsibility and decision making for many issues that used to be the prerogative of national legislatures. And yet, in the aftermath of the migration crisis, the role of the EU as a kind of authority of the last resort has been sorely tested.

Until recently the twin problems of loss of institutional legitimacy and the diminishing influence of motivational ideologies could be illustrated by pointing to the disengagement of the electorate from public life. The steady decline in voter participation was widely interpreted as a significant challenge to the workings of democratic institutions. The sudden disappearance of mass political parties with historical traditions such as that of the Christian Democrats in Italy or the Communist Parties in the West provided evidence of the demise of party politics. In more recent times the crisis of political institutions has been highlighted by the sudden electoral growth of hitherto unknown and untested movements. The recent setback suffered by the two-party system in Spain in the December 2015 elections serves as testimony to the new challenges faced by the institutions of the European political systems.

Opting for Technocratic Solutions

Since the late 1970s, the public institutions have sought to compensate for their declining political legitimacy by adopting technocratic models of governance. In the first instance this involved the adoption of Third Way technocratic strategies. In some cases the business of government was reframed as the government of business. Citizens were rebranded as the customers and as clients of services provided by public institutions. The Thatcher-Reagan declaration that There Is No Alternative, sought to depoliticize economic and financial policy and render it the business of experts.

One integral feature of the technocratic turn was the expansion of judicial activism and overseeing of political decision-making. Although outwardly the political executives have frequently complained about the interference of courts in the affairs of government, they now often look to the authority of the judiciary to legitimize unpopular decisions. Britain provides a striking example of the ascendancy of judicial activism. Problems that were once the focus of the deliberation of policymakers are now routinely outsourced to a judicial inquiry.

The ascendancy of the judicial inquiry as a front-line instrument of governance is an expression of the loss of legitimacy of elected public institutions. In the UK, recent inquiries into the behavior of parliamentarians, the Police, the National Health Service, the newspaper industry, or the BBC indicate that the legitimacy of public institutions is itself at issue. Time and again the judiciary is called upon to serve the role of a neutral and disinterested honest broker, because politicians, policy-makers, and representatives of different interest groups cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

One of the most unremarked upon but remarkable consequences of the turn to technocratic governance has been the ascendancy of process in public life. The political process in recent times has mutated into processed politics. The rhetoric of process has displaced ideology and other forms of self-conscious political narratives. Public institutions have internalized a process-oriented vocabulary. Words like empowerment, support, transparency, accountability, or best practice are a vital feature of the vocabulary of the 21st century technocrat.

The shift from a political to managerial style of authority is systematically expressed through the fetish of governance. Once upon a time, governance referred to the act of directing and governing. Today, governance refers to the workings and mechanics of process. From the standpoint of governance there is no normative standard of right and wrong. What counts is whether the correct process has been followed. The supremacy of process absolves people from making judgments about what is right or wrong. It also dissociates people’s action from its consequence. Instead of leaders, we have mangers. In contemporary public life, leadership has been displaced by mentors. Expert mentors do not so much lead as “facilitate,”“enable,”and “support.

The main source of legitimacy for a process is evidence. That is why evidence-based policy has become the characteristic feature of governance. Evidence-based policy absolves decision-makers from the responsibility of taking responsibility for their decisions. It also displaces both the language of right and wrong and of ideology. So political leaders are no longer required to argue what is they think is right, only what the evidence shows. The mantra “evidence shows”signals the end of debate and discussion. If what matters is what “evidence shows,”then the debate about a political choice becomes marginalized as an exercise in rhetoric.

Processed politics is the progeny of institutional and ideological decay. At least in the short run it has been remarkably successful in dominating proceedings in public life. One noteworthy illustration of the capacity of technocratic governance to deal with potential disruptions to public life was its ability to tame and domesticate the re-elected Syriza government in Greece. Not so long ago Syriza appeared as a radical movement committed to uphold a fundamental alternative to the Eurozone’s drastic regime of austerity. By the time of the September 2015 elections, Syriza and its leader Alexis Tsipras had become educated in the realities of the technocratic outlook of the EU. During the election campaign, its leaders increasingly resembled a now-chastened and responsible adults, prepared to leave their childish idealist toys behind. Not surprisingly, the re-election of Syriza was no longer regarded as a problem by the EU technocracy. Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economics chief tweeted: “Confident in future of #Greece.”

The Politicization of Anti-Politics

One of the most destructive consequences of the exhaustion of Western political institutions has been the growth of the influence of the ethos of anti-politics. Until now the decline of traditional ideas-led politics has not led to the emergence of new ideological alternatives. The exhaustion of ideology has run in parallel with that of institutional decay. The demise of ideology has encouraged the flourishing of cynicism and of anti-political sensibility. Arguably the most successful focus for political mobilization today is the politics of anti-politics. In these anti-political times, opportunistic candidates are likely to present themselves as an outsider—as genuine anti-establishment individuals, who are not tainted by the practices of professional politicians.

What unites a bewildering variety of otherwise very different movements is their contempt of and cynicism towards politics. Take the recent impressive electoral of new movements such as Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain, UKIP in England, the Front National in France, the re-election of Syriza in Greece, or the triumph of the Scottish National Party. Outwardly all these parties talk a very different language. Yet they are all the beneficiaries of a mood of disenchantment with traditional politics and politicians. Their leaders present themselves as anti-establishment outsiders who are not compromised by the politics of the past. One of the most successful practitioners of the art of anti-politics is the SNP. Its capacity to mobilize anti-political hostility towards the Westminster establishment allowed it to destroy the Labour Party in Scotland.

In Spain and Greece the influential anti-political leader is likely to be a university academic or a public sector operative. In other parts of the world the personification of anti-politics acquires very different forms. Donald Trump has been such a consummate practitioner of the politics of anti-politics that he threatens to single-handedly destroy the Republican Party.

Whatever the problems afflicting public life, the politicization of the cynicism and passivity that feeds the anti-politics mood makes a bad situation even worse. Anti-politics is not—as it sometimes appears—merely the rejection of a particular party or of the elites, it is an expression of a deeper conviction that politics is futile. As the experience of Greece indicates, even in its more radical guise anti-politics provides no alternative to the current regime of processed governance. Why? Because for all its sins, politics is the medium through which new ideas can be thrown and debated by the public. Democratic politics represents a challenge to the fatalistic ethos of There is No Alternative. Anti-politics represents acquiescence to Fate.

Conclusion

The turn towards technocratic governance may have produced a provisional solution to the crisis of legitimateness of Western political institutions. However, process and managerial style of governing can do little to counteract the effects of institutional decay. Administrative solutions and rule-making lack the capacity to motivate the public and inspire loyalty and identification with the political system. The politics of process intensifies the process of depoliticization. In the short run this may help stabilize public life. But in the long run it contributes to the strengthening of anti-politics. Sadly, the mood of anti-politics fosters a climate of cynicism and alienation. Many regard the anti-political critique of the existing establishment as a positive alternative to the status quo. It isn’t. It merely distracts the attention and energy of the public from facing up to the challenge of reconstituting popular democratic institutions and public sphere oriented to the future.

Frank Furedi

Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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