Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Purpose of Politics - What Works Doesn't Work

From What Works Doesn't Work, an article by Ross McKibbin in the London Review of Books (11 September 2008)

"The typical politician today, whether minister, shadow minister or ‘adviser’, proceeds from student politics (often with a politics degree), to political consultancy or a think-tank, to ‘research’ or the staff of an active politician. He or she is ‘good at politics’ – which means being good at the mechanics of politics, not necessarily at its ideas. The consequence is that the mechanics drives out the ideas, and the immediate expels the long-term."

"Opinion is continually tested, but not in ways likely to supply anything other than the desired answer: what the opinion-testing seeks is ways to achieve the answer that’s wanted."

"The culture of the focus group ... reinforces the political status quo and encourages a hard-nosed, ‘realistic’ view of the electorate that denies the voter any political loyalty, except to ‘what works’."

McKibbon mentions the German sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936), who moved to Italy, switched parties several times and ended as a supporter of fascism. In his book Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (pdf), Michels identifies two regulative principles:

"1. The ideological tendency of democracy towards criticism and control."

"2. The effective counter-tendency of democracy towards the creation of parties ever more complex and ever more differentiated - parties, that is to say, which are increasingly based on the competence of the few."

A random walk through the internet, including several Wikipedia articles, led me back to George Orwell's review of James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution (May 1946).

"Burnham insists that politics is simply the struggle for power ... some sectional group which is out to grab power for itself. ... Political activity ... is a special kind of behaviour, characterized by its complete unscrupulousness, and occurring only among small groups of the population, especially among dissatisfied groups whose talents do not get free play under the existing form of society. The great mass of the people ... will always be unpolitical. In effect, therefore, humanity is divided into two classes: the self-seeking, hypocritical minority, and the brainless mob whose destiny is always to be led or driven, as one gets a pig back to the sty by kicking it on the bottom or rattling a stick inside a swill-bucket, according to the needs of the moment, And this beautiful pattern is to continue for ever. Individuals may pass from one category to another, whole classes may destroy other classes and rise to the dominant position, but the division of humanity into rulers and ruled is unalterable. In their capabilities, as in their desires and needs, men are not equal. There is an ‘iron law of oligarchy’, which would operate even if democracy were not impossible for mechanical reasons. "

Orwell of course satirized this theory in his last two novels, Animal Farm and 1984.

According to Orwell, Burnham saw politics as being particularly prone to the principle of Cui Bono, or as we would put it on this blog POSIWID.

"In everyday life, as Burnham sees and admits, one cannot explain every human action by applying the principle of cui bono? These generalizations only apply to political behaviour, not to any other kind of behaviour."


Orwell ends with a wry comment on the intellectual forces that (at least temporarily) attracted writers like Burnham towards fascism.

"What damage is done to the sense of reality by the cultivation of what is now called ‘realism’. "

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