The year was 1997. Bill Clinton was beginning his second term, Tony Blair’s New Labour was coming to power in Britain after a resounding victory, and European Union member states were putting together the Stability and Growth Pact (vowing to keep government deficits below 3 percent and debt below 60 percent of GDP).
Meanwhile, Alan Blinder was asking the readers of Foreign Affairs whether government was “too political” — that is, too much under the influence of elected politicians competing for votes. A respected economist at the top of his game, Blinder had served on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and then as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
His time at the central bank had gotten him thinking. While the Federal Reserve made important decisions that affected lives across the country and beyond, it was deliberately isolated from elected officials’ interference. Monetary policy was no field for amateurs, and the central bank had to do things the voting public may not support but which served its long-term interests.
Blinder was troubled by one “nasty little thought”: similar arguments could be made for many functions of government. Health policy, environmental policy, tax policy — what area could not be improved by expert decision-making, free from the meddling of Congress and the White House?
Don’t get Blinder wrong. He didn’t want to disenfranchise the population, but, rather, to give their values and long-run welfare more effective expression in government. In his scheme, “value judgments” would still be made by elected representatives, but “technical judgments” were left to the technocrats, allowed to pursue the broad objectives set by the representatives who appointed them. The voters were cast as both Ulysses’ sailors and the sirens: binding government to the mast so it couldn’t respond to them later. In case of regret, they could always choose to undo the shackles, though that process should be neither easy nor quick.
In the same issue of Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria set out a parallel argument. Democracy and liberalism were not the natural twins we once thought they were. In “the West,” democracy had historically grown up with a cultural commitment to liberal values: “rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and” — last but not least — “property.”
But this link could no longer be taken for granted. Democracy had spread further than constitutional liberalism, and so, “from Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life — illiberal democracy.”
What if, Zakaria asked, racists and fascists prevailed in the free and fair elections of the Balkans? Would you rather live in democratic Haiti or the “liberal semi-democracy” of Antigua? Should we promote the spread of democracy in the Middle East if this created regimes that “would almost certainly be more illiberal than the ones now in place?” In Zakaria’s account, it was the liberal part of liberal democracy that had led to the flourishing of the West, and when the two sides come into conflict, it was the liberal part that should be defended.
The basic argument was far from new. If Zakaria’s pitch seemed fresh and contrarian, it was because of the timing. For decades, the democracy part of “liberal democracy” had been a pillar of the West’s self-image and appeal during the Cold War. Arguments for non-democratic liberalism certainly appeared, but they were never common in the opinion pages. With the Cold War over, they could perhaps come to the fore.
Zakaria was able to quote from many of the liberal classics about the dangers democracy posed to liberty: Kant, Mill, Madison, Tocqueville. In fact, the argument was so old that solutions had been baked into the institutions of Western democracy. Zakaria pointed to the American constitutional structure itself as a solution to the problem of democracy:
What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is. Of its three branches of government, one — arguably paramount — is headed by nine unelected men and women with life tenure. Its Senate is the most unrepresentative upper house in the world, with the lone exception of the House of Lords, which is powerless. . . . To further check national power, state and local governments are strong and fiercely battle every federal intrusion into their turf.
Blinder and Zakaria were making different arguments, but the two dovetailed nicely. For Blinder, the solution to the irrationalities of democracy was more decision-making by unelected experts; for Zakaria, it was institutional checks and balances to keep certain things out of the voters’ grasp. Their interventions captured not just the fantasies of ambitious clerks but the spirit of the age.
The Party’s Over
Many feel that democracy has been eroded across the Western world. Elected officials have come to seem more constrained, and the options presented to voters are narrower, at least with respect to economic policy. More people have disengaged from the democratic process. The mask would-be governing parties present to voters is distant from the face revealed once in office.
Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void gives some solidity to these feelings. It is, unfortunately, an unfinished work: Mair, an Irish political scientist, died in 2011 with the manuscript still in progress. Editor Francis Mulhern later assembled the book from draft chapters and a few of Mair’s papers, building from the core argument Mair laid out in a 2006 New Left Review article.
The sketch has been filled out in some areas, but sadly we are left with only an outline of the rest. Though it takes on “the hollowing of Western democracy” as a whole, the details are drawn mainly from Europe — particularly the European Union project — and it was already somewhat dated upon publication: the eurozone crisis barely registers.
But the past few years of European politics all validate Mair’s argument — another grand coalition in Germany, a cabinet of unelected technocrats in Italy, grinding austerity across the continent regardless of the government in power, the rise of outsider parties both left and right, and the Syriza U-turn.
It may seem odd to forecast the end of “the age of party democracy” at a time when, by many measures, democracy is more pervasive than ever before. In 1900, almost no country in the world extended universal suffrage. By 2000, almost two-thirds did, covering 58 percent of the world’s population.
The 1990s saw a great wave of enfranchisement in the former Eastern Bloc, and NGOs were dispatching countless observers and activists to foster democracy in the developing world. As political scientist Juan Linz put it: “after the fall of the Berlin Wall, no anti-democratic ideology appeals to politicians, intellectuals, religious leaders (with the possible exception of . . . some Islamic countries) as an alternative to political democracy.”
But, Mair argues, even as democracy spread, it had thinned in the rich West. Formally, things were much the same: the franchise was not rolled back and elections continued to happen. But the form contained less of the substance, if the substance of democracy was collective popular decision-making about government policy.
Elections offered fewer real choices between alternative visions or strategies of governance —especially when it came to economic policy. Mair lists a number of familiar symptoms of voter disengagement. Quantitatively, there is lower voter turnout, and much lower party membership and identification. Qualitatively, there is widespread contempt for politicians and indifference toward the political process.
Rising abstention and alienation suggests that the political choices on offer are not enough to motivate people to pay attention and vote. As for anti-political hostility: “as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed in the case of the old French aristocracy, it is easy to breed contempt for those who continue to claim privileges on the basis of functions they no longer fulfill.”
Indifference or hostility to conventional politics is not confined to those outside the system, but expressed in the media, among technocrats, and by elected officials themselves. The predominant flavor is the centrist disdain for both partisanship and populism, where root problems are identified as dysfunctional pandering to ideological party bases and irresponsible promises to voters.
Nowhere is this stronger than in the parties themselves, where electoral logics have thrown up centrist leaders who must resist their popular base as well as the opposition. Mair’s illustration is New Labour’s rhetoric about “not being in politics” and “depoliticizing decision-making” — but examples abound, from Clinton’s triangulation in the United States to the Third Way taken by center-left governments elsewhere.
Another fixture is the outsider insurgency that denounces political duopolies, elites, and “politics as usual.” These campaigns might seem to run counter to the other, homogenizing expressions of anti-partisan anti-populism — and sometimes they do, typically in reactionary directions but sometimes to the left. But often outsider rhetoric is simply a cover for more centrist policy — the popular party outsider is the perfect face to present to disillusioned voters.
For Mair, the decline of party government is the heart of a problem that public indifference follows and comes to reinforce. He situates his argument in an older tradition of political science, which emphasizes the importance of party differentiation for genuine democracies.
In many systems, parties have little or no explicit constitutional recognition: they are not part of the formal rules of the game, but emerged as a strategic response to the democratic situation. It is parties that organize politics into a national context of interests and ideals. Without them, even attenuated popular sovereignty would be impossible on such a large scale.
The form of representation implied by raw constitutional rules, where individual regions return representatives on a geographic basis, disconnects it from the kinds of decisions that parliaments and governments make — which are less frequently local than systemic and national. Party organization is a necessary mechanism for collecting voter preference and transmitting it to national policy.
That is, at least, the ideal. But the mere existence of parties is not enough to ensure that choice at the ballot box means a genuine choice in policy. Parties must also vie for office in competitive elections and offer distinct policy alternatives. Policy should be made by the party in government, and elected representatives must remain accountable to their party. Leaders should be recruited by and through parties, rather than being popular or technocratic ringers. These are the conditions that have broken down.
This structural dysfunction flows from a narrowing of options for economic policy, which Mair puts down to globalization:
Parties were always more likely to matter in the so-called Golden Age of embedded liberalism, from the 1950s to the early 1970s, when they were relatively unconstrained in shaping the policy outcomes that might matter to their electorates. . . . By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the domestic capacity to control the economic environment was already in decline.
While Mair’s argument is an outline, it is not hard to fill in the color. If governments had less room to move, parties had less room to credibly promise movement. Over time, formations adapted to these conditions and economic policy became more or less bipartisan. But parties could still point to important distinctions that justified turning out to the polls, even if cosmetic differences in personality and rhetoric came increasingly to the fore.
Retreat of the parties — or, really, the parties of the Left — did not mean the retreat of the state. Economic policy continued to be formulated, but it became the duty of technocrats in treasuries and, most of all, central banks. The job for elected governments was to keep their fiscal policy disciplined and enact reforms to rationalize the interface between state and economy.
At the same time, something akin to natural selection ensured that the dominant economic policy voices within the parties of government identified with the technocratic consensus. In many countries, the “economic rationalist” finance minister or treasurer, unpopular within his center-left party but respected by the press, has become a familiar archetype.
Their perspective is much like Alan Blinder’s in Foreign Affairs: there is no real disagreement among serious people about what economic policy should do. Not everyone is serious, however; not everyone understands economics. It is a complicated business, and many voters do not have the education to understand their rational long-term interests — and though the bourgeois press is helpful, fewer people are paying attention to it.
For the technocrats lodged in the densely packed center, this produces both minor and major concerns. The minor one is that short-term electoral considerations pull one’s party colleagues away from economic rationality, especially in election years. The major one is that the party’s voters could be led drastically astray by demagogues.
To prevent these scenarios from happening, serious economic policy debate was cordoned off from unserious “politics.” Central bank independence, a tried and true method of limiting popular control, was especially common, proliferating and deepening in the 1990s and 2000s. The European Central Bank, established to administer the euro in 1998, went the furthest — it made its appointments and governance decisions at least two levels removed from any directly elected body.
The European Union takes up a full quarter of what we have of Mair’s argument. For Mair, the architecture of the European system exemplifies the isolation of decision-making from electoral democracy. By harmonizing many aspects of policy across the EU, it has reduced the space for policymaking by national governments. By delegating executive powers to European agencies, it has reduced the power of national agencies.
Mair asserts that the two channels of potential democratic influence — through the elected European Parliament and through national government influence on the Council of Ministers and the European Council — are effectively blocked by the fragmentation of powers, and a mismatch between the issues presented to voters and the actual powers of their representatives. Meanwhile, politicians at the national level are often happy to cede difficult decisions to the European level, which can act as a heat sink for unpopular technocratic policy.
The European architecture — born in the 1990s, seemingly maturing in the 2000s, and showing severe strain in the 2010s — is very much a creature of the technocratic ascendancy. Mair traces the ideology that has flowered alongside it, with thinker after thinker relocating the definition of democratic legitimacy away from voting and toward the idea, as Giandomenico Majone put it, that “efficient policies are basically legitimated by the results they achieve.”
The Not-So-Golden Age
To argue that party democracy has shriveled implies a contrast with a healthier age. Mair does not fall victim to false nostalgia.
At times, as in the passage quoted above, he does compare the void of the 1990s and 2000s with the “so-called Golden Age of embedded liberalism” in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet he clearly acknowledges that his argument descends from one already firmly entrenched during the earlier period.
The idea that “political decision-making sometimes lay beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen” was “a familiar theme in the political science of the 1960s.” His position, he writes, “owes much to Schattschneider’s  The Semi-Sovereign People”; more than a half-century later, his thesis can now be put “in a stronger and less hesitant form,” as “even semi-sovereignty is slipping away.”
C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956) and Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and The State in Capitalist Society (1969) were more damning about the condition of capitalist democracy in their time than Mair is about the present. Radical and Marxist analyses go unmentioned by Mair, whose points of reference stay within the bounds of polite, mainstream political science. The concept of capitalism is missing, and the crucial economic dimension to his argument is left undeveloped.
Mair’s story depends on the idea that economic conditions increasingly constrained governments beginning in the late 1970s. In this he departs from an idealism common on the Left, which ascribes the transformations of the 1980s and 1990s to the success of neoliberal ideology. Instead, with much vagueness, Mair simply blames “globalization.”
But in a capitalist society, much of the actual governance of life has never been subject to democratic influence. Rather, owners and managers of capital, running private organizations in pursuit of profit, make many of the calls.
Ever since the classical political economists explained how markets could coordinate the self-interested activity of the many, economics has guided statecraft. Governments and the agencies of the state are strategic actors with particular powers in a system they do not control, and strategy depends on some understanding of that system. Capitalist statecraft has always been more or less technocratic, because economic logics mean that some political strategies work better than others, and some will fail utterly.
Still, this does not mean the economy mechanically determines economic policy. Even if the system were somehow perfectly understood, a variety of potential strategies would exist.
The existence of the system itself also depends on the state: at a minimum, property law and its enforcement. These “nightwatchman” duties constituted most of the economic program of early liberalism, along with the “sound money” of the gold standard.
In theory, there is nothing stopping sovereign power from altering or repealing the legal framework on which capital depends. Once upon a time, democracy was seen as a genuine threat to capitalism. This fear motivated the composition of all the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classics Zakaria draws from in his defense of the “basic liberties” against the encroachment of “illiberal democracy.” The prospect of extending the vote to the propertyless terrified the propertied. And not without reason — redistribution and regulation were the point of getting the vote for many who fought for it.
Take, for instance, an 1842 debate in the British House of Commons following the presentation of a Chartist petition calling for universal male suffrage. Most speakers assumed that a truly popular vote would mean repudiation of the national debt — a substantial portion of existing wealth — and a redistribution of property. The Tory prime minister ranted about “a petition, so prepared by a designing and cowardly demagogue . . . so full of trash and delusion.”
Then, there were Whig reformers making the liberal case against democracy. Need it be said, as Thomas Macaulay put it, that they had no “want of sympathy for the interests of the humbler classes”? Lord John Russell proclaimed in equal measure his “respect for the petitioners” and “abhorrence of the doctrines set out in the petition.”
The problem was simply, however regrettably, a matter of political economy. Dissipate wealth across the population, and it would eliminate the “wage fund” out of which labor is paid, and so “throw the working classes into a still worse condition than that in which they are at present placed.” Redistribution of land and capital, said Macaulay, would not only “ruin those who are rich” but also “make the poor poorer.” The Chartists were like starving Indians pleading at the granary: open the doors out of misplaced kindness and you “only make a scarcity a famine.”
Democracy was all very well in America, with its constitutional checks and balances, and where just about everyone had their piece of property anyway. And it would hopefully be all very well in Britain too, one day decades hence, when the working classes had been educated about the realities of political economy and become less susceptible to the sway of socialist demagogues.
Had the Ghost of Democracy Future shown Macaulay and Russell the nation to come under universal suffrage, they would probably conclude that they had been right: the vote had been extended gradually, in line with education and moderation, and property remained safe from the rabble.
Nevertheless, the ghost would also reveal the transformations of the political landscape wrought by the working-class vote and the rise of the labor movement. By the late 1920s, when the franchise had been finally extended to women and the unpropertied, the gold standard was under strain — all the more after Churchill restored the pound to its pre-war gold parity in 1925 and intensified deflation in an already depressed Britain.
The gold standard was to the nineteenth century what the independent, inflation-targeting central bank would be to the late twentieth, insulating monetary management from political pressures. But it depended on wage flexibility, and by the 1920s labor had the power to resist the burden of adjustment. Many economists of the day saw unemployment as a symptom of the lost flexibility, and expected it to eventually break the money-wage to its equilibrium level. Instead, it would break the gold standard.
Amid all of this, the Whigs would notice John Maynard Keynes, a Liberal and thus their political heir in some respects. The crisis of the gold standard was the context for Keynes’s revolution in economics, and in 1925 he recognized why the old order was crumbling: “No section of labor will readily accept lower wages merely in response to sentimental speeches. . . . We are depending for the reduction of wages on the pressure of unemployment and of strikes and lockouts.”
While Keynes liked to poke fun at gold as a “barbarous relic,” the standard’s defenders were not simply mindless followers of tradition. Many reactions to Keynes’s ideas for “managed money” developed along the lines articulated by his friend Bob Brand: “I should myself still prefer to rely on the gold standard, defective as it is . . . than entirely on the skill and economic knowledge of bankers harassed by politicians.”
The Ghost of Democracy Future takes the Whigs forward another three decades, past another, greater war. Keynes is dead, but his name is everywhere: many economists call themselves “Keynesians,” and full employment is the declared aim of policy. With the establishment of macroeconomics, we see the true arrival of the technocrats: “sound money” and “sound finances” are replaced by active monetary and fiscal policy; statistical agencies collect all kinds of data, and professional economists multiply within the expanding bureaucracy.
A certain mythology — which Mair half-heartedly endorses with his “so-called Golden Age of embedded liberalism” — treats the postwar era as one of social democracy and Keynesian stimulus that was rolled back and reversed by a “neoliberalism” ascendant since the late 1970s.
The truth is more complicated. The size of the typical state, as measured by taxation and expenditure, grew tremendously during and after World War II. This trajectory has not been reversed since the 1970s. Only the growth has been halted, as of course it had to at some point.
In addition, central banks and governments are just as committed to demand management as they were in the 1960s. Full employment has simply been defined downwards to “the level of unemployment consistent with low and stable inflation.”
In fact, policy in the postwar period was often designed to restrain consumption rather than stimulate it. Macroeconomic rationality meant targeting the right level of effective demand. Compared with the gold standard, Bretton Woods created room for policy maneuver, but fixed exchange rates still limited the extent to which a country could run a balance-of-payments deficit. This, in turn, often forced a commitment to price stability.
From early on, economists realized that full employment could threaten price stability by keeping the labor market tight and worker bargaining power strong. Turning the knobs of macroeconomic policy was complicated, involving the use of unreliable instruments of limited strength in conditions of fundamental uncertainty to hit a number of often-contradictory targets.
The policy models of Jan Tinbergen, winner of the first Economics Nobel, offer a window into the view from the technocratic center:
In the situation of that year  and as far as the model used was a true representation of the Dutch economy, the calculations showed that the target set would require a wage decrease of 5%, a decrease in profit margins of some 13%, an increase in labor productivity of 4% and an increase in indirect taxes equal to 2% of prices. Both the wage decrease and the profit reduction seemed to be beyond the boundary conditions.
A long list of alternative targets was then studied. Accepting a boundary condition of no reduction in the nominal wage meant the necessity of still heavier reductions in profit margins and a heavier increase in indirect taxes; accepting a boundary condition of no profit margin reduction implied impossible requirements as to labor: either a reduction in real wages of 13% or a reduction of employment by the same percentage.
Thus did class struggle appear in the policy frame.
Policy instruments were compromised not only by technical limitations, but also by the lines of defense drawn by the groups affected by them. These defense lines could be political —groups could mobilize to influence the government, electorally or otherwise, and set limits on the use of particular instruments or the acceptable range for particular targets.
Or they could be economic — groups with power in a market could shape the parameters of the system in which policy operated. Broadly speaking, capital’s economic defense lines were built on its control of private investment, while labor’s were rooted in its organization and its bargaining power in tight labor markets.
When labor had the strength to throw these imperatives into active contest, policymakers found themselves struggling to reconcile multiple goals. In particular, the political commitment to full employment often came into conflict with the relative price stability required by fixed exchange rates.
That left three options. The first was to manage expectations downwards. It was common to argue, for example, that full employment and price stability could not be simultaneously met. This was a technocratic attempt to shift political defense lines — to persuade the electorate to accept lower horizons on the grounds of economic necessity.
The second possibility was to develop new, supplementary instruments to turn parameters into policy variables. Some, like Tinbergen himself, proposed that the full employment–price stability problem might be solved with centralized money-wage determination. Third, policy could be turned toward weakening the economic defense lines of labor or capital.
In the 1970s, the end of the long boom and the onset of stagflation heightened the tensions of policy. In conditions of depressed growth, somebody had to lower either their expectations or their capacity to fulfill those expectations.
We all know what happened next. Expectations were managed downward: the aspiration of full employment was abandoned, or redefined to mean the level of unemployment compatible with price stability. And, of course, the forces of labor were beaten into submission, permanently higher unemployment accepted as the new normal.
And yet, in no sense has the macroeconomic revolution in policy been rolled back. If it seems that way, it’s only because we focus on the rhetoric of free marketeers in politics and economics rather than watching what politicians and policymakers actually do.
Macroeconomic management is taken every bit as seriously as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. In many ways, it has been consolidated. The power of the central bank has been strengthened. Regulation — financial and otherwise — has not so much been shrunk as rationalized.
What has changed are the targets, the lower sights for macroeconomic policy, and the weakened position of labor. Similarly, the technocrats have been in charge of economic policy since at least World War II. The shift since the 1980s has been the aims: they’re more austere and less easy to sell to the public than full employment.
Mair’s argument about the decline of party government is convincing. We should be clear, though, that it has entailed a caving in of the left toward the center, rather than something more symmetrical. We should also not overstate the extent to which the social-democratic and labor parties of the postwar era were responsible for the full employment interlude. The macroeconomic revolution was bipartisan in most political systems of the West. And, again, during the long boom, this often meant policies of restraint rather than stimulus, swinging against high rates of private investment.
Even in the purely technocratic system of macroeconomist fantasy, there remained multiple, competing strategies. There was a genuine left Keynesianism, which might have met the contradictions of full employment differently. Centralized money-wage bargaining could have politicized distribution, and Keynes’s call for the “comprehensive socialization of investment” might have been taken literally. Any viable strategy would have had to deal with the economic and political defense lines of capital, which come mainly from its control of investment.
But nowhere was this the program of a mainstream party. It would probably have been politically unstable and immensely difficult: any challenge to the power of property needs to be pushed ever forward if it is to have any chance of avoiding the fate of such macroeconomic efforts during the “golden age”: surrender and acceptance of the low road to macroeconomic stability.
Filling the Technocratic Void
Are we still in the void of Ruling the Void? Mair’s book is mostly a pre-crisis one, a work of the long 1990s. Blinder’s call for government to act more like a central bank would not have been out of place in 2007, a year when the memoirs of maestro of prosperity Alan Greenspan debuted at the top of the nonfiction bestseller list. Now, it is hard to say.
Mair foresaw the rise of populist anti-political challenges to the technocratic center. But before his death, these mainly had a reactionary tint. What would he make of the emergence in Europe of genuine left parties with mass appeal? Of the surprise popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders? Though his sympathies are obviously with the Left, he gives us no explicit strategy for facing the void. Perhaps the prospects for the immediate future seemed too bleak.
Much of the radical left responded to the decline of mainstream laborism and social democracy by putting its energies into the politics of the street, largely dismissing party-building as a waste of time. In many ways, this was a sensible response. In staking out the technocratic center, the mainstream parties found ways of inoculating themselves from internal left pressure. The alternative — going it alone with a new party of the left — was extremely difficult to get off the ground, especially in first-past-the-post voting systems.
But extra-parliamentary politics has demonstrated its own limitations.
First, it is at a distance from power. Its effectiveness depends on putting pressure on the very parties of government the Left has vacated (or been pushed from). Protest campaigns depend on making something an issue, shifting the electoral calculations around it. They may be quite successful in doing so. But at best, they leave all initiative and policy design to the parties.
As Mair remarks, parties used to articulate the interests of ideologically similar non-party movements and institutions; with this channel broken, the movements have to play parties off against each another for influence. However, movements of the Left cannot credibly set the center-left against the right — everybody knows that come Election Day, they’ll be turning out the vote for the lesser evil.
Second, the activist left risks becoming comfortably separated from the mainstream. For people, politics is the electoral process, the back and forth of party politics, government and opposition. What goes on in that frame determines the bounds of what most people think of as politically possible. Outside it, activists can build movements that look spectacular, but their reach is often limited — and devoid of the capacity and discipline that comes from meeting people where they are and listening and helping articulate their aspirations.
Socialists in the West have generally haunted the margins of mass labor parties and movements, engaging within the broader left out of a genuine commitment to winning reforms that better the lives of people under capitalism. But we have also always made the case that without an assault on capital and its power, the potential for reform will be less than reformists presume, and always at risk of being wrested back. Regrettably, expropriating the expropriators is still a platform with minimal electoral appeal.
In the postwar period, the most plausible socialist strategies involved the radicalization of a popular social-democratic government that ran up against the limits set by capitalist control of investment. On balance, this is still more plausible than the alternatives. So, the crisis of social democracy has been the real crisis of socialism, much more than the fall of an Eastern Bloc in which few still vested hope.
Mair helps us understand the decline of the social-democratic party, and therefore the conditions for its potential rebirth. Parties do not simply reflect a set of preferences that are out there in the electorate — they help shape and articulate those preferences. Parties have to be successful on two fronts: they must build and maintain electoral popularity, and they need effective policy strategies that account for the economic context in which the capitalist state is embedded.
The crisis of postwar social democracy was first of all a crisis on the second front. The high growth of the long boom had made full employment — and the labor strength that flowed from it — compatible with some degree of price stability. When that broke down, any viable response required an attack on the economic defense lines of capital and wealth — its mobility, its control of investment decisions, its power in the labor market. Half-measures were doomed, because capital flight could quickly punish them (e.g., in the UK in 1976 and France in the early 1980s).
But building the alternative on the fly, amid confusion about whether the straitened circumstances were here to stay, was never going to be an easy task. The Left would have first needed to build support in the electoral arena for a battle for which few were ready, and in favor of policies no one was sure would work anyway. That it ended in failure is no surprise.
The long postwar boom was a unique period in capitalist history, with macroeconomic conditions that can’t just be willed into being with the right mix of policies. But with little power to try to hold onto, we now also have the luxury of focusing on patient rebuilding rather than crisis management.
Two objectives will be especially important: developing a workable economic strategy for the medium term, and activating and organizing the forces needed to accumulate electoral power. Parties, as Mair reminds us, are the crucial link between the two (though what that means for socialists will vary across time and country, depending on the configuration of electoral systems and the state of party politics).
Further, the technocratic common sense of the 1950s and 1960s reflected not just political will and ideology, but also the economic weight of labor. So reconstructing the organizational capacities of the working class on the shop floor — or, more accurately, at the hospitals and schools and fast-food restaurants — will be another central priority.
The result of our efforts will look very different from the left social democracy of a bygone age. It will be a long project on multiple fronts, with many setbacks along the way. But we already knew that. And politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It is hard to imagine the technocratic void lasting forever.