Friday, March 31, 2006


Blood and Treasure points out, here, that there are certain similarities of both style and substance between Blair, Berlusconi and Thaksin Shinawatra, the currently somewhat threatened Prime Minister of Thailand, which might be crudely summed up as populist neoliberalism. I tried to draw attention to my ex-supervisor's attempt to characterise New Labour as a bunch of One Nation Tories, which would give them certain ideologically similarities to an inegalitarian and hollowed-out populism, in response to Chris Brooke's exploration of the commonalities of New Labour and Petainism a while ago, so I feel I was ahead of the blogospheric wave here.

What's more interesting, in a way, is not the position that these parties have come to occupy, and the various trends in their membership and structure associated with that (re)position(ing), but rather the underlying social trends which provide the explanatory background against which these events occurred. I'm sure something needs to be said about falling party political identification, a trend identifiable since at least the seventies I think, but that then calls for a further explanation. The next gesture, I think, ought to be in the direction of a fragmenting and increasingly sophisticated class system, but that's not really conclusive, and also, even if it were, would not necessarily be particularly explanatory of itself, since a further explanation of the processes which caused that fragmentation would also seem to be required.

One of the reasons that it'd be interesting to understand the processes by which this kind of hollowed-out populism comes into being is that it would have some bearing on discussions about which, if any, conditions are pre-requisites of stable democracy, which is currently of not merely academic relevance. This is because one relatively popular theory of what it takes for a state to achieve democratic stability - by which I mean, non-collapse into either authoritarianism, serious and endemic political violence, or some other form of obvious and serious state failure, over a sustained period of time - claims that the basic precondition is that the state is made up of a society with one major, politically determining, cleavage - say a simple class system - with parties that reflect that cleavage. Britain after the Second World War is an excellent example of such a state, since although voting wasn't wholly along class lines - there was always a substanial working class Tory vote, for example - the political parties were, to all intents and purposes, class parties.

However, Britain now does not look like that, significantly because the heavily unionised manual working class which formed the bedrock of the support of the Labour Party is largely gone, Thatcher's crippling blow in the long winter of 1984 having been the end of a decline-induced series of public shows of strength. There is now not obviously any single class that identifies itself as such that a political party could hope to unite behind it to form the basis of a successful electoral coalition, which is, I would suggest, the underlying causal explanation for this phenomena of falling party membership and hence hollowed-out political ideologies. Whether this applies at all to the other two cases mentioned in the original article, I'm not sure. I don't know anything about the political sociology of Thailand at all, but it doesn't seem totally bizarre to think that the reshaping of Italian politics in the late eighties and early nineties which culminated in Tangentopoli and Mani Puliti could perhaps have represented the same sort of break with the post-war order that the winter of discontent and the triumph of Thatcherism did in Britain.

Still in Britain, the rise of populist neoliberalism seems to be associated with the end of (comparatively) simple class politics. Shuggy, commenting on criticisms of the indecisiveness of Israeli electoral system, argues that whilst the British system works well in a state with only one major political cleavage, it might not in states with series of cleavages which cut across each other, and says that "[t]he [electoral] system you should have... depends on what you want it to do". To take that as an injunction against all forms of 'voting system fundamentalism', of course, requires thinking that there are no or at least fairly minimal requirements for a voting system to fulfill, but equally, to reject it on grounds of 'voting system fundamentalism' would be to deny that there are political goods other than those directly related to electoral systems, both of which seem implausible. Perhaps then, despite its effects on those other political goods, the hollowing-out of British political parties and diffusion of class conflict has brought about something of a happy realignment elsewhere: no longer do we have to rely on political cranks to supply a conclusive moral argument for PR, as it now looks like it's actually what the country might need to give adequate representation to its increasingly sophisticated and cross-cutting political cleavages.

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