The second death of politics

Across southern Europe, technocratic governments tend to erode democracy, sovereignty and meaningful decision-making.


The recent rise of technocratic governments in Italy and Greece is the culmination of a process that has been unfolding in Europe over the last 20 years. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent triumph of neoliberal ideology, there has been a trend toward de-politicisation, a wholehearted embrace of the neoliberal order apparently devoid of a viable and promising alternative.
Politics died its first death in celebrations of a growing consensus that communism was a thing of the past, sealed by Francis Fukuyama's diagnosis of the end of history. Apparently lacking a clear enemy, neoliberalism was ready solemnly to declare its worldwide hegemony.
To be sure, we also observed flashes of political polarisation in the post-9/11 world. The threat of global terrorism, which resurrected the ever more amorphous figure of the enemy, and more recently, the intense mass protests against austerity measures were only two of the most salient, if divergent, facets of this counter-tendency.
While the fear of terrorist attacks served to consolidate neoliberal ideology, attractively packaged as the sole bastion of freedom and security, the protests coincided not only with the economic but, above all, with the ideological crisis of neoliberalism, no longer able to promise consistently improving standards of living within the conceptual framework of open-ended progress it inherited from the optimistic nineteenth century. The protesters have done nothing less than revitalise politics by reminding us of the clear division between the "99 per cent" and the richest one per cent of the population. They have re-invented the idea of the enemy along class lines, all but ideologically erased by triumphant liberalism, which contributed to an unheard-of increase in economic inequalities.
Technocratic governments may come to power through different paths, but the result is invariably the same. In Greece and Italy, under the pressure of the global markets, the respective resignations of prime ministers George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi paved the way to the EU-backed appointments of Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti, bypassing the procedural exigencies of democratic elections. In Portugal and Spain, the elections of Pedro Passos Coelho and Mariano Rajoy installed leaders whose political styles and proposed solutions to the crisis are strikingly akin to those in Greece and Italy. So, if it is not their rise to power that determines the essence of technocrats, then what does?
First, the managerial approach to politics, coupled with the new leaders' business backgrounds, is crucial. The vast and deep cuts to the public sector, welfare programmes, and social services are treated as though they were a political-economic extension of the logic inherent in company downsizing, allowing businesses to survive tough economic times in a "leaner" condition. Countries turn into nothing but giant and rather unprofitable (for a vast majority of their citizens) corporations, where eroding social security nets aggravate the situation of those multitudes of workers who have been and continue to be fired by private companies. 
Second, and relatedly, technocratic regimes entail, by default, an abdication of the political decision-making capacity. Where a country is run as an economic corporation, the iron laws of the market dictate the course of action, without leaving much freedom of choice to those in the formal seat of power.
The bottomline is that technocracy signals a massive shift of power, at least on the symbolic level. Translated from Greek, this term literally means "the power of artifice", while, conceptually, it embodies an old utopian ideal of things administering themselves. The illusion of technocracy is that it is capable of evacuating the personal element from politics, which turns into the dispensable means in the self-regulation of the essential economic order. From the dictatorship of persons we make transition to the dictatorship of things; the organisation of the polity becomes dependent less on the arbitrary element of decision-making and more on the "iron laws" of the market.
At the same time, the de-politicisation of the institutions of power, uncannily reminiscent of the ideal "politics without politics" promulgated by 20th century dictatorships, coincides with the inverse trend toward a politicisation of the citizenry, outraged with their systematic impoverishment. As those who experience this contradiction most intensely, people in southern Europe may thus find themselves at the forefront of an attempt at reimagining politics after its second death.

Michael Marder is a Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country

Lastupdate on : Sat, 24 Dec 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 24 Dec 2011 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 25 Dec 2011 00:00:00 IST

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