We talk a lot about politics. We demand more accountability and transparency. We abuse the ‘eunuch’ Dail. We parade policy failures and highlight their costs. We castigate our fellow citizens for their lack of virtue and demand a ‘vision’ from god knows who. We deplore the public’s declining trust in politicians to which all this talk must contribute. We do not, however, discuss what politics is about, reflecting on what it is for, and against what standards it should be judged. Why should we? After all such fundamental questioning can be tiresome, interrupting otherwise fruitful conversations. For example, when discussing the merits of this or that automobile we do not find it either necessary, or useful, to remind ourselves what motor cars are for – the movement of persons from A to B with safety, due dispatch and, at least a modicum of elegance. We all know what motor cars are for and the conversation proceeds smoothly on the basis of this shared presumption. We all know what politics are for, don’t we?
Neo-liberalism has been in the news. Colin Crouch’s The strange non-death of neo-liberalism [Cambridge: The Polity Press 2011] provides an interesting analysis of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the challenges it poses. He places the crisis in the context of the history of western political economy with particular attention to the period from the 1970s onwards when the ideas of neo-liberalism came to dominance. Whatever the particularities of our history, we are part of that history; its problems and the response to them, are, in large part, our problems and our responses. His account merits our attention.
The bad news is that the reforming ambitions of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are ill-judged and unrealisable. An Institute of Public Administration (IPA) report (Boyle 2013) compels this conclusion. The good news is that the makings of a more realistic model are available. Evidence from a National Economic and Social Council (NESC) report (NESC 2012) point a better way forward.
Pierre Rosanvallon has written extensively on democracy in general and on the history of French democracy in particular. In two recent books Counter-Democracy (CUP 2008) and Democratic Legitimacy: Impartiality, Reflexivity, Proximity (PUP 2011), he brings his scholarship to bear on the condition of modern democracy. Though France is his prime concern, he is well acquainted with contemporary political science and philosophy. The trends he dissects with acuity are not specific to France. They are found, of course with local accents, in all western democracies. They are certainly evident in Ireland, as I hope to show in this post. Rosanvallon analysis points us towards a more accurate, and a much more useful account, of the strengths and weaknesses of our democracy and the dynamics that shape it than most Irish commentaries. In this post I apply the analysis in Democratic Legitimacy to Irish circumstances. I pay little attention to his discussion of the history of democracy in thought and action that adds depth and strength to his arguments. This is Rosanvallon applied, not Rosanvallon the preeminent political theorist of democracy explicated.
In this post, I explore how Boltanski’s and Thevenot’s analysis of social life as movement among different ‘worlds’ or ‘polities’ can help us understand how we reflect on the problems and obstacles we encounter. These, inevitably, involve balancing the claims of different polities. B&T explain how we do this.
Everywhere we find individuals navigating in circumstances quite different from those that shaped the aims and purposes embedded in their routines. Think of family life. How many parents conduct themselves as their parents did? their grandparents? Think of politics. Can today’s generation understand their grandparents’ commitment to a political movement and the ties of loyalty that bound them to a political party and its leader? It is not just that the landscape – social, economic, political – has changed, it continues to change. And as it does, the tacit knowledge guiding action connects less satisfactorily with the world. Change is unavoidable.