As things get better, ghosts from the past appear and disturb the party. House prices increase, new houses are building, the property supplements fatten and the possibility of another bubble haunts us. The Troika depart the stage, its script completed. The burden of choice and the weight of responsibility descend on the government and their civil servants who must write the script for the next act. No wonder they are nervous, no wonder they seek the assistance of an ‘a forum on issues like pay, taxation, and what services can be afforded’, no wonder the bien–pensants are troubled by – horror of horrors – the ghost of social partnership. No! No! We are assured, this is not Social Partnership. Social Partnership was a bad thing. This is a good thing.
Now, whether it was a good or a bad thing, social partnership, Irish style, was a failure. Whether the proposed forum is a good or bad thing depends on how we understand the problem it proposes to solve. Given the record of this government it is not surprising that the problem is hardly analysed and barely discussed. Once the problem is stated it is immediately clear that while social partnership was an inadequate solution, the proposed forum barely counts as one.
The problem is not a new one. It is as old as politics. It is encapsulated in this examination question, variants of which featured regularly in my exam papers, and, I guess, politics exams everywhere. No democracy without interest groups; interest groups the greatest threat to democracy. Discuss. Students could approach the question from a number of directions. Those with taste for political philosophy could see it as an opportunity to compare and contrast Hobbes and Rousseau, while Marxists could explain how it exemplifies a contradiction inherent in capitalism and its liberal political order. The political scientists could explore the pluralist model with particular attention to its limitations as discussed by Public Choice theorists in general and Mancur Olson in particular.
It is worth reminding ourselves what we can learn from these lines of enquiry.
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.