Book Review: “Ruling the Void” by Peter Mair

Ruling the Void
by Peter Mair
Verso, 160 Pages
Don’t buy on Amazon here

Reviewed by William Solniger

Written by the Irish political scientist Peter Mair, who died before the book was finishedRuling The Void is a penetrating account of the steady decline of democracy in Europe. In my view, the book is far better for having been left incomplete: it stands far stronger as a negative assessment of the times than it would had the author racked his Leftist politics for some illusory and half-hearted set of “solutions” to the structural problems he describes. The book seems to have attracted far less attention than it deserves, except from certain Eurosceptics who have focused myopically on its criticisms of the European Union, ignoring the wider significance of the “hollowing of democracy” which is the book’s main theme.

Ruling the Void opens with the most damning indicator of decline: the falling level of participation in national elections. Against those political scientists who are tempted to deny the evidence of this phenomenon, Mair establishes his position beyond doubt by a thorough review of the facts: electoral turnout has certainly been falling across Europe in the last decades, not in the sense that turnout is progressively lower for every election, but in the more general sense that troughs in participation occur more and more frequently.

As Mair states, “not only do the last decades hold the record for the lowest turnout of any postwar decade in western Europe, but within the majority of west European democracies, most, or even all of the record low turnouts have occurred since 1990.” This model applies not only to long-established democracies like Britain and France, but also the newer southern European democracies like Greece, Spain and Portugal.

This fall in participation has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in the social role of political parties, which were once millions-strong organisations anchored in distinct social groups within society. They have now become “cartel parties” staffed by a fraction of their former membership, paying only lip service to the representation of particular social groups, and seeking office for its own sake in a form of competition resembling football or horse-racing in its theatrically colourful meaninglessness. It is thus possible today to speak without reserve of political parties not as organisers of society, but as organs of the state.

Mair points out that much of the funding now available to parties comes not from membership dues and donors, but from public money provided by the state, which is channelled into parties under various pretexts: funds for research, tax-deductible status for private contributions, free access to public broadcasting networks, money for election campaigning under the guise of “keeping the voters informed”, and funding for such all-too-familiar progressivist causes as “inclusive outreach” to minority groups and younger voters. For Mair, this is only one symptom of a general withdrawal of the elites (and certain of their favoured policies) into the so-called “non-majoritarian institutions” – some of them supra-national – which are not subject to public influence; this process in turn limits the scope of political opposition within the electoral system, and produces the current phenomenon of “interchangeable parties”.

Here we must guard against Mair’s tendency to idealise his so-called “golden age of parties” (assumed to have taken place at some time from the 1950s to the 1970s), lest we get the mistaken impression that all that he describes has merely been some recent deviation from a true and hallowed path. On the contrary, none of it would have surprised the 1940s readers of Joseph Schumpeter, who in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy clearly grasped the nature of the political party as an office-seeking machine that puts the kratos before the demos; nor those of James Burnham, also writing in the 1940s, who described the progressive withdrawal of political elites into unelected state institutions in The Managerial Revolution. It is clear that, although one era might show the rot less clearly than another, the democratic “golden age” harked back to by Mair is little more than a romantic mirage; and this is to be expected if we remember that the primary significance of democracy has always been a negative one, specifically the negation of those traditional forms of elitism not based solely on the quantitative criterion of wealth, rather than the positive affirmation of a “popular will” whose very existence is open to dispute.

Still, it is interesting to reflect on Mair’s observation that it was only with the “final triumph” of liberal democracy (after the collapse of the Soviet bloc) that a host of court scholars, perhaps the loudest among them Fareed Zakaria, earnestly began to produce all sorts of sophisms to redefine democracy in a way that excluded the demos, promoted untrammelled managerialism, and turned “partisan politics” into a dirty word. One is tempted to speculate that the removal from the world stage of what was, if only in theory, a competing source of legitimacy also removed a great deal of pressure on Western elites to restrain their ambitions in order to stay on the friendly side of their host populations.

The final chapter of the book, which deals with the EU, is to be applauded for bringing a much-needed clarity to this subject. On the one hand, there is plenty here to delight Eurosceptics, for the EU is the ultimate “non-majoritarian institution” where managerial tyranny and arrogance can flourish unchecked by the vicissitudes of mass politics. But as Mair is at pains to stress – and the rest of his argument already indicates – the EU has been constructed for this very purpose by the political classes of its member states, who desire here as within their own countries to be as “safe from democracy” as possible. Thus, the idea – promoted by the likes of UKIP’s Nigel Farage – that the only issue is to “liberate” the lord from the constraints of his strongest fortress is a hopelessly naïve one; and conversely, in Mair’s words, “if the [EU] could be democratised…then it probably would not be needed in the first place”.

Mair explains that the European Union can be politically influenced through two major channels: (1) the national parliaments, which have exclusive authority over constitutional questions and the extent of institutional “Europeanisation”, and (2) the European parliament, which has authority over the functional dimension of EU policy-making, but has little say on the constitutional structures or the appointment of the political executive. One would think, therefore, that opposition to the institutionalisation of Europe would be represented in national elections, while opposition on the functional plane would be channelled into the European parliament. But according to Mair, this is not what happens in practice:

“…[W]hen we look at the debates and programmes in each of the channels, we tend to find opposition regarding the institutionalisation of Europe being voiced within the European channel, where no relevant competence lies; whereas opposition along the functional dimension is usually expressed in the national channel, even though authority on this dimension is shared with the European channel. The result is simple. The choices in both channels become increasingly irrelevant to the outputs of the system, and the behaviour and preferences of citizens constitute virtually no formal constraint on, or mandate for, the relevant policy-makers. Decisions can be taken by political elites with a more or less free hand.” (Ruling the Void, Chapter 4, “Popular Democracy and the European Union Polity”)

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is a deliberate and organised sleight of hand by the political leaders who are responsible for setting the tone of election campaigns and manifestos, and who have plenty of scope to blame the failures of these sabotaged opposition efforts on the poorly-understood Leviathan of the EU. However, Mair suggests that this clever strategy may have its own Achilles’ Heel. As elections to the European parliament become increasingly irrelevant and are consequently ignored by the public, the habit of non-voting then spreads to local and even national elections, reinforcing the decline in participation that now increasingly threatens Western political elites’ central source of legitimacy: the continued willingness of a majority of the public to vote for them at the ballot box.

It goes without saying that the decline of Western democracy in theory and practice has an enormous significance for the radical Right. Regardless of whether or not we, like de Benoist, might choose to support some form of democracy in principle, it is undeniable that the word democracy as it is defined today underpins the legitimacy of a system of rule that subverts and invades foreign countries for plutocratic ends, destroys all traditional values through organised cultural revolution, and is engaged in a deliberate policy to destroy the nations of the West by replacing their populations with impoverished “human economic units” from the Third World. Although “democracy” as a concept still wears its old halo in the minds of most people, it is possible to imagine a near future in which foreign wars and public indifference to elections have considerably eroded this, and opposition movements – which, as Mair points out, now tend to come from outside the electoral system – begin to attack our present conception of democracy on both a functional and a theoretical level. One might even speculate that the rise of dissatisfied revisionist powers such as Russia and China, who resent the West’s ability to export subversion across their borders at will under the banner of “democracy,” could provide to such movements the funding that would enable them to hold their own against plutocratic money.

But, of course, only a staunch believer in democratist myths could expect such opposition to arise spontaneously from the public; and thus, the fact that democracy is falling is nowhere near as interesting as the question of who is going to push it. The most credible candidates would appear to be the far Left and the radical Right.

In my view, there is no reason in theory why the radical Right cannot succeed in such a venture. Although the uncompromisingly anti-elitist rhetoric of the far Left still possesses a certain power, it is merely a case of “the emptier vessel produces the loudest rattle”: for they can only peddle the tired, failed democratist myths that have never been able to produce a society without elites, whereas we alone possess the analytical tools to critique our particular ruling elites on the dimension of their qualities: their endless greed, their lack of patriotism, their pathological dishonesty and hypocrisy, their vile hostility to the societies over which they rule (particularly, but not exclusively, in the case of the plutocracy’s ethnically Jewish element), their personal amorality and hostility to tradition, their utter lack of the aristocratic spirit which can never arise in those who survive by denying their own role as elites – all of which can be summed up in the epithet kakistocracy, or “rule of the worst”.

But as Eugène Montsalvat’s excellent article at Counter-Currents makes clear, the radical Right must combat certain of its own pathologies before it can even begin to think seriously about stepping into such a role. The first of these is the instinctive tendency of many who oppose the Left to become partisans for “right-wing” big business and global plutocracy. Excluding those cases in which the intentions of these people are insincere from the beginning, this self-defeating behaviour seems to arise from a lack of the necessary vision to perceive the revolutionary role in which the true Right now finds itself; and thus anyone who thinks that he is fighting “Leftism” by promoting tax cuts, Ayn Rand and free-market dogma desperately needs to read Kerry Bolton’s exposé of the leftist-plutocratic symbiosis in Revolution From Above.

The second problem is what Montsalvat terms “mere snobbery” and the tendency of some intellectuals on the radical Right to “imagine themselves as aristocrats of the pen who refuse to consort with plebians.” In my view, this arises in most cases from an outdated social analysis, which perceives the main threat to traditional values as arising from proletarian “levelling”, massification, and socialism. This is demonstrably not the case today: for it is now the international ruling class who seek to impose progressivism far and wide out of their pathological hatred for normal society, while such redoubts of relatively traditional values as there are can only be found among the common people.

In any case, there is evidently much to be studied and even more to be done – and as I hope this analysis of Mair’s work has made clear, we don’t have forever.