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03-03-2014

The crisis of mass representation

λαος1Heading towards the May 2014 double-election in Greece – regional/local and European Parliament elections – various small parties come into play and compete side-by-side with older and larger political formations. However, these small parties are claiming the popular vote rather unconventionally; their objectives are presented primarily through their leader’s ambitions, not through policy proposals. What caused this fragmentation of the Greek party system of representation? Without questioning its intensity or its extent, the "crisis" is the answer that almost automatically comes up to explain every major change taking place in the country in the recent years. In fact, the phenomenon of political fragmentation is not exclusively Greek. All of Europe – at least the countries that make up the EU – is experiencing the decline of mass democracy and of its main pillar, the “catch-all” party.

 

The "catch-all” party emerged in post-war Europe as a grand political formation with clear ideological standing that was able to capture and house several individual tendencies and collectives, with otherwise fundamental differences, under one roof. This type of party had incorporated the basic features of another European "patent", the nation-state, which gives a common identity to individualities, and relief to the lonely fate of individuals and groups. Hence the enormous resilience to time it has exhibited despite the dire warnings of its extinction that accompanied its birth in the 17th century. What did the “catch-all” party need to establish itself and thereby prosper? Political stability and an economy capable to “feed” the masses. The European Union project has contributed enormously towards this, since it is the basis on which the longest period of peace and prosperity the continent has ever known took place. What was also necessary was an administration that would drive politics and economics for the benefit of the many rather than the few, as well as a dominant medium that appeals to the masses, namely TV, which makes no distinction between target-publics, and transmits a single message to all.

 

These features – political and economic stability, far-reaching government, and a dominant medium of mass communication – are changing dramatically in the early decades of the 21st century. Starting from the most recent period, the size of the economy is not enough to “feed” the masses any more, and the policy issues that are raised, are approached in a technocratic fashion rather than through traditional political avenues of representation, This disrupts administrations that fail to protect the weak, and thereby undermines the very existence of the European welfare-state. What is more, the dominant medium now is the Internet, and its primary characteristic is the encouragement of new "online" communities, i.e. small groups united by a common feature, a common purpose, or similar interests outside the major ideological affinities. When unemployment reaches its greatest historical figures in postwar Europe, and when the most educated generation the continent has ever seen is in danger not only to live worse than the previous ones, but to be “wasted” before it is even called to create, the citizen ceases to be a “consumer” of mass democracy and turns to what she knows better from daily practice: family, individual communities, and issue-specific groups that, due to the Internet’s structure, are stronger, more direct and more personalized than the oversized, impersonal, and outdated “catch-all” political party.

 

As a result, Europe is headed for elections in May with constellations of small parties that regardless of whether they coalesce into a larger political formation or not, have a major common feature: protecting the (subjective) public interest rather than representing a certain ideological/political identity. To name a few: the 50-plus Party (Netherlands), the Pensioners' Party (Croatia), the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (Slovakia), the Union of Independent Farmers "Solidarity" Party (Poland, Latvia), the Pirates (Sweden, Germany, Luxembourg), the 5-Star Movement (Italy), the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens Party (Czech Republic), the Politics can be Different Party (Hungary), the Hunting Fishing Nature Tradition Party (France), multiple minority-oriented parties, especially those in the former East European countries, and a variety of parties with a ethnic indication, such as the Catalans, Basques, Welsh, Irish, Scots, etc.

 

The major question that arises is whether this fragmentation of the party system of representation is here to stay – it may not defeat the traditional major parties, but by standing side-by-side can draw from their pool of voters – or is it a stage of democratic evolution, just a period of "anomaly" before the next equilibrium. For now, the mismatch between social structure and political representation favors, largely, individualism and, to a lesser extent, extremism, and acts like a magnifying glass over a Left obsessed with “mass clashes” and a Right unable to understand that the fauna in the neighbor’s garden will always affect its own garden, however delicate the latter is.


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