Why We Hate politics by Colin Hay - the politics we deserve?

29 January 2008

Dan Leighton reviews: Why We Hate Politics by Colin Hay.

This book challenges dominant assumptions on political disengagement, showing how neo-liberal ideas and public choice theory have helped create a citizenry increasingly alienated from the democratic process.

In Why We Hate Politics Colin Hay aims to overturn the conventional wisdom on the causes of political disaffection. Against the conventional view that "citizens get the politics they deserve", he argues convincingly that we should assume "democratic polities get the levels of political participation they deserve". While Hay does not mention the Power Inquiry (full disclosure: I was a researcher for the Power Commission) his call for us to reverse common assumptions about the causes of disengagement to some extent chimes with key elements of its analysis. The Inquiry's final report argued disengagement resulted from the triangulating centrism of the main parties and their duopoly over a power hoarding political system that refused to adapt to the participatory expectation of new citizens. This reversed a commonly shared assumption that disengagement is driven solely or primarily by factors without rather than within the polity, be they economic globalisation, the media, consumerism or simply citizen apathy and indifference.

High profile commentators on the left and the right took exception to Power pointing the finger of blame at politicians and political institutions. Lord Norton launched a coruscating attack on it for failing to comprehend the extent to which political disengagement is an attitudinal rather than an institutional or constitutional problem.

In his influential Why Politics Matters, published shortly after Power's final report, Gerry Stoker argued that an increasingly individualised and politically naïve citizenry is bound to be disappointed by the discourse of collective decision making that is the hall mark of the democratic process. Ex IPPR director Matthew Taylor reflected this sentiment well when he suggested that celebrated new forms of participation such as blogging often show that "we have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government". For convenience sake let's call this cluster of reactions the post-Power consensus - while the consensus no longer attributes apathy as the cause of disengagement it still attributes the primary causes outside the polity and within citizen's dispositions towards political activity and their perceptions of politics.

Contra this consensus Why We Hate Politics significantly extends and refines our understanding of politicians' culpability for political disengagement. His argument focuses less on conventional institutional concerns of the constitutional reform movement and more on the negative impact of a cluster of neo-liberal ideas that have over the past 30 years come to shape how politicians and policy makers think about politics and public life. His primary concern is to show how the economistic assumption of public choice theory - that politicians and public officials, like the rest of us, are necessarily "self interested rational utility maximisers" - has come to colonise the way we think about everything from electoral competition to the behaviour of public servants and citizens.

Public choice theory has partnered neatly with the neo-liberal insistence that we should co-ordinate as much of social life as possible via the market's invisible hand. The depoliticising effects of these mutually reinforcing assumptions, ideas and practices are, according to Hay, the primary drivers of political disaffection. This process of depoliticisation (more on which below) starts with a "normative" or insurgent phase in the 1980's, explicitly attacking the efficacy of the state and the good intentions of political actors, and moves to a "normalising" phase that has occurred from the 1990's onward which has served to "rationalise and depoliticise" neo-liberalism itself. The net effect is to place more and more of the issues that matter to people off the political agenda into the hands of "neutral" experts in technocratic and economic management.

Hay's account differs from other influential accounts in the literature on political disaffection by making a useful analytical distinction between "supply" and "demand side" understandings of political participation. At the core of Hay's argument is an attempt to challenge what he calls the "demand side" bias (or the receptiveness of citizens to political appeals) of influential accounts by writers as diverse as Robert Putnam, Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart and Mark Franklin. He asserts not simply that we need to also focus on "supply side" factors (changes in the content of politicians appeals and their capacity to deliver them), but that these are the primary causes of disaffection.

Hay contends "demand side" accounts offer "a convenient message for politicians... absolving them of all responsibility". He puts at the core of his analysis a brilliant conceptual analysis of what it means for an issue to be "politicised" or "de-politicised". He argues that politics should be understood as "the capacity for agency and deliberation in situations of genuine collective or social choice". This expansive definition claims that politics occurs anywhere or over any issue that is not determined by fate, necessity or only concerns an individual. Hay argues issues can be politicised, with increasing intensity, if they are promoted from the realm of necessity to the private sphere, from the private to the public sphere, from the public sphere to the government sphere. Depoliticization "operates in analogous fashion - only in reverse".

Hay's central claim is that there has been net tendency towards depoliticization over the past thirty years, which has created both disdain for politicians and disbelief in the effectiveness of formal political institutions. This includes: the displacement of governance responsibility from the formal Governmental sphere to quasi independent bodies such as independent central banks in the public sphere; the "replacement of formal governance outright with that by the market", as seen in the wave of privatisations that occurred in the 1980's; and the shifting of responsibility for key areas of policy, such as welfare or the environment, away from the state towards both the non-governmental public sphere and the individual. While politicians may have taken these decisions with the best of intentions, in the belief that "less politics = more efficiency", they have cumulatively diluted and shrunk the domains in which politicians may argue for politics as collective choice and where agency can take place. If more and more areas of social life are either issues of individual consumer choice, or determined by uncontrollable market forces, what is the point in politics?

Prior to becoming PM, Gordon Brown liked to cite granting independence to the Bank of England as evidence of his democratic credentials. Yet, Hay's Why We Hate Politics shows that giving away power in order to depoliticise it, and giving away power to enhance our capacity for agency and collective deliberation, are not the same thing. While the implications of Hay's argument go beyond constitutional reform, notably to questions of political control over economic and fiscal policy, they help establish criteria by which both the process and the outcome of future constitutional change should be judged.

(Why We Hate Politics, 200pp, Polity 2007)

Dan Leighton is Reviews Editor for Renewal. A version of this review appeared in Renewal Vol.15 No.2 2007

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