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on 26 April 2017
Very insightful and readable work promptly delivered
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on 30 May 2017
Peter Mair's "Ruling the Void" is one of the foundational texts for understanding what has often been called the 'democratic deficit' in parliamentary politics today. The book focuses in particular on the changing role of political parties and systems based on party-mediated representation since the mid-20th century or so. In this sense, it is a classic work of political science rather than of political economy or philosophy. Although most of the contents of the book were written before the current post-crisis centrifugal acceleration, most of the insights are nonetheless just as relevant in our age of EU referenda and New Right ascendancy.

The main lessons can be summarized quite simply: the disillusionment and disaffection with parliamentary democracy is a process that has gone both ways. In the old approach, not only were natural constituencies based on class and religious factors more cohesive and also more ready to respect and accept leadership within mass organizations in politics and civil society, but the parties themselves also played a major role in constituting such constituencies 'for themselves' by organizing them on an ideological basis. Since the decline of the welfare state, parties have actively withdrawn from civil society and from this organizing role, becoming oriented primarily to ad hoc coalitions to win elections rather than a representative function based on membership and ideology. Equally, the citizenry has become more diffuse in identity and interests, and as ideological and socioeconomic contestation has narrowed to a very small Overton Window, they have increasingly given up on parties and party representation as a means of expressing interest in favor of lobby groups, NGOs, and so forth.

The result is that the parties have shifted, Mair argues, from being apparatuses of civil society to becoming annexes of the state. In many cases, they now almost function only as flags of convenience for the recruitment and distribution of personnel for leading offices and positions, with only a faint connection to any political causes. Opposition, outside anti-systemic forces, has largely disappeared because parties are increasingly inclined to offload political responsibility onto government institutions, QUANGOs, European level authorities, and technocratic offices, none of which are open to direct political contestation and which tend to be consensus-seeking and technocratic. The rise of 'populist' formations of left and especially right (still somewhat understated in this book) has not provided an adequate response, however, because such parties trade precisely on being opposed to the nonrepresentative nature of the political system while simultaneously having the same kind of ad hoc, electoralist party structure as the 'core' parties. As a result, any occasion that sees them actually join government quickly reveals the hollowness at their own core, and they tend to collapse or become indistinguishable from the 'elite'.

Although Mair is not generally normative in this work, it is clear that these tendencies can count on his disapproval, and he is appropriately scathing about the liberal technocratic justifications of this political system in the literature - usually based on the notion that too much democracy just gets in the way of 'responsible' people getting things done. The final chapter, his discussion of the European Union (in part a posthumous composition), is similarly negative about the potential for democratic reform within it. Not because it is unique or lacking a citizenry, Mair argues, but simply because the EU's institutions were designed as an alternative to national democratic processes in the first place, and are therefore not amenable to reform towards such a system. At least, not without abolishing the democratic deficit 'at home' as well. This means recreating a politics based on representation, membership, and oppositionalism, rather than on electoralism, lobby group coalitions, and technocracy. But Mair remained until his untimely death sceptical that this could be achieved: as he suggested, the time of mass democracy may well be over.
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on 19 January 2014
An important book for those who naively consider modern political parties to be a vehicle for transforming the aspirations of the wider of the community into actuality. Mair explains how they formed to do exactly that, but have morphed into the means of governing the population on behalf of the state. With this transformation, 'democracy', as popularly conceived, has become a practically meaningless concept.
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on 21 November 2013
Excellent evaluation of the challenges faced by Western political parties and representative democracy more generally: increasing electoral volatility, declining mass membership and so on. Mair is not an optimist, as exemplified by the first line of the book: 'The age of party democracy has passed'.
The first three chapters extend upon his essay in the New Left Review (42, november 2006) ([...] the latter chapters combine several sections of work published earlier in various working papers.
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on 4 May 2014
Not an easy read but well worth the effort. I found it particularly interesting to note Mair's descriptions and criticisms of our new Europe. His main thrust is that the new European model has been deliberately designed and set up in such a way that it keeps all voters at arms length. Very large numbers of generously rewarded Eurocrats are employed to draft and implement legislation in such a way that it regulates us but wherever possible also restricts any opportunity for interference. Perhaps the approach is the only way to manage 27 countries with divergent views and cultures but for anyone who values their right to vote on all matters of national importance its rather disturbing. Highly recommended.
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on 5 December 2014
A very good exposition of the gradual decomposition of political party allegiances and it's consequences. Political parties and politicians pontificate while global capitalism decides our future. We now intuitively know that post war liberal democracy has become less and less credible and less able to affect our lives.
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on 4 February 2014
Written by a respected academic, Ruling the Void is an in-depth analysis of the gradual separation of political parties and their former members, with a dramatic effect on democracy. The connection between politicians and party members has withered so that politicians cease to represent these members, and government policy no longer relates to the views of the electorate, but is formulated by parts of government machinery. The book should be read by all those who are concerned for the future of democracy in Britain and Western Europe.
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on 29 January 2014
A good insight for Politics students but too heavy for general interest.
Clarified a number of my suspicions about the EU
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on 13 February 2014
If all the facts are true it is a frightening account of what is happening. We all thought that European Communism
dismantled with the Berlin wall and all that really happened is that it moved location to Brussels.
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on 6 May 2015
Brilliant series of essays giving background and context for the blight currently effecting western democracies.
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