Politicising Depoliticisation

by Marc Geddes

Depoliticisation is a term that has been mentioned previously in relation to tribalism, specifically the ways in which a tribalist attitude does a disservice to politics as perceived by the public. The other side of this attitude is that of ‘depoliticisation’, which rests on the ostensible premise that ‘politics’ is a problem that can be solved; that political struggles are finite; and, by extension, that fundamental differences can be permanently dissipated. This attitude, as much as a tribalist one, has the danger to remove ‘politics’ from political processes, which has a number of questionable consequences for those who cherish the political. Depoliticisation has gripped much of Western politics, influenced keenly by the neo-liberal attitude to politics and economics. As Alasdair Roberts plainly summarises, the role of government (and the state more generally) was to: ‘get out of the way’. [1]

The paradox of depoliticisation is that the concept is a strategy employed by politicians, which makes it an ideological and deeply political process. Depoliticisation should be understood, first and foremost, as a form of arena-shifting. Political elites employ a range of tools, mechanisms and institutions through which politicians can attempt to move to an indirect governing relationship of a certain subject matter. This is pervasive of the British political system, and implies two key methods: i) ‘agencification’, or the growth of quangos; and, ii) rule-based decision-making. [2] This is a very interesting strategy, used copiously in neo-liberal political regimes. The most often cited example is the independence of central banks, which have key responsibilities for setting economic and monetary policy, usually dictated by a set of neo-liberal rules (e.g., controlling inflation over unemployment, and so on). A relevant example is the European Central Bank, or ECB, which is one of the most ‘depoliticised’ decision-makers of all in the Eurozone. There is, of course, a catch – namely that the politics surrounding economic and monetary policy has not become ‘less political’, far from it.

This opens up the second caveat of depoliticisation, namely ‘contestation’. [3] From this separate angle, depoliticisation ought to be conceived as a method by which preferences are shaped to make something seem ‘apolitical’ – hence there would be less contestation, debate and deliberation by the public or political elites. Politics is, essentially, concerned about affecting the social and/or cultural order of a society. Contestation is about the extent to which political elites, or the public, disagree about the distribution, consequences and use of power. [4] This may, of course, happen in any arena or sphere, which enables politics and, by extension, depoliticisation, to become a wide-ranging phenomenon. Returning to the example of the ECB, this institution has come under significant strain by the media, on the one hand, and by politicians, on the other, which has made its role highly contested – despite the fact that responsibility for economic policy should rest on specific rules and technocratic agents. The interesting consequence of central bank independence has been the loss of control by politicians in policy-making, without a corresponding reduction in contestation by its citizens. [5]

Depoliticisation, with specific reference to central bank independence, may be visualised in this way:

This diagram illustrates the extent to which economic and monetary policy in the Eurozone had been depoliticised, before becoming intensely contested (thus political) again since the onset of the sovereign debt crisis.

What is depoliticisation for?

This is a very interesting question, because it is almost always based on efficiency arguments. Decision-making, so the argument goes, has become too hotly debated by politicians and the public. Rather, public policy should be made on the basis of technocratic best-practice approaches, on scientific evidence of what works best. The public is not needed in this process, and politicians do nothing but damage it further. Politicians in particular are seen as corrupt, irrational and self-interested and as a consequence, the fewer decisions politicians are allowed to make, the better. [6] If experts are allowed to make decisions, then outcomes will be ‘better’. That is the argument proposed by most who believe in depoliticisation, usually of a neo-liberal persuasion.

However, this does not resolve anything, because we are now left with the question of what is meant by ‘better’. If politicians are not allowed to make the decisions because they are self-interested, then who should make the decisions? In monetary policy, we trust Mervyn King in the UK, and the ECB in Eurozone countries. And yet, decision-making remains deeply political, as much of the Eurozone crisis to date has shown. Ultimately, what is ‘good’, what is ‘bad’, and what is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for the public remains a political, ideological and contested process. As such, it is impossible to make something less political permanently; all depoliticisation can achieve is to make something politically dormant.

We need to ask ourselves – as individuals, as a political community, and as a society more generally – whether or not depoliticisation offers an ultimate improvement to politics, or does it simply shift political responsibility from the elected to the unelected? Is this what we want? Has politics become so important that politicians should not be trusted to make decisions any longer? I believe that depoliticisation is failing, and that much apathy in politics is down to this attitude to let ‘experts’ decide. As I have mentioned before, politics is quintessentially about argument, debate, contestation. Politics is damaged by a depoliticised approach to it; nor can it be improved through tribalism. We must look at alternatives.

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[1] A. Roberts (2010) The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government, Oxford: OUP, p.4.

[2] M. Flinders and J. Buller (2006) ‘Depoliticisation: Principles, Tactics and Tools’, British Politics 1:3, pp.298-303.

[3] L. Jenkins (2011), ‘The Difference Genealogy Makes: Strategies for Politicisation or How to Extend Capacities for Autonomy’, Political Studies 59:1, pp.156-74.

[4] The degree of ‘contestation’ is based on Peter Hall’s idea of policy paradigms, specifically his three ‘orders of change’, developed in the following article: P. Hall (1993) ‘Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain’, Comparative Politics 25:3, pp.275-96.

[5] It is deeply ironic that the public criticise politicians for losing control, when it is the public who demand that politicians cannot be trusted to make decisions in the first place. Can a politician ever win?

[6] M. Flinders (2010) ‘In Defence of Politics’, The Political Quarterly 81:3, p.318.

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