People’s capacity jointly to give meaning and direction to social life is an essential dimension of political freedom. Yet many citizens of Western democracies believe that this freedom has become quite restricted. They feel they are at the mercy of anonymous structures and processes over which they have hardly any control, structures and processes that present them with options and realities they might not have chosen if they had had any real choice. In this regard, the present political system seems incapable of resolving any number of today’s critical problems: environmental degradation; urban sprawl and the concomitant demise of the inner city; bio industry’s barbaric production of unsafe food; the economic and social exclusion of large segments of society; the relentless expansion of the economic realm and, as a direct consequence, the erosion of nonmarketable values and the steady build-up of pressure–especially on time–that the economy places on people. The incapacity to deal effectively with these problems only reinforces the impression that the body politic has lost its grip on events. Thus, a disinterest in politics–even to the point of cynicism–appears to be a plausible alternative.

This book considers the extent to which the current sense of powerlessness–or rather, in the words of Charles Taylor (1991), the feeling of malaise–was inevitable, in view of the principles underlying the Western political system. It also analyzes the attempts to improve the way this political system operates. Such notions as deregulation, privatization, decentralization, flexibilization, farming out, and marketization have played a key role in these efforts since the 1980s. Here, I argue that many of the measures and proposals will only exacerbate the problems. People involved in these efforts seek to create a social order in which politics will play a much more limited role; the solutions are expected to come from the free play of societal forces. My stance is quite different; I make a case for the rehabilitation of politics. Because of the nature of the problems facing us today, our only hope of finding real solutions is through political action.

1 Modernization

Under the present model of political decision-making and the model of policymaking associated with it, it would appear that citizens are powerless with respect to the modernization process and are rendered powerless by it. Perhaps these systems of politics and policy are too closely allied with this process for people to cope with the downside of modernity.

It is not easy to give an unambiguous definition of modernization and to pin down its driving force. We can narrow it down, however, by identifying its core processes: rationalization, differentiation, and individualization. The following sections give a brief overview of these three processes and serve as an introduction to the issues that are central to the study.

1.1 Emergence of Instrumental Rationality

According to the Dutch sociologist Jacques van Doorn, rationalization means that “cultural, moral, political, and ideological values and goals” fade into the background and “organizational, bureaucratic, technocratic, and formalistic orientations” come to the fore (1988: 139; trans. Smyth). The process leaves less and less room for what Max Weber called value rationality, while instrumental rationality gains ground in more and more realms of social life. In other words, people increasingly seek the optimal means to an end–to attain a given value or a particular goal with the least outlay of resources. However, they give less and less thought to that goal, to defining it and understanding why they might be striving for it.1 Ultimately, this leads to aimless action, devoid of soul and meaning, according to such theorists as Weber, Mannheim, and Habermas.

According to Van Doorn, this is most clearly evident in the areas of technological development and industrialization. In the past, the traditional tool was an extension of the acting individual; nowadays, human beings are operators of the equipment, and their actions are constrained by the rationality of the technology. The undeniably superior performance of this rationality gives it a sacrosanct aura. Thus, it is increasingly held up as a model for order and organization in human relations. The larger and more pervasive these social-technological constructs become, “the more society is driven to deal with all important issues in conformity with the logic of technical effectiveness and efficiency” (Van Doorn 1988: 143). The most prominent manifestation of this tendency is the industrialization process that is currently taking place worldwide. At present, the pace of technological progress, organizational expansion, and concentration is growing explosively; the scale of economic transactions is enlarging, leading to greater competition in global markets. These processes, “each on its own but certainly in concert lead to an accelerated erosion of the specific cultural and institutional influences of the environment” (1988: 144). As Marx had predicted, the world is increasingly becoming an indivisible whole and is everywhere motivated by the same instrumental rationality.

Yet it is precisely the substantial values that give meaning, purpose, and coherence to life and diversity and dynamism to culture. The mindless pursuit of arbitrary ends–something a machine can do, or workers on an assembly line–deprives the act of its meaning and the actors of their dignity. Even though instrumental rationality is limited, current social structures and processes seem to compel people to think and act in this frame of mind in more and more domains of life. It often seems that people are trapped in what Weber has called an iron cage. For instance, managers might feel coerced by the market to apply efficiency measures more strictly than they themselves deem morally acceptable. Under pressure from economic competition from abroad, the citizens comprising the body politic might feel compelled to spend more time in gainful employment than they would if they were free to choose otherwise. In the same vein, individuals are being taken captive by a proliferation of monsters of their own making–organizations that owe their ”total” character to an inexorable process of bureaucratization, functionalization, and professionalization. A civil servant, for instance, may feel that his or her freedom is constrained by bureaucratic rules that force him or her to apply standard decisions–prescriptions that do not reflect the concrete and value-laden context in which one operates.

Weber was terrified of the consequences of this process, which he saw as irreversible and unstoppable. He saw us heading toward a cold and impersonal society, one in which instrumental rationality would overwhelm value rationality. Thus, he too had wrestled with the question of how to gain control of the rationalization process.

The ascendancy of instrumental rationality, of which economic thinking is both an expression and a catalyst, could not really get under way until substantial rationalities, particularly those embodied in religion, tradition, and culture, had begun to decline. Thus, in order to halt its progress, one would have to create new substantial rationalities. On that basis, one would then have to intervene in the current flow of blind processes. At the level of society at large, thinkers like Mannheim considered political action to be the best means to do so. However, Western liberal societies now define politics primarily in instrumental terms. Political democracy is an institutional order in which social conflicts of interest are resolved by peaceful means. As Harold Lasswell (1936) once summed it up, politics answers the question of ”Who gets what, when, how.” Our political system offers citizens less and less scope for collective efforts to give their community meaning and direction through a substantive program. Yet only that notion of politics would seem to offer any chance of developing a substantial rational program; only such a notion could engender the power and legitimacy that are needed to rein in the process of rationalization.

1.2 Differentiation and Individualization: Deterrents to Political Action

The chances for citizens to organize themselves politically and thereby jointly determine their future are shrinking because of two processes that go hand in hand with rationalization: differentiation and individualization. By differentiation we mean that more and more human activities are organized within an ever-growing number of increasingly specialized institutions. Consequently, social complexity increases; while mutual functional dependencies expand, so does the sovereignty within the specialized institutions. Individualization is related to this process. It means that people see themselves–and are seen by others–less and less as members of a single social group, as exponents of a specific pattern of values, norms, customs, and expectations. While the number of groups to which a person belongs keeps rising, membership in those groups becomes less and less meaningful; the extent to which they confer an identity upon their members is declining. As people’s repertory of roles grows in range and complexity, their identity is no longer constant, clear cut, coherent, or secure (cf. Blokland 2003). Moreover, one might say that there is an expanding domain in which the individual, unhindered by others, can do or be what he or she is able to do or be (cf. Berlin 1958). This does not, however, imply that the individual is more capable of taking charge of his or her life. A growing negative freedom does not necessarily mean that people are able to make informed choices and justify those choices in terms of values and goals they have set for themselves (Blokland 1997a).

Robert Lane adds another dimension to the preceding analysis of present-day individualism. In a book entitled The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000), he presents evidence from a large number of empirical studies affirming the body of criticism of modern societies–particularly by such authors as Tönnies, Simmel, Fromm, Mumford, and Wirth–that modern social relations are typically superficial, impersonal, and instrumental. That is why people tend to say they often feel lonely and long for intimacy. A ”Machiavellian syndrome” is spreading through the market economies of the West; to an increasing extent, people are adopting a manipulative stance toward their fellow men. It seems as if they can no longer separate the way they treat others on the job from how they behave away from work. They are continually calculating the costs and benefits of a relationship; they end it when it no longer ”pays off.” Consequently, modern people often have many casual acquaintances but rarely any good friends (2000: 96). According to Lane, modern individualism–defined as the pursuit of personal aims instead of collective goals–explains why we are lonely and indifferent. Although people long for human warmth, they continuously seek greater self-sufficiency, which they see as crucial to a sense of well-being. An unbounded striving for independence or freedom from bonds makes relationships noncommittal and superficial; moreover, it undermines the social conditions for self-determination (cf. Blokland 1997a: chap. 4). Intimate and meaningful relations are the most important building blocks of human well-being. Therefore, as the ultimate consequence of contemporary individualism, thewell-being of Americans has by their own report been on the decline for about three decades. Europe is lagging, as usual, but the trend is in the same direction. Lane observes “a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidary family life” (2000: 9). Due to this lack of social support, people have become much more vulnerable to the misfortunes of life: illnesses, stress, unemployment, disappointing relationships, frustrated ambitions, failed expectations, and the like. The end result is a widespread but quiet desperation.

Differentiation and individualization have major political consequences. These processes, along with the expansion of economic, social, and political domains as a result of rationalization, make it increasingly difficult for individuals to identify themselves with others and with a public cause. For this reason, they are less and less willing and able to engage in a common political project. Instead, citizens focus their political energies on the promotion of particularistic interests. Meanwhile, the noncommittal Greenpeace model of political participation is gaining in popularity; people commit themselves in an abstract fashion to a fairly abstract cause. Politics as the expression of a collective will, as the mobilization of electoral majorities on the grounds of a substantive political program, disappears from the picture. Consequently, as Charles Taylor writes, there is a growing sense that the electorate is powerless against the state and the market, and that it would be rather naïve and utopian to think they could control their own future through politics (1991: 113). Thus, they no longer even try. They become alienated from politics, and complaints about the ”gap between citizenry and politics” become a common topic for discussion. Because of political disinterest and apathy, citizens do not have a shared experience of political action. This reinforces their sense of helplessness and prevents notions of public interest from taking root. It is thus increasingly difficult to combat social fragmentation and to counter the primacy of instrumental rationality. To lose the capacity to forge effective political majorities is, in Taylor’s apt metaphor, ”to lose the paddle in mid-river” (1991: 118).

Thus, modernization leads to political powerlessness in various ways. The first problem is the advance of instrumental rationality, which leads to the creation of ”iron cages,” the virtually uncontrollable structures and processes of bureaucratization and economization. The second problem is that individualization, differentiation, and the blurring of substantial rationalities in more and more domains of life are making it increasingly difficult for citizens to identify with each other and with any public interest. The erosion of shared values and goals reduces the chance of citizens engaging in political action to shape their society. They lack the shared conceptions of the Good Life and the Good Society that are necessary to take that step. The third problem is that individualization and differentiation also lead to greater social pluriformity, complexity, and opacity. Problems and solutions in one area of policy are increasingly intertwined with issues in other areas. Increasingly, problems, aims, and interests are being defined in widely divergent terms. Furthermore, the calculating, individualized citizens take collectivities less and less into account. Society is breaking down into so many autonomous domains that it is no longer under control.

This brings us to the issue of pluralism.

2 Pluralism, Polyarchy, and Incrementalism

The cause of the powerless feeling that many people get from the present political system might thus be the modernization process. Earlier, I suggested that the current political and policymaking systems might not be able to counter this process, since to a far too great extent they are an expression or outcome of this process. In that light, a close examination of these systems is expedient. This is what I shall do in the two subsequent volumes of this study, where I treat the development of the work of two American political scientists, Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom. I decided to analyze work by scholars from the pluralism school because the theory of pluralism is largely a reflection of the Western political systems. The theory describes and legitimates their organization but has also determined it to some extent. In that light, to analyze the social, political, and administrative problems these systems have to contend with today, it is useful to make the assumptions underlying pluralism theory explicit and then evaluate them. It is to those assumptions that we might look for the seeds of contemporary problems.

The political system in present-day Western liberal democracies may be defined as a “‘polyarchy,” following the lead of Dahl and Lindblom (1953). Closely aligned with such a political system is a specific approach to policymaking known as incrementalism, which Lindblom in particular has studied (1959, 1963, 1965). Both polyarchy and incrementalism are based on specific metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical assumptions–assumptions that are characteristic of Western liberal or humanistic thought. A salient example is the conviction that there are many precious but often conflicting values, the relative merits of which will have to be weighed when they clash. Another is the conviction that circumstances partly determine the weight of our values and that we therefore have to redefine their relative merits whenever these circumstances change. Yet another is the conviction that the possibility of working out a practical, comprehensive, consistent normative political theory is quite limited. It is also assumed that individual freedom and the derived political freedoms–freedom of speech and freedom of association, for instance–are valuable because they permit each and every individual to formulate his or her own definition of the Good Life. It is assumed that the state should be neutral with respect to ways citizens define the Good Life. It is assumed that the highest aims pursued by individuals in modern society will be attained by groups and that it is mainly through these groups that individuals will articulate and defend their interests. Furthermore, it is assumed that democracy is a method for decision-making, a means to weigh the relative merits of conflicting social interests; that social reality is generally much too complex to be captured and explained in a single theory; and that we can rarely grasp policy issues fully and resolve them in one stroke. These, along with other assumptions to be discussed later, constitute the fairly coherent body of political theory that we may call pluralism. In what follows, I shall briefly elaborate on this theory and the corresponding political and policy models that comprise it. First, I shall review the assumptions of incrementalism. These in particular might shed more light on the issue of current political powerlessness.

Incrementalistic policy consists of a continual stream of marginal policy measures or revisions supported by various social actors or ”partners.” For their part, the policymakers do not pursue a well-defined long-term goal; rather, they try to alleviate a pressing short-term problem. Policy is made piece by piece, incrementally, in a continual bargaining process among government, interest groups, political parties, and bureaucracies. Decision-making is the outcome of a never-ending conflict about the instruments, values, and aims of proposed policies.

Pluralists consider incrementalism as both a descriptive and a prescriptive model. Not only does it provide an empirical description of the policy process in open Western democracies. It also offers a normative justification of that process. The situation is quite different under the synoptic model, which pluralists cast as the counterpart of incrementalism. Supposedly, the synoptic model is mainly prescriptive in character, and rarely if ever is it (or can it be) put into practice. Those who try to work with this model–or believe they are applying it–assume that there is a fundamental consensus among the various actors about the instruments, values, and aims of the policy; they assume that society is to a large extent makable; and that there is sufficient information, knowledge, and expertise to work with this model. Synoptic policy comes about through an exhaustive and rational assessment of all alternative instruments (and their consequences) in order to attain a rationally planned long-term goal.

To explain the connection between incrementalism and democracy, pluralists generally refer to the prevalence in open democratic societies of influential and relatively autonomous organizations motivated by particular values and interests. In our Western political systems, individual citizens do not influence government policy through direct democracy. Rather, their influence is mainly indirect, through the players in the nongovernmental arena known as the ”social midfield”–a totality of relatively autonomous organizations serving as an intermediary and a buffer between the state and individual citizens. The high profile of these organizations is one of the reasons why Dahl and Lindblom speak of a polyarchy instead of a democracy. As a result of theactivities of these organizations, decisions are not made by a single rational actor at one central point; instead, they are made in a disjointed manner. Ultimately, the outcome of their conflicting interests and competing influence is a more or less organic body of measures, agreements, and routines. Society ends up with an inevitably unstable, conditional compromise lacking a deeper rationale, without a coherent and consistent plan to realize a far-reaching, well-defined aim.

According to the pluralist, if one opts for an open democratic society, one also opts for incrementalistic policy. Giving incrementalism further justification, pluralists stress that there is too much disagreement on the aims and instruments of policy, that society is too complex and too fragmented, and that policymakers do not have sufficient knowledge, information, and resources to be able to make far-reaching and comprehensive decisions in a responsible manner. Therefore, it is considered more prudent to concentrate on making marginal changes in the status quo and muddling through. Less can go wrong when the adjustments are minor, and any mistakes will be easier to correct. Moreover, marginal changes are more readily accepted than radical ones. Successful government policy requires social support–certainly in a democracy–and incrementalism makes it easier to garner.

3 Doubts about Incrementalism and Polyarchy in Political Science

Since the end of the 1960s, the incrementalistic policymaking model and the polyarchic political model that is one of its pillars have been subject to a critical reappraisal in the political science literature. Interestingly, Lindblom and Dahl–who were among the founding fathers of these models–have increasingly cast doubt on their merits. The literature has been giving more and more attention to three questions. The first is the extent to which these models (still) give an adequate empirical description of current political and policy practices. The second is whether we should (still) consider these models and practices as favorably as we used to do, bearing in mind the kind of problems Western societies have to contend with today. And third, what are the alternatives?

Most questions have been raised about the role of interest groups, a topic central to the theory of pluralism. Dahl notes that these groups might give continuity to social inequalities, undermine the awareness of civil society or common interest, distort the public agenda, and frustrate citizen control of this agenda (1976, 1982, 1994, 1998). One question in particular is whether pluralism has degenerated into what Theodor Lowi (1969) has called interest-group liberalism–a system whereby oligarchic interest groups, possibly in concert with governmental organizations, engage in nontransparent negotiations and make decisions that, in a true democracy, should be the prerogative of the political process.

In Lindblom’s critique of interest groups, he concentrates on what he calls the privileged position of business (1976, 1977, 1990, 2001). Initially, he and other pluralists treated private companies the same as other independent organizations. They thought that the one-sided interests that businessmen pursue would be compensated by the particular bias of other interest groups. In his later work, Lindblom calls this stance inexcusably naïve. The political resources (money, knowledge, organization, relations) and thus the political power of private enterprise are incomparably greater than those of other interest groups. On top of that, government is always eager to lend an ear to the representatives of private enterprise, since its public legitimacy has become highly dependent on the prosperity of the private sector. Furthermore, Lindblom considers it naïve to assume that businesses are completely controlled and directed by the market and that it is ultimately the consumers who determine business policies. Many of the decisions that businessmen make–decisions that have far-reaching consequences for individuals, groups, and even societies–are barely if at all dictated by the market or, as the case may be, by the consumer. This applies to location decisions, for instance, or the technology to be used, product development or innovation, recruitment of management, salary scales, labor relations, and so on. In our liberal political systems, decision-making authority on such social issues as these has for the most part been relegated to individual entrepreneurs. Consequently, according to Lindblom, these systems have de facto two elites: a political elite, over which the citizens can exert some degree of control; and an economic elite, which for the most part has free rein.

Another problem with the current polyarchic systems is also related to the position of interest groups. According to Dahl and Lindblom (1976: xxii), the problem is an inability to realize collective goals. These systems are designed primarily as a means to reconcile conflicting particularistic interests and to prevent the concentration of power. The goal of the founding fathers of the United States was certainly not to create and effectuate political power but rather to restrain it. Moreover, they were strongly inclined to deny the very existence of a common cause; they conceived of politics as a continual process of negotiation on the distribution of scarce resources, both material and immaterial. This explains the importance of interest groups and of negotiation and trade-off processes. Now, according to Dahl and Lindblom, there is a rising threat that these social-political systems will prove to be structurally incapable of dealing with problems of a new kind. These are not distributive but collective in character. Environmental pollution, the depletion of natural resources, a polarized society, and the gap between rich and poor countries are just a few examples. Lindblom fears that existing polyarchies will not provide sufficient opportunities for the mobilization of majorities or for necessary collective action. Writing in the 1970s, Lindblom called for the creation of opportunities for the realization of public interests; otherwise polyarchy would not survive (1977: 166).

Furthermore, as a consequence of the political system’s incapacity to respond to urgent public interests–a drawback caused in part by the interest groups—the system’s legitimacy has come under pressure. In the mid-1980s, many commentators observed that there is no consensus (or no longer consensus) on what constitutes the good political order, what the responsibilities of the state should be, and which legitimate claims can be made on the state. The erosion of consensus on these questions leads to an unconstrained pursuit of particularistic interests. Confronted with a flood of claims, the public administration is permanently overasked and overburdened. For this reason, many political scientists have called for a fundamental political debate on the values and aims of our society.

In sum, the issue is whether policymakers within the existing polyarchic political systems are (still) able to resolve the current problems with incrementalistic policy. Doesn’t the answer to problems like environmental degradation, global warming, biotechnology and bio industry, social exclusion and disintegration, urban sprawl, lack of political legitimacy, the continual expansion of the economic domain, the increasing pressure of time under which people have to live and work, crime, the rapid spread of clinical depression and feelings of discontent, distrust, and loneliness (Lane 2000), and so on require more political vision and regulation than these models of politics and policy generate? Aren’t incrementalism and polyarchy too closely associated with immobility, lack of direction and efficacy, the promotion of short-sighted particularistic interests, and limited instrumental rationality to offer a way out? Or, more specifically, if one designs political and policymaking models–as the American pluralists had originally done–that are based on a fragmented, individualized, and uncontrollable society in which there is no consensus on the common interest, then is it surprising that the societies in question are increasingly moving in this direction?

4 Political Endorsement of Polyarchy and Incrementalism

A growing sense of doubt about the polyarchic and incrementalistic model gradually took hold within the field of political science at the end of the 1960s. Nonetheless, these models became increasingly popular in the 1980s and 1990s among numerous politicians, journalists, and other opinion makers. From their point of view, the existing Western political system had proven its superiority to all other models. It even marked ”the end of history”: all societies take on this organizational form, and it was presumed to be the highest form attainable. The collapse of the ”communist” East Bloc was said to have demonstrated ”the right of the right” and the superiority of ”liberalism.” As Francis Fukuyama (1989), among others, asserts, from now on politics worldwide will consist of nothing more than a monotonous endless series of incremental policy revisions and reconciliations of material conflicts of interest. The ”Great Narratives” have come to an end. The ”individualized” citizens, incidentally, have become articulate, independent, and autonomous. They no longer have any need for collective ideals or organizations. Politics would do well to honor this emancipation by freeing society from the bonds of restrictive rules, institutions, and structures.

It is a vision of social reality that numerous politicians, journalists, and other opinion leaders propagate and at the same time, through their own actions, validate and consolidate. Since the 1980s, concepts like deregulation, decentralization, privatization, flexibilization, and individualization have been the leitmotifs of public discourse (2). As a consequence the modernization of society receives an enormous additional impulse. Meanwhile, as most research in the Western world shows, the social discomfort about the existing political system continues to grow (Pharr and Putnam 2000; Putnam 2002). The gap between citizen and politician and the widespread lack of interest in and cynicism about politics become extensively discussed issues. The full-blown euphoria about being in the right, though, prevents a thorough analysis of the causes of this malaise.

Likewise social democracy–in the twentieth century the most important opponent to unbounded and uncontrolled modernization–appears to be sensitive to the ”modern” range of ideas. Socialism was a protest against a society mainly organized on functional rational premises and was an attempt to formulate a substantial rational alternative. It opposed individualization when there was a tendency to define this concept one-sidedly as an extension of negative freedom. Positive freedom, the ability to give substance and meaning to one’s life on the basis of well-chosen values and aims, was considered at least as important. Socialists opposed individualization, differentiation, bureaucratization, and economization when these processes predominantly seemed to produce a nonegalitarian, contract society of nameless particles, a society that frustrated the development of the capacity for individual and political positive freedom (cf. Blokland 1997a) (3). Social democracy, though, has also been ”modernized” over the past two decades. Many normative premises and ideals have been jettisoned as useless and ineffectual ballast. The demands of modern times and modern voters would have made this inevitable. As a consequence, together with market liberalism, social democracy has become a powerful stimulus of modernization. Social democrats seem to have given up every effort to realize cultural-political ideals, which transcend the current societal processes.

Some important problems of the liberal systems–for example, a lack of direction and purpose, the difficulty to formulate and accomplish common goals–are solved when the modern or ”new” social democrats simply redefine the problem. They contend that one can only say a society is ungovernable or lacks direction when one assumes that the government can indeed control and direct society. The refutation of this assumption, something that the pluralists are supposed to have done before, implies that one can be much less anxious about political impotence. Arguments along these lines can be found in sociologist Paul Kalma’s De Illusie van de ”Democratische Staat” (The Illusion of the ”Democratic State”), published in 1982 by the scientific council of the Dutch labor party.4 In this book, Kalma cogently argues that in an open, pluralistic society the state will inevitably be exposed to a wide array of conflicting claims and influences. Obviously, in such a society the state will not have the tools it needs to enforce a specific pattern of behavior. Consequently, democracy does not go along with a strong state. Democracy, according to Kalma, should not be sought in the relation between state and society but within society: in the relations and conflicts between social organizations. Above all, politics should create and maintain the procedural framework in which ”horizontal coordination” could take place. This ”societal democracy” should replace political democracy, that is, the ”vertical coordination” between state and society. Since 1982, this way of thinking has become dominant in the Dutch labor party. It is not idiosyncratic but exemplary of the developments in the 1980s and 1990s in European social democracy.5 The ”New Labor” of sociologist Anthony Giddens (1998) and politician Tony Blair (1999) is a prime example of this trend.6

Postmodernism, popular notably among the former left-wing cultural elites, is another important contemporary catalyst of rationalization, fragmentation, and individualization. Its supporters take the fragmentation, splintering, unknowability, unpredictability, and chaos of reality as their point of departure, even welcoming this as liberating, and transform the philosophical pluralism that also constitutes the basis of political pluralism into relativism and skepticism. As a consequence, to an unprecedented degree, they strengthen the inclination of the pluralists to assume that it is impossible to justify the existence of any common interest and that policies are hardly ever more than the unplanned product of a multitude of influences and aims. Traditional, substantial-rational politics is given up.

Amazed and somewhat melancholic, Dahl and Lindblom have followed the currents in political and public discourse. Since the mid-1970s they have gradually changed from apparent defenders of the existing political system into harsh and unrelenting critics. It is remarkable that their thinking has developed in the opposite direction to that of the majority of West European social democrats: whereas Dahl and Lindblom move from social liberalism to social democracy, the social democrats move toward social liberalism. Thus, while the European social democrats assist in the conversion of existing welfare states into welfare states ”American style,” Dahl and Lindblom are pleading, more urgently than ever, for the introduction of Western European welfare arrangements in the United States. While the social democrats repudiate the notion of government as the most important instrument of social control and renewal, and increasingly consider government as only one of the many participants in what Lindblom describes as processes of partisan mutual adjustment, Lindblom and Dahl in particular call for a more central and more potent role for the same government. Whereas the social democrats increasingly downplay the possibilities of justifying visions of the common good, Dahl in particular increasingly calls for formulating these visions. Whereas the social democrats define politics less and less as the organization of effective majorities on the basis of well-reasoned utopias, Lindblom and, again, notably Dahl plead to a growing extent for such a definition of politics and distance themselves in this process from the polyarchal alternative: the struggle between interest groups over the distribution of assets, privileges, and positions. Whereas the social democrats, sometimes enthusiastically, support processes of privatization, deregulation, and decentralization, Dahl and Lindblom warn against the imprudence of these processes. Whereas the social democrats accept free enterprise in almost all its manifestations, Dahl and Lindblom argue for a far-reaching democratization of the private sector. And so on.

In sum, the remarkable situation occurred that in the 1980s and 1990s a large number of politicians, journalists, postmodern academics, and other opinion leaders proclaimed the ultimate victory of pluralistic (market) liberalism, while many political theorists increasingly felt they had to dissociate themselves from this ubiquitously applauded liberalism and were seized by Another State of Mind (7). What is possible on the theoretical level, however, appears to be hardly possible on the practical level. The pluralistic system seems unable to stop its own reproduction.

5 Questions

This book addresses several questions. The first concerns the extent to which citizens in a political system marked by modernization–a system that is quite aptly described and justified by pluralism–(still) have opportunities jointly to exert influence on the organization and development of their society. In other words, what are the consequences of the processes of rationalization, individualization, and differentiation for democracy? This is not a novel question. It had already been addressed by numerous political and social theorists by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The ideas of Weber, Mannheim, and Schumpeter are representative of the ideas that were formulated at that time and are preeminently suited to our purposes as well. Together, they offer a thorough analysis of modernization and an explicit and coherent presentation of thinking on politics and democracy, a body of thought that is steeped in modernity. Moreover, the social and political problems caused by modernization, in their view, are typical of those confronting our present-day society. The capacity to resolve these problems determines the political credibility of the pluralistic theory and the current social order.

Second, it is strange that the developments briefly described in this introduction–pluralism and social democracy–could have taken such divergent paths. The change that has taken place in social democratic thinking is generally depicted as an inevitable ”modernization” or adjustment to ”reality.” But what is the relation between reality and a political theory? If the change were truly unavoidable, how could Dahl and Lindblom then propound ideas that social democrats actually renounce? It is known that in the past two or three decades social democratic ideas have developed largely along the same lines as the ideas and sentiments prevailing in society at large. But what has determined the course of that broader development? Could it be that in general the social democrats and liberals but also the conservatives and Christian democrats have no option but to adopt the ideas and sentiments that are formed by the same modernization process that they might hope to control? This is yet another reason to examine the political consequences of modernization more closely.

The third question follows from the previous one and concerns the extent to which progress has been booked. Many of the current social and political theories and analyses show a strong resemblance to theories and analyses from earlier periods, even though the persons involved are seldom aware of it. Of course, this relative lack of progress is partly inherent in the epistemological nature of the disciplines concerned, which are fundamentally different from the natural sciences. Nevertheless, the lack of progress seems to flow from an overall lack of knowledge about how one’s own field — and that of relevant related fields (8) — has developed, as well as from a general inclination toward renewal and originality (9). In search of recognition, political scientists increasingly refuse to build upon the work of their predecessors or even to become acquainted with it. Not only are books more than three years old taken off the bookstore shelves, but quite soon afterward they are also wiped from the collective memory of the scientific community (10). One of the reasons to analyze the work of Weber, Mannheim, and Schumpeter is to investigate the extent to which theories and insights that are, in some cases, nearly a century old have actually become outdated in the meantime. As we shall see, this body of work proves to retain a remarkable relevance and can seamlessly be fitted into current debates on the state and the future of our political systems.


  1. Elaborating on this point, Karl Mannheim made an analogous distinction between substantial and functional rationality (see Chap. 3). The former is said to exist when someone places value on an event and understands it from a broader perspective. The person in question attempts to experience and comprehend reality as a meaningful whole from the angle of a particular pattern of values. The latter is said to exist when action is organized in order to attain a particular goal as effectively and efficiently as possible.
  2. Yergin and Stanislaw, who mainly applaud the trends concerned, write in The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace That Is Remaking the Modern World, “Today . . . governments are privatizing. It is the greatest sale in the history of the world. . . . Everything is going–from steel plants and phone companies and electric utilities to airlines and railroads to hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. It is happening not only in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China but also in Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa–and in the United States. . . . In a parallel process that is more far-reaching and less well understood, they are also overturning the regulatory apparatus that has affected almost every aspect of daily life in America for the last six decades. . . . The world over, governments have come to plan less, to own less, and to regulate less, allowing instead the frontiers of the market to expand” (1998: 13). In a comparable mood Perry Anderson states in the New Left Review, “For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions–that is, systematic rival outlooks–within the thought-world of the West; and scarcely any on a world-scale either . . . whatever limitations persist to its practice, neo-liberalism is a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history” (2000: 17).
  3. In this regard, socialism had an ambivalent attitude to the Enlightenment. On the one hand it embraced many of its individualistic, naturalistic values, values it shared with liberalism. On the other hand, socialists agreed with much of the conservative critique on the Enlightenment. This focused on the liberal abstract view of man and the disruptive effects of an unbounded market on community life (cf. Berki 1975: 18ff.; Parekh 1975). A telling manifestation of modernization is that political parties that used to propound this conservative critique have become fierce defenders of market liberalism. This liberalism preeminently undermines the same family and community values these parties claim to defend. Examples are the British Conservative Party since Thatcher, the German Christian Democratic Union since Kohl, the Dutch Christian Democratic Union since Lubbers, and the American Republican Party since Reagan.
  4. It is curious, to say the least, that in the same year Dahl published Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control, a book in which many of the assumptions underlying De Illusie van de ”Democratische Staat” are firmly put into perspective (see part 3).
  5. For overviews, see Cuperus and Kandel 1998 and Cuperus, Duffek and Kandel 2001.
  6. To Giddens’s credit, it must be said that he, at least in theory acknowledges that new social movements, single-issue groups, and other associations of citizens can never take over where government is failing and can never take the place of political parties. These groups, as Giddens rightly states, “cannot as such govern. One of the main functions of government is precisely to reconcile the divergent claims of special-interest groups, in practice and in law” (1998: 53). Taking this seriously implies, in my view, the building of exactly that kind of political parties New Laborites consider old-fashioned.
  7. “Another State of Mind” is the title of Lindblom’s presidential address of 1981 to the members of the American Political Science Association. In this address he goes into his growing doubts about some of the central, hardly ever questioned assumptions of pluralism.
  8. The lack of knowledge among political scientists about the intellectual history of their own field seems to have increased continuously since the Second World War. Dahl already bemoaned this trend forty years ago (1961b: 25). He was followed by, among others, Farr (1988: 1175), Ricci (1984: 313), and Farr, Dryzek and Leonard (1995: 5).
  9. Of course, originality is important, since scientific progress depends on it. However, as David Ricci writes, “novelty is also forced upon all scientists as a form of self-advertisement, since elaborating the obvious engenders boredom whereas highlighting the unusual attracts favorable attention. Under the circumstances, there exists the possibility that in some fields of science, where many truths are fully known, the emphasis on novelty will detach itself from social utility and come to constitute little more than its own reward. A considerable gap between truth and novelty seems to have materialized in the field of political studies” (1984: 231).
  10. The rapid turnover of publications is illustrated by , A New Handbook of Political Science (1996). In the more than eight hundred pages of this book, the authors attempt to present the state of the art in political science. An appendix to the review article written by the editors of the volume, Goodin and Klingemann (1996: 27). gives calculations for the length of time publications last in this discipline. For this purpose, they checked the year of publication for all 3,403 publications cited by the various authors in the Handbook. It turns out that two-thirds of the works are less than twenty years old and only 8.6 percent were published before 1960. This rapid turnover might be a sign of enormous scientific progress: the literature gets out of date very quickly. Yet I am afraid that other mechanisms are in play here. Comparable mechanisms have been observed by Herbert Gans in the field of sociology; see his “Sociological Amnesia: The Shortness of the Discipline’s Attention Span” (1992).

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