David Ragazzoni, Political Studies Review: 2014, Vol. 12, No.3, pp. 411-12.
Hans Blokland’s book provides a highly needed critical and chronological reassessment of the development of the political theory of pluralism. Moving froma systematic analysis of the work by Robert Dahl (and partially by Charles E. Lindblom) between the 1930s and the 1970s, the author offers a historical account of one of the most dominant paradigms in twentieth-century post-war political science. Yet Blokland’s narrative relies upon two closely interconnected arguments: on the one hand, he argues that pluralism is a preeminent articulation of the threefold process of modernisation (differentiation, individualisation and rationalisation) that has shaped Western political orders in the second half of the last century; on the other, he urges contemporary democratic theorists to engage critically with the core assumptions of the theory of pluralism in order properly to understand power relations shaping existing social orders and the subsequent lack of ‘positive political freedom’ (p. 1) in contemporary mass democracies. In particular, this book draws on Max Weber, Karl Mannheim and Joseph Schumpeter’s accounts of modernity, which Blokland analysed in his 2006 work Modernization and Its Political Consequences, to highlight the limitation of personal autonomy and shared ‘substantial’ rational action as opposed to ‘functional’: whereas functional rationality aims at goals that are set beforehand, substantial rationality grounds action on a careful assessment of the costs, benefits and values that are at stake in a specific situation.
Stemming from this distinction, Blokland points to the thick dimension of individual freedom as well as the absence of shared conceptions of the public good that beset current democratic societies vis-à-visthe ‘iron cages’ of bureaucracies and markets. Therefore, his genealogy of the theory of pluralism up to the 1970sand the decline of such a paradigm in the following decades is significantly inspired by the conceptualisation of political science as a cumulative knowledge against the behaviouralistic idea of the study of politics as a monolithic knowledge based on the social/natural sciences analogy. By re-exploring the foundations of the conception of polyarchy and the diverging epistemological premises grounding the debate between pluralists and elitists, Blokland conveys an accurate and ambitious reading of Dahl’s evolving thought throughout the last century and its legacy for ‘rehabilitating politics’ (p. xiii)– i.e. for coping with the malaise that typifies contemporary democracies at the individual and societal levels, inside and outside political institutions.