The resurgence of political parties

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In the West in general, and in Europe in particular, there is a resurgence of political parties. Both old parties such as the British Labour Party and new ones such as Podemos in Spain and Insumiso in France have experienced spectacular increases in recent years, with notable organizational innovations.


Paolo Gerbaudo, a British sociologist at King´s College and a specialist in social movements and parties, attaches great importance to this renaissance. This is because, for many years, sociologists and political scientists have predicted, almost unanimously, that political parties were losing preeminence in highly diversified, globalized digital societies.


Indeed, the current revival of the European left has disproved such forecasts. Digital technology there has not supplanted the party and, rather, party activists have used their advances to develop innovative mechanisms to attract citizens, while still asserting that political struggle is their main working tool.


The revitalization of political parties in the old continent has become evident, in the first place, by an increase in membership. By contrast, many historic European parties have had a decrease in membership since the decade of the eighties of the twentieth century, Gerbaudo says.


In Britain, the Labour Party is close to reaching 600,000 members, having bottomed out with only 176,891 in 2007 at the end of Tony Blair’s leadership. In France. Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Insumise France movement has 580,000 supporters, making it the largest party in France just a year and a half after its founding. In Spain, Podemos, founded in 2014, has more than 500,000 members, more than twice as many as the traditional socialist party.


Even in the United States, a country that for most of its history has lacked socialist parties with mass militancy in the European sense of the term, a somewhat similar trend can be observed in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Today the country’s largest socialist formation, it has grown to 50,000 members following Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the 2016 Democratic nomination.


According to Gerbaudo, this spectacular growth in the number of members of “moderate” left parties, many of which are new formations, contrasts with the forecasts made until recently by many political scientists. Between the 1990s and the period immediately prior to the 2008 financial crisis, many academics agreed in predicting the ultimate demise of political parties. Amid growing voter apathy and shrinking membership, political parties were seen by many as a relic of the past, while the postmodern theory of the “end of history” professed that the party’s history – a decisive historical factor in most traditional Marxist theories – was over.


The scholar at King´s College in Britain argues that Nazism and Stalinism demonstrated the extent to which a party could become a machine bent on manipulating its members and imposing unwavering obedience. But as serious and problematic as that was, the way in which this critique was combined with long-standing liberal resentment against political parties, driven by an undemocratic fear of the organized masses and their demands for democratic control and economic redistribution made it worse.


This liberal discourse of criticism of the political party goes back to the origins of modern democracy. They attacked political parties for subjecting the individual to obedience and uniformity, arguing that instead of serving the general interests of society, parties ended up defending the narrow interests of one faction.


In neo-liberal times, this concern for individual freedom has found a new way to express itself in the over-valuation of entrepreneurship and the spontaneity of unregulated market forces. This makes all forms of collective organization seem illegitimate impediments to private property and individual freedom.


Ironically, says Gerbaudo, much of the rejection people feel today of political parties is a product of neo-liberal ideology, and of the way in which, during the 1990s and 2000s, this ideology facilitated the transformation of the old mass parties of the industrial age into new “liquid parties” in the style of American “professional/electoral parties.” Their cynicism has been captured in the public imagination by television series such as HOUSE OF CARDS and THE THICK OF IT, with spin doctors and interviewers and communication consultants who have an advantage replacing the old apparatchiks and party cadres.


October 29, 2018.


- Manuel E. Yepe


(Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann).
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