The Greek PM Tsipras made a speech today in which he claimed that the Syriza government aims to remove party politics from the civil service, but not to de-politicise public administration. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but it has a solid basis in a developed critique of technocracy and so-called apolitical administration.
The orthodox position: The work of the (now defunct) Harvard Institute for International Development which was heavily involved in the process of Russian transition to capitalism provides us with one of the best illustrations in the literature dealing with the need to distance politics from economics. It is interesting that their insistence on clear divides between economic policy and politics does not stop them from arguing for manipulation of the political sphere to achieve the goal of depoliticization. In The Grabbing Hand (1998), Shleifer developed a model of governance which aimed to create a market friendly state. In this model international aid found its role in supporting market-oriented political groups in an effort to directly influence the county’s internal political situation. This model showed total disregard for democratic choice and public consultation. Since social welfare was supposed to derive via market operations, government became redundant and politicians were always seen in a negative light as predators. There was little room for democracy in Shleifer’s book. When it did make an appearance it was only where the public, which was assumed to be enthusiastic about the market, could be used as a way of getting rid of old political elites through elections.
The heterodox position: The current obsession of European institutions with ‘structural reform’ requires de-politicisation and a non-partisan, non-political state machine. This creates however a great paradox in economic policy in a context of crisis: how is it possible to argue for significant law making activity (assumed by proposals to reform regulatory frameworks) without abandoning the idea of minimal state intervention which lies at the core of free-market thinking; how is it possible to empower the state in this way without risking a return to political control over the economy? The currently technically competent solution to this conundrum is to entrust the regulatory functions of government to independent institutions, free from political influence and control. This is consistent with an ideology that serves market interests under a technocratic, scientific cloak. In this way the theory of a free market safe from political interference is maintained while all the necessary detail is filled-in without upsetting a neoclassical theoretical structure that sees the separation of the economic from the political as central to the success of capitalism. However, willing something apolitical does not make it so.
The Tsiprian position: The problem with Mr Tsipras and his government is that he does not seek to resist de-politicisation as a tool of neoliberal subversion. He just seeks to recreate the client-state pioneered by his pre-predecessors under a different party banner. Any talk of de-partyfication in this context is a distraction from the business-as-usual practice of jobs-for-the-boys.