Politics in the Age of Austerity

Book review

Reviewer: Jan Kovář

Publisher: Polity Press ISBN: 978-0-7456-6169-8
Author's page: Schäfer, Armin and Streeck, Wolfgang (Eds.)

Politics in the Age of Austerity

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Democratic-capitalist governments are increasingly facing restraints as they endeavour to reconcile the conflicting interests and demands on public policy of two competing constituencies: the people and “markets.” The fiscal crisis and the resulting rise of the austerity state further deepen these dilemmas. But, what is the impact of the rise of the austerity state and deteriorating public finances on democracy and political participation? Will democracy be able to continue to promote equality and social justice – as it could until recently – or will this no longer be an option? The collection of essays in this volume sets out to determine the influence of a rising debt and amount of austerity measures adopted by Western governments on democratic disaffection, political participation and the democratic nature of politics in general. It also attempts to shed light on the relationship between the austerity state and the capacity of voters to influence governmental public policy through elections—a core democratic premise. And it should be stressed that the work achieves its purpose in a remarkably insightful way.

As a whole, the collection of essays in this volume constitutes a comprehensive attempt to investigate how the contemporary politics of welfare democracy has been affected by the fiscal crisis and preceding public debt accumulation. Examination of the subject matter by means of a collection of essays allows the reader to switch from the insights and analysis of one author to another, employing different theoretical and methodological perspectives, while it also leaves space for the reader to determine the overall correspondence and complementarily of conclusions offered by individual authors.

Using descriptive statistics and regression analysis, the first, introductory essay investigates what mechanisms may be at work to link rising debt and falling voter turnout and arrives to the conclusion that citizens belonging to the less well-to-do strata of population have in the couple of decades ‘grown sceptical  as to whether political participation serves their interests’ (p. 16-17). However, the main contribution of the chapter rather lies in the presentation of nine viewpoints on what the authors’ regards as the most likely future developments in the relationship between a ‘tightening fiscal straightjacket’ (p. 18), on the one hand, and the level of political participation, on the other. As such, it serves as a good introduction to the rest of the book.  

Subsequent essays explore such issues as the decline in democratic capacity to govern as a result of economic challenges, tax competition and its political repercussions, the rise and normalisation of the radical right in Europe, the European Monetary Union (etc). In Chapter 3, the authors, for example, elaborate on the implication of fiscal democracy on democratic welfare state, while Chapter 5 analyses democratic accountability and democratic legitimacy of the European Monetary Union and the current set of EU responses to the euro crisis. 

As with any volume, be it a collection of essays or a monograph, the book suffers from some minor weakness and internal inconsistencies. For example, two essays more or less directly dealing with Sweden. While the author of one points out that Sweden has performed reasonably well over time in terms of the relationships among public debt, political participation and welfare state the other challenges this optimistic view. Nonetheless, one may argue that these imperfections are endemic or at least common to edited volumes. Moreover, such instances, in fact, do not confuse the reader but rather serve to expand one’s understanding of the given phenomena.

If, as the authors of the volume claim, democracy will not continue to be able to promote equality and social justice, what would be the outcome sketched by the authors? As inequality between the top and the bottom in democratic societies will further increase, we may expect to experience a reversal of the trend from (secular and gentle) political apathy to the direction of political radicalisation (p. 23). Taken together, the book does not provide solution to the highlighted pitfalls of the evolving relationship between capitalism and democracy as the author’s on the concluding essay maintains it is not a task for social scientist to ‘resolve the structural tensions and contradictions underlying the economic and social disorders of the day’ (p. 284). Nevertheless, this book is strongly recommended to graduate students and scholars of political economy and democratic theory as well as those interested in a well-written, provoking while scientific research on the fault lines between capitalism and democracy.

 

2017 - Volume 11, Issue 4