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3. Politics and Pointlessness: The Nautilus, The Saviour and The Centaur

Max Weber, a German sociologist writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, argued that the future would increasingly be constrained by, and contained within, an ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy. By this he meant an increasingly predictable and controlled (western) world that would proceed through the advance of science and rationality to dismantle all prior systems of thought – including magic, religion etc. This was the project of Modernity. Simultaneously, the progressive rationalisation of cultural life eroded the value basis of political life as the rule of law, the autonomous judiciary and the depoliticised bureaucracy increasingly enhanced the role of the expert at the expense of the patriot, the technocrat at the expense of the idealist, and the bureaucratic leader at the expense of the charismatic leader. This was
the process of Modernisation and, according to Weber, it was the process of Modernisation that undermined the project of Modernity. Or, in his original formulation, formal procedural rationality – zweckrationalität- subsumed wertrationalität – substantive rationality. While the former has significant advantages in terms of generating huge leaps in predictability, impersonality and productivity that facilitated the rise and rise of capitalism, it simultaneously constructed an ‘iron-cage’ of bureaucracy that led, ultimately, to a loss of freedom and meaning. In other words, it constructed a metaphorical nautilus – an extraordinarily efficient mollusc that had no way of directing itself against the currents of the oceans that it floats within.

But Weber also argued that the other side of this increasing rationality was the associated demystification of life, where those that have eaten of the tree of knowledge not only dispense with religion and magic through the process of disenchantment but dispense with its associated common values so that the only thing holding the collective together is the efficiency of the administrative governance system, not a collective and common value system. Equally important, the resulting iron cage was not populated by rational liberal individuals in some kind of ‘end of history’ technocratic utopia, but by warring deities and it is this inherently conflicted zone that threatened the entire project of modernity. (6) We might envision this in terms of rival political tribes in permanent conflict with each other about the best way to clean the streets
and always more concerned about maintaining control over the council and their political party than with setting out and pursuing any kind of significant political vision. Indeed, many mayors commented on this change from being ‘leader of the council’ to ‘leader of the place’. Linda Arkley (Conservative Mayor of North Tyneside), for instance, noted that:

I had previously been a councillor for a number of years, and felt that the old system was unbalanced and was too lop-sided towards maintaining a status quo. There were changes of leaders in the authority, but there was no proper focus on strategy and the future... It is important for decisions to be taken for the whole of the borough, with everyone treated the same regardless of who voted for whom. That is how it should be. It needs to be above party politics.

There were – and are – (at least) three possible routes scenarios that play out this project: the Nautilus, the Saviour and the Centaur.

a) The Nautilus Option.

This first option sees the modernity project continue under the rise of a political class that is concerned with notions of efficiency and that, whilst inhabiting different political parties, actually have a very similar political project at heart. In effect all problems are treated as if they are ‘Tame’ problems of efficiency not ‘Wicked’ problems of dichotomous political values (Grint, 2005). Here we might also consider Oborne’s (2007) argument that the UK has witnessed the rise and triumph of a political elite – the term originally used by Mosca (1939) – a political class (including the media elite) – that has less to do with the same educational background (private school and Oxbridge) and more to do with having the same career paths and the same intention: to rule, but not to rule to achieve some political ideal, just to rule. What previously drove politically interested individuals to stand for parliament, that is, class interests, their locality or some other civic good or goal, no longer separates out the party faithful. According to this approach where once public service, duty and civil liberties were enshrined at the heart of the establishment now sits the corrupted venality of self-interest and an interest in politics that is restricted to a professional ‘career’ not ‘a calling’ – or a ‘vocation’ – the term that Weber used to describe those whose values propelled them into the political world.

This first route foresees a flat land devoid of value but dominated by a professional elite whose activities can be measured by the slow erosion of interest in traditional political parties and the gradual erosion of the proportion of the electorate bothering to vote. Here we might consider Yates’ (1977) notion of ‘boss’ leadership where resources are rich but the only vision is to maintain the system – a management approach to a Tame Problem of efficiency (Grint, 2008) – and Stoker suggests Chicago’s Mayor Daley fits this model but that English mayors would probably not have access to the resources to make either this, or a variant of this model – the entrepreneur – work. An example of the latter might be Mayor Giuliani of New York who, in the wake of 9/11 had the resources and some sense of direction to focus those resources.

The other side of this nautilus option is that the domination of local politics by the traditions of the political elite may also appear to encompass the rise and rise of middle class white men. Certainly this is a danger highlighted by Adonis and Gash
(2012: 8) who suggest not just that the national mayoral scene is dominated by men but that the same occurs internationally. In fact both Canada and New Zealand have significant numbers of women mayors.

b) The Saviour Option.

The second route foretells of two disparate but possibly related responses to the era of austerity that marked the transition to crisis from the previous decades of plenty: the shift from what we might call the second Belle Époc, a century after the first one, to the contemporary Années de plomb (the years of lead). This has witnessed the rise of the ‘powerless’, the invasion of the ‘occupiers’, the ‘99%’ and so on, but also the possibility of charismatics who would forcefully impose their will upon what might seem to be a rudderless populace – what Yates gets close to with his ‘Crusader’ type, though the politically charged nature of this term suggests we might seek an equivalent alternative: ‘the saviour’ captures this messianic element better. Stoker (2004: 11) suggests Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough might embody some of these aspects. Mallon first won the mayoral election in 2002 with 62.7 per cent on a turn-out of 41 per cent, then retained his mandate in 2007 with 58 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 30.5 per cent. In 2011 he was elected for a third term with 50.4 per cent of the vote on a turn-out of 36.5 per cent.

The ‘saviour’ is doubly problematic because the four year tenure that allows mayors to focus externally and not worry too much about internal dissent – the very structural feature that liberates mayors and their decision-making from bureaucratic party politics – also generates two counterproductive possibilities:

i) The public expectations are very high that an elected mayor can perform miracles – and satisfying those expectations will prove very difficult. This is especially so when it is not clear in advance what the powers of a mayor will be. As Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor of Watford Town Council suggested, ‘The public expectation is that you have power – it needs to be looked at or you’ve got one hand tied behind your back. Until you are in the job, you don’t really know what powers you need and what frustrations you face. Every city/town is different so you need to be flexible with each area’.

ii) Saviours are very susceptible to the three H’s: the Horrible Habit of Hubris, and the voters are very susceptible to their nemesis: the three S’s: See the Scapegoats Suffer! Perhaps this reflects the concerns of many, especially councillors, that the scrutiny and recall powers are too weak. We might turn to the Japanese approach to reflect on this problem: Article 178 of the Japanese Local Autonomy Law notes that a vote of noconfidence in the local government leader by the local assembly (66% quorum and 75% of those present) automatically dissolves the assembly itself after ten days; in effect a system of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) ensures a level of collective sacrifice that inhibits game playing by political parties.

c) The Centaur Option.

Weber heralded a third alternative – the ‘politician with a sense of vocation’ (berufspolitiker) – someone who could harness the utility of the rationality of the modern world to a moral vision. This he recognised as a tension ridden contradiction because it combined ‘the ethic of conviction’ – the value based vision of the political end that could not be constrained by concerns about the means, with the ‘ethic of responsibility’ – the realisation that politics was ultimately about compromise. This person Weber calls a ‘total personality’ (gesamtpersönlichkeit). Yates (1977) captures some of this route with his notion of ‘broker’ acting to co-ordinate different interests in pursuit of community advantage and Stoker (2004: 11) consider Sir Steve Bullock of Lewisham to be close to this model. Do mayors fit this strange centaur – half human/half beast – image with the ability to re-enchant the body politic where it needs re-enchanting, to inject some sense of political vision into a sterile political world where the political class is deemed to be bereft of ideas except for selfaggrandisement, yet grounded in enough common sense to avoid the apparent lunacy of charismatic dictators across the world? Of course, the contemporary lack of interest in elected mayors may represent the opposite of this gloomy prediction: that most politicians are not merely interested in a career, that most political parties are responsive to their supporters and do, indeed, have a significant value-based political vision, and that most voters are happy with the existing system.

But listen to Daniel Donahue, Director of Policy for the Office of Mayor Joseph M. Petty in the City of Worcester, Massachusetts, on the importance of defining what you want to achieve as a new mayor:

Have an agenda laid out … If you don’t have your agenda laid out, you can get caught up in the little things. Our office deals with filling potholes to the $1.5 billion [City Square] project. The Mayors that I have seen that have been the most successful have been the ones who have had an agenda, an overarching look forward of where they want be, and then really focus their powers on achieving that agenda by driving the legislative body of the Council and by making sure that you have the five or six votes you need, by turning people, getting into the real game of politics, and doing things like that. I think those have been the most successful Mayors.