The integration of multiple, sometimes quite heterogenous, groups of citizens into the political process used to be one of the primary functions ascribed to political parties. In Europe, the parties that have historically achieved this feat were the ‘mass parties of integration’ that emerged in the early and mid-20th century, in tandem with the advance of mass democracy, as well as the ‘people’s parties’ of the post-war era. Today, it is widely doubted that parties can still perform such a broadly integrative role.
From an anthropological perspective politics is a form of work that involves power struggles in the face of difference, walking and talking with friends and foes to realise aspirations, share resources and discipline people or thwart opponents’ goals. Within political institutions in democratic systems, these struggles take place in different sites but a key one is political parties. And yet parties – these complex, dynamic and partly hidden coalitions – have been neglected within anthropology with some notable exceptions.
Amidst this era of political chaos, marked by the convergence of multiple economic, political, health and ecological crisis, the question of political organisation has come back as a matter of great urgency. The sheer scale of the challenges we face makes the basic logic of all forms of organisation - namely uniting the force of individuals in pursuit of a collective cause – key to the major mobilisation efforts that are required to address contemporary social problems.
As an organizational species, political parties seem to face impending extinction. No matter what yardstick we use to measure their vitality, political parties currently display an undeniable image of terminal crisis. Party membership is approaching rock bottom in most corners of the world, particularly in countries like France and the UK where less than two percent of the population are registered as rank and file (van Biezen et al., 2012).
Political parties are central actors in representative democracies. This centrality stems from their role as entities that nominate candidates for public elections and is a common theme of accepted definitions of what constitutes a political party – distinguishing them from other political organizations, such as interest groups.
Political parties are essential organisations in contemporary liberal representative regimes but have been in ‘crisis’ for several decades, as evidenced in declining membership, electoral volatility, the growth of alternative and competing movements. In response to these concerns, political parties have changed how they recruit and relate to members including the influence they grant them in the selection of their representatives and in the deliberation on, and choice of, policy.
People change when they become professional politicians; if we follow public opinion, they often change for the worse. Long before the current surge in populist resentment against ‘the elite’ all over the Western world, the opaque proceedings of politics were seen as having a corrupting effect, transforming idealistic newcomers into professional politicians with questionable morals and eventually alienating the public. It is a widely accepted view that people turn into the worst versions of themselves once they take up politics.
The internal dynamics of political parties were a central concern for the founders of both organization theory and political sociology, yet contemporary research tends to neglect the importance and value of studying these electoral machines from a truly organizational point of view. The present issue seeks to remedy this shortcoming by allowing curious and creative scholars to reimagine what it might mean for organization scholars and activists alike to engage actively with political parties.
Since the decline of classical Marxist theory and the concomitant proliferation of ‘new social movements’ from 1968 and onwards, two opposing lines of thought have dominated leftist thinking: One that could be called ‘horizontalist’ and one that could be called ‘verticalist’ (Prentoulis and Thomassen, 2013). While both lines of thought identify with the label of post-Marxism – sometimes even without apologies – their approaches to radical politics differ profoundly.
Issue Editors: Emil Husted, Martin Fredriksson, Mona Moufahim, and Justine Grønbæk Pors
Most contemporary analyses resist studying parties for what they obviously are: organizations. (Panebianco, 1988: 3).