Book Review: La pluralità addomesticata

Silvio Cotellessa, La pluralità addomesticata. Politiche pubbliche e conflitti politici (Bologna, Italy: il Mulino, 2014). 176 pp., €16,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788815252937.

The concept of pluralism can be defined in different ways. The author surveys a wide and varied literature to show that the “soft” version would prevail through the domestication of the most explicitly adversarial features of pluralism. This result is in line with the evolution of our democracies; which have become, in the words of Charles Lindblom, market-oriented polyarchies. This review was carried out by paying particular attention to the issue of public policies, which have changed and expanded their meaning over time, as a result of the disappearing borders between public and private dimensions, and between internal and foreign politics.

To begin with, the author reconstructs the disciplinary origins of studies on public policy. He finds them in the German notion of policey, which indicated the good practices of domestic policy provided by the absolutist states of the eighteenth century that have been inherited, to some extent, by the public policies of the contemporary democracies. In the second chapter, the author reviews the debate on pluralism developed since the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1960s in the US Political Science community. He shows that, through an intense exchange inside a divided community of scholars, the approach was progressively cleansed of its “excess of conflict,” arriving at an amenable version of pluralism that parallels quite well with the completion of the process of the “nationalization of American politics.” The author develops his reasoning—in this as in other chapters—with a marked taste for quotation, but strangely enough, he forgets to mention David Truman, who was the most influential theorist of the “domesticated” version of pluralism in the fifties.

The third chapter shifts the reader’s attention to the theoretical assumptions that, in the contemporary democracies, formed the cultural background for the acceptance—more or less critical, but in fact justificatory—of the adaptation of state policies with market logics. The successful expression of this adaptation/subordination can be found in the process of integration of European policy-making. This has been accomplished with the de-politicization of the role of national institutions and justified by the ideological assumption of the absence of alternatives. Thus, the (supposed) de-politicization of policy-making has opened the way for the celebration of the liberatory appearance of the market logic that would put in place a mechanism of “competition without power.” However, the author warns us that, recalling a well-known line of critical literature, the primacy of market logic can affect the basic principles of democratic representation and accountability, as well as prejudice equality among citizens. The European Union is an international organization that better represents the phenomenon of de-politicization of politics because it tends to establish itself as an administrative regime that relegates foreign policy (i.e., high politics, according to a traditional distinction) at the edge of her decision-making system and concentrates her activity on administrative measures (low politics) that expunge the more contentious issues from policies.

The European Union also offers a tangible example of the obsolescence of the relation between the dimensions of inside and outside, because the traditional state–territorial divisions are overwhelmed by new “mobile borders” that have created an “European archipelago” based on the separation between the main corridors of globalization and “territorial sacs” that are excluded from the processes of integration (Chapter 4). At the same time, these changes will help to fuel impatience with a system of government that focuses its activities on administrative action, which is the main modus operandi for the depoliticization of the increasingly uncertain boundaries between what is internal and what is external; between what is included and what is excluded in today’s market-oriented polyarchies.

Cotellessa’s book offers a reflection on current and interesting issues examined through the filter of first-rate theoretical literature. However, the text is hard to read, it is overloaded with digressions, while chapters appear only to be weakly related to each other. Moreover, the book lacks conclusions that the author could have used to openly take a position on the consequences that the trend in the prevalence of low policy can have on the stability and political legitimacy of our democracies. Does this trend prefigure the permanent affirmation of bureaucratic political systems because of their pretended “neutrality”? Or is the legitimacy to govern by administrative policies inherently precarious, because it is dependent on a market economy increasingly dominated by the unpredictable and uncontrollable logic of financial capitalism?

Liborio Mattina, University of Trieste

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