European Council on Foreign Relations

Madrid view: Papacy, Realm, Party

We are all victims of some institutional design or other. Engineers build bridges; political scientists study political institutions, and try to understand what goes wrong with them. Decades of research have led to an apparently trivial but unavoidable conclusion: institutions are very important. Without them, power cannot produce results.

The same decades have taught us that institutions are not only a means or a solution, but can often become a problem of the first order. The most frequent of these is that they tend to acquire a life of their own. On some occasions they are hijacked by groups that, from without, wish to prevent them from doing their job, or seek to orient it in a direction favorable to their interests; but on others this is done by their own chiefs, who make the institution serve them, instead of them serving the institution. The result is that many institutions grow ineffective, sclerotic, and controlled by a clique that, at best, impedes the work of the organization and, at worst, becomes a criminal mafia under the coverage provided by the institution.

All this explains why those decades of study have turned organizational sociologists and specialists in the socalled theory of public election into persons highly skeptical not only about human nature, but also about the proposition that bureaucracies (public or private) and human progress are compatible concepts.

No need for surprise, then, at the cynicism underlying one principal axiom of organizational sociology: (a) every organization’s principal aim is to survive and increase its power; (b) every organization has as its aim the performance of some task not incompatible with (a).

As you may have noticed, the sequence ought to be the other way around. Indeed, many organizations are prepared to sacrifice their aims for the sake of their own growth. Others, bent on protecting themselves from outside forces, slip into self-destructive practices that doom them to ostracism and irrelevance.

Here is where we find the link between the three institutions mentioned in the title. Papacy, Realm, Party: in all these institutions discredit comes not so much from the bad actions, or even crimes, of certain persons, as from the concealment of these things, the protection of the guilty, the reticence about rendering accounts — in short, the attempt to wash dirty laundry in secret, so as to protect the institution from discredit.

Bad apples are everywhere, we know. But we also know that abuses occur preferentially where hierarchy is combined with opacity. The greater the asymmetry of power between hierarchy and flock (monarch and subjects, representative and citizens, party leadership and rank-and-file members...), the greater the likelihood the organization will grow sclerotic and the bad apples get away with crimes. Owing to their institutional configuration, which concentrates great authority in the hands of a few, while shunning transparency, Papacy, Monarchy and Party take more risks than other institutions. Especially when, out of deference, it is the flock, the citizens or the members themselves who decline to scrutinize these institutions and trust in their ability to right themselves.

Of course, unlike the other two, the party is a democratic institution, and thus the mechanisms for monitoring the institution are quite different. However, joined to the oligarchical tendency of political parties, we now have the trend to hyper-leadership. The presidentialization of the parties, due to the pressures generated by the media and electoral campaigns, turns them into autonomous spheres of powers comparable to a Church or a Monarchy. It is an odd fact that, left to themselves, political parties tend to move in a direction opposite to that of the democratic societies they are supposed to serve.

The article first appeared in El Pais.

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