Embedded Democracy

2 May 2022

** This is the first in a series of three reviews of Martin Conway’s new book Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968.

2. Comprendre les démocraties européennes après la Seconde Guerre mondiale – Alain Chatriot

3. The Pre-History of Post Democracy – Jan-Werner Müller

4. Response – Martin Conway

You can download the complete forum as a PDF here: FULL FORUM



“We are infested with politics!” So laments one of the main characters in Hugo Claus’ classic novel, The Sorrow of Belgium. Set in the late 1930s, the novel documents the way in which conflicts of class, religion and national identity had penetrated Belgian society so deeply that it was impossible to escape them. One of the great qualities of Martin Conway’s book, Western Europe’s Democratic Age, is the way he captures this imbrication of society and politics which persisted long after the end of the Second World War. What developed in this era was a form of mediated democracy, where state and society were bound together in a multiplicity of ways, but where popular sovereignty was constrained. While there was no common formula across France, Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Low Countries, this mediated quality was a shared feature of their democratic life.


Conway visits this theme repeatedly in his book. “The democracy of post-war Western Europe was… intended to be one not of direct popular sovereignty, but representation and of intermediaries” (134). This “democratic age” was a fusion of party democracy and a corporatist mode of social integration (141). Party democracy referred to the way in which political parties – more than any other actor—structured political life and the political choices presented to voters. In one of his rare forays into a narrative form of historical writing, Conway recounts the events in Belgium when the catholic monarchist Christian Social Party organized a consultative referendum on whether or not Leopold III should return to the Belgian throne. Leopold had surrendered Belgium to the occupying German army and had remained in Belgian until 1944, after which he was deported to Germany. His critics accused him of treason. Leopold III won the referendum by some margin but his return was met with a general strike and street protests. As his support within the Parliament waned, Leopold III was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Baudouin. As Conway notes, “[t]he decision by the Belgian political elite to overrule the results of the referendum on Leopold’s future was indicative… of the wider caution with which all such exercizes in direct democracy were regarded after the war” (133).


In its more pejorative form, party democracy was a partitocrazia—rule by the parties. These were not, however, the deracinated and much maligned parties of our present era. Conway describes how Christian democratic parties in particular reflected the interwoven quality of society and politics. Christian democracy was a movement rooted in Catholic trade unions, farmers’ leagues, and a variety of professional and sector-specific interest groups, while also electorally mobilizing the interests of property owners and those seeking to buy their first home. Particularly in Italy, Democrazia Cristiana (DC) was accused of buying votes and colluding with the mafia. Figures such as Giulio Andreotti—a DC leader and one of the most prominent politicians of the Italian First Republic—have been viewed in retrospect as emblematic of the corruption that brought the country’s political system to its knees in the early 1990s. Conway is critical of this reading, which projects back onto the 1950s and 1960s the concerns of the 1980s and 1990s. In his words:


The somewhat pejorative sense of clientelism that often characterized studies of Christian democracy fails to do justice to the way in which the parties operated in their electoral heartlands as a two-way intermediary between voters and the state. They certainly built electoral loyalty by distributing the resources of the state to their voters but they also provided a channel for the requests of communities and of specific social constituencies to reach the offices of the local and national state (191)


While parties served to translate social interests into platforms for government, these same interests also had many other routes via which they could influence policy-making. Corporatism, a distinctive feature of Western Europe’s political development after 1918, had originally had an antagonistic relationship to parliamentary democracy. After 1945, it was repackaged as a way of making democratic regimes last longer: “the replacement of Darwinian struggles between conflicting interests by institutions of social negotiation would create an economic parliament to sit alongside the political democracy of parliament” (139). Western European democracy after 1945 was a dense patchwork of organizations, with unions, consumer groups and rural interest groups all vying for some share of the growing economic pie, and this corporatist mode of social integration stabilized Western European regimes. As Conway notes, this period saw democracy embedded within society, and society within democracy.


Conway further suggests that post-war stabilization in Western Europe was achieved by making democracy itself the focus of political debate: earlier conflicts between democracy and other sorts of political regime had given way to debates about the manner in which democracy itself should be organized. While this was a welcome development, Conway reminds us that this shift came with a loss of popular control over power. In Europe’s “democratic age,” democracy “was less a form of popular rule than the means… through which the state transacted it business with society more widely” (115). The democracies of the post-war decades, writes Conway, “retained… something of an anti-popular ethos… [T]he people had to be made to fit democracy, rather than vice versa” (115).


In the minds of those who built the new and more rule-bound democratic regimes after 1945, the democratic failures of the interwar period were themselves the result of an unbridled and out of control form of popular sovereignty. The Nazi era was taken as an example of what can happen when modern mass democracy runs free from legal and constitutional rules. In short, the collapse of democracy in the interwar period was blamed on “the arbitrary nature of popular power.” This legitimized a more constrained form of anti-majoritarian democracy. As Conway explains:


Rather than presenting the NSDAP as the heir to a tradition of anti-democratic nationalist politics in Germany stretching back to the pre-1914 Kaiserreich, the party was perceived as the manifestation of a distinctively modern style of mass politics (116)


This particular reading of history meant that democratic stabilization after 1945 came with a strong dose of paternalism. The people could not really be trusted with power themselves. Rather, they needed to have their interests curated by a skilled and forward-looking national bureaucratic apparatus:


[T]he distanced perception of the people, not as the collective sovereigns of democracy but as the objects of solicitude on the part of a well-intentioned state, was integral to the practices of the proliferating governmental agencies of the post-war years (125)


Conway observes how this cautious approach to the question of popular sovereignty laid the basis for closer inter-governmental cooperation at the European level. The early instances of European integration reflected the new commitment to economic planning along with a preference for policymaking at a distance from popular mobilization. “European integration served many purposes after 1945,” Conway remarks, “but the sovereignty of the people was not foremost among them” (213). He adds that “the European institutions of the 1950s and the 1960s tended to replicate, in a more exaggerated form, the patterns of bureaucratic rule evident at the national level” (215).


In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the multiple connections to their own societies severely curtailed the freedom of national governments to enact agreements with other governments. Conway writes that “the imposing networks of pillarized interest groups, notably the trade unions, welfare institutions and farmers’ groups, acted as the gatekeepers of the state’s relationship with society, by influencing its decisions and acting as executants of its policies” (218). These groups also served as gatekeepers of the state’s relationships with other states at the international level. Regional European integration in the 1950s and 1960s was limited in scope and scale, with states constrained in their actions by the embedded and mediated quality of national democracy. It is because of the disembedding of democracy from the 1970s onwards that European integration was able to move forwards in leaps and bounds, as it did from the mid-1980s onwards.


One of the qualities of Conway’s book is his sensitivity to the complex relationship between embedded democracy and a rising individualism. The former relied upon the power and influence of mediating institutions, the latter rallied against these same institutions as constraints upon individual freedom and choice. Paradoxically though, the catalyst for this individualism was the powerful post-war national state. As Western European countries became welfare states, administering to the growing needs and desires of their respective populations, greater material security opened up the possibility for exploring new aspects of oneself. These new freedoms were by no means universal—Conway notes that the working class was the relative loser of les trente glorieuses, while the biggest gains went to an expanding middle class. But the cultural ascendancy of this middle class—which included the expectation that one could decide how one wanted to live one’s life, and an impatience with the hierarchies and rigidities of the pre-war social world—was made possible by state interventionism. “Government had become more predictable and more beneficial to people in ways that broadly matched the individualist spirit of a time of rapid social and economic change” (223).


However, this complementarity between individualism and embedded democracy did not last. The earlier forms of individualism had been relatively apolitical: in the aftermath of the war, they manifested themselves as a retreat from politics and a focus on “the cultivation of the private, the domestic and the personal” (202). The project of individual autonomy—which had already manifested itself in the heady interwar years and survived throughout the rise of fascist regimes – sat alongside the building of strong, interventionist state machines. Later, especially from the early 1960s onwards, Conway recounts the ways in which individualism ran up against the limits and constraints of embedded democracy. One clash was between individual freedom and the expanding regulatory and supervisory power of the state:


For the first time in Europe’s modern history, the resources of the state had decisively outstripped those of the people, investing Western European states in most circumstances with a routine ability to control their citizens, and defeat direct challenges to their authority (208)


In essence, the compatibility between rising individualism and the post-war welfare state depended upon the former taking on an entirely apolitical character. This was true in the late 40s and especially the 1950s but no longer the case in the 1960s. By that time, individualism manifested itself as opposition to the perceived paternalism and excessive authority of the welfare state.


This opposition was a product of the gulf between a new caste of experts and officials that had accompanied the development of national Keynesian corporatist states and the population at large. A generational gap emerged between a middle aged and moderate male political leadership and the questions and demands of a younger generation. Having been so closely woven together from the late 40s into the early 60s, society and politics was starting to come apart once again.


Conway’s book is a thoughtful and subtle account of this period in Western Europe’s history, one that lay between the excitement and relief of Liberation and the social upheavals of the late 1960s. At times, his analytical style is too dry, and some more narrative would have been kinder on the reader. Conway’s aim is to “make the emergence of democracy in post-1945 Western Europe appear more historically complex, and also more open-ended” (20) but he does so by taking a thematic and transnational approach. This may make the book more conceptually rigorous but it is difficult to communicate and illustrate historical complexity in this way. Much of the detail of the era is lost in book’s broad, thematic arguments.


One of the strengths of Conway’s book is that his examination is entirely lacking in nostalgia, and after reading it, one is left with a sense of ambivalence about Western Europe’s “democratic age.” It was an era where democratic stabilization was achieved, but at some cost in terms of popular participation. The party system was profoundly “sociologized” in ways that bound state and society together but this was slowly undone as individualist pressures reshaped Western European society. And while some sort of democratization of everyday life occurred, this was also a “triumph of the bourgeoisie”—a far cry from the ideals of social equality that had animated the political struggles of the last century and a half.



Chris Bickerton is a Professor of Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge, fellow of Queens’ College Cambridge and visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. He recently published (with Carlo Invernizzi Accetti) Technopopulism: The New Logic of Democratic Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). He is currently working on a history of Europe since 1989.



Photo Credit: Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 [cover], Princeton (2020), Fair Use.

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