Thursday, 4 January 2018

How to Predict Politics: A Sociological Approach

After the year from politics (and celebrity) hell that was 2016, understandably I gave up the trying-to-predict-politics game. Then something weird started happening. The new year brought us some right shockers - the delights of the Stoke Central by-election and the surprise election (and its more surprising outcome) - but some forecasts I had made came true. I suppose you might say the collapse of UKIP following the by-election was obvious, but it's something this blog had argued for since the 2015 election. Likewise, Theresa May remaining in office - unchallenged - despite pledging not to do forecasts, was divined as the country reeled from the shock of the Grenfell fire. And what happened at the general election was pre-empted the previous summer. If only I'd heeded my own analysis instead of sending "we're fucked" texts to friends and comrades when the election was called.

Getting these right wasn't voodoo, lucky guesses or a matter of being uniquely insightful. The secret, and it really shouldn't be a secret, lies in sociological analysis. Or, rather, understanding the stuff of politics as social relationships. A banal revelation, surely? Well, it should be but it isn't. Consider some of the dogmatism we've seen in recent years: that Labour can only win from the centre ground, assuming the centre is an eternal truth of inviolate political positions and values; that the plethora of leave voting constituencies spelt obliteration for Labour is many of its core areas; that Paul Nuttall (remember him?) would walk Stoke Central because he's a northerner; that young people voted Labour because tuition fees; that Labour would walk an election if it set its face against Brexit; of treating what's happened in politics in total isolation from what else has happened - namely the crash, austerity, stagnation, and the changes at work. Voters, constituencies, parties, institutions, all are treated as discrete and internally coherent entities who episodically brush up and affect one another. The flipside of this approach is that beloved of journalists, which is typified in Tim Shipman's duology of well-received books on Brexit and its aftermath: tittle-tattle; the reduction of politics to the personal relationships of MPs, back benchers and other significant figures in and around Westminster. What we have is, respectively, an elevation of the institutional minus the people and the elevation of (some) people minus the institutional context. This is the official way to think and write about politics.

Here are some simple (but complex) rules to examining politics. The first, most obvious observation is, um, everything is relational. Individuals and collectives are constituted by relationships. Peel back the layers of a personality and it's relationships all the way down, a record of at times conscious, at times unconscious determinations and influences that condition our activities in all kinds of ways. Break open an institution and all you'll find are people, but people enmeshed in and travelling through social space by the routes plotted by networks and lines laid down by institutional spaces (which are themselves, of course, conditioned by and are results of social relationships). Second, social relationships arrange people into collectives. These cannot be seen, but observed only through their consequences. Organisations are the most obvious manifestation, but collectivities range from the highly formalised to the loose and open, from small to massive, to currents of common opinion formed from common experiences - hence why people from different social locations tend to cluster around similar beliefs and outlooks. As our bodies are socially marked by the physical characteristics and what we do with them, sex classification, ethnicities, sexualities, disabilities, age and so on, we tend to find experiences, outlooks and characters clustering around them.

There's also the small matter of capitalism. It is not an independent entity standing above and apart from society, but it appears that way and we act as if this mode of social organisation is a natural force, an endowment we all have to just deal with. Depending on where you're born and your trajectory through life, your entire social existence is stamped by it, your destiny being only partly shaped by your intentions and actions. Mostly it's down to the vagaries of the elemental markets - again, outcomes of myriad social actions but without control or conscious direction. It also happens that the collectives we're swept up into are stamped by capitalism in a number of ways. All organisations have a commercial life, even if that is not their raison d'etre (as per public services, voluntary associations, political parties), and if we have a role within them they mediate that relationship for us. But as individuals we experience capitalism in ways that are specific and separate from collectives. The overwhelming majority of us are compelled to sell our labour power in return for a wage or a salary, and that inculcates certain interests in terms of the security of any situation we take up, the amount of hours we sell, the price we command for it, our own freedom from work, and the unaccountable power over us we encounter in those relationships. Some are even conscious of the clash of interests these entail, and organise on that basis. As consumers we have a certain means at our disposal (be it savings, credit), and certain interests in the quality of the goods and services we buy, as well as the power differentials between being a consumer of modest means vs big spenders. And remember how our physical characteristics are socially marked? These are inseparable from how capitalism is maintained as an apparent social organism, imbuing existence with obstacles, oppression, and injustice that have to be negotiated and struggled against on top of everything else. These are social relations just as much as employee/employer relations, and they resist disentanglement.

A social relation then appears simple and common place, but understanding them requires unpacking them, of treating them as an assemblage of mutually conditioned and conditioning elements. But they are not without direction. Because of the people and situations they involve, the histories contained therein bearing on the present, the tensions, conflicts and resistances, and their myriad ties to larger and smaller scale assemblies of relations between people, between institutions, between interests and the ever-forming, ever-becoming manifestation of collective wills, we can discern direction and therefore make guesses about what might happen next. Social relations are complex and can spark off in all manner of directions, but not infinitely so. They are probabilistic and therefore, provided one has a more or less rounded understanding of a (political) situation, forecasting is possible on the basis of analysis, of an appreciation of the directional flows of relations co-present, becoming within and conditioning a particular situation. In other words, if you look at what is being done, can explain why/how it's being done, you might have a good stab at describing what's going to happen next.

For example, consider young people and their disproportionate aversion, as noted in poll after poll and the actual poll of the general election, to the Conservatives. Why is this? Saying the young are radical because they don't know anything about the world is an explanation of sorts, but an ideological explanation - it is supposition without attempting to grasp the situation facing young people. And it also serves to cover for the sharp end of class relationships younger people are clustered around. To approach anything like a scientific explanation requires looking at those relations, how they've changed over time, and how they're being positioned politically by a government that has zero interest in them for its own partisan reasons. Once you have a handle on this, you can start making suggestions about future political behaviour - such as the stunning news, for mainstream punditry, that they may not vote Conservative in large numbers because of what they are doing to youngsters' life chances. Similarly, if you undertake an analysis of the political composition of the Tory party, how its vote has changed over time, how key parts of its coalition were fractured by New Labour at its height, and the effective estrangement of the party from a mass base thanks to a dwindling membership, this is essential background to understanding its pursuit of counter-productive policies, its headline chasing, its attendance/indulgence of a declining vote coalition, and ultimately the chaos ruling the top of the party. Understanding these confluences of relations and how they produce the current situation provides options for forecasting what future situations these are likely to produce, and what latent potentials carried within the assemblage will come to fruition.

This, crudely, schematically and briefly put is what a sociology of politics should be about. That isn't to say there's no room for other kinds of analysis, either of the movers-and-shakers sort as per "Shippers" and the stenographers of Westminster gossip, the institutional analyses as per political science, and pollster-related jiggery-pokery, but a sociological approach alerts us to their limitations, particularly where forecasting and predictions are concerned. Especially now politics is in flux. It's messy, but it's understandable if, and only if, you approach politics as the social relationships they are.

1 comment:

Jon Hegerty said...

Who was it who said "Theory is the superiority of foresight over astonishment"?...