Monday 28 April 2014

Epolitics and Libertarianism

Politics is changing, suggests Douglas Carswell. The "internet thingy" means the barriers to political entry, or, at least, political comment are lower than they've ever been. Westminster, hidebound and wrapped in its own importance is threatened with extinction unless it moves with the times.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is hardly fresh stuff. It would have been stale in 2004. Perhaps even as early as 1994 this looked like old jobs. Must have been a quiet in the Telegraph office when it got commissioned. Yes, blogging and social media have brought the costs of a public platform down to the price of a broadband subscription and the amount of time one can sink into it. Millions of voices now have the opportunity to mouth off to their heart's content. Amazingly, even my ravings have a modest following. Yet has epolitics, for want of a better word, forced a big change in the way we do politics? Not really. Quickly surveying the landscape now vs four years ago, most politicians have a social media presence, all parties are plugged in and (theoretically) clued up about the new technologies and many millions more Britons check out their Twitter everyday - a good chunk of whom will have clicked on a politics-related hashtag from time to time.

The dam hasn't burst though. Parties continue to obsessively media manage and the internet has not driven vast numbers of new people into political activity. The reflection on social media of UKIP's rise is more an echo of the mainstream media presence Farage has carved out than the other way round. Millions remain alienated from normal politics. No one is loading and reloading YouTube clips of exciting speeches and policy announcements. Politics is still largely a spectator sport, and the ability to send 140 character-long rants out into the ether, at best, creates a simulation of participation.

Does Douglas have a point though? True, the plates beneath organised politics are in a state of upheaval, which UKIP reflects. However, it appears Douglas is paying little attention to this and is indulging in a spot of technological determinism. That somehow the weaving together of disparate statuses, tweets, tumblrs, reddits, blogs and re-blogs will affect big political change in and of themselves. It won't. A politically disengaged but social media-savvy electorate will be a disengaged, social media-savvy electorate. If politics is to matter, it has to make itself more conducive to participation, to speak plainly and honestly, and keep its promises. And for that it requires the rude intrusion of masses of 'new people'. Looks a bit chicken-and-the-egg, doesn't it?

Perhaps this post could be such a small contribution to honesty in politics. Douglas is as libertarian as you get in the Tory party. He believes in individual sovereignty and free market fundamentalism. His political vision is of a devolved politics in which politicians, as such, no longer exist. It's self-government by referenda, of policy decided by politics. To Douglas his government isn't really a government at all, it's a Twitter fall of petitions and survey monkeys. That's not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but that is one side of the vision. Hand in hand with very, very democratic governance stands the utter despotism of the marketplace. In this utopia, the majority of living, breathing individuals have to work in businesses and enterprises where there is no democracy, where the despotism of the employer goes unchecked, where the only accountability possible is whether people buy her or his goods and/or services. Individuals have to enter this relationship of unequals on pain of severe impoverishment and want, and yet because it involves consenting to it all is fine. In reality Douglas's world is a recipe for hell, of a society ground beneath the iron heel of oligarchy. That economic power is self-interested and, ultimately, opposed to people living free, autonomous lives, to the actual realisation of individual sovereignty does not compute.

No amount of tweeting, YouTube thumbs down, or strongly-worded blogs would undermine the power Douglas would grant his oligarchy. But good old-fashioned movements of real people might.


Speedy said...

There will be no real change until the system is changed - FPP ensures the survival of the status quo.

Social media etc may simply enhance people's sense of helplessness.

Look how well UKIP do at the Euro elections - based on proportionality.

That's not to say they would do just as well in general elections, but with pure PR we could certainly expect to see a very different parliament.

In this context social media matters - look at the rise of the 5 Star Movement in Italy, for example - which garnered a third of the votes (despite being led by a comedian).

This is a social media based party - Grillo communicates mainly through his blog and tweets, boycotting traditional media. The web, in this context, has an enormous potential for creating change. But only within systems that enable it.

Indeed it is telling that now the Left and Right in Italy have joined forces to change the electoral system, obstensibly to make the country more governable but with the effect of neutering this third voice.

The key to understanding freedom of speech is that it does not matter a fig if this cannot be translated in to action.

In this respect the UK differs little from China with respect to really reflecting the people's will.

The WWW simply serves to amplify this sense of powerlessness where no institutional arrangement exists.

I suspect that the trend will be to strengthen anti-democratic institutions as the ability to bypass them via social media increases.

Increasingly politicians will trumpet their people's freedom of expression while covertly depriving them of the true levers of power.

Anonymous said...

among the many weird and off-putting things about e-politics, in addition to the smug and overstated claims its proponents make, is its fundamental mish-mash between technocratic elitism and knee-jerk populism. in fact, one can even go further. an over reliance on social media with its echo chamber effect is a kind of e-fundamentalism, or really, a kind of simulacra of political engagement, where the performance of politics itself is reduced to pushing a button in an online poll and/or posting some misspelled and hate-filled rant on someone's facebook wall. there's something simultaneously ludicrous and grotesque about it at the same time--politics as the domain of trolls. and you're right. so many of the people who extoll its efficacy are free market entrepreneur types.


p.s. apparently, there's now something called "the international journal of epolitics." i'm not going to bother giving the address.

Phil said...

"Social media etc may simply enhance people's sense of helplessness."

You've got it in one, Speedy.

Phil said...

What would be far more interesting Les is an international journal of the political economy of social media ...