Tuesday 16 April 2019

Defending Decayed Democracy

Before fire ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral, the building was in a pretty parlous state. It gave an impression of grandeur and baroque beauty, and attracted the admiration and affection of millions. But behind the scenes, up close, chunks of masonry were disintegrating and dropping off, and water had ingressed into the 19th century repairs, disturbing the integrity of the building. The work that was, until Monday evening, meant to correct this was piecemeal and underfunded, above all reliant on the kindness of strangers.

A decayed superstructure serves nicely as a metaphor for the state of liberal democratic politics. In 1964's British Political Parties, the classic study of British politics by Robert McKenzie, the state of the then Conservative Party is surveyed and he finds the party outside of parliament utterly dominated by the MPs and, above all, the leadership. If you were a member of the Tories in the early-mid 1960s, you had the chance to rub shoulders with aristos and the well-to-do on the campaign trail, push leaflets, attend meetings, raise cash for party funds and, well, that was about it. Members had no formal role on policy formation, and party leadership was determined by Kremlin-like manoeuvring in Westminster committee rooms. Fast forward to 2019 and the thinning ranks of Tory members at least have a say in the final ballot of leadership candidates, but the thing about McKenzie's commentary is he wasn't being critical. He thoroughly approved of this situation, his view being the marginalisation of party members was utterly necessary for a healthy liberal democracy.

We found this view recycled in the latest lament(£) about how bad politics is from centrist snore, Philip Collins. He suggests the restive and politicised memberships of Labour and the Tories are corrosive of democratic politics. His assumption is classic, unreflective liberal ideology. Society is made up of individuals (and their families) who are the only authentic political unit in a liberal democracy. So understood, citizens can freely associate with other citizens around common interests and concerns. However, for democracy to work the power of these collectives must elicit popular sceptical attitudes and institutional curbs. This is because powerful collectives can distort democracy when they act in concert, undermining the sovereignty of individual citizen's rights and rigging the system for special interests. Thank goodness we have MPs who, as representatives, can exercise their own judgements in order to arrive at decisions that are best for all. The greatest good for the greatest number, and all that utilitarian hoohah.

The kinds of collectives liberals (on paper) eschew are business lobbies and interests, outfits punting for NGOs and sections of the state (yes, bits of the state lobby government), trade unions and other campaigning bodies. All these interests are particularistic and sectional, so we need something that balances them out and represents the general interest. The middle ground, if you will, of all these competing concerns. However, as "I'm Phil" Collins is concerned, the parties have ceded the responsibility of drawing together what is common and instead articulates the hobby horses of narrow, sectional interests. For the Tories it's a bunch of cranks determined to crash the British economy for a Brexit fantasy overflowing with milk and honey. For Labour it's legions of Trots and tankies who want to smash capitalism and blow the Treasury on the social security budget. These are parties whose memberships are wedded to ideology, not pragmatism, and are intolerant of those MPs committed to liberal principles and disagree with 1950s Carry On nationalism or 1950s Stalinism. This leaves the centre, where most people are, unrepresented and unspoken for while democracy itself is a zero sum battleground of extremists facing off against one another. This is what happens if members, not voters, are sovereign in a liberal democracy.

For anyone else who paid attention to to the state of UK politics before everything blew up, you would find political scientists and, occasionally, politicians and their associated hangers on fretting about the opposite. That people weren't paying enough attention to politics, so turn outs tumbled as each election resolved into one set of suits offering policies and using language differing little from one another. Isn't democracy without meaningful democratic content also a problem? Well, not as far as Collins is concerned. You see, having worked as an investment banker, and various odd jobs at the top of politics, including chief wordsmith for one Tony Blair, the world looks very different. From the point of view of sharing the sofa with His Blairness, there would be all kinds of issues put before our Tone on a day-to-day basis. The farmers might be moaning about foot-and-mouth compensation, Royal Mail lobbying to extend their pensions' holiday for staff, Jamie Oliver making a big deal about the quality of school dinners, and the Association of Chief Police Officers asking for greater detention-without-trial powers. From this point of view, the executive are faced with different groups of people demanding greater or lesser amounts of your time to make a decision. And you do so, and have increasing confidence you can do so because you've won x number of elections running on an all things to all people basis. You're there because the voters have confidence in you. You are the embodiment of the general will of atomised citizens.

Is it coincidental Collins finds persuasive a view of politics that chimed with his every day dealing with stakeholders, politicians and the media? No. Is it also coincidental the realities of power relationships, the class-bound character of capitalist political economy, the notion politics is a struggle between interests, and that millions of people are institutionally discriminated against and excluded on the basis of sex and race/ethnicity impinges on his appreciation of liberal democracy not one jot? Also, no. It's as invisible to him as his privilege at and around the top of the politics tree. Small wonder the concerns about post-democracy failed to register. A polity that has the appearance of democratic functioning, but in which authoritarianism was ramped up, civil liberties curtailed, and the limiting of political choice between flavours of capitalist rationality - vociferously policed by a (then) all-powerful press, I suppose those comfortable with such a decayed democracy, those who make a fetish of it, are going to be the self-same people who benefited from it.

The bellyaching of the likes of Collins would deserve serious attention if they, I don't know, ate a bit of humble pie and reflected on how a polity empty of politics became a polity bursting at the seams with politics, and their role in making this happen. I'm not about to hold my breath. As we have seen time and again, it's not the health of liberal democracy troubling establishment insiders and outriders like Collins. It's their irrelevance. In 2007 when he left office, some could pretend Blair was the best PM ever if all you listened to were nice posh friends in nice posh dinner parties, and read editorials and eulogies from establishment-loyal hacks. But it's 12 years later, and his name is mud not just among the would-be Chekists in the Labour Party, but among the general public at large. Liberal democracy, its health, and the levels of participation has its rhythms and waves depending on what's happening in the world. Right now, as issues the likes of Collins tried their hardest to depoliticise - costs of living, education policy, social security, jobs and wages, housing - have rudely elbowed themselves back into political contention. And the establishment centre, our social betters who fancy themselves aggregators of the general interest, have nothing to say and, shock horror, few are responding to them in turn. This is one of the reasons the absurd centrist vanity vehicle CHUKa/TInG launched as a party without a party. Who do they speak to and for apart from people like themselves?

Far from breaking, the fact the two parties are softly polarised is because there is real polarisation in the country. There is an argument to be made that liberal democracy is working, after a fashion. If Labour was crammed with "socialism fans", the party would not have received its best vote since 1997, nor keeping its electoral coalition together as the Tories collapse, for instance. Instead, and entirely consistent with the arrogance and conceit specific to his class, Collins is mistaking a crisis of influence and power of his coterie for a crisis in democracy itself. It's not that liberal democracy is being replaced. It's them who are.


Speedy said...

"It's not that liberal democracy is being replaced. It's them who are."

By a political class equally deluded and convinced of its righteousness?

Whether its Momentum or The Brexit Party - each are convinced they know what's best for the party and country (in that order) but in fact pursue their narrow interests, backed up by self-supporting beliefs.

The real crisis in Labour is currently over Europe, which most of the new membership want to stay in and the "old" leadership of Lexiters want to leave. Here we have a classic tension between two unreconcilables, and also the delicious paradox between the old ideology of the leadership and the off-the-shelf opinions of new members who loathe all New Labour stood for, as much as they loathe the prejudices of most ordinary folk (blind to their own).

Which brings us the Brexiters - a mix of old style aristocracy jealous at the loss of its power and prestige, and swivel-eyed "free market" ideologues.

All these currently dominate the political debate and social media, but entertainment value should not be confused with the real-life concerns of everyday politics and people. What is interesting is the dissonance between these issues (Europe, identity and posture politics) and the bread of butter of daily living. Elections are increasingly decided on "showbusiness" issues while the dreary real world that Collins discusses is dismissed by the media, politicians, and voters alike. But of course, this is where the real struggle is - for fairer education, access to work, opportunities etc.

You appear to have bought into this X Factorisation of politics, following the polls as if it was a beauty contest and dismissing (yawn) centrism, but impractical populist ideologies will not end well and will simply lead to further disillusion. The present is the past - it just hasn't realised it yet.

Ben Philliskirk said...

@ Speedy

Actually the 'X-factorisation of politics, following the polls as if it was a beauty contest' pretty much sums up centrist strategy between the mid 80s and the mid 10s, stressing the need as it did that 'power' was everything and you had to do all that was possible to win the support of the 'average voter', a mythical creature who was both feted and feared.

Then, all of sudden, centrists lost their ability to divine the wishes of the 'average voter', and now 'populism' was worse than Hitler and Stalin combined, Russian bots were controlling the world, and politicians needed to be 'statesmanlike' and responsible rather than chasing base instincts.

Rather proves Phil's point.