The failure of politics won’t be solved by single-issue campaigners

Neal Lawson

Monday, 17 June 2013

Must politics disappoint? This is the public affairs question of our age. While our economy is still in crisis, and those who contributed least are paying the highest price, and more crucially, our environment is heading towards monumental disaster, how is anything ever going to change?

‘How’ is the defining question because we know largely what needs to change. The economy must be made to serve the interests of people and the planet. These always inseparable interests coincide around polices such as a real Green New Deal, a Financial Transaction Tax to stop wild speculation and the break up of the banks to end ‘too big to fail’. Then a living wage, control of runaway pay at the top through pay ratios and the shift to a shorter working week that could lead to a more equitable distribution between work, leisure and caring responsibilities. A myriad other desirable policy ideas could easily be added. 

But the problem is that no one believes the desirable is feasible. No one knows how things might change. The parties still tend to merge into each other; they mostly look the same, act the same and speak the same. Deep in the subtext real differences exist but they don’t amount to enough in practice.  That’s because the old political parties, on their own, are incapable of making the transformational change that’s needed. 

This is because power and formal politics have been separated.  Increasingly power now exists in two places.  First at the level of global financial flows over which national governments have little, if any purchase. When investment decisions became the preserve of rootless private corporations demands for low taxes and free markets became irresistible.  Control of the economy was severely reduced and democracy became the servant of capital. Politicians would fight over the small differences in the vacuum left behind. In practice this means the banks can wreck the global economy, get bailed out by us and carry on regardless.

There is then a pervasive feeling that our lives are beyond our control.  Decisions are made elsewhere. And nothing any national politician is saying or doing will change that. So the story of the last 40 years has been a gradually diminished party political system.  And the genie will not go back into the old party bottle. Because of their ebbing power no party will dominate and coalitions will be the rule not the exception.  Even if Labour were to win the next election it’s likely to be with 35% of those that vote or 20% of the voting population. How on earth can we create one-nation let alone a responsible capitalism from such a narrow base? And so the cycle of disappointment will repeat itself.  UKIP is simply the latest of these morbid symptoms of Gramsci’s long heralded interregnum in which the old is not dead and the new has not yet been born.

But in tandem something equally as important is happening.  Power, as well as being globalised, is bubbling up from self-organising grass roots. A new culture of self-confidence in our views, voices, abilities are being enabled by the internet, social media and older organising techniques that help people collectively create new sources of power and influence.

So what does this mean in practice?  Its means that the BNP were not defeated by legislation but by Hope Note Hate; the living wage is not an act of parliament but down to the organising skills of Citizens UK; tax avoidance isn’t a national agenda item because of the Treasury but the actions of UK Uncut; the privatization of the forests wasn’t halted because of a backbench rebellion of MPs but by an online revolt initiated by 38 degrees. Likewise, the feminist movement is reviving not because of party leaders’ speeches in favour of more childcare but because groups like UK Feminista are responding to decades of frustration over juggling work and home, unequal pay and everyday sexism, whilst Transition Towns are showing we can live better lives within ecological limits, regardless of the lack of political will to address dangerous levels of global warming. It is the disability movement which has drawn our attention to the unfair and undignified tests disabled people now face to obtain the support they need; gay marriage is becoming a reality because gays and lesbians demanded it and it is black youth who have highlighted the grossly disproportionate  stop and search policy they frequently endure. What all these movements and campaigns have in common is that they are driven from below; often involving democratic and non-hierarchical structures. This is where their power comes from.

But these are mostly single issues and the multiple crises we face demand joined up answers.  So the political parties we cant live with, we also cant live without. The urgent task at hand is to construct a politics which not only joins the concerns of all of us who seek a much more equal, sustainable and democratic world – a good society – but which finds a way of linking formal and informal politics.

The issue is not that change is hopeless – we have the ideas and the building blocks – rather it’s that change is complex. No single issue or party can usher in a better future alone. Rather formal vertical parties are not only going to have to work together but they must find ways to embrace the energy and idealism of the new (and not so new) informal bottom up politics if transformative change is going to happen. So the challenge to the parties is to democratize internally and practice pluralism externally. While the challenge to the movements is to shift beyond single issues, dealing only with symptoms of the crises, to join forces to tackle the root causes of markets that are too free or too powerful and states that are either too remote or too intrusive.

The defining political trait of the future will be an ‘open tribalism’. This recognizes that people start from a party or a single-issue bias but to succeed they are going to have to be pluralistic and respectful of others.  Change will come from consensus, not control.

Compass voted to open itself up beyond Labour to anyone who shares our values of equality, democracy and sustainability as the basis of the goal of a good society. My personal view is that a transformed Labour Party is still a necessary vehicle to build that good society but on its own is insufficient.  But I recognize that many people who share my values and political culture of openness and inquiry are found in the Greens, Liberal Democrats and other political parties.  Crucially, and increasingly, they are found in no party at all. Today Compass re-launches to build the space for a new politics of hope – where formal and informal politics meet to make the impossible become possible once again and a good society more than a slogan. 

The Polish dissident writer Slawomir Sierakowski said in his Open Letter to the Parties that ‘if we are capable of compassion yet at the same time powerless, then we live in a state of irritability’.  If we are all to flourish as fully rounded human beings then the dividing lines are clear.  Yes they are between those that want to protect their privilege and the rest of us who want no more than decency, respect and some semblance of economic and environmental balance, but they are also between the old closed tribes of heavy handed politics and the new open movements for political change. The ideas, policies and structures to build a good society lie all around us. It is now in our gift to construct them in a way that, in the words of Raymond Williams, ‘makes hope possible, rather than despair convincing’.

A shorter version of this article first appeared on comment is free here.

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  1. Posted by Robin Thorpe

    In the early part of the twentieth century John Dewey said
    “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country, not necessarily by intention, not necessarily by deliberate corruption of the nominal government, but by necessity. Power is power and must act, and it must act according to the nature of the machinery through which it operates. In this case, the machinery is business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents and other means of publicity and propaganda. In order to restore democracy, one thing and one thing only is essential. The people will rule when they have power, and they will have power in the degree they own and control the land, the banks, the producing and distributing agencies of the nation. Ravings about Bolshevism, Communism and Socialism are irrelevant to the axiomatic truth of this statement. They come either from complaisant ignorance or from the deliberate desire of those in possession, power and rule to perpetuate their privilege. . . .”

    and this ..

    “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance. . . .”

    In the early part of the twenty first century this statements still hold true. You are right to focus on who retains power but wrong in your analysis that this is a recent phenomenon.

    I am reluctant to advocate a socialist revolution but we have fundamental structural problems with the way our economy works. This situation cannot be resolved by fiscal stimulus alone or even by robust regulation of finance. History tells us that economic depression is resolved only by an expansion of industry; by an increase in production.

    I agree with Roberto Unger who has stated that if we are to improve our faltering economy then we need to “democratize the market economy and organize socially inclusive growth.”

    The most significant step that any government can take is therefore to resolve the flawed relationship between finance and production. The retained wealth in the stock markets and in transnational corporations is, in theory, used to finance production. In actuality very little of financial activity relates to production.
    The disjoint between finance and the productive economy has been allowed to persist because of the massive structural imbalance between developed and emerging economies. Nations such as China and India are awash with commercial and capital surpluses and nations such as the USA and the UK are living off foreign money.
    Structural reforms that promote social growth alongside economic growth are vital to facilitate sustained and sustainable development. The world we live in is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and as such we need robustness embedded into everyday life
    This financial paradox has exempted these societies from the need to face their own problems. As a consequence China has failed to develop a deep internal market on the basis of redistribution and the USA and UK have failed to develop the inclusive strategy for growth that they need.

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