Everything is Elsewhere: Politics and Powerlessness
In Scotland, and across the world, we’ve never had access to so much information. There’s never been so much news; so much analysis; so much stuff to keep up with.
And yet our unprecedented access to data has coincided with something deeply troubling: a profound and growing sense of powerlessness.
Karl Marx wrote that previous philosophers had interpreted the world, when the point was to change it. Whereas these days it often feels like we, as citizens, read about the world, but cannot influence any of the big decisions that affect us.
In this post I will explain how this malaise has infected the body politic, and consider some of the prescriptions drawn up by political parties and social movements to cure it. I will then point, tentatively, to some possible routes out of our present impasse.
In the process I will discuss Russell Brand, Bertold Brecht, and the Scottish Labour Party’s present travails. I will play devil’s advocate on the topics of the European Union and the Yes campaign. And I will look at some very interesting developments on the Tory backbenches, dropping in some Manchester United references along the way. Enjoy!
Yes we can, sort of
Let’s start with the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum.
The Yes movement represents a genuinely utopian current in contemporary politics, in both the positive and negative senses of the term. People were excited about voting Yes and took the opportunity to dream: to stretch the boundaries of the politically-possible, and to challenge orthodoxies. And it was brilliant. The Yes movement was also, perhaps necessarily, vague and slapdash on key economic issues. And so the Yes campaign transformed the political culture, while losing the referendum.
But a challenge to the Yes campaign, almost never articulated effectively by Better Together, was this.
All nation states in the world are increasingly hollowed out by forces beyond their control.
Capital flies around the globe, transient and in essence stateless.
The geopolitical centre feels like it cannot hold.
All governments tremble at the prospect of disturbances in the financial sector’s atmosphere creating another wildly destructive storm.
And supranational, intergovernmental bodies make decisions binding on member states that feel at times to be primarily in the interests of the supranational body’s own secretariat.
In this situation, when the destinies of states seem to be largely out of their own hands – why would you want to retreat into an even smaller, less secure nation state?
Well, central to the attractiveness of the Yes movement was the (quite correct) argument that, by declaring independence, we would seize power into our hands as a political community. It might not be the power to prevent recessions, or to solve the crisis in Syria, or to work out how European regulations are agreed – but we would be reclaiming governmental control over all previously non-devolved policy areas.
In short – by voting Yes we would acquire the capacity for agency. We would be able to act. Indeed, the very prospect of achieving this sparked off the remarkable phenomenon of the pre-referendum Yes movement, which was a flowering of political agency in itself with few precedents.
But what if the skeptical view about the state’s powerlessness is actually true?
UKIP and non-racists
Towards the end of the referendum campaign it became an article of faith on the Yes side that only independence could save the NHS from privatisation. This would not happen due to government policy – health is, of course, fully devolved already – but because the European Union was (and is) in largely secret negotiation with the USA on the Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP). As a result of this free trade agreement, private companies would be entitled to bid for contracts to deliver public services.
Vote yes and the NHS will be safe! I never really understood this argument. If the NHS is opened to private contractors because of the TTIP, surely that’s as a consequence of our membership of the European Union? And the Yes campaign argued strongly for remaining part of the EU. So how would independence prevent our health service being encompassed within the TTIP?
I don’t raise this to be smart, but rather to reflect the elegance of the trap. It’s difficult for any government to make autonomous decisions. That’s just the terrain these days. Even purportedly progressive bodies like the EU can have you signed up to a public service privatisation scheme when you’re not looking.
And that sense of true power existing elsewhere has affected English politics quite markedly in recent years. The absence of agency – the sense that we do not possess the opportunity or ability to affect our political circumstances – has led to a strange mixture of despair and iconoclastic excitement.
The cause of both sensations has been the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). You may have seen them mentioned on the telly.
It is widely assumed on the left that UKIP voters and sympathisers are basically just bigots. And that view is easy to understand – after all, almost every one of the party’s public figures has proven to be either overtly racist, sexist, homophobic or an imaginative combination of all three.
I’m not sure the bigot theory entirely explains the party’s electoral appeal, however.
Spend any time talking to people in the South of England, as I had the opportunity to do over the summer, and it’s immediately apparent that the political priorities in that part of the world are completely different to those in Scotland. And the big issue is the European Union.
The details differ from person to person, because no one (author included) really understands how the EU works, but the basic argument is this: the bloody EU has stolen our bloody sovereignty and we bloody well want it back.
You don’t really hear invective against mandarins in Brussels, or complaints about banana regulations, and certainly very little in the way of vitriol towards other member states or their citizens. The big issue, universally cited, is the EU taking British money and telling Britain what to do in return.
Similarly, conversations I was party to in the South about immigration were about people taking jobs, or leeching off the state. In other words, the complaints were about a lack of control of the labour market, or social service entitlements.
Now, both of these points (EU and immigration) could be code for gut racism. In some cases, perhaps many cases, they probably are. But I’m not sure there are enough gut racists around to have UKIP sitting at near 20% in the opinion polls. I really hope there aren’t, anyway.
I worry that the left is missing a trick here. I had several conversations with people who quite simply are not racist at all, and who are voting UKIP.
They are doing so because they feel the government has no control over legislation (the EU tells it what to do) or over the country’s borders (anyone can get in now). They feel like the government, and by extension they as citizen-voters, has no power over Britain’s political domain. And they hear UKIP promising to leave the EU and close the borders to “spongers”.
In short – the UKIP message speaks to people who aren’t racist but who feel like the outside world is taking the piss. The UKIP message is resonating with voters whose primary motivation is a particular sense of fairness.
Now, don’t get me wrong. They’re making a dreadful mistake, and I hope sincerely that the bizarre blanket coverage afforded to UKIP in recent years will eventually result in their insane policies being properly exposed. But regardless, we need to understand the magnetism of the UKIP message to non-racists.
The overt racists we can do little about, I suspect. Likewise the crypto-racists. But the normal voters attracted to UKIP on the basis of the promise to restore sovereignty, and to stop supposedly undeserving people ‘leeching off the state’ – they can surely be recovered to a more sane party.
It only needs other English political parties to project a similar sense of agency, articulated in the context of actual, grown-up policies, and UKIP wouldn’t stand a chance.
A party always cheers you up
Back to Scotland, where the reaction to the prevailing macro-level powerlessness has been rather different.
After the referendum was won by the No side, I wrote in this piece that the next step for Yes was the “long march through the institutions”. I assumed a new rainbow coalition would emerge from the non-aligned Yes voters. Remarkably, the actual response to the defeat was for tens of thousands of people to join the existing parties that had backed a Yes vote, namely the SNP, the SSP and the Scottish Greens. Each of these parties had effectively trebled their memberships within a fortnight of the vote.
This represents a remarkable act of agency on the part of those citizens, especially since they must have been feeling like absolute shite the morning after the referendum. They experienced political agency during the campaign, and continued to act afterwards.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Political parties are really boring. It won’t be as much fun as the Yes campaign.
I hope every single person who joined a party sticks with it and I doff my cap to them for trying to continue to be engaged. And certainly the Greens, and probably the SNP (not sure about the SSP) will provide opportunities for new and old members to do things, say things, discuss things and agree things.
But for contrast, we must turn to our old friend, the Scottish Labour Party.
Love Labour lost
There’s a brilliant scene in Ken Loach’s film “Looking for Eric” that sums up the Labour Party for me. You can watch it here.
It’s a pub scene in Manchester on a Champions League night. Manchester United are playing. A debate develops between the United fans and a supporter of FC United of Manchester, a community-owned breakaway team formed by disillusioned fans after Manchester United was taken over by the Glazer family.
The FC fan argues that Manchester United has sold its soul and become a hyper-commercialised travesty, unaffordable to normal fans. Indeed, one of his opponents himself acknowledges that he can’t afford to go to the games any more. But at the same time, the United fans accuse him of betrayal and barrack him until he storms out of the pub.
Just after he exits, the United fans pretend their team has scored. The FC fan bursts back into the pub, excitedly asking who got the goal.
It’s a bit like that with Labour and Scotland’s social democratic current, at least for people my age (in my thirties) and older.
The party under Blair embraced a similar gentrification to Manchester United under Edwards and then Glazer, pursuing a markedly different core market of supporters. This led to a sense of betrayal among traditional socialist-leaning voters, and a leaking over time of support. In Scotland, countless Labour voters have turned to the SNP for a social-democratic experience worthy of the name, while many others have shifted to the Greens, or to the hard left, or to no party at all.
But Labour to them are still a bit like Manchester United are to Ken Loach’s FC fan.
Just think of the vitriol the party got throughout the referendum campaign, or the ridicule it has received since Johann Lamont quit as leader. It’s a very different tone of hostility to that directed to, say, the Tory government or UKIP. People are angry at Labour because in their heart of hearts they want Labour to be their party. I think that even goes for some people who hold public office in other parties.
In other words, people across the centre-left take an interest in the fate of the Labour Party even if they think they could never vote for them again. We need a strong Labour Party. It’s like needing a strong Liverpool FC. It just seems wrong to see them (Labour) in such a shambles.
Labour in Scotland need to find their Houllier, then their Benitez and their Brendan Rodgers. At the moment it just feels like one Souness after another.
I share these reveries because I think Labour have problems with political agency, and (avert your eyes, readers of a sensitive disposition) they could learn something from the Tories if they ever want to get out of their current mess.
The problem with Labour goes back to the Kinnock and Blair days. It wasn’t a problem at the time, particularly, but politics has a habit of catching everyone out.
The problem with Labour is the party’s need for control.
The first Blair government has rather spoiled things for everyone since. It really was amazing. Remember that front bench – pre-Iraq Blair, Brown, Robin Cook, Blunkett, Jack Straw, Prescott – and Alistair Campbell battering the message into everyone’s skull via – or not – their pager.
How brilliant were they? Very, very brilliant indeed.
Except Blair was inhibited until it was too late by an all-consuming paranoia that somehow his 170-odd majority would disappear overnight if Labour did anything interesting in government. And then a few months after his second 160-odd majority, the 9-11 attacks wrecked his premiership along with so much else.
One major legacy of those days is the party’s centralised nomination process that ensures only utterly on-message apparatchiks get to hold public office in a Labour vest. Has anyone interestingly unorthodox won a nomination, won an election and made a name for him or herself since the first 1997 intake? Early Ed Miliband might come closest to meeting that description, bizarrely.
The culture of on-message blandness has become ingrained within the party. You can see several symptoms of this at the moment. One is the claim that Johann Lamont had to keep quiet about the Bedroom Tax for a year while Miliband decided on his approach. Now, I think there may be holes in this story, but let’s assume Lamont did indeed hold her tongue despite knowing how much damage it would do to the party’s prospects.
Why didn’t she just oppose the Bedroom Tax anyway? What did she think was going to happen?
Meanwhile one of the party’s key spin doctors (actually, an interestingly unorthodox thinker as it happens) gets airtime telling everyone that the party’s plausible younger MSPs lack the experience for leadership. And people listen!
It doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong, it’s amazing that his view is invested with such significance in Labour circles. They can’t cope without spin doctors telling them what to think.
And one of the most troubling symptoms of Labour’s malaise is the visceral hatred of the SNP that has really got to the dangerous stage at this point. Try telling a Labour official that you think the SNP have done some good things. You’ll get slaughtered.
The party’s engagement with the outside world can be summed up as a Facebook approach rather than a Twitter approach. Facebook is a closed group of approved friends speaking to each other, while Twitter is outward-facing. Alas, even the ones who have embraced Twitter seem to use it to bark at people who don’t agree with them.
And this is where the issue of agency comes back. In Labour’s case the party has become so reliant on shadowy figures to do their thinking for them, the parliamentary party (in Scotland, but also in general) doesn’t know how to act.
And more broadly, the party is struggling to cope with the popularity of the SNP. This has resulted in otherwise sane figures acting as though the electorate’s preferences are as undesirable and uncontrollable as the global financial collapse (oh, and also not their fault).
It puts me in mind of Brecht’s poem about the GDR government:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
“Die Lösung” (The Solution) – 1953
The Tories discover democracy
The Tories are grappling with this stuff. As Steve Richards notes in this thoughtful and perceptive piece, there is presently a current on the Tory backbenches, and in certain quarters of right wing thinking, concerned with electoral democracy.
Implicit or explicit in my last section was my view that the stultifying selection processes utilised by the major parties is a massive constraint on our democracy. It is to the credit of the Tory right that they have been the first to address this, seemingly unprompted by anything other than their own fertile minds. Who knew!
It may be a narrow focus, but it’s still interesting. Steve Richards quotes Douglas Carswell, the erstwhile Tory freethinker-turned UKIP defector, as asking the following questions: “who has power, who gave it to them, on whose behalf do they wield it, and are they accountable?”
Richards can scarcely contain his amazement that the source of these questions was none other than Tony Benn. A surprising but intriguing influence on big Dougie Carswell.
Whoever asks them, they’re very good questions. And the initial products of right wing chatter on this matter has been the experiment with primaries for candidate selection, a preference for powers of recall for unsatisfactory MPs, and the use of referendums to generate authority for decision-making in areas where that authority is lacking. Areas like the EU, for example.
By contrast, Labour has experimented with gender quotas, and got into trouble as a result. I’m all for guaranteeing a gender balance in our parliamentary chambers, and everywhere else. That can only be a good thing. But (don’t worry, it’s not an anti-gender balance but) Labour have a problem regardless of their gender balance in parliament. They’re all totally interchangeable party apparatchiks.
Meanwhile, a heroic figure looms above us. That man is Russell Brand, and he’s talkin’ ’bout a revolution.
As I write, Brand is dividing opinion as only he can. Some people on the left (such as Nick Cohen – if you agree he’s on the left) think he’s an embarrassing distraction from the business of building a sensible policy platform, while others (such as Owen Jones) appreciate his entryist spirit and ability to get people to read their first book called Revolution. Both are probably correct, as Brand would no doubt agree in a whimsical moment.
But there’s more to it than that. Brand’s whole political…thing has been about agency. The story he tells in Revolution is that he changed his life by cleaning up, so anyone else can change their lives too. He has acted in the world, if you excuse the pun (indeed, writing this piece has really brought home to me the suggestion of performance located in the verb “to act”).
Now, his call for everyone to stop voting has annoyed people. Let’s think about that for a minute.
I imagine he is motivated by the lack of instant gratification afforded by voting. The major parties fight for the power to slightly rearrange how 1% of GDP is used. You vote and little seems to happen. I get that; we all get that.
It’s not very glamorous. Some Yes voters sounded a bit like Brand after we lost. They reacted like shoppers whose statutory rights had been violated. I bought this independence and I want it now!
Political change doesn’t really work like that, as I’m sure Brand actually recognises (personally I think he’s five steps ahead of all of his critics and fans here – and totally trolling the lot of us). Political change tends to happen the way Hemingway described the onset of bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises: gradually, then suddenly.
But in his demand for glamorous, instant transformative change, Brand is very much of his time. He is, intentionally or otherwise, a lightning rod for a widespread desire for agency. And if his solutions sometimes sound a bit confused, I’d like to hear yours.
Some ways forward
So how do we take power back from multinational offshore corporations, supranational and intergovernmental institutions with their own bureaucratic trajectories, party elites, self-regulating or unregulated sectors of the economy, and myriad other forces beyond our control as citizens of nation states?
With great difficulty.
But opportunities for agency, even if some of them may be mere chimera, engage people and make them feel less powerless – and maybe even more powerful. (I think there is a distinction.)
As I’ve argued, the widespread engagement across Scottish society with the detail of our public administration has had a transformative impact on people’s sense of possibility. Meanwhile, the English right is conducting interesting experiments in electoral party democracy that could serve to open up selection processes in intriguing ways.
In policy terms, I’ve argued that UKIP has gained traction with sections of the electorate that, naively or not, have seen in the party a force for reclaiming power, authority and sovereignty.
You don’t have to be a racist to think the EU has turned into an incomprehensible, undemocratic monster. Of course the reality is nuanced and complex, but voters across Europe have never exactly flocked to confirm their appreciation of its activities. Other political parties, without UKIP’s utterly absurd set of policies, could sketch out this terrain so much more usefully for people.
Even in terms of immigration – the big issue for large swathes of England at the moment – I’ve argued that many voters articulate their concerns in terms of a perceived lack of control over policy. The attraction of UKIP is their claim that they will seize control of Britain’s borders – that they will act. People will take agency where they can find it. It’s up to the sane parties to articulate something positive in response.
Paul Mason, from Channel 4 News, has written a magnificent sequence of articles in recent months on the independence referendum and how it fits into broader global developments. He argues, surely correctly, that western economies will be unable to cope with the age-structure of their populations in years to come. The cost implications of funding pensions – of funding anything really – from a shrinking tax base, are stark.
Part of the solution suggested by Mason is that western economies must be open to immigration. The only way western countries can afford to fund services amidst an ageing population is through the regular injection of younger labouring tax-payers from elsewhere.
This is an agency argument. We can act to secure our social settlement by making our country attractive to migrants. Our social settlement is already utterly dependent on migrants as it is, and that trajectory will only continue. But who is making this case?
Only you can save mankind
I began this piece by noting that we’ve never had access to so much information.
The internet, and especially social media, can ‘bring the war home’. It’s fascinating and thrilling to be up to date with everything happening everywhere – but it can also lead to despair. How are we – how am I – supposed to do anything about all of this?
We’ve never had so much information about our global plight – and this can make us feel like we’ve never had less control.
But you can seize agency in your own life in a different way to Russell Brand’s new age approach.
Rather than denying politics, you can do what Scottish people did this year and massively educate yourself about your political administration and public sphere. It’s not always glamorous or exciting, but the mechanisms now exist to find things out, distribute them widely and lobby constructively for change.
In Ancient Athens, someone who took no interest in public affairs was called an id-iot. When lots of people all decide not to be idiots, all sorts of unexpected things can happen.
And the more you act like you have political agency, the more you’ll actually have it.
Fight the powerlessness!