Sunday, 7 March 2010

Politics - why bother?

It seemed appropriate that this blog should start by questioning its own existence. It's fair to say that in the UK today there is a great deal of apathy surrounding politics. I wanted to try and sketch out some thoughts on why this is, some things that might alleviate it but also why it should be alleviated. That is, why we should actually give a shit about politics.

I think the nub of the problem and the solution is in the distinction between politics and the political. Politics is probably best understood as the public square, the arena where the collective issues of the day are fought out. The purest manifestation of this is Parliament. But it's slightly wider than that; it's current affairs, it's the sphere in which priorities and ideas jostle for attention, converging and congealing to form the surface of what we call public life. This is mostly played out by the politicians, their staff and the media class in Westminster.

But the political is something else. It's the way we construct our daily realities, construe who 'we' are against who 'other' people are. It's the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things. How for instance, do you interpret a homeless man you might encounter on your walk to work – how did he get there and whose fault is it? What I think might determine whether I give him some change. Our answers are mostly defined by the language we use. Is someone a benefit scrounger or are they forced to subsist off the state? (do they 'claim' benefits or do they 'receive' them?). Does a banker 'earn' their bonus or do they 'pocket' them? And so on, you get the idea.

The problem in the UK today, I think, is the detachment of politics from the political. This is not just because the politico-media class in Westminster is obsessed with point scoring over gaffes, splits and coups rather than 'the issues'. They are, but it's because the issues get conscripted into that point scoring. It's claim and counter-claim. Point scoring becomes a matter of survival even for those with the purest of intentions.

In this environment, understandably, 'party lines' emerge to save embarrassment. A game is created between politicians and the media in Westminster with it's own internal, self-perpetuating logic; what one should and should not say publicly. As this re-creates itself, the terms of the debate become ever more narrow, ever more distant from the political. "Fine", one could argue, "politics has always involved point scoring". But add in 24 hour news cycles and the post-Cold War decline of socialism as the credible, alternative vision of society and politicians, and politics, is talking at us more while saying less than ever before.

Whatsmore, the public are told by the media, rather one sidedly (think The Thick of It, Peter Oborne, Andrew Rawnsley et al), of this process and are thus inoculated against what they perceive as spin. In this context, politicians are 'othered'. They appear to us buttoned up, awkward, blathering in a language unrecognisable; they are not one of us (this can happen to anyone to be fair. I, for instance, thought of calling this post 'the anatomy of apathy', a title so po-faced and remote that it could only be the product of a mind which has read too many political science journals!). Thus, when politicians do get the chance to spell out a different vision of society it's pretty sanitised and by then we already have a tin ear to them.

The result is pretty damning for the way we view private and public life. As we become disconnected from politics, current affairs become events that just happen, things just are. The intrinsically political stories we tell ourselves in private life are unhooked from public life. Perhaps we blame the government (“they”, “the politicians”) or 'the way of the world' in an abstract and rather arid sort of way, but there is no vocabulary in the public ether with which to grasp and articulate a better vision of society, no political overlay through which events can be viewed. The result is it becomes extremely difficult to convince people that politics shapes our lives, not just through determining the allocation of resources, but through representing our collective conscious; politics as morality in practice, as Vaclav Havel termed it.

Making this point, historian Tony Judt recalls his experience of listening to exhausted British passengers on a train regale one another contently about their exhaustion and frustration with civil servants, doctors and politicians; not once did they join up the political dots or get angry. Things just were.

It would be disingenuous if we didn't ascribe this malaise in very large part to the post Cold War consensus on free-markets and business. Hopefully the financial crisis will open up new space for a more social democratic vision which may alter received wisdom in Westminster, but there's no room to bang on about that too much here. What is also true, however, is that despite considerably more consensus on economics, American political life doesn't show the same disaffection. On this, Irving Howe wrote brilliantly in Politics and the Novel:

"The Americans see political life as an autonmous field of action.... Personalizing everything, they could not quite do justice to the life of politics in its own right.... Personalizing everything, they could brilliantly observe how social and individual experience melt into one another so that the deformations of the one soon become the deformations the other."

As the Tea Party movement shows, Americans might get angry with government, or even not vote, but at least they actually get angry; most do it with an alternative vision of what they think America should be. This hints at the issue of citizenship. Politics and the political are inexorably connected in the US through the constitution, which enshrines certain universal values to individuals. With this language in the ether, most political argument or rational is centred on differing interpretations of such values – what is life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness? Etc. This lends itself much better to thinking about ones relationship with the state or to ones community. Despite the despair of the Bush years, this helped give rise to the activism which propelled Obama into the White House in a manner British politics cannot presently hope to replicate.

A UK constitution might help shape what it means to be British, what our rights and obligations are by giving us some shared concepts the meaning of which we can contest.

This is all very abstract, however. The main problem in the UK is that politics only happens in one place: Westminster, or at least London. Our electoral system breeds an obsession with the swing voter. The efficacy of engaging in politics is pretty poor too, with few access points (especially given we still have, ludicrously, an unelected upper chamber) and a Government which castrates Parliament. Clearly the whole system needs to be bust open, but we can't do this as long as talking about politics remains uncool or remote. Speaking to an activist on reforms, Franklin Roosevelt said “I want to do it, now make me”. In my very brief experience, politicians or public servants are not bad people, they just live in their own worlds with their own rules of survival. We can and must change these rules to make politics political again and to start thinking collectively. We have to recover an idea of politics as morality in practice. We have to believe that politicians, power or political institutions are not inherently dirty things; that instead they have the capacity to articulate differing visions of the 'good society'. They want to, we must make them.