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Populism • UKIP • Democratic Stress

The myth of 'anti-politics'

Anthony Painter - 10 October 2014

Mainstream parties will continue to see their foundations crumble in future years as they enter existential territory. This is far from “anti-politics”. We are living in intensely political times, where a tech-enabled civic democracy is flourishing and new political forms are driven by the emergent individualism of Europe's people, particularly its young

UKIP has won its first parliamentary constituency election. It also turned a safe Labour seat into an ultra-marginal at a moment when Labour should be gathering momentum towards victory next year. This marks a watershed moment. It will be written off as just an isolated event. If (when?) Mark Reckless fails to repeat the trick in Rochester, the mainstream media-political hoards will say the ‘bubble has burst’. Mainstream politics will get back to the old game of red leader versus blue leader, its assumptions intact. This anti-political mood is all a protest and it will evaporate just as quickly as the parties that float on its surface. We’ve seen it all before.

Everything gets tied up into this ‘anti-politics’ narrative. The rise of Scottish nationalism and other nationalisms such as the Catalan political identity, the success of UKIP and other far right populist forces, the struggles of mainstream parties across the continent, the appearance and growth of new urban political movements, is all rendered through a ‘politics’ versus ‘anti-politics’ prism. Some of the voters who backed ‘yes’ demographically look like some of the voters who are attracted to UKIP. They are therefore the same phenomenon. Having chucked everything that doesn’t fit into the traditional political structure into the ‘anti-politics’ bucket, the political and media mainstream moves back to its comfortable narratives of competing elite factions within national politics.

But wait, something doesn’t fit. The SNP has trebled its membership. UKIP membership is up by a third. The Greens have at least doubled theirs. Millions take to the streets in Barcelona and Hong Kong. Over eighty percent of Scots voted in the independence referendum. For the first time perhaps ever, the constitution is part of mainstream political discussion in the UK. English identity is starting to find its voice. When looked at through the smoke of the mainstream, all this somehow appears to be ‘anti-politics’. When looked at in a more clear-eyed fashion, it is precisely the opposite. We are living in intensely political times. And it is a moment in which mainstream politics will be under intense scrutiny and even threat. Embedded elites do not like that as a notion; dismissal is the simplest response.

Why is this happening now? A number of simultaneous trends are converging. The most important driver is a change in values. People are harnessing their individuality in powerful new ways. This makes cultural identity and association with particular political institutions more contingent. We no longer inherit our sense of who we are from our parents or our community to the same extent. We are subject to a far greater set of experiences and ways of life. For some, this is disconcerting and manifests itself as an antagonism to change and the ‘other’ in politics. For others, driven just as strongly by new forms of identity, it can become a powerful expression of a resurgent pride. The civic nationalist strand in Scottish nationalism takes this form. It remains to be seen what course an emergent English identity will take. The cold shoulder shoved in its direction by progressive politics does not bode well. Meanwhile, libertarians, greens, feminists, gay rights activists, global justice campaigners, and civic activists emerge in combination and isolation.

There is a corollary here with what is happening in the economy and civil society. The growth of self-employment (much of it driven by lifestyle choice as RSA research by Ben Dellot has shown) and the expansion of the social enterprise and co-operative economy (albeit following a trying year) are similar trends. In the US, a new flourishing social and democratic economy is emerging in metropolitan areas following the crash. A new networked unionism is emerging. A new expressive individuality is spreading through politics, society and the economy. It is not simply about youthful go-getting energy. Increasingly, we see the emergence of the retired civic activist. Baby boomer retirees will have as great an impact on our society as the wired youth, if not greater.

Technology is no longer neutral in politics. It is more than a catalyst of change; it is a change instigator. It is a tool, but it is not a neutral one. It is now pervasive – as likely to be deployed by the civic retired activist as the pirate libertarian. Oscar Wilde bemoaned the number of evenings that socialism occupied. Technology eliminates that. We are becoming individual but, facilitated by technology, we are becoming hyper-social too. That makes new political forms possible. In the quoted membership numbers above, I played the traditional political game to a certain extent. What matters now is mass engagement through networked technology. 38 degrees is but one form of this. Over time, a tech-enabled civic democracy will flourish. This enables new political forms to flourish. The problem is where this leaves the current, lumbering institutionalised party politics.

A feature of democracy in the age of universal suffrage is the endurance of mainstream political parties. The parties that emerged in the aftermath of the creation of mass democracy are by and large with us still. The Labour party came perilously close to extinction in the early 1980s but common sense was enough to save it. The reason is quite simple. The modern state is designed around competing elites who are insiders in the system. The electoral system maintains this duopoly. Around this elite contest, a media is constructed and organised, party organisations exist to manufacture majorities to serve it. This system is replicated over time. The state, the party system, the media are all tied together in an enduring status quo. Francis Fukuyama explores how political elites seek to capture the democratic state for their own ends repeatedly. He sees this as an attempt at what Max Weber describes as patrimony. These self-replicating elites of right and left tied to media and financial interests (including large-scale trade unions) lies at the heart of what Fukuyama sees as political decay.

When democracy is slow, this system remains unchallenged. However, should politics accelerate then it is under threat. The ability of political elites to serve a plural electorate is weak in such a system. The new individuality is the critical factor in a more pluralistic politics. The Conservative party is starting to fracture around the politics of national identity, hence defections with more to come if there’s an EU referendum. Labour maintains a semblance of solidarity available to it through discontent with the Conservatives, but it has weak solidarity. As a new Fabian pamphlet from Marcus Roberts shows, that means that its social base starts to crack. It will hold it together for a while but, before long, it will begin to crack, just as the Conservatives’ has. The stark reality of modern democratic life in western societies is that we are going to see some surprising extinctions. We are in existential territory.

All of this is exacerbated by structural economic change. The category error of the left is to focus solely on economic change and ignore identity, values and technological change. The old Marxist mistake of seeing the economic as fundamental and everything else as ephemeral is still embedded even within the mainstream left. The error of the right is to focus on issues of identity at the expense of the economic. Grotesque inequality and a diminishing opportunity to secure a middle class life as used to be possible even with working class jobs is now an established feature. This is not simply a distributional question as traditional social democracy would have us believe. It is a question of empowerment. The ability to direct your energy in a particular way and secure just reward is at the very heart of social justice. When people do not feel this sense of agency and security, they can turn on caricatured others or just collapse in a heap of angry despair.

But isn’t greater social justice what the centre-left is about? In terms of expressed values for sure. The simple fact, however, is that people just don’t see the left living out its values. It sees a set of elites that look and sound remarkably similar to right wing elites even if the message is different. One of the features of post-crash politics is the degree to which a new far left has not emerged (with some exceptions in the Netherlands, Spain, France and Greece). The reason for this is that while the far right has spoken in a common tongue, the far left speaks like a dusted down copy of Das Capital. This is not an age of ideology. It is an age of plural and connected politics. The code matters. The mainstream left and the far left alike seem too often to speak in an alien tongue.

Last year, the Policy Network publication which I authored, Democratic Stress, called for new forms of ‘contact democracy’ and a political project focused on long-term institution building. It is new political forces that are pursuing the contact democracy course. Labour’s embrace of institution building – political, civic and economic – is fairly half-hearted. The Conservatives have chosen an establishment populism as their political course. Whatever the outcome of next year’s election, both parties will continue to see their foundations crumble in future years unless there is significant change. The electoral system may well throw up a majority in one direction or another, but it is a majority that increasingly lacks legitimacy in fractured times. Gradually, our majoritarian system will create enclaves of regionalised support. Nothing could be further from one nation.

So we are in flux. By ‘we’ I mean western democracies and even beyond. To see the current political situation as ‘anti-politics’ is a spectacular error. Instead, a new individuality, new forms of social interaction creating new expressions of identity, technology as a driver not simply a catalyst, the rise of a patrimonial politics, and the fracturing of economic security and opportunity, coalesce into a formidable threat to the political mainstream.

There isn’t a majoritarian solution to this threat. There is only a pluralistic response. This means a very different type of state and very different political forces that flow through it. Douglas Carswell is one of the people who realises this, so it is a pity that he has hooked himself to a largely reactionary force. The bigger challenge for the centre-left is whether the Labour party can change to survive as a viable force for social justice in this new era. It is a question that many mainstream parties will face in the coming years. Currently, there aren’t too many convincing answers to the challenges of politics in flux; politics in anxious times indeed.

Anthony Painter is author of Left without a future? Social justice in anxious times, published by Policy Network/I.B.Tauris. He will speak on the themes of this essay on 9 Dec in London.

This article is a contribution to Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust's project on 'Understanding the Populist Signal.'
This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Anthony Painter , anti-politics , populism , mainstream , politics , technology , civic democracy , individualism , UKIP , Clacton , Douglas Carswell , Mark Reckless , Scotland , nationalism , Catalonia , party membership , Englishness , identity , economics , values , progressive politics , civil society , social enterprise , co-operative economy , networked unionism , change , Francis Fukuyama , status quo , Marcus Roberts , Revolt on the Left , EU , Labour , social justice , Democratic Stress


13 October 2014 11:17

The only problem with the English identity finding its voice is that it is still cowardly hiding within the UK and the worst thing to come from this is supression of marginal voices - scots, welsh, irish, as well as foreign migrants. The english voice needs to have its own channel not monopolising the airwaves.

Andrew Percy
10 October 2014 14:46

The Centre-left must add economic coherence to the framework of devolution, and provide a peaceful pass to transition to such a state. This will not be a journey for the faint of heart. www.uklife.org/both

james dee
10 October 2014 13:32

There is an annual award for the years outstanding Member of Parliament and/or Statesman who has :- 1. Voluntarily given up power at the end of his term or as a result of the ballot box 2. Not enriched himself or his family/relatives through corruption 3. Encouraged democratic processes and the Rule of Law. I forget what the award is called and I think the last winner goes back such a long time well before I was born therefore for the past 5 decades they have not been able to identify any worthy nominees, which says it all really………………

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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