When we think about politics, we tend to think in metaphors. When we fail to understand a political situation, it is usually because we are using the wrong metaphor.
For the last generation, the de-politicisation of politics has meant that elections are presented essentially as football matches, or, in the case of presidential elections, something more like horse races. Of course, football teams are basically interchangeable, distinguished only by their shirts. And that’s the way that politics has been going, where tribal loyalty to a particular party, independent of what it stands for (if it stands for anything) obscures all the more fundamental questions of political programmes. So, to vary the metaphor, a presidential election is simply seen as a race between two different competitors, ignoring policy issues except inasmuch as they might tactically be used appeal to some set of voters or other.
Now this is very convenient for certain people. The draining away of all real political conflict over the last generation has enabled politics to be presented – and not entirely falsely – as just a sport. What we actually have instead of real political competition, is something closer to the Party in Orwell’s 1984, with the exception that the inevitable policy debates and power struggles are played out in semi-public, rather than being hidden behind the closed doors of a totalitarian state.
But in the end, this difference is more apparent than real. The Party is a more or less permanent alliance of political, financial and media interests, able to co-opt governments and nowadays to largely ignore public opinion. Now of course, it is important not to fall victim to paranoia: the Party is not all-powerful, it is not completely united, and its operatives, intelligent as they may be, have been acting in a pretty arrogant and counter-productive fashion just recently. But it remains the major, and in some cases the only, important political actor in most countries today.
Which brings us naturally to those who are challenging the hegemony of the Party from outside. Because the Party, as in Orwell’s novel, has no ideology as such, and exists only to be in power, it is open to challenges from the Left or the Right pretty much indifferently. This is why in certain countries (Greece, Spain…) the challenge appears to come from the Left; whilst in others (France, America…) the challenge appears to come from the Right. But in each case, the challenge is coming from outside the system, from those who are not, and do not want to be, members of the Party.
You will remember that in Orwell’s novel there was an Inner Party and an Outer Party. The Inner Party, held all the actual power. Members of the Outer Party toiled at jobs like that of Winston Smith, who these days would be a blogger at a vaguely progressive website. If the penalties for saying the wrong thing these days are not as drastic as they were in the novel, nonetheless, Outer Party members lead a pretty insecure life, dependent on favours from above. Which is why there is so much hysteria about the possibility of Donald Trump doing well in November. It is less that he might win (I have no idea) than that if he does well, the whole system is likely to come crashing down. The Inner Party, with its mansions, its stock options, its aircraft and its overseas boltholes, will probably be able to run fast enough, and early enough, not to lose very much. But the Outer Party, which is doing quite well out of the current system, has nothing similar to fall back on. It is that more than anything else that explains their current hysteria. What future is there in being a blogger defending so-called free trade agreements if all of those agreements are torn up, along with heaven knows how many other things? It is always the subaltern class that resists change most violently, after all, and the servants of the wealthy who have the most to lose.