If it’s broken it’s broken Pt 5

Ultimately, the answer must lie in the distinction between the general, and the specific and personal. Take two contrasted examples.

If you believe that the political system in your country is broken beyond repair, then there are two things you can do when elections come round One is not to vote. If a large enough group of people refuse to vote, the system itself loses credibility. In several countries now, barely 50% of the population now vote even in the most important elections. A political system where less than 40% of the people voted would simply not be viable and would have to be replaced. The other thing you can do is to vote deliberately for parties that are going to crash the system more quickly than would otherwise be the case. They may be incompetent, they may be extremist, they may be completely out of their heads, but votes for them take away votes from the established parties, and so hasten the end of a system which is anyway doomed to disappear.

On the other hand, and in spite of Brecht’s thesis, we shouldn’t neglect our human duties. Giving food to the hungry or money to beggars doesn’t really perpetuate a system. Not doing so is often just a pretext to justify selfishness. There’s a big difference, in other words, between things we can directly influence, and those where our influence is only indirect.

But there are objections to this thesis aren’t there? Won’t it just make things worse?

 

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Trump: Back to Normal at Last?

You had to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the discomfiture of the punditocracy with the results of this week’s US elections. It’s egg-on-face time in a big way, and a time moreover of reckoning for western politico-financial elites, if they were only intelligent enough to notice it, which they are not.

But enough of the laughter. Assuming Trump survives long enough to be inaugurated, we have the intriguing prospect of a return to a healthier kind of politics, and with that the replacement of the technocratic, can’t-do model of the last generation. Older readers will remember a time when governments actually did things. This was before they turned themselves into PR merchants for vested interests, dancing to the tune of whoever pays or threatens them the most.

Trump, very simply, has his own money. He does not owe anybody, and his foreign policy, for example, is not for sale. US foreign policy has for decades now operated in the very narrow area of freedom permitted by various overlapping and conflicting lobbies, but it’s hard to imagine someone as aggressive as Trump becoming just a front-man for Saudi Arabia or Israel. Rather than trying to appease his enemies, Trump, as a good American businessman, is likely to try to destroy them. The neoconservatives, the Israel lobby, the oil-rich Gulf states; all, I rather suspect, have a bucket of cold water coming, did they only realise it. They can offer him nothing that he wants, and I really wonder whether these, or any of the other lobbies, would be wise to try to threaten him. We’ll see. Actually, we might see something rather interesting.

America: How Farces End

The Hegel-Marx first-tragedy-then-farce thing has been applied often enough to the current political situation in the United States  that I don’t need to give it another outing here. Enough to say that the election campaign (if that’s really the word) that is going on at the moment has gone somewhere beyond farce, into some absurdist, surreal, tragic, hysterical state, incomprehensible to foreigners and no doubt disturbing for Americans who will have to live with the consequences more than the rest of us.

But let’s remember the underlying logic of farce. The protagonist is trying to conceal something, deceive people, and avoid discovery at all costs. As the problems pile up, the protagonist resorts to more and more desperate measures, and more and more outrageous lies, until everything finally goes bang.

US politics is currently in Act 5 of this farce. For years, the power elite has managed to divert peoples’ attention from inequalities of economic and political power, domestic rapacity and foreign wars, by promoting marginal, if hysterically-conducted, arguments about peripheral social issues. But that’s not working any more, and the power elite is desperately running around closing doors, looking under beds, hiding incriminating evidence and lying in its teeth, hoping to delay the inevitable explosion by a few more years.  So it’s officially true, for example, that opposition to neoliberal kleptocratic economics means you are both a Nazi and a Communist.

This can’t work much longer. If Clinton wins, the system will stagger on for a few more years (not necessarily four) before exploding. If Trump wins, the bang will come sooner than that. But unlike a farce, this isn’t taking place in a theatre, but in a nuclear-armed country. The final outcome could be anything but farcical.

The Outer Party gets worried ….

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.

Vote Trump: Break system

The argument of the “lesser evil” is one of the oldest and tiredest of all political ideas. As Hilaire Belloc once  said:

“Always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.”

If you look at politics as a kind of team sport, as you’re encouraged to in a Liberal state, then indeed you tend to follow this logic, and you vote in the end for  whoever seems less offensive and less dangerous. In Liberal politics, parties and candidates are essentially like varieties of breakfast cereal, and their promises are like advertising, so if in the end they don’t keep their promises, well, it’s your fault for being taken in by the advertising. Caveat emptor. On that basis there’s a certain logic in the argument that Hilary Clinton may be a lying, corrupt psychopathic warmonger, but at least she’s a known quantity, and, if she’s elected, the world will go on much as before.

The alternative way of looking at politics is that it’s not about teams and personalities, but about outcomes. The question is not “which of these candidates frightens me least?” but rather “what is it that I want?” At its simplest, this leads to the kind of tactical voting that puts the fear of God into professional politicians. But it goes rather beyond that. If you want the system to change, then the current one has to be dismantled. There’s nothing particularly frightening or unusual about that: political systems appear and disappear all the time. Liberal indirect democracy, conducted exclusively by professionals, has had a decent run, but it’s obviously time for something else now.

So in many countries at the moment, it makes sense to vote in such a way as to undermine the existing system and preferably hasten its disappearance. Which is why Americans who want change should vote for Trump. Not because he’s a nice man (I have no idea about that) but because through him the system can be broken and re-made. Otherwise, there is no hope, except clinging even tighter to Nurse.

And that just about wraps it up for the Left

If, like me, you have a good hundred  RSS feeds that you look at every day, then one of the first things you do in the morning is to sort out what it is you are not going to bother to read. So this morning I decided in advance that I was not going to bother with any of the hundreds of stories analysing the results of the latest elections in the United States. I knew vaguely that there had been elections, but there seemed to be more important things to worry about in the world. Then, just glancing at a couple of the headlines, which indicated the full extent of the disastrous defeat for President Obama and his party, I started to feel that perhaps the time had come when it could finally not be denied that the guiding principles of left-wing and progressive political movements over the last generation had finally produced the catastrophe that many of us at the time thought they would.

To some extent, the weird and dysfunctional nature of the American political system has actually concealed this fact from Americans themselves until now. But in other countries – including now even the United Kingdom – it is much more obvious. Twenty-five years ago, a generation of leaders of allegedly left-wing political parties decided to adopt cowardice as a deliberate strategy. The likes of Clinton and Blair, and the numerous leaders in other countries who followed them, decided to give up trying to advance the interests of ordinary people like you and me, because it was too difficult and exposed them to too much criticism. Instead, they would largely write off ordinary people, on the basis that we had nowhere else to go, and would have to vote for them anyway. Instead, they spent their time trying to attract the educated middle class vote through the promotion of identity politics. There was even a theory that one could somehow assemble a coalition consisting of groups defined as “women”, “the young”, “the technologically savvy” the “ethnic minorities” and the various practitioners of minority sexual preferences. Indeed, it was assumed that in this way the parties of the former Left could essentially give up having to worry about the interests of ordinary people at all.

In reality, of course, the plan has backfired disastrously. The Left has lost its base of traditional support, especially among the white working class, but has not gained support elsewhere. The extent of the disaster is already obvious in most other Western countries: in the United States it is just becoming obvious now. Even at the time, though, it was clear to many people that there were a number of weaknesses with this strategy. First, it assumed that there were a series of discrete groups that could be mobilised, and were additional to each other. In practice, this was not the case. Many of these groups overlapped, and others were in conflict with each other. Even minority ethnic groups refused to be treated as a single entity, and often had bad relations with each other. Secondly, these groups were not themselves very homogeneous, and could not be relied on all to vote the same way. For example, ethnic minorities tended to vote for left-wing parties historically, because many of them came from the poorer sections of society. But ethnic minority members who became wealthy then started to vote differently. Similarly, there is little evidence that wealthy women vote any differently from wealthy men.

Just as importantly, those who might be attracted by the identity-based social agenda that the Left has been pursuing in recent years would probably have voted for the Left anyway. If you have broadly liberal social views, then it is likely that you will not particularly object to the idea of homosexual marriage. But it is most unlikely that you will be attracted to vote for a particular political party just because of that issue. Unfortunately though, it appears that the people who really dislike the Left’s new identity-based social agenda do actually allow it to influence their voting habits. Which is to say that people are much more against all these various ideas than they are for them. In a number of countries (France for example) the immigrant community which used to vote for the Left has increasingly moved to the Right because it finds that the new social agenda of the Left offends its traditional values. Indeed, in  France, there are even attested cases of immigrants voting for the National Front, since they believe that only that party represents their own traditional social values. And finally, as if more were needed, ordinary people are now finally fed up with being taken for granted by the leaders for so long. Either they don’t vote, or they vote for the new (mainly right-wing) political forces that have sprung up in recent years.

In theory, the answer to all this is easy. The Left has to go back to representing the interests of ordinary people rather than just identity-based pressure groups. But that will not happen because fundamentally the leaders of the Left, after a generation of learned cowardice, no longer have the necessary backbone to tackle the forces that are keeping so many of our people poor and insecure. It is not too much to imagine that left-wing political parties as we have known them are now in their last few years of life. Unfortunately, what will succeed them is not some kind of reformed Left, but rather the radical Right, which has a combination of economic populism and traditional social values that probably expresses, ironically, the real views of the Left’s traditional electorate better than any political party over the last 25 years the start. What a state to be in