Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Fuck off moonface!" - Or Why Everyone Hates Politicians

Moon-faced PM with eye-piece

Everybody hates politicians, an aversion that only intensifies the more they declare their love for us. Unsurprising at a psychological level - no one likes a reject who persists - the public's deep dislike of politicians merits scrutiny if only because, for all our vocal and vividly expressed dislike, things at state-level carry on quite as normal. Internet anonymity has much increased the scope for consequence-free mud-slinging, of course. "Fuck off moonface," British Prime Minister David Cameron was eloquently instructed on Twitter not so long ago. He gets a lot of it, some not entirely fair. "What's the growth rate of your forehead?" one follower asked. Yet web-cover only explains the boldness of the public's scorn, not its pervasiveness. In real life, too, encounters between politicians and "normals" take place in a surreal, slow-mo atmosphere of disaster and gloom. "Bigot," was all Gordon Brown could splutter during the 2010 election as his career was ended via confrontation with a middle-aged housewife who, lest we forget, voted lifelong for Brown's own Party. That's some Iron Chancellor. The voter turnout in that election at least partially recovered from its mid-00's doldrums, scraping the mid-60s, down from around 80% in the 1950s. Yet despite the plummeting popular stature of parliamentary democracy, and to the shock and semi-amusement of Britain's elites, nothing has really happened to change all this.

How can this decline in the fortunes of the warhorses of British democracy - Tory, Labour and Liberals alike - be explained alongside the sustained stature of the State proper? I've written before about how the very obscurity of the British constitution - the legal make-up of the State - served to elevate it above the vulgarities of daily political life. This elevation was expressed most powerfully in the Twentieth Century by the symbol of the monarch, whose popularity grew even as Britain's international wealth and power decreased. This surely saved the collective neck of Westminster on multiple occasions. Yet the constitutional dissatisfactions lurking on Britain's periphery have recently become more acute, as a bungled postimperial settlement has come back to haunt our rulers. The referendum in Scotland suggests a new questioning of the balance of power in the State by British citizens.

These are, however, symptoms of political crisis not causes. What explains our abhorrence of politicians as apparently innocuous as Labour's Ed Miliband, a man who conducts his public life with all the endearing clumsiness of a panda cub? How have we summoned such a collective torrent of bile for one so cute? This revulsion has accompanied the decline of the big parties as well as partly aiding it. Attitudes have certainly changed as a result of purely economic changes (the decline of the traditional industrial sites of solidarity of both proletariat and bourgeoisie) but also because of the social and ideological elements now involved in politicisation. Bereft of former certainties, revanchism provides the basic mobilising template for voters. Hence the popularity of 'insurgent' right-wingers Ukip and the contempt reserved for the Conservatives, which in all aspects of sentiment if not of policy very closely resembles Ukip.

Repeated corruption scandals have resulted from what Peter Mair called the withdrawal not only of the public from voting but of the elites from accountability. Conservative critics like Geoffrey Wheatcroft like to blame the "professionalisation" of politics in the modern democratic age: the fact that today MPs collect a handsome pay check means they are in it for themselves - to make a living - not, as with the benevolent aristocrats of a past age, for the sake of charity and a sense of duty. Which burden of prosperity means that, perversely, politics was more meritocratic before market values were brought to bear on its unsuspecting practitioners. More likely is that the intensified "financialisation" of politics since the unleashing of speculative markets (which Wheatcroft applauds as classic Tory "good governance" and "level-headedness") has narrowed the gap between the State and moneyed interests to a crippling degree.

The parliamentary left, gathered intellectually around the New Statesman, performs little better in its diagnoses, energetic and upbeat as they are. The Labour Party's boffins - John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham, foremost among them - pop up at intervals to decry in fiercely selected buzzwords the maladies of the age - Rotherham, expenses, hoodies, rampant consumerism, the decline of core values (contorted euphemism for apparently self-elected unemployment). The idea of a crisis of Conservatism is widely-held by the paper's writers, though the depth of the Labour crisis is less ably examined. The nature of Conservatism, moreover, means that those best-placed to pick its practical failings apart - its MPs and "organic intellectuals" (Gramsci's phrase) - are inclined to anonymously denouncing Party personalities (an invisible chairman; a vacillating, conviction-free PM) as if this might draw the poison from the beast. Coded in Tory DNA, after all, is loyalty to the Party, the State and the Union rather than honest critique of the situation.

Wheatcroft identifies (in his book The Strange Death of Tory England) a Left and Right split in the Party - a division the actual Left is wont to dismiss (a Tory is a Tory, after all). In a limited sense he's right, though he doesn't capture why the two fractions of this eminently successful ruling power-bloc - responsible for constructing an almost uninterrupted chain of hegemonic social covenants since the 1830s - have only recently leapt at each other's throats. Conservatism's crisis is so pronounced precisely because of its earlier, extraordinary successes. Thatcherism's popularity and endurance are down to its fusing of two contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a conservative drive for "restoration" of moral life and, on the other, the thoroughgoing liberalisation of socio-economic life in Britain. Naturally, these two tendencies existed in a state of contradiction, eventually exploding (under Major) around the totemic issue of Europe. The hard Right - an expression of the most reactionary elements of the Tory petty bourgeoisie - wanted an island empire merciless in its exploitation of the energies of free trade. Liberal "wets," meanwhile, wanted a confident nation firmly ensconced in European affairs, as well as a less unnecessarily punitive legal order. Europe was seen, by this wing of the Tories, not only as a means to weaken the old corporatist trade union settlement but also as a way to humanise the bureaucratic legal system. Mobilising such wide and conflicting strata would do wonders for Thatcherism in the short run, but could only mean its effect on classical Toryism would eventually be more devastating.

The crisis of Labourism is both more easily explained and less interesting: following in the footsteps of Thatcherite predecessors, the Party suffered from the same internal contradictions (having already relinquished its guiding role in the declining labour movement). Exhausting itself through a long series of foreign military interventions and domestic social reforms of Thatcherite prescription, the Party could by 2010 no longer claim much distinction from the Tories. Though they had become a more "natural" party of government than ever before, the institution of government had been discredited in the process. Pre-Blair Labour may have been electorally weak, but it was at least liked. Now the old industrial base had been decimated while no new social alliances had emerged supporting a specifically Labourist ideology - at least none that couldn't easily be wooed by Tory promises of prosperity similar to Labour's own. In a sense, both Parties have suffered dramatic losses among their classical voter bases. The conventional centre-Left account of this change is to blame Thatcherism for disempowering the traditional working class. A more honest account would be that it simply won them over as a broad layer of them got richer (or at least less strapped for cash).

In terms of class, Britain's traditional rulers (which, as Gramsci noted, had always been aristocratic not bourgeois) was wiped out by a Thatcherite "passive revolution" - a delayed ascension of the British bourgeoisie to the commanding heights of the State. Meanwhile, the corporatist class consciousness of the labour movement (as writers from Eric Hobsbawm to Stuart Hall perceived) failed to construct a counter-hegemonic ideology of its own. Ultimately, the working class (always institutionally outgunned) was definitively outmanoeuvred at the level of popular symbols. The industrial working class was, by the 1980s, in no position to speak for the nation as a whole - indeed, its could hardly speak for itself.

The struggle today is between two fractions of the once-hegemonic power bloc, finding themselves in irreconcilable conflict over the future direction and form of the British State. Ed Miliband is trying to position Labour as the Party of national unity (a "One-Nation Party," in the phrase mistakenly attributed to Disraeli). Under Miliband the Party seeks a partial return to the postwar settlement, this time mediated by negotiated, deliberative restructuring in the German style (worker representation and so on). In essence, this is a rehearsal of older, consensus-seeking pro-European arguments within the parliamentary left (think the SDP of the 1980s). Opposed to this rehashing of modified, flexible corporatism is a more muscular group of free marketeers gathered around the current Chancellor, George Osbourne. Certainly more socially liberal than the Thatcherites, they are no less pro-Atlantic nor for that matter militarist in their international outlook. Their weakness is yet again that they risk alienating the Tory old guard. One of the ironies of this generation of Young Conservatives - the first to be feel relatively untroubled by the so-called "permissive" society unleashed by Labour in the 1960s - is that they may govern socially to the left of "Blue" Labour, whose intellectuals are convinced of the need for social "rebalancing" in the face of capital's onslaught. All of this lies far ahead, however. More immediate concerns have arisen in the present scrum regarding the constitution.

Though popular mobilisations in Scotland are today impacting upon the mystical heart of the British State - i.e. its constitution - they will not be decisive in determining allegiances and victories among the ruling power-bloc. Indeed, it will be capital - both big and small - which will give the signal, and clear the ground for a future, renewed hegemony of the British State. People sense this, which is why they don't vote in the first place. With politics in crisis as a result of the decay of the Thatcherite "financialisation" of politics - and with all older models discredited - no party will easily mobilise new voters come May. The power of the average elector has been narrowed and British politics is returning to its core interests: wealth. The conflicts within the power bloc appear as so many scandals to the voters. The loss of order within the ruling class filters out as a collapse of faith among the public, primarily in Westminster but also, in a creeping sense, in the arrangement of power in the British State itself (though perhaps not in the core legitimacy of the State as such). In this context one can only speculate: if what remains of the democratic legacy of the British Twentieth Century is a narrowly capitalist (as opposed to popular-corporatist) State, is it time the electors betrayed by Thatcherism's slow decay militated against its legal, statist and economic modes of organisation? To what specific end is harder to say. 

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