A recent study shows that citizens in the Western democracies are dissatisfied with the way they are governed. That need not mean that people are turning against democracy, although in some cases that may be true. What is happening is a recognition that the structures of governance are not in accord with general social feeling. Government feels remote, a self-referencing system in which politicians, administrators and media operate in networks of close association.
Politician X is interviewed by TV reporter Y. They knew each other at university. They live close by. Whatever their origins, they are distant from the rest of us now.
There may be one or two uncomfortable truths in that perception. But whether or not it is fair, it is how people feel. That is an undeniable reality easily perceived. What is not easy is knowing how to reconnect a fractious political culture that extends throughout the West.
That, of course, was not how it was meant to be. The quasi–communist bureaucracies were defeated, as were the vestiges of fascism. Religious extremism posed a threat, but it could be contained. The liberal West was the future of humankind for as far as anyone could imagine. It was all so simple.
Unfortunately the great questions of history are never simple. Climate change and the arsenals of mass destruction are not trivia that will disappear in time. On a more mundane level there is the serious failure to provide employment commensurate with the knowledge and skills of the informed, educated and trained. Whether it is a street protest in Berlin or a cafÃ©/bar in Copenhagen or a bookshop in Edinburgh I see the same young faces with energy and enthusiasm seeking useful and satisfying ways of fulfilment..
What they do not want is to climb the ladder that leads nowhere. Absorption into vast corporate structures is a Twentieth Century solution to a Twenty-first Century problem. This absorption is not taking place as universally as social orthodoxy demands. The problem has yet to be resolved.
This question and others too often are ignored in favour of procedural questions of governance.
‘Who will win the next election?’ is frequently asked in the media as if winning an election were an end in itself. Of course to implement policy one must be in a governing position, but seeking power for its own sake is the great temptation that is the flaw in the nature of liberal democracy.
The question is not who is to win the next election. The question is how to argue for a greater democracy than the existing system that is perceived to be failing. There is evident need for debate well beyond the confines of parliament and media. The aim must be for a new social contract. The terms cannot be determined in advance. The nature of the debate has to be open. People know that their voices are not heard.
In some respects the cry is age-old. ‘The powers that be’ never seem to be listening. They want your votes, not your thoughts. They demand your admiration, not your contribution. It is a guarantor of sycophancy and servility.
The young graduate is encouraged to read and question, only to discover acceptance and obedience are the paths to worldly success. In such a climate something will give. Already we see here and abroad electorates desperately searching for simple solutions to complex problems. The emotional sweep proves stronger than the considered response.
People vote for values rather policies. They vote for the party they feel to be on their side. This, of course, may be an illusion. We place our trust in a politics that will not, perhaps cannot, fulfil all that we hope for.
Ideals have to be credible. The translation into reality is the great task of politics.
One obstacle is the prevalence of cynicism. The worldly-wise sneer may be masked by a polite, bland manner, but it is poisonous to the enlargement of social hope. The cynicism may come in the betrayal of principle for the sake of expediency. This is justified by a disingenuous pragmatism. Lack of principle is another reason why people are dismayed by contemporary politics.
The problem is the enveloping and inescapable nature of political life now. Total warfare is the extreme instance, but the situation is general. Ubiquitous media providing a relentless stream of news encompasses daily life in an unprecedented way. The effects have yet to be fully recognized and assessed. Anthony Giddens noted how this totality impels some towards corporate structures because a personal, apolitical life seems impossible in the modern city. The implication is that personal identity has to be filtered through an agreed social narrative. The citizen is not a free individual but a component part of the jigsaw. The watchword is know your place.
Citizens are aware, if only vaguely, of this. They sense a shadow over everything. The situation has not been fully identified, and therefore it is not reasonably and creatively articulated. The howl of protest is the ready response.
A considered response has to be carefully debated. Liberal journalists can offer evidence-based and well-constructed arguments against slapdash reactionary governments. But their solution is a retreat to the centre wherever that may be.
More of the same will not do. An objective analysis may not be necessarily a compromise. Objectively it may be necessary to adopt a specific direction that examines root causes and fundamental transformations. The scales of justice must be weighed according to the truth of the matter.
And the truth is that parliament alone cannot deliver. It cannot do so because the whole political structure favours continuity. Added to which there is a media bias not only against change but against actuality. Errors of judgement are characteristic of the right-wing tabloids. Errors of fact too often characterise the more serious element in mainstream journalism. That is because fact and comment are not distinct categories of thought. They interact and exchange. If you begin with the premise that society need not change at its core everything you say politically will reflect that article of faith.
The question is not who wins the next election, but who provides the moral governance that can prepare the way to fulfil the democratic promise of our times. The priority is that the media need a complete overhaul. The relentless propaganda issuing from mass circulation rags cannot be defended as a free press. The conundrum is that in such a climate we cannot elect a government able to deal with the problem. Some scarcely recognizes the problem. My heart sank when Blair in opposition went to see Murdoch. I knew then all was lost.
There were those in the Labour movement who could have spoken out. But, no, electoral victory was everything. In the end electoral victory produced not much beyond a Bonapartist moral debacle.
The only rational solution will be for local groups to provide alternative media that are genuinely informative and genuinely free. Yes, that does mean giving space to those who argue for tradition and stability. They may act as a corrective force to the wilder ideas that we may have. But that is very different from the vile distortions that are routine in the media, including the more serious and liberal media.
The kind of alternative action outlined is not new. There is a wealth of precedent. We need to act on that precedent not only in media but in co-operative services – banking and legal advice, for example. This should not be seen as a retreat into a localised identity, but a network of initiatives that collectively offer a challenge to the existing structures of society. To go beyond protest into active social reconstruction is to effect a process that cannot be ignored and cannot be destroyed.
Liberal pieties will not meet the required challenges. The mainstream of democracy has an increasingly hollow look. Conventional responses are exhausted. Compromise and collaboration have deprived the rhetoric of meaning. Electoral politics no longer relate to actual needs and feeling. This is evidenced in the bizarre spectacle of grassroots disenchantment translating into votes for selfish patricians.
The narrative of socialism’s ‘failure’ produces confusion and desperation. There is a socially responsible duty to reconnect at ground level. The relentless negativity can be countermanded by positive action at constituency level in order to persuade the public in credible, constructive ways. Democracy begins at ground level. The occasional vote for the Westminster parliament is little use against the juggernauts of corporate commerce, finance, industry and media. How much more effective is it to deal with people you know, people who listen, people who are accountable and responsible, socially aware, generous and co-operative. Unless of course you think that watching Antiques Roadshow with your dine in for £10 meal deal is the best that life has to offer.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall