They've sold us down the river. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

"Left" is a tainted word in our broken establishment: do we need a new way to define ourselves?

Post-politics: what has killed our democracy, and can we bring it back to life?

What do Nick Clegg, Douglas Carswell and Kanye West have in common? They have all declared that democracy as we know it is dead.

"The way in which politics works is bust," says Clegg.

Despite his invigorating defection to Ukip, Carswell writes in the Telegraph: "This anti-politics is not just a phase . . . Deferential democracy is dead".

"Politics is dead. It’s over with," opined West in a recent interview.

The sight of politicians staggering, zombie-like, towards the hollow pageant of a general election is, therefore, surreal. It was in order to explore this incongruity that I organised a major, two-day conference on "post-politics" in the run-up to the election: to ask what exactly has killed our politics, whether there is any prospect of reviving or reinventing it, and why we have arrived at this turning point now. 

The participants – who were drawn from academia, think tanks and journalism, and included Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, the writer Owen Hatherley, and Zoe Williams and John Crace from the Guardian – demonstrated just how profound a transformation this is.

It’s not just that panellists on Question Time earn their applause by referring to cretins in Westminster squandering taxpayers’ cash. Our entire political lexicon has become corrupted and obsolete. Left and right are, we are told, over. Politicians use the word "ideology" only as an insult: it’s either cunning (right-wing) or naïvely utopian (left-wing) motivation. The old battle of ideas has been replaced by technocracy, managerialism, the behaviourist tinkerings of "nudge" policy, and seemingly consensual but actually rather totalitarian bipartisanship.

The public’s visceral hatred of politicians has become so familiar that it’s easy to gloss over the reasons for it. In part it’s the product of legitimate criticisms: that whoever you vote for, big business gets in, and that all parties are comprised of the same cohort of upper middle class career politicians who did PPE at Oxford.

But populist antibodies have also been activated by thornier issues of authority and condescension. The opposition between left and right has given way to the opposition between people and the political "elite". People do not want to be told what to do any more by politicians who "know best". And this plays out badly for the left, who traditionally are all about do-gooding idealism and the provision of public services. The right, meanwhile, can champion individual autonomy.

Several participants wondered if the dissolution of traditional politics is inevitable: part of a broader epochal shift in which digital culture is breaking down all boundaries and categories; or whether it’s the result of a specific neoliberal strategy designed to foreclose the possibility of a left alternative.

If it’s the latter, then the left should not give up on parliamentary democracy and confine their efforts to devising novel forms of grassroots, participatory localism. Syriza’s victory serves as a timely reminder that mainstream politics is still winnable, and still capable of producing meaningful change. If we had Syriza in the UK, many participants wondered, would we need to throw out the baby of representative democracy with the bathwater of neoliberalism?

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who along with her late husband Ernesto Laclau developed many of the ideas that have inspired both Syriza and Podemos, set out a convincing pathway for the left. It is time, she said, to stop romanticising consensus and grassroots horizontalism. Democracy is about the battle of ideas played out at the level of the state. At the same time, vertical or top-down politics needs to engage with horizontal social movements if either is to have real and enduring influence.

So are we stuck with post-politics, or are new forms of politics emerging? As the geographer Erik Swyngedouw pointed out, it’s still too early to tell. The Arab Spring and Occupy turned out to be ephemeral. But as the philosopher Nina Power suggested in a talk entitled "The Post-Political = the Most Political", the anti-Westminster sentiment that is springing up everywhere is in its own way highly political – this is true of phenomena as diverse as Ukip, the Scottish Yes campaign and Russell Brand’s no-vote revolution.

The right is relatively comfortable in a post-ideological era: they can promote market capitalism as naturalised common sense. The more difficult challenge for the left is to articulate a common vision to rally around that doesn’t involve the tainted word "left". As the conference illustrated, the political crossroads at which we find ourselves at least provides a moment in which to try and think one up.

Eliane Glaser is senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.

The conference "Postpolitics and Neoliberalism" took place on 20 and 21 March 2015 and is available to listen to via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company: the first day, hosted by CCCU, is here; the second day, hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is here.

Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496