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 The old battle of ideas has been replaced by technocracy, managerialism, the behaviourist tinkerings of “nudge” policy, and seemingly consensual but actually rather totalitarian bipartisanship.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.