The Trouble With Politics
A lot of people, particularly people my age, are maligned for being “apathetic” about politics. This is usually quite unfair: alienation from party politics and apathy regarding key issues of our time are not one and the same. Instead, I will argue that many young people are alienated by conventional politics precisely because they are very much engaged in the key issues of our time, issues which traditional political parties are spectacularly failing to address.
Why the spectacular failure? I identify three key drawbacks of our current political system:
1 – Inertia: political institutions are configured to oppose structural changes. A first past the post system, moreover one with opportunities to change “representatives” only every 4-5 years, entrenches a two party system. Traditional party structures are maintained in which a “party line” is taken. This essential means a pro-corporate line, maintaining the existing distribution of power.
2 – Public marginalisation: it is practically a cliche that real political power lies beyond our “representatives”, with decisions emerging out of power plays between key government, corporate and financial institutions – where the latter two increasingly have the upper hand. The public is essentially reduced to the role of selecting between two packages of competing proposals forged by corporate and financial forces (though they may have some degree of influence over the secondary issues that elites consider largely irrelevant). Such small public interruptions to technocratic rule are tolerated only once every few years.
3 – Short-termism: for a politician to challenge corporate and financial interests in substantive ways entails risks and sacrifices. The sacrifices are manifest immediately as personal attacks and social upheavals, while the rewards may not manifest within the time frame of re-election. Anything that cannot be accomplished within the time frame of re-election will likely not be attempted.
Or to shorten it: 2 says that “representatives” don’t represent you but someone or something else, 1 says there is little you can do about this at the ballot box and 3 says there is little your “representatives” will be inclined to do about it under their own steam. It’s not that politicians are bad people. The system is bad. It is set up to fail, in potentially catastrophic ways.
To illustrate this, let’s take an example of a major contemporary issue: climate change. What is needed to mediate climate change? We are currently in ecological overshoot, taking resources from ecosystems at a faster rate than they are able to regenerate – currently at about 1.5 times the rate and this is projected to increase to 2 times by 2030.
So an immediate and vital objective would be to reduce the throughput of resources to the economy, to cease exterminating many of the Earth’s key climate regulation systems. This translates into a reduction of GDP (Yes, really! Technology is not a panacea – please consider reading the excellent book Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update if you need convincing of this important point).
Such a thing simply cannot be contemplated under our current political systems. As an exercise, pay attention during the next news report on economics to the number of times “growth” is mentioned as a desirable objective. In fact it is seen as the summum bonum of modern economies. Why this should be is explained by Ellen Brown in her article on The Global Debt Crisis:
“Contrary to popular belief, most of our money today is not created by governments. It is created by private banks as loans. The private system of money creation has grown so powerful over the centuries that it has come to dominate governments globally. But the system contains the seeds of its own destruction. The source of its power is also a fatal design flaw.
The flaw is that banks advance “bank credit” that must be paid back with interest, while having no obligation to spend the interest they collect so that borrowers can earn it again and again, as they must in order to retire the debt. Instead, this money is invested in various casinos beyond the borrowers’ reach. This leads to a continual systemic need for more new bank credit money, more debt with more interest attached, to prevent widespread defaults and deflationary collapse.”
Because of 1-3, “our” financial system is practically immune to challenge under the current political system, as I now show.
As Ellen Brown notes above, reducing GDP without key structural changes in our financial systems will provoke a depression. This is because the volume of money readily available to pay interest on debts will contract, while the debts themselves remain fixed – resulting in mass defaults and causing a depression.
Reducing GDP without provoking recession necessitates the simultaneous reduction of these private and government debts. Reducing debts necessitates preventing private banks from continuing to issue the national money supply as interest bearing debt. This requires a government with the cojones to challenge some powerful financial interests currently setting the agenda – see 2 – unlikely to happen because of 3. To “throw the rascals out” via the ballot box is another possibility, but thanks to 1 it will take years or even decades for alternatively structured parties to get withing striking distance of power. We do not have decades to wait before we begin addressing climate change.
The Morton’s fork currently being presented to the electorate by the two-party system is as follows. Either
A – Austerity – or “drinking poison in order survive”. Involves needlessly dismantling much of the public sector simply because a set of abstract rules of book-keeping invented by bankers seems to demand it. The rules lack any democratic consensus or even public awareness and comprehension. And it won’t work anyway. Or…
B – Growth – Even more growth, even more ecological overshoot. No, it is not realistic to expect GDP growth to “decouple” from throughput of physical resources, nor does the empirical evidence suggest this is happening or is going to happen. “Growth, Jobs, Justice” may look good for the next few years of political tenure if the labour party is re-elected. In the long run of the next few decades it is a suicide pact for most of the species. But as I said in 3, what happens in the next few decades is totally irrelevant to party politics.
More and more people are becoming aware in one way or another of these critical systemic flaws inherent to contemporary party politics. More and more they are trying to press for changes working outside the existing political framework. The Occupy movement’s reluctance to issue a fixed set of political demands, much maligned in the corporate media, is indicative of justified activist aversion to a party political framework.
There are already attempts to co-opt the movement, to bring it within the remit of party politics. Co-option is an age-old strategy to neuter activist movements, to strangle their dynamism at birth. Anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker put it very succinctly when describing the co-option of socialist radicals under parliamentarism:
“Those very parties which had once set out to conquer political power under the flag of Socialism saw themselves compelled by the iron logic of conditions to sacrifice their Socialist convictions bit by bit to the national policies of the state. They became, without the majority of their adherents ever becoming aware of it, political lightning rods for the security of the capitalist social order. The political power, which they had wanted to conquer had gradually conquered their Socialism until there was scarcely anything left of it.”
Perhaps as good a description of the history of the UK Labour Party as you will ever read – though it was written in 1938 as a general description of political co-option. Some things never change. And Leo Tolstoy makes a similar argument in his essay On Anarchy:
“Governments have already learnt how far they may allow the participation of men wishing to reform them. They admit only that which does not infringe, which is non-essential; and they are very sensitive concerning things harmful to them — sensitive because the matter concerns their own existence. They admit men who do not share their views, and who desire reform, not only in order to satisfy the demands of these men, but also in their own interest, in that of the Government. These men are dangerous to the Governments if they remain outside them and revolt against them — opposing to the Governments the only effective instrument the Governments possess — public opinion; they must therefore render these men harmless, attracting them by means of concessions, in order to render them innocuous (like cultivated microbes), and then make them serve the aims of the Governments, i.e., oppress and exploit the masses.”
Such efforts at co-option should be resisted – I believe the current political institutions are so systemically flawed, so incapable of addressing the challenges facing them, that new systems of political organisation need to develop independently. They are needed and hopefully they can arrive in time.
Lest I be accused of criticising existing systems but providing no alternatives, let me conclude with some suggestions about how to fix 1-3 in the context of a possible new political process emerging from the Occupy movement:
1 – Representatives are recall-able at any time. They are chosen to institute a specific agenda emerging democratically during meetings of local councils. Representatives failing to implement said agenda are replaced by someone else.
2 – The above point ensures the people themselves make the key decisions in a locally responsive way. They determine the political agenda, in contrast to our current sham democracy in which they very occasionally are allowed the choice between packages of competing agendas largely determined by elite corporate and financial players. Business and finance instead assumes its proper role, that of responding organically to community needs.
3 – Thanks again to 1, political career-ism is now irrelevant. The job of a politician is not to be re-elected – it is to implement a transparant and specific program decided upon by the public (i.e. not a hopelessly vague manifesto pledge to say “cut red tape” or build a “big society” – promises which, frankly speaking, could mean anything). If they cannot do this they are out of a job.