Thursday, April 22, 2010

Debating the 2010 Election

The recording from yesterday's debate about the election is here [mp3]. Anthony Barnett introduced the first session. Barnett, as readers may be aware, used to be an editor of the New Left Review and was a co-founder of Charter 88. He now runs the Open Democracy website. His argument for a hung parliament has, as you will hear, given way to tactical support for the Lib Dems (barring a few exceptions, such as Caroline Lucas in Brighton) in light of their surge. For Barnett, a whole series of problems of late - from the expenses scandal, to the authoritarian 'Britishness' agenda, to the war on Iraq - can be traced in part to the highly undemocratic nature of the British state, the royal prerogative, disproportionate representation, centralism and dictatorial executive powers. Thus, forcing a coalition with the Lib Dems might yield some positive reforms in this light, and represent a sort of 'graphite revolution' against the old political class. I didn't agree with Barnett's overall strategy with respect to the election, but it's interesting that all the speakers were addressing the same problem from different perspectives: the sad, empty spectacle of democracy in 21st Century Britain. Thus, while Barnett thinks that we need to fundamentally reform the constitution and the electoral system to allow us to even start a real democratic discussion, Jeremy Gilbert approached the problem in terms of the way that voters have tried since its inception to reject the neoliberal project and the system has refused to register this.

Gilbert argued that part of the problem was embedded in post-war social democracy, wherein it seemed possible to vote for a nice chap and rely on him to protect you from unemployment and the erosion of welfare protections. This is what people have continued to try to do. The neoliberals' power, he says, is that they are one of the few groups in society challenging this paternalistic view of politics, even though their programme is in fact ultimately incommensurable with any form of democracy. Thus we need, in response, a radical leftist critique of that post-war settlement, particularly of its apparent normativity - it was, as Gilbert noted, an historically aberrant state of affairs. Tim Hall, zooming out to view the problem with a wider philosophical lens, argued that we no longer experience politics as taking place at a human level, at a level we can influence and produce. The processes of politics seem law-governed, objective, given. We no longer find in political institutions places where, pace Hegel, we encounter our own reason. And we need to find a way to reassert political subjectivity, to overcome the alienation in which social institutions appear as autonomous entities that we obey rather than co-produce. Maxine Newlands, looking to non-hierarchical social movements to create new democratic spaces, pointed out that the logic of parliamentary politics, with its obsessive media-driven discipline and domesticating tendencies, was being reproduced in campaigns such as the climate camps, thus producing a crisis for the very forms of autonomous democracy that they were trying to create.

John McGovern, who came not to appraise the election but to bury it, argued that democracy is over for now, giving way to crisis management. The deficit will be paid off, whoever is elected. Not just because of the social power of the bonds dealers and finance capital, but because anyone who has a final salary pension scheme has money invested in government bonds, whether or not they realise it. Not to pay it off would produce a crisis, and a revolt of influential electors. And the deficit will be paid for by deep cuts in public services. You can't borrow enough to keep spending at current rates, and taxing the majority at the necessary levels would cripple the economy and be political suicide for any government. Soaking the rich, he maintained, would not raise enough money either, because there aren't enough of them to tax enough of their income, and they have ways of protecting their wealth from taxation. And - he went on, relentlessly, bleakly - the majority are so dazed and battered after what has been done to them for almost forty years that they do not have the means to stop this. The post-war forms of solidarity and struggle came out of two world wars, and short of a crisis of that magnitude, it is more likely that people will come out of this recession punch-drunk rather than fighting. Democracy is, in short, a long way off. I must say that while I'm not convinced that we can't feasibly soak the rich (and cut spending on useless crap like Trident and the arms industry), the overall assessment is not difficult to credit.

My contribution is about half-way in. My case, roughly: all parties profess to be 'progressive' and 'radical' in this election; that this 'progressivism' includes record public sector cuts and neoliberal orthodoxy is telling of the state of democracy in the UK; that the Tories are partially just doing what they have always done since 1832, in trying to reach out beyond their class base; but that the grammar of Tory 'progressivism' would be incomprehensible were it not for New Labour and its attempt to seize these terms for what is overall a right-wing agenda; that this vitiation of democracy can't be reduced to New Labour 'betrayals' - it arises because of the major social and economic changes wrought during the 1980s which atrophied the Left's social base, and global metamorphoses after 1989 that seemed to validate pessimism about the possibility of socialist transformation; that to overcome this problem we need to reassemble the kinds of class forces that once made DIY social democracy such a powerful force, but to get there we also need united electoral campaigns as a means to subjectivate the forces we would wish to mobilise; that because of our divisions we have been unable to do this in 2010, resulting in disaggregated campaigns and, to put it bluntly, a missed opportunity - vote TUSC, Respect, or Green.