Every sign, other than voting and membership of political parties, points towards a different conclusion. Large numbers of people are members of NGOs and campaign groups, sign online petitions, read about politics, express definite views in opinion polls and conversations, and so on.
Apathy or ‘anti-politics’?
What looks to some – essentially those who cannot imagine anything different from existing institutions and parties – like “apathy”, is in fact often an anger with the current political system, or more mildly, just a sense of disconnect between that system and the political opinions of most of the public.
Another label put on this “apathy” is “anti-politics”. Those who supported the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), which came first in the European Parliament vote in the UK, are said to be “anti-politics”. In fact, however, they adopted classic political tactics – forming a party, campaigning for it, standing candidates, and getting some of them elected. Although it’s not the traditional Labour or Conservative parties, “anti-politics” is a strange label to apply to a rather successful entry into the political process.
Before we can come to any solutions about the current crisis of democracy, we need first to analyse what has brought it about. It’s not apathy or simply anti-politics. Some key factors seem to me to stand out very clearly.
New roads to power
The first is the rise of professional politicians. Politics is complex, difficult to do at a parliamentary or other senior level, and often requires experience in local government or in assisting existing politicians. It is difficult for someone to step suddenly from an ordinary job to a role as a full-time politician. In the UK Labour Party, for example, fewer and fewer MPs follow the old route from manual work, through trade union activism, and into Parliament. Far more are recruited from amongst political advisers and think-tank managers, with lawyers and university lecturers as the other professions most likely to be represented.
Since this is true for nearly all parties, the sense has grown that they have more in common with each other than they do with the general public they supposedly represent. This is a genuinely difficult problem. If one party attempts to break away from the pattern, for example by rotating its parliamentary representatives every two years (as the German Greens once did), it runs the risk of constantly sending inexperienced people into battle with the much more experienced, even seemingly “permanent”, representatives from the other parties.
A second factor is that life is complicated. There have been times and places in which politics has come down to a simple choice between two sides. If, for example, you look at the voting figures for the UK in the 1950s or the USA even today, almost everyone who is voting is voting for one of two main parties. Marx’s analysis of the future was one in which the polarisation between just two sides was more and more clear-cut, and the choices in that sense more and more limited.
However, not only is the set of political party choices now available very much more diverse than that, but people are also themselves increasingly diverse, in the sense of being “pick and mix” in their opinions, taking some views from the Right, some from the Left, and then adding something particular and unique of their own. It has therefore become much more problematic to simply choose a party and a candidate and let them get on with it, as you know that they will not be representing the whole spectrum of your opinions. That makes voting a much less effective thing to do, because people become almost impossible to represent.
The challenge of democratisation in a neo-liberal paradigm
There is also a third factor which, as Greens, I believe we need to take far more seriously than we often do. It is in a traditional sense far more “political” than the previous two factors, which a great many people across what remains of the political spectrum (or whatever the multi-dimensional equivalent of a spectrum is) would agree on. Basically, it’s neoliberalism.
The decline of democratic politics is in part a deliberate strategy. Believers in market forces have a long-term project of transferring power away from social institutions such as parliaments and states and over to markets, individual consumers (if they have money), and privately-owned corporations. There is no sinister secret about this: it is clearly what they have been trying to do, and with a great deal of success, over the past 40 years – rolling back a whole series of state intervention gains, ending Keynesian economic policy, cutting back the welfare state, weakening the legal rights of trade unions, and privatising publicly owned firms.
All of these moves make the forms of politics which centre on the state, parliaments, parties, and programmes for legislative reform, less and less important. There is less that elected governments can do with state power, because much of that power has been removed from them and handed over to international finance and multinational corporations. That’s a deliberate process, not some sort of inevitable accident. As a result, there is less and less credibility with the public that parties can deliver on their promises, because they are often seen to be lacking in the power they would need in order to do so.
It is therefore difficult to see how democratic politics can be renewed without a reversal of neoliberalism, and without the arguing, campaigning, rethinking, international co-operation and imagination that will be required to bring about that reversal. There was an opportunity in 2008 because of the financial crisis. But – with some exceptions – that opportunity was not properly taken up. However, because capitalism is a chaotic system, there will no doubt be further opportunities to point out its defects and argue that the common good should, at least sometimes, override the interests of the richest 1%.
Stifling the spectrum of voices and ideas
And there is more. The neoliberal project undermines alternative ways of thinking. For example, it combats the idea that members of a society can get together, listen to each other, and come to a view about what is their common good, seeing instead the only legitimate procedure as being to add up the “costs” and “benefits” perceived by separate non-communicating individuals. This anti-social ideology is taught not only as a political viewpoint but also as the supposedly “scientific” study of economics.
There are many contrasting ways of thinking – not only Keynesian, Marxist, and social-democratic, but also those derived from Aristotle, from anarchism, from ecological science and systems theory, and from the social teaching of Catholicism and other religious traditions. In various different ways, Green thinking draws on all of these sources. So this is also part of the project of renewing democracy: the renewal and updating of ways of thinking which challenge, critique, and provide alternatives to neoliberalism, at every level.