Post-politics and the future of the left

Published Fri 3 Jul 2015
Eliane Glaser lays out six big questions for the left – social democrats, radicals and the new ‘soft’ left alike. After four decades of neoliberal domination, she says, now is not the time to be shy of debate.
Juncture 22.1: Summer 2015

Earlier this year, I organised a two-day conference on ‘Post-politics and Neoliberalism’ at Birkbeck and Canterbury Christ Church universities. Our purpose was to understand the strange death of politics in this country and beyond. Mainstream political leaders are robotic and impotent; Westminster debates are stale and irrelevant. The public has tuned out and turned away, and in response, politicians perform increasingly desperate acts of self-abasement. Iconoclastic mavericks are on the rise, and everywhere there are calls to shrink the state. But while the symptoms of political decay are now clear for all to see, the causes are imperfectly understood. What has triggered public antibodies to react against traditional politics at the start of the 21st century?

It is also unclear how and why the post-political or anti-political turn is working out very differently for the left and right of the political spectrum. As the 2015 election illustrated, neoliberalism is very much alive and kicking. Despite the exciting gains made by social movements in recent years, the government still has formidable influence over the direction the country is taking. The failure of the left, for the most part, to foresee how the election would play out means it has considerable catching up to do. It has neither a definitive diagnosis nor a clear sense of where to go next. This is understandable: the situation we find ourselves in is largely unprecedented, and this is a moment of rapid political, cultural and technological change. So I set out in this article to explore some of the ambiguities surrounding our political predicament, and some of the tensions inherent in the left’s response.

The radical or soft left discussed here is comprised of many elements, groups and actions: conferences and events organised by the People’s Assembly, Compass and Soundings; articles on openDemocracy, the Guardian and the New Left Project; Novara’s podcasts; conversations between campaigners, activists and commentators via the New Economy Organisers Network (Neon), a vital and rare project that links up disparate left campaigns. I consider this intellectual and political community my own. Yet there are debates about purpose and strategy within this community that progressives need to tackle head on.

The left, and political culture more broadly, is at a juncture. The old structures are breaking down. But while the right is capitalising on the turn against politics, the left’s embrace of post-politics is deeply problematic. It is splitting into two. On one side there are residual social democrats, clinging to an atrophying state and a hollowed-out political system. On the other are iconoclastic neo-anarchists, rejecting out-of-hand the existing institutional and public fabric of this country. There is a great deal of energy on this neo-anarchistic side, and while it is exhilarating, its post-ideological, inchoate and fragmented form is at this moment a fundamental weakness. As the UK begins five more years of reinvigorated right-wing government – and, further afield, with Syriza constrained by the eurozone’s straitjacket and Podemos facing uncertainty in Spain’s forthcoming elections – it’s clear that although the re-emergence of a new political left since 2008 is a positive sign, it requires focussed thinking to make headway. In this article, I set out six key areas for further debate.

1. Ideology is not dead, But we need a new political vocabulary

There is a contradiction in the political expression of many campaigners and activists. On one hand, there’s an insistence that right and left are defunct categories; that we need to focus on ‘doing’ and ‘being the change we want to see’. But on the other, there’s a frequently articulated need for common purpose, for a set of values to articulate and rally around.

These discussions proliferate without an acknowledgment that, back in the olden days of the 20th century, there was a word for this: ideology. Politicians used to set out their stall explicitly, but ideology has now become an insult within political discourse. It is only ‘the opposition’ who are motivated by ideology; politicians insist that they themselves are simply doing ‘what works’. The problem with this is that the public – and indeed campaigners on the left – regard ideology as what is ‘rotten’ about politics, when in fact it is the disavowal of ideology that is the reason for the malaise. Ideology is figured as ‘sinister’ tendentiousness, as the harbouring of a vested interest, whereas technocratic pragmatism is regarded approvingly as ‘getting the job done’ by reference to ‘the evidence’. While the public long for a politician who would set out a passionate vision of what they really want to do, ideological commitment is simultaneously denigrated as ‘tribal’ and ‘dogmatic’.

The reality is that ideology has not gone away: it is instead now operating under the surface of politics as a series of disguised and euphemistic motivations. An example of this is seen whenever David Cameron and George Osborne don hard-hats and high-vis jackets while simultaneously, behind the scenes, busily eroding workers’ rights. ‘We are not doing this because of ideology, we are doing this because we have to’ is, therefore, the most ideological statement of all, and it is used overwhelmingly to legitimise neoliberalism, to naturalise it as hegemonic ‘common sense’. As the political theorist Kate Dommett has noted, while the right has long disavowed overt ideology, those on the left continued to vocalise their socialist principles right up until the arrival of Tony Blair and his New Labour triangulations.

Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 ‘End of History’ article – announcing the end of ideological contestation – is therefore correct at the level of explicit articulation. But it suggests a conundrum that remains unsolved: given that the death of ideology has coincided with the triumph of neoliberalism, are these developments connected? It was this question that our conference on post-politics attempted to answer.

The breaking down of political categories bears an uncanny resemblance to postmodernism more generally, to the mingling of all artistic and musical movements and periods. Likewise, the internet – either the symptom or the cause of this mash-up culture – is dissolving all meaningful boundaries. Is the fragmentation of traditional politics inevitable, therefore, as part of a broader epochal shift, or is it the result of a specific neoliberal strategy designed to foreclose the possibility of a left challenge or alternative?

If, as seems pretty likely, we are at some kind of grand Hegelian trans­formation point, then we all – right and left alike – need to go back to the drawing board and to reinvent politics, and political language, from scratch. But if this is a consequence of the fact that neoliberalism just happens to have dominated politics over the last four decades, then this has quite specific implications for the left.

The left’s rejection of ideology is, in this light, deeply problematic, as it accepts an attack on ideology that is implicitly an attack on the left. Everyone declares left and right to be ‘over’, but the left is a lot more over than the right. The right is comfortable in a post-ideological era: they have evolved into a kind of anti-establishment establishment, talking local and acting central. But the left has taken the fragmentation imperative at face value, splintering off into atomised single-issue campaigns. The grassroots revolution is, in this sense, an unwitting symptom of neoliberal hegemony. The right emphasises concrete practicality while keeping its eye on the ideological prize; the left has given up on grand narratives, yet needs one all the same.

Without acknowledging that they badly miss ideology, many left commentators are attempting to fill this ideology-shaped hole – but their substitutes are poor. There is much talk of ‘framing’ and ‘narratives’, but these strategies are derived from a cognitive-essentialist political science tradition, and are beset by confusion as to whether they are about branding or deep principles. The appeal to ‘moral’ values neglects the political dimension: it fails to appreciate the clash of competing views, and that the right has principles too. The left must design the architectural blueprint of a better society. But before it can do so, it must recognise our postmodern, prelinguistic predicament. Claims on the left of the obsolescence of right and left, of banners and manifestos, are counterproductive. Those who oppose neoliberalism do need a vision – but since the word ‘left’ is tainted, new words are needed to describe it.

2. Democracy is not dead, It’s just captured

If the UK had its own Syriza, would we still need to reinvent democracy? Four decades of right-wing domination of the parliamentary system has resulted in its takeover by corporate and financial interests. But does that mean we need to throw out the baby of representative democracy with the bathwater of neoliberalism? It’s true that there are structural problems with the electoral system that militate against the success of left parties. But to simply state that ‘representative democracy is dead’ is untrue, unrealistic and undesirable; and it glosses over the variety and contradictory nature of views on democracy within the left.

The left is currently deeply ambivalent about whether change occurs via political parties, or via autonomous, emergent action: ‘Change is only ever possible when the Labour party acts’ on the one hand, or, on the other, pace Ralph Miliband, ‘the Labour party is structurally and institutionally incapable of producing change’. The ‘Green surge’ resides on the boundary between these two positions. It would be constructive if these different views were aired and debated in the open, but this is hard amid the rousing calls to ‘rip it up and start again’.

Representative democracy is often characterised as a system in which people vote every five years and then go back to sleep. But, as Ferdinand Mount has noted, the state was once much more decentralised and participatory than it is now, with strong local government and a network of community organisations that has been all but stripped away. The UK’s democratic system is often depicted as a dinosaur that hasn’t changed for decades. It’s true that electoral reform is long overdue (and unlikely). But the neoliberal distortion of democracy is recent. We should ask what is inherently wrong with the principle of representation before dismissing an institution that is bad at representing people in practice, for reasons that are partly structural, partly historical, and partly political.

The excitement on the radical and soft left about new participatory, deliberative models of democracy is a positive force, but it can make it difficult to have a careful debate about the implications. Division of labour is efficient, and it ensures that not everyone has to be involved in every decision. There are lots of people with neither the time nor the inclination to go to meetings about the provision of energy in their community or the logistics of refuse collection. Representative democracy contains an implicit acknowledgment that not everyone can have a say in every decision, and that politics is a choice between competing views and interests.

As Chantal Mouffe pointed out at our post-politics conference, democracy is not just about participation, it is also about the agonistic opposition of viewpoints. Our democracy has failed not only because it does not represent ordinary people, but also because it does not represent left-wing people. Some commentators, such as the brilliant theorist Jeremy Gilbert, have argued that our choice is between democracy and neoliberalism; and while I agree with most things Jeremy says, this downplays the fact that neoliberalism is one option in a properly democratic system. It’s true that neoliberalism has totalitarian and antidemocratic tendencies. But democracy is not inherently left-wing. If we argue simply for a new decision-making system – Democracy 2.0, Democracy OS – we are not making the essential case for a progressive set of ideals, a particular vision of what we think a better society would look like. We need purpose as well as process.

What is required is a concerted reckoning of old and new, useful and redundant, workable and regressive; to take a holistic look at a system that is breaking down and splitting in two. As Paul Hackett and David Clark put it recently in the New Statesman: ‘In the absence of anything better, politics will become trapped between an inert centrism that says nothing much can change and a new populism (advanced in different ways by Ukip and the SNP) preaching false solutions based on a retreat behind national borders.’ What of the old democratic system do we want to retain, and what do we need to reinvent?

3. Authority and leadership are both unavoidable and essential

A key aspect of the post-political turn is the rejection of leadership, hierarchy and formal structures of organisation. This rhetoric is manifest on left and right alike – a fact that, in itself, ought to give the left pause. On the right, it’s essentially a co-option of left-wing localism and autonomy, masking a natural tendency towards elite monopoly; on the left it is both imperfectly applied and strategically compromising.

Many left organisations profess horizontalism, but almost all nonetheless retain informal, unspoken hierarchies. Networks are not egalitarian: the ‘Google effect’ strengthens monopolies and concentrates power, often mirroring real-world inequalities. This is not the result of a lack of desire on the part of those organisations to be genuinely egalitarian. It’s not even down to persistent traditional hierarchies of race, class and gender, although there is an element of that. It’s a result of the fact that not everyone’s voice is valued equally, and neither should it be. Different people have different levels of expertise, knowledge, profile and status. And people want authority. They need leaders to inspire them, to set out a vision and a strategy.

It’s true that there is visceral public antipathy towards politicians – but what is the public allergic to, exactly? There is certainly hostility directed at politicians’ socially and culturally elite status. But the left takes this at face value, decapitating its own organisations in response. The reality is more complicated. Neoliberalism has pulled off a clever coup: in order to deflect attention from the real corporate and financial elites dominating society, it has engineered a public attack on politicians as authority figures. Cameron and Osborne pretend to be on the side of ‘working people’, framing left-of-centre politicians such as Ed Miliband as Hampstead socialists with two kitchens.

This is AstroTurf culture, and it has been imported from the US, where fake grassroots politics operates in the form of the Tea Party and blue-collar republicanism and multimillionaire businessmen standing on an ‘ordinary Joe’ anti-Washington platform. In the UK it is translated into old Etonians giving press conferences in tractor factories and trumpeting the virtues of ‘small business’, while in reality facilitating the monopolistic domination of multinational corporations.

A vital critique of political, social and economic power, therefore, becomes deflected onto politics itself – which is, after all, a means for designing ways to improve peoples’ lives – as perpetuating the ‘do-gooding’, ‘we know what’s best for you’ approach. A critique of power, in other words, becomes a critique of authority. The result is an attack on the distribution of resources and the provision of a social safety net, and on politicians who promote idealistic policies to support the vulnerable. It becomes in particular, therefore, an attack on the left.

The right, meanwhile, can now claim to champion autonomy and localism, as William Hague and Eric Pickles regularly like to do. Steve Hilton’s new book, More Human: Designing a world where people come first (WH Allen, 2015), argues that the Conservative mission is all about devolving power and decision-making to cities, local communities and individuals, about how governments and institutions have become over-large and bureaucratic. Douglas Carswell wrote earlier this year in the Telegraph: ‘This anti-politics is not just a phase … Deferential democracy is dead.’

And it was Peter Mandelson who said in 1998:

‘We entered the 20th century with a society of elites … But that age has passed. Today people want to be more involved. Representative government is being complemented by more direct forms of involvement from the internet to referendums. This requires a different style of politics and we are trying to respond … People have no time for a style of government that talks down to them or takes them for granted.’

The right can be anti-political yet highly political – and powerfully dominant – at the same time. They are winning because they are co-opting the left’s rhetoric, but also because they are rich and powerful. The left’s response must be to take stock and to think about strategy. Emergent, spontaneous, bottom-up resistance is not delivering.

The left needs to recognise that leaders – like experts, professionals and intellectuals – are valuable. Authority has historically been associated with power and privilege, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to democratically decide how authority should be constituted. This is the only way to galvanise organised, sustained action. It is not enough to just talk small, talk local, talk ‘people first’ – because that is simply to mirror what the right is arguing for too. The left needs to think collective, think structural, think society – think big.

4. Be wary of embracing populism

Despite its negative connotations, many on the left are now embracing populism as a force for change. They are following a tradition of political theory established by Antonio Gramsci, and Ernesto Laclau’s reading of Gramsci in On Populist Reason (Verso, 2005), via the formation of leftist governments in Latin America, and more recently via European left movements such as Podemos.

This is an attractive direction of travel. Left populism has emerged to dramatic effect in Occupy, in the ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland, and in housing campaigns such as Focus E15 and the New Era estate. The left understandably wants to capture and bottle the elixir of enthusiasm that has, in a different context, bolstered Ukip. But populism is problematic. For a start, the left downplays the ubiquity of charismatic leaders, invariably white men – from Chávez to Morales to Correa to Iglesias to Tsipras. In contrast to democratic choice and debate, it figures ‘the people’ as a totality with a single set of correct views which can, therefore, be channelled by a single leader.

Populist energy is reactive and oppositional, often collapsing when it attains establishment status. It burns brightly and then is prone to fizzling out. Antipathy towards the ‘patronising’ state makes left populism even harder to sustain. ‘The people’ and national/local identity are mercurial categories, easily switching allegiance from left- to right-wing. The rise of Cuidadanos in Spain, a rival populist party to Podemos that also claims to speak for ‘the people’, illustrates why the left needs an explicit ideology. The ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland did galvanise working-class opposition to austerity, but it was also an ecstatic expression of nationalist identity legitimised by being the ‘underdog’ in relation to England and Westminster politicians. It should not be interpreted – starry-eyed – as a straightforward expression of progressive politics that can be replicated in the rest of the country.

5. What should the state do?

There’s a largely unexplored division on the left about the role of the state. On one hand, we have Ken Loach’s paean The Spirit of ’45; on the other, the Radical Left General Assembly declaring that ‘the election has proved that social democracy is dead’. Furthermore, if it is the case that the postwar settlement was a golden age and no longer provides a good precedent to follow today, it’s not clear whether that’s because it was a luxury we can no longer afford, a historical blip impossible to sustain or reproduce, or antithetical for being essentially paternalistic and bureaucratic.

How paternalistic was the postwar state, really? It’s telling that right and left alike now regard the nurturing state as patronising: here, as in so many areas, the rhetoric at both ends of the political spectrum is identical: about localism, autonomy and the grassroots. According to a recent report by Labour MPs Liz Kendall and Steve Reed, public services are predicated, inappropriately, on a kind of parent–child relationship. Jon Cruddas and others have recently argued that the new political division is between those who believe in central control and those who believe in distributed autonomy (as if anyone would say they believe in central control). Measures to increase autonomy, such as the coproduction of services, are empowering – and not necessarily new – but they can easily be used to justify public spending cuts. Do we not need to acknowledge our vulnerability, our need for the provision of support? Does the left need to ‘move on’, or is that the result of a neoliberal, modernising imperative?

Despite claims that the state is outmoded, many initiatives proposed on the left – such as a basic income or a publicly funded media – rely on a massive role for the state. This contradiction is rarely addressed. Furthermore, do we support the nationalisation of services or local provision? It’s true that the choice often isn’t either/or. But this debate should be had out in the open, not sidelined by a facile opposition between old and new. The state is the theatre for the contestation of ideologies. It’s the place of the public. There is no credible alternative forum for the articulation of the public good, for mass representation, organised accountability, and the expression and enactment of collective solidarity.

The extent to which the post-1945 state was bureaucratic should also be questioned. David Graeber has challenged the association between bureaucracy and the public sector: it’s the fragmented private sector, with its decentralised repetitions and duplications, that makes 21st-century corporations ‘behave like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union’. Many services are more efficiently provided at scale. Surely the best way to reduce bureaucracy is not to replicate a thousand local iterations of energy, health or education provision, but to organise centrally? Many activists like to go to meetings, but most people it seems just want reliable services, such as a good local school. They don’t want to take over the administration of their local hospital; they just want it to function properly, as it did before the pressures of privatisation. This is not to say we should simply turn the clock back to 1945, but we do need to have a proper, collective debate about the role of the 21st-century state.[1] What should be retained or rebuilt, and what is to be designed anew?

6. Digital culture is neither producing equality nor uniting the left

For many on the left, there’s a single answer to the breakdown of parliamentary democracy, the decline of the traditional media, and the relative absence of protest on the left: the internet. There is a great deal of enthusiastic cyber-utopianism about the potential of digital culture and social media to facilitate new forms of direct democracy, public debate and mass resistance. But so far the evidence for this is lacking, and indeed points strongly in the opposite direction. The internet is useful for some things, but it is not proving effective as a platform for organising joined-up, sustained change. In the accelerated culture of *Now*, everything is fleeting, nothing sticks. Even the serviceable slogan ‘We are the 99%’ feels ‘a bit 2011’. Contrary to predictions of a post-material future, digital culture cannot provide public services. Instead, there’s a lot of evidence that new technology is an atomising force, breaking down the communal institutions that used to enact social progress. The internet is making us addicted and distracted, unable to tear ourselves away from our phones. We are being sold, as units of attention, to global tech and marketing corporations.
The rhetoric now dominant on the radical and soft left – horizontalism; emergent, bottom-up action; networks – often resembles that of the Californian Ideology: that marriage of ’60s hippy culture and free-market neoliberalism that has legitimised the faux-egalitarian barons of Silicon Valley and their ‘disruption’ of everything – or at least everything to do with politics, education, media and culture.

Hundreds of inspirational social movements are springing up, but the same question is asked over and over again: how can these be scaled up politically? For the most part, the internet keeps campaigners in their silos of pre-existing acquaintance. It’s telling, for example, that there are numerous collective consumer bargaining organisations, splitting their mass galvanising potential. Why is there not just one? Because that would require leadership and collective organisation.
The left is facing a myriad of challenges that all derive from a single, organised force. This force is neoliberalism – but the key to its operation is to disavow its own central cohesion, to lay claim to grassroots decentralisation. If the left is to neither replicate this disavowed ideology nor fall prey to co-option, we must get together and think carefully about what we want and how best to achieve it. Emergence and crowdsourcing is a neoliberal myth – the left needs to reclaim real power. This is a coordinated crisis, and it calls for a coordinated response. It will not be provided spontaneously on social media.

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To even start to find answers to the many questions I have raised here, we need to develop less atomised ways of having conversations, connecting up social democrats and those on the radical/soft left. And we need to collect, collate and preserve resources and results, combining face-to-face discussions with the creation of toolkits and a repository of ideas in print and online. For understandable historical reasons, the left is wary of debate. But intolerance of disagreement only pushes it underground, where it becomes passive aggression. The right is comfortable with competing views and pragmatic alliances, because the right recognises their practical inevitability, and the need for leaders to set out a way forward. The left should not assume that there is one morally correct position. These debates are necessary. The left is at a crossroads, and we need to get our bearings before we can choose a path.

Eliane Glaser is a writer, lecturer, former BBC producer, and the author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life (Fourth Estate, 2013).

This article appears in edition 22.1 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.


Notes

1. See Lawson N and Chanan G (eds) (2015) Finding Our Voice – Making the 21st Century State, Compass ^back

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