Flee the state, don't seize it! A response to the idea of 'citizen politicians' in UK government

A response to the idea of transforming British politics through citizens entering parliament for one-term only.
Aaron Bastani
14 December 2011

Andreas Whittam-Smith recently wrote about the possibility of 'a group of like-minded citizens running for election for one term only' in order to bring about the requisite change that is patently needed within British politics and which, it seems increasingly clear, is not forthcoming from career politicians within the bowels of the palace of Westminster. His proposal, therefore, was one in which a better group of persons would in part replace the current cohort, as inept and frequently corrupt as they seem to be. This would be in the hope that improved personnel might be more effective 'problem-solvers' while also mediating a crisis of confidence in our democratic institutions which are, we are often told, of central importance in British public life and whose redemption is seemingly necessary.

As was the case with Guy Aitchison's response to the piece I am certainly sympathetic with the basic proposal and it is clear that, as Guy writes, '...the British elite stand politically, morally and ideologically bankrupt'. This is a basic point. Those contributing within the piece, myself and vast swathes of the British population share a common ground – that something has to change. This is an increasingly evident point, but also a basic premise upon which meaningful social and political change can and might be built. The institutions which govern, rule and represent us are failing at every turn.

The idea of a virtuous citizen(ry) intervening and resolving a political crisis is nothing new. As Guy Aitchison points out, in Republican Rome the 'Dictator' was given extraordinary power to lead the republic for six month terms during periods of crisis. According to the historian Livy it is the humble Cincinatus, a farmer from Hispania who is called on to lay down his tools and lead Roman forces on the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War.

As well as the honourable citizen redeeming the body politic, another trope frequently alluded to during times of crisis is that the system, no matter how evidently degenerate, is not to be blamed for its structural failings. Instead it is those individuals ensconced within it that are morally suspect and ultimately culpable. It is a greedy and avaricious minority, acting from private vice rather than the destructive principles of the system, that are to be condemned. This is an evident inclination in how the media popularly portray the 'individual, moral failings' of Fred Goodwin at RBS, Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve and 'greedy bankers' more generally. Such a position is also tacitly implicit within Andreas' proposal.

I would respectfully disagree however that those involved in anti-austerity struggles, which have only just begun within the context of a pronounced and intensified period of attack after May 2010, should see election to the House of Commons as a suitable conduit for aspirations for social change. After all, we have seen with Blair in 1997 and now Nick Clegg in 2010 that even those holders of public office who seem to all intents a better 'sort' to their parliamentary contemporaries almost inevitably disappoint those who put faith in them.

Barack Obama is a prime example of an elected representative who failed to deliver on promises made when seeking election. Since charisma alone cannot overcome the inertia of the American political establishment, the only solution is to change that establishment rather than perennially investing misplaced hope on yet another 'candidate for change'.

No to Westminster, or why we Don't Need a British Nestor Kirchner

We have also seen how movements very similar to those we now see in Europe and the US behaved in Latin America during their own debt crisis amid the genesis of the alter-globalisation movement. One particular group within those struggles, Collectivo Situaciones wrote several years after the crisis had somewhat ebbed;

“At long last we have learned that power – the state, understood as a privileged locus of change – is not the site, par excellence, of the political. As Spinoza stated long ago, such power is the place of sadness and of the most absolute impotence... emancipatory thought does not look to seize the state apparatus in order to implement change; rather, it looks to flee those sites, to renounce instituting any centre or centrality.”

But what do such words mean and what is their relationship to the demands of those new movements which seem, for now at least, to be beyond the parameters of centre-left political parties. What do such words mean in relation to 'Real Democracy Now' and 'Occupy Everywhere' movements and how they engage with the 'legitimate' political process in Washington, Whitehall and Madrid?

The relationship is this. The new movements, based as they are on direct action and direct democracy and with a proclivity to regard themselves as creating spaces within which one can re-imagine social relations and even 'politics' itself, seem almost in direct opposition to institutional actors as they are currently constituted. This includes those actors within the political establishment, the economy and the media.

In contrast to the sentiments of Andreas I would advise the new movements to view themselves in opposition to existing institutions. Such institutions are systems that, as many well-meaning individuals (such as Barack Obama and perhaps even Nick Clegg) have shown, change participants within them well before they themselves are changed. Furthermore, to pursue the route of legislating at the national level within the current system is insufficient for two reasons. First of all the nation state is no longer the primary locus of political or economic endeavour. Secondly, one should not see 'politics' as a realm that is detached from 'economics' and in control of it. Indeed social management within the 'Network Society', for better or worse, simply does not work like that. Politics no longer exercises oversight over the economy and civil society. After all we now have the IMF, the EU, bond markets, the WTO, trade agreements imposed on us which have implications for public services (such as GATS) but which have been negotiated by the European Commission. Simply put, Westminster is not the locus of political change or management of the economy. Not unless there are immense changes and pressures, both from above and below. As Manuel Castells wrote well before the Great Recession of 2008;

“The nation-state, defining the domain, procedures, and object of citizenship, has lost much of its sovereignty, undermined by the dynamics of global flows and trans-organizational networks of wealth, information, and power. Particularly critical for its legitimacy crisis is the state’s decreasing ability to fulfil its commitments as a welfare state because of the integration of production and consumption in a globally interdependent system, and the related process of capitalist the crisis of legitimacy of the nation-state we must add the crisis of credibility of the political system, based on open competition between political parties. Captured in the media arena, reduced to personalized leadership, dependent on technologically sophisticated manipulation, pushed into unlawful financing, driven by and toward scandal politics, the party system has lost its appeal and trustworthiness, and, for all practical purposes, is a bureaucratic remainder deprived of public confidence.”

These two basic points – the end of the nation-state as an effective mediator of citizens interests within a globalised, network society and the demise of the parliamentary party as popular conduit for democratically backed social change and intervention in the economy allude to why the new movements – in my opinion rightfully so – choose to not engage with parliamentary parties or participate within the existing political apparatus. From such institutions they often demand nothing and instead base their politics on real, direct democracy. Both sides of this culture, not making demands and 'instead re-conceiving our own political agency are neatly summed up in a statement written by local activists specifically aimed at 'Occupy Baltimore':

We’re not asking for better wages or a lower interest rate. We’re not even asking for the full abolition of capital, because we know that whatever's next will be something we make, not something we ask for.”

The context of the new movements is the end of globalisation 2.0 and an emergent global culture built on ubiquitous and distributed digital networks. These new networks catalyse an information abundance that leaves institutions such as representative parliaments (as well as retail stores) that were created within a context of previous information scarcity increasingly anachronistic. It is clear that there is a need for new institutions to match new cultural realities. This would include an appreciation of personal identity over the imposition of social homogeneity, new and more complex understanding of emancipation - replacing the idea of liberty as the antithesis of equality - a recognition of the 'limits of growth' and of course the need for ecological sustainability.

While I would never castigate anyone who attempted to work within institutions as they stand, within the current context such endeavours seem futile. These will, inevitably, be the last systems to recognize the necessity of change – this would after all, require them to abolish themselves. Better, surely, to renounce those sites and build our own cultures, tools and systems for sustaining ourselves - from housing to education and childcare. Such a task seems utterly necessary - the good ideas about how we live after the crisis and possibly, the 'end of growth' - from urban farming to localised, open source manufacture will not be coming from Westminster. For such exciting movements and individuals to allocate their energy exclusively there would be a tragedy indeed.

After 2008 we now know another world is possible. The task then is to create the tools and culture(s) to bring that world about – while this may occasionally involve the input of existing institutional actors, in the main it will not.

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