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British politics is in a fragile state. Levels of trust in politicians are low, traditional measures of political engagement indicate an increasing dislocation between a distant ‘political class’ and the electorate. People are less inclined to vote at all (as turnout figures for recent elections indicate) and those that are seem in increasing numbers to be more attracted to ‘insurgent’ parties and charismatic individuals from George Galloway to Nigel Farage who appear to offer simple answers to often complex questions. Underlying this is a sense of powerlessness, anger and disappointment that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the political system itself, and which mainstream politicians seem powerless to address without making worse.
In the midst of this storm, two curious characters have emerged on the political scene who, whilst representing very different approaches to and understandings of politics, tap into this same vein of discontent.
The first, Russell Brand, is an entertainer, a comedian and reformed addict who lets out a chaotic, rambling cry for a ‘revolution’ of our individual selves and our society. For this, he has attracted mockery and derision from such figures as John Lydon and David Aaronovitch to name but two, and some might say quite rightly.
Perhaps the single statement of Brand’s that has attracted the most attention and some of the strongest reaction is his exhortation not to vote. Last year in the New Statesman he wrote, "As far as I'm concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box."
As a result he has variously been called ‘ignorant’, ‘confused’ and ‘smug’. The coherence of Russell Brand’s thought and writing on the matter may be questionable (he has recently been awarded the Plain English Campaign’s ‘Foot in Mouth’ award), as is the garbled, self-help style therapeutic solutions he appears to offer in his recent book, but he nonetheless may have a point. Consciously or otherwise, when we vote we are in some sense endorsing or confirming the system of government and representation we have. Of course, many of us are not in agreement with every element of it, some might prefer a different electoral system for instance, but it does broadly accept the arrangement whereby we vote every five years or so to elect a government which we then allow to get on with governing until time comes to pass judgement at the ballot box once again.
Of course, voting in elections is a key part of any democratic system of government. The ability we have to select those who represent us and who govern over us is a hard won right that should not be dismissed at the wave of a celeb’s hand. However, at the same time, it is not the be all and end all of democracy, political action or participation. Anyone seeking something more radical than what is on offer might reasonably ask what use voting is if it only reproduces and confirms what we already have, if it simply serves to reinforce the very thing that one objects to in the first place.
One might counter that this is not going to be how change comes about. Failing to participate in the system we have, however flawed, simply means that our concerns will not be heard. Reacting to not getting what one wants by flouncing out of the room makes a scene, but achieves nothing. It is the boring grind of gradualism, of small acts of resistance and reform that are going to make a difference. There is an important truth in this, but—and this is what the left in particular has lacked for many years—there has to be a broader critique of what we have and an idea of what might replace it. A ‘none-of-the-above’ box on the ballot paper, whilst a useful way of expressing dissatisfaction with the choices available, is not very useful for expressing dissatisfaction with the whole sorry set-up. Opting out, then, is a valid, even rational, response. The only trouble with it is that it is difficult to read what signals are being sent out by those who do. Although this might just as easily be said about those of us who do vote.
The second character is Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s new MP for Clacton (and its old Conservative MP). He is a relatively forward-looking, optimist cuckoo in the nest of pessimists and nostalgics that is UKIP (indeed many would think it strange that someone like Carswell, a self-described ‘free trade Gladstonian’ with relatively strong liberal credentials, should have been attracted by what appears to be a party of deep reaction). Whilst it seems unlikely that Carswell would advocate abstention from voting, he argues that a more meaningful, active political participation is both necessary and possible.
Carswell has for a number of years now made a compelling and articulate case for a popular (populist?), direct, ‘real-time’ democracy made possible by social media and information technology. Carswell argues that with the emergence of digital technology and social media, the age of centrally directed government and the state as we understand it is over. Technology allows for the emergence of an organic, spontaneous kind of governance driven by personal choice and personalised consumption in which ‘we will commission the bits of government we want as individual citizens’. Through technology, he suggests, a new organic, permanently present kind of democracy or ‘i-democracy’ can grow and flourish. This means, of course, it is likely that parties as we have understood them would be over too, perhaps surviving as relatively loose networks which provide the means of organising candidate selections and election campaigns (which may—Euroscepticism aside—explain his ease with UKIP). Indeed, in an age where, enabled by this technology, we can all directly articulate our political views as individuals, choose our associations and interests, select our lifestyles and pastimes from a seemingly endless menu of choices, why would we need parties, bureaucracies or other organised elitist groups to do it for us? When we can directly engage with providers of public services and get what we want, tailored to our specific needs, why would we need an army of paid officials and representatives to provide it for us?
Carswell’s prescriptions represent no less than a radical overhaul of the way in which government works, including a radical reduction of the size and competencies of the state, and the way that democracy operates, enabled by technology. Instead of simply electing a government that does what it wants for five years, technology enables us to take control over the things that concern us, to ensure services deliver what we want and need, and to hold our political representatives directly to account. Could this be a better way of actually deciding how we are governed and of ensuring the accountability and responsiveness of those that govern us than periodically electing a legislature, a legislature that has in any case been largely sidelined by huge public bureaucracies and the grand edifice of ‘the state’?
What both of these very different responses to the state of our democracy have in common is the underlying point that voting once every five years is not going to change anything very much. Something more radical needs to happen. Whilst Brand stumbles chaotically towards a change which is at root brought about by personal epiphany with spiritual and therapeutic overtones, Carswell points to a more material one in which digital technology releases our capacity for personal choice and organically produces collectively beneficial results. Either way, what both argue for is a redistribution of power, away from the political, bureaucratic and economic elites and instead towards the people, the voters, the consumers. In this respect they are both right. In terms of how that might be achieved, however, they are both at best somewhat partial.
Tony Benn was admiringly quoted by Carswell for the questions he once argued should be put to all who are in positions of power and responsibility: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you?” The ability to pose and act on these questions is a crucial part of democratic accountability; being able to peacefully replace those in power is essential in a democratic state. But perhaps more importantly, we need to find ways of removing power from the person or the office and giving it back to ordinary people and communities. This may be the kind of 'revolution’ that those who find themselves in agreement with Brand are looking for. Technology of the kind that Carswell lionises may well be part of the solution, but it is certainly not all of it.
The test for remedies to social problems, and indeed for democracy in general, is not just whether an immediate problem is solved but whether the underlying problem is addressed. If we understand that underlying problem to be the inequitable distribution of power, then we are bound to ask whether the solution provides for its redistribution and the empowerment of people and communities to address their own problems. Being offered social change, or being given or lent power by benign leaders can of course be to the immediate good, but in the longer term may actually make the problem of dislocation and disempowerment worse. Gene Sharp, a key writer on empowerment and non-violent struggle, put it that these kinds of solutions mean that ‘people become less and less participants… and more and more the “ workers”, “staff”, “consumers” and “ clients” of those who are “in charge” – those who “know” what should be done’. In other words, it undermines the capacity of people to effectively take control of their lives and fails to invest in them the power to be part of addressing their own concerns. So often, solutions to social problems—however well intended—contribute to the continued centralisation and expansion of state power and fail to contribute to the empowerment of citizens – thus, even if and when problems are corrected, people become further disempowered.
To be effective, the redistribution of power needs to be permanent, and to be so it needs to be demanded by the citizens themselves, and in effect taken by them rather than granted or lent. Hannah Arendt’s perspective on political power as a group attribute that sustains positions of authority and command is useful here. Power, she says, ‘corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert’ and political leaders are ‘empowered to act in the name of a certain number of people’. Without them, there is no power. Thus, the political power held by leaders is supported by the ‘consent’—tacit, practical or explicit—of the population they govern. It does not ‘belong’ to them but to society and collectivities. Thus refusal or denial, including the refusal to vote, strikes at the very heart of political power. Such action is a means by which one can express the refusal to lend legitimacy to the system to which one objects and it may be a step towards taking power away from leaders and returning it to citizens. However, it is just a step. Isolated individuals and communities, perhaps especially those that do not vote, will stand little chance against the politically powerful. To actually take power, citizens must be effectively organised. How does such a process of ‘taking power’ actually take place? What might this look like in a society like ours?
It will certainly mean something different to the party activism and mobilisation of the past. People are drifting away from the traditional organisations like parties that may have been able to act as articulators and defenders of their interests in the political system. Part of the problem is what parties have become—professionalised, catch-all, seekers of office—but part of it is also what they always were: hierarchical organisations based on command and control. For left-wing and labour parties in particular this reflects their roots in the organised industrial working-class of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Traditional parties like this make less sense in an individualised age, where pluralism, diversity and fragmentation characterise the social world. So what, if anything, should replace them? Could technology help support a genuine redistribution of power, perhaps facilitating something more like direct democracy? Or does it simply promote chaos, a cacophony of individualised voices clamouring for attention that occasionally become a herd, or even a mob?
The fact is that, even if the party is finished as a vehicle of popular political engagement, organisation is still necessary to the political effectiveness of ordinary citizens. In order to make demands on the powerful, and become empowered as effective political actors, communities need the wherewithal to organise themselves, the resources, avenues and opportunities, as well as the technical support, to get their voices heard and be directly involved in solving their own problems. In other words, instead of simply waiting on government, or hoping someone more benign or sympathetic takes charge, we need to foster in our communities a culture of organising and working together to resolve problems, make appropriate demands and achieve positive goals.
Whilst technology and social media surely have a key role to play in this, it has to be more than simply as a facilitator of individualised choices and bespoke services. It is also a vehicle for cooperation that both cuts across and reaches beyond geographical and ‘traditional’ communities whilst supporting their ability to formulate and articulate political goals. Mainstream digital activism platforms like 38 Degrees, Change.org and Avaaz—alongside the resources, training and support that community organising groups like Citizens UK offer—may be a model for campaign organisation in a post-organisational world, providing the means (resources, communication reach, networks of support and so on) for people and communities to conduct their own campaigns, often at a highly localised level. Through organisations like this, localised community campaigns, including Focus E15 and the tenants of the New Era Estate in Hackney, have attracted attention they otherwise may not have done. It also means that more mundane local campaigns, such as local traffic safety and planning issues, that established groups may not be interested in, can be supported and resourced at little or no financial cost. This points to the emergence of new tools for collective action, facilitated by technology, that do not require the support of existing ‘traditional’ organisational structures like political parties, churches and so on (although it may include them).
Technology, however, is not in itself the community, it is not itself the action. It is one tool, amongst others, that can be used to help organise and build new communities of interest. The power to act and take control of our own circumstances cannot be generated individually, provided by therapeutic interventions, or generated by technology. It grows from direct social and co-operative action. It is organised and active, built on debate, compromise and mutual support. Thus it is more of a question of political culture. Properly political activity needs to be understood as the domain of communities communicating and organising together to tackle issues of mutual concern, using whatever technology available to them that supports their ability to formulate, articulate and pursue their objectives and to spread awareness of an issue.
The kind of action taken by groups like Focus E15 is a brilliant example of how people can organise, take on the might and resources of the state and win (Brand, it should be noted, has used his profile to draw attention to these and other struggles). It was not technology or a programme at the centre of this, but the determination and capacity to resist an injustice through organisation, This is a positive, active model of empowerment that needs to spread further, to become more firmly rooted in our political and civic culture: not just as a series of formal mechanisms or new institutions but as a movement of people underpinned by a culture and practice of cooperation. It is action—not institutional and organisational design or technological tools—that carves out a space for civil society. This is what will challenge both the top-down interventions of the state and the encroachments of the market as well as our expectations and practices around what it means to be citizens.
There is, therefore, no institutional panacea, no particular structure or tool that will produce this kind of political engagement. These are important, but at the centre of a properly democratic and political culture is a vibrancy that comes from self-organisation and a positive sense of engagement: a creative tension, agitation and conflict. This means that people and communities need to organise themselves, rather than simply choosing between candidates, or joining a pre-existing formal organisation. In other words, although elections are a vital part of democratic society and the utilisation of the full potential of technological platforms like social media can enhance and extend it, they are not enough. Although parties and traditional institutions of government and democracy still have a role to play, they are not closely enough aligned with the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people and they do little to redistribute power.
Both Carswell and Brand in their very different ways speak to the inadequacy of our present political arrangements. The decline of traditional political organisations as popular participatory vehicles and the opportunities offered by technology means that the future landscape of political engagement is likely to change, and perhaps needs to. It could mean that engagement is more episodic and narrowly focused, or it may herald the beginning of new movements that will become more permanent fixtures of the political landscape. Either way, organisation and co-operation, a willingness to engage directly with each other and support each other’s struggles is vital to a healthy, democratic society and empowered political citizens. Furthermore, this kind of activity can in itself be a positive, empowering process, almost regardless of the results, and a movement built on these practices would be hard to resist.
This article is one of a series entitled After the party? produced as a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, Birkbeck, and OurKingdom, openDemocracy.