Beyond OWS: Problem #2: The Problem with Politics
This is part two of my series on Beyond Occupy Wall Street. You can find part one, where I put the boot into contemporary economic dogma here.
In this post, I focus on politics. Or, more specifically, on the failure of the 20th century political paradigm to accord with a 21st century world. Basically, the Left-Right political spectrum as we know it is defunct and, as a result, we’re seeing the political parties of the last century struggle in many democracies around the world, not least in Anglophone world.
In the U.S., Obama was supposed to liberate the country from the bitter partisan politics of the Bush Jr. era, where the Left and the Right had become violently polarised and infected by base-appeasing populism, meanwhile lacking the courage to make the tough decisions that are required to set the country straight. But even Obama – with his feel-good “there’s only the United States of America” – failed to bring the warring parties together.
The recent debt crisis is but one of many, many examples of the abject failure of the two major U.S. parties to put their knives down and govern in the interests of the nation. Not to mention the banality of Fox News and the Tea Party, offering hopelessly simplistic solutions to complex problems – some real, and some fictitious.
In the U.K. and Australia the last elections resulted in hung parliaments, largely due to disillusionment with the major parties and the parlous calibre of political debate. Both countries saw a protest vote lobbed against a long-term sitting government that had gone stale, yet the voters proved unenthused at the prospect of the alternative governments on offer. The result is minority government, with uneasy coalitions formed, which are unlikely to survive the next election.
Left, Right, Wrong
But these are only symptoms of a deeper malaise. The political spectrum as it was defined in the 20th century is no longer relevant. The 20th century notions of Left and Right are now defunct.
The Old Left was characterised by two main values: economic egalitarianism; and social progressivism. The former often manifest in terms of socialist economic policies, stressing central planning, government regulation, wealth redistribution, welfare and being highly mistrustful of the profit-seeking free market. The latter manifest in terms of erosion of state interference in individual behaviour, instead encouraging individual expression, and government non-involvement in moral issues.
The Old Right was characterised by two main values in opposition to the Old Left: economic meritocracy; and social conservatism. The former manifest in promoting market economics (although the Old Right still believed in regulation, mainly protecting the current captains of industry – and in some ways nothing has changed…). The latter manifest in terms of social conformity, resistance to social change and discomfort with rampant individual expression.
The Old Right saw the world as being a generally dangerous, dog eat dog world, where to survive and flourish one needs to be strong and disciplined, and loyal to one’s group. The world is a meritocracy, such that if you work hard, you’ll succeed, and if you coddle people then they’ll only be worse off. In this worldview, people are generally nasty and need to be tamed – either through self-discipline, by conforming to a group moral code, or through punishment.
The Old Left saw the world as generally a safe place and people as generally good, so if you leave them to their own devices, they’ll naturally be nice and will get along with each other. However, it rejected the idea that one’s success is entirely down to their own efforts. The Old Left saw the each of us as being reliant on the broader community in order to find success. It saw failure as being an environmental or conditioning issue, thus an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
The problem is, people born after the 1960s don’t necessarily see the world in these ways anymore. Instead, I would suggest that most people under 40 tend to see the world as a hybrid of the two: the world is relatively safe, and people generally good; but it’s a meritocracy where if you work hard you’ll likely succeed. Which makes sense, really, if you’ve grown up in a Western democracy in the late-20th Century.
The upshot is, neither the Left or the Right have the values that mesh with how most people feel these days – particularly young people. A growing number of people wish for a party that is economically liberal – that believes in a carefully regulated market rather than central planning or organised labour and unions – and also advocates social progressivism – allowing people to live how they want.
Yet the Right has become invaded in the U.S. by neoliberalists, who go too far in terms of economic liberalism, and religious fundamentalists, who go too far in terms of social conservatism. In the U.K. and Australia, the Right parties are softer economically, but have become the natural home of social conservatives, thus scare off more progressively-minded young people.
The Left is typically wedded to the unions and labour movements, and when it moves to the Right in economics, it ends up losing its distinctiveness. In Australia, the Labor party is torn between inner city educated social progressives and suburban middle-class workers. The former want things like a gay marriage and a compassionate policy on asylum seekers, and the latter have left the unions in droves and want a greater focus on economic growth. Labor’s policies almost perfectly alienate both sides equally well.
Meanwhile, all three countries – and many others besides – are seeing good governance undermined by big business, lobby groups and special interests. These three represent the new corruption of politics today. It’s these forces that seek to shape the political and economic landscape to their benefit even if it comes at a cost to everyone else.
In the U.S. there is the pharmaceutical lobby, the energy companies, Wall Street, the richly-funded think tanks and the entire political lobbyist industry that is strangling Washington D.C.. In the U.K. the recent phone tapping scandal revealed the extent to which the politicians were in the pockets of Murdoch’s press.
In Australia, the big mining companies used a $22 million advertising campaign to fool the public into thinking a proposed mining tax would cripple the country, the success of which has led to climate denialists and gambling proponents trying the same caper in their own areas.
The thing is, in any social or economic landscape, there are winners and losers. But that particular landscape might not be the most efficient or most just. Changing to a new landscape might mean that everyone – or at least a greater number of people – are better off. However, it usually means some existing winners become losers.
It’s the job of special interests to prevent the shift from one social or economic landscape to another if the vested interests they serve will cease being winners. And they can do this because the current winners are the ones with the power and resources to prevent change, while the future winners lack this power.
So, basically, the upshot is: politics has failed us. It’s divisive, it’s ideologically out of step with a growing proportion of the population, and it’s been corrupted by special interests.
I want to stress that democracy itself hasn’t necessarily failed. By criticising politics the way I’m doing now, I’m employing the democratic system in an appeal for change. My criticisms – and, I believe, those of the Occupy Wall Street movement – should be targeted at bad ideologies and individuals within the democratic system, but we should work to shore up the system itself – and use it for change.
In the next in my Occupy Wall Street series I’ll tackle Problem #3: society, talking about what society is for – and what it should be for – about the failure of reason and Enlightenment values, and about the collapse of community and the rise of individualism. After that, some prescriptive suggestions. Stay tuned.