The rise of anti-politics

Author: Elle Hardy is a freelance writer with an interest in democracy, censorship, liberalism, and foreign policy.

You’re very nice to have me here at the Fabian Society, who, as a friend of mine noted want socialism but don’t trust the plebs to do it. But I’ll try not to sledge too much as tonight’s topic is almost as enjoyable.

The Irish poet and novelist Brendan Behan had a fantastic line: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”

So the question for anti-politics as a critical response to the political class is whether they can actually do it themselves. The evidence so far shows that it has only achieved tinkering around the edges, but there are some encouraging signs that this is changing.

What it’s not

But first I’ll challenge a few ideas associated with anti-politics. It must be noted that anti-politics is not new: just in recent times, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader changed US Presidential election results in 1992 and 2000 respectively, Pauline Hanson disrupted both sides of Australian politics in the 90s, Front National has been a force in French politics since 1972. But it’s hard to not feel that anti-politics is becoming more prominent and more successful since the GFC.

We also see grievances with modern politics pinned to the rise of the 24 hour news cycle so often now that it has become a both an abstract concept and a cover-all excuse. Blaming the failures of the political class on internet publishing and 24 hour news channels dilutes the responsibility of elected office. And besides, both are here to stay. The positive response to Abbott’s successful 2013 strategy of keeping his head down, or the negative response to Gillard’s attempt to rebrand Labor with her ‘We Are Us’ speech shows that discontent with politics runs deeper than its relationship with media.

Also, the extent to which anti-politics is a movement of outsiders must be called into question. Jackie Lambie may be a genuine outsider but she is being guided by a  Chief of Staff who is an ex-LNP politican, Clive Palmer and Bob Day are long-time political donors and powerbrokers, Nick Xenephon, Andrew Wilkie, John Madigan, and David Leyonhjelm have all been sniping around the edges for a long time. This is no different to the historical trend: Don Chipp, Brian Harradine, Mal Colston, and Pauline Hanson were all disaffected insiders, not crusading upstarts.

So what is the cause of anti-politics in Australia?

So what is the cause of the current agitated mood in Australian politics? There are a number of paradoxes to unravel.  To use the old aphorism about student politics, the vitriol is so high because the stakes are so low. The major parties are often virtually indistinguishable. They target the same constituencies with minor variations on theme.

We are victims of our own success as a nation: in lifting so many people to be materially middle class (despite their mode of employment), it is logical for politicians to appeal to that broad centre. And we as voters are not without blame: we consistently ask for lower taxes with greater spending on services and benefits.

Failure of the Left

How did we get to this consensus? Broadly, it has been the failure of the left: neoliberalism has won, and the Left has lost its constituency and its intellectual muscle. It has been unable to produce any alternative to the system since the biggest crisis in in late capitalism, the GFC. It has been unable to use the coercive power of the state to mend the weaknesses of capitalism, such as the lobbying industry and asymmetries of information in the marketplace.

My favourite story to illustrate the failure of the Left has just arrived this week with the endlessly amusing news that the founders of the Occupy movement – that great subversive, anti-capitalist movement to emerge from the GFC – are now suing each other. So apart from achieving nothing, they are now retreating to traditional institutions to seek financial compensation.

So by the Left shifting to the Right and forging overwhelming consensus on policy and governance, the major parties now fight to be the most middle of the road. This is creating both the ennui and the space for new voices: for anti-politics.

Rhetorical

The anti-politics movement has so far been rhetorical. A response to professionalisation of the political class, and the narrowing of representation (best personified by the Labor report that noted Ben Chifley wouldn’t get preselected today), it’s an ironic twist on one of the central tenants of liberal democracy, ‘no taxation without representation’: we are literally asking for the political class to be more representative of us. The anger of the enfranchised is a request for authenticity and a request for genuine and competing options within the major parties.

Liberal democracy

You’ll notice that I am only looking at change within the bounds of our current system of government, not outside of it. I’m an unashamedly ‘true believer’. Fukuyama was right: liberal democracy is the only form. But while I believe in the conservation of our institutions, they are not beyond reproach.

Although there is a real crisis in liberal democracy, including the seriously underreported loss of Turkey to our side and the rise of Putin’s philosophy of Eurasianism as another alternative, it’s worth bearing in mind Fukuyama’s proposition in his recent essay defending End of History 25 years on: in 50 years, is it more likely to see America with a Chinese system of government or China with an American system of government? The question, I hope, answers itself, and thus we should be looking at anti-politics as something to help refine and improve liberal democracy, and not to break or overthrow it.

Mair

The book that has most electrified me this year is the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. It’s EU-centric but he shows remarkable and consistent data to illustrate that democratic malaise is not a vibe but a reality. He points to four phenomena:

  • the passing of popular involvement: conventional politics has become a spectator sport (evidenced by steep decline in party memberships and election turn outs);
  • the loss of the left-right divide that I have already touched on: paradoxically, polarity is good for democracy;
  • the retreat of parties and elites from civil society and into government, a ‘political class’; and
  • popular democracy being eroded by the bureaucratic and unaccountable EU, where there is no opposition to the imposition of regulations such as banana length, vacuum cleaner power, and types of toilet flushes.

Micklethwait + Wooldridge

A recent book from Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, looks at what can be done from the view of the Right, noting that “democracy and elephantiasis have gone hand-in-hand.”

To me the state has become analogous to an having an asthma attack: the issue isn’t that you can’t breathe in – that’s all you can do – it’s that you can’t breathe out.

Neoliberalism has won the consensus, but not in an absolute form: the papercuts, backhanders, and handouts courtesy of regulation have become an attempt to provide opposition, not to mention a powerful tool for Mair’s elites who have withdrawn into government, and their lobbyist friends.

Micklethwaight and Wooldridge memorably quote Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of Luxemburg and now head of the European Commission as saying of the impasse in liberal democracy: “We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it.”

Nature abhors a vacuum and anti-politics is rising to fill the voids that Mair and Micklethwait and Wooldridge have shown us. But I believe the history of sustainability shows that this will ultimately be achieved from within the structure of the main parties.

Disatisfaction

We are presented with a number of contradictions, as shown in last week’s Scottish referendum and to a lesser extent the weekend’s NZ election. People flirted with fringes and anti-political figures – they wanted to be heard, they wanted to support voices outside the establishment – but in the end they voted with their hip-pocket and voted for the status quo.

In the UK, it is known as the Farage paradox:  as the support for Nigel Farage and UKIP increases, the overall support for their core policy of leaving the EU decreases.

Opportunities

My hope is that anti-political figures like Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage breed a generation of disaffected, rebellious, outspoken voices inside the mainstream parties. And I think we are starting to seeing more of them: Cory Bernardi, Peter Phelps, Melissa Parkes, and Doug Cameron are the outliers in their parties who can agitate for meaningful debate and encourage a move away from anodyne politics to authentic, representative politics. It’s an establishment view but it is a realistic view: anyone who thinks Palmer and Lambie will remain as sustainable forces in Australian politics as separate entities, let alone in the same party, are inhaling.

Lambie, for example, is not going to effect radical change to our foreign policy or federalism; instead she’ll get more money for veterans and for Tasmania. Populist outsiders don’t tend to have the ideological consistency to sustain a campaign to change the consensus: remember the pillars of Hanson’s economic policies were flat tax and protectionism.

Solutions

Where to from here? I’m reticent to make predictions as I’ve seen a study where television political pundits prediction rates are worse than the flip of a coin, so I’ll be brief.

I have said that anti-politics has so far been more rhetoric than action, but given that by definition language is the beginning of persuasion, we can feel some optimism.

Ultimately, an improvement to our politics occurs from a reverse form of creative-destruction: smaller players push the bigger players to more radical and diverse positions on certain issues, which once adopted destroy the anti-political forces. By being nimble and representative, these anti-political forces continue to regenerate and coalesce on the issue du jour.

Anti-political figures and parties will continue to be less a yardstick than a whacking stick, but more than the old notion of the parking space for the protest vote.

Given the mood for change we are seeing, and the greater number of players we’re seeing, it may lead to a greater interest in structural and institutional reform, particularly with Leyonhjelm successfully standing up to consensus politics against ASIO this week, and also trying to get ten year sunset clauses on all legislation.

As we see with the Farage paradox, anti-politics is about wanting opposition and choice. The product differentiation of the beer drinking, plain talking Farage certainly helps too. But as shown in the Scottish referendum, people will not necessarily choose the alternative that is presented. But look at what has come out of it:

  • is the extraordinarily high 85% turnout, going completely against the trend of disengagement that Mair highlighted;
  • guaranteed structural reform in to the make-up of the union, not to mention more cash for Scotland; and
  • the effective denunciation of major party leaders David Cameron and Ed Milliband, who had to stay as far away from Scotland as possible so as not to harm the No vote.

The measure of success for the anti-political movement is its ability to change the major political parties from within. LBJ’s great aphorism on consensus, on wanting people inside the tent pissing out and not outside the tent pissing in needs to be bastardised: the major parties need more people inside the tents, but pissing in all directions.

Peter Mair ends Ruling the Void by saying: “Political opposition gives voice. By losing opposition, we lose voice, and by losing voice we lose control of our own political systems.” I would flip that on its head: anti-politics is giving us a voice, but he question remains whether it can become a reliable and sustainable opposition to consensus politics.

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