Monday, August 02, 2010

Politics and anti-politics

From over the pond - the Aegean that is - a reader based in Turkey drew my attention to this catchy paragraph from Peter Oborne's book, The Triumph of the Political Class.
"The only Cabinet minister in Blair's 1997 administration known to have had any experience of work in the commercial sector was John Prescott, a ship's steward in the '50s. He was later joined by Alan Milburn, who used to run a Marxist bookshop called Days of Hope, better known by the spoonerism Haze of Dope"
There is a lot to unpack in such a short passage. It is part of a common-place argument that politicians are distanced from 'real life' and have no understanding of the 'real world', being locked in a parallel universe of their own making. The argument isn't without merit, but in one sense it is a truism. We all live lives proscribed by the boundaries of class, gender, region, ethnicity, occupation etc. and do not have an intimate understanding of the lives of others, though we can try and learn and the failure to do so is a major contributor to bad management and poor policy making.

Yet there are other difficulties with the specifics of Oborne's comment. Anyone coming into government will of necessity have been an MP for some time and so politics will have been their full-time job for quite a while. Then what does he mean by "the commercial sector"? Private industry? And if so, why is this experience more valid than the public sector or the professions? And, of course, there is a neat, snobbish dig at Prescott in there too. But even taking it on its own terms, there is one major problem with this statement. It isn't true.

The claim that no-one apart from Prescott in the 1997 Cabinet had any experience outside politics seemed so unlikely that I did a bit of checking on the internet. It took less than an hour and this is what I found.

Margaret Beckett was a metallurgist for AEI, soon to become part of GEC. David Clark worked in forestry and was a lab technician in a textile mill, then became a mature student and university teacher. Nick Brown worked for Procter and Gamble. Frank Dobson worked in industry, but for the then nationalised Electricity Generating Board. Gavin Strang was an agricultural scientist.

Several cabinet members had experience of local government, the most notable being David Blunkett who had run Sheffield City Council, possibly a better preparation for a ministerial post than being a management consultant.

There is another side to the "commercial sector" as well. Unsurprisingly, the 1997 Cabinet contained four former full-time union officials, including Prescott. Day-to-day working in industrial relations is certainly an education in the only too real life experienced by many of the electorate!

The biggest single group was lawyers with seven in cabinet, does their work not count as "commercial"? There were two former adult education tutor-organisers as well and three University lecturers. Clare Short had been a civil servant and, given the new government's interest in the Third Sector as part of their Big Society fad, they might be interested to know that Chris Smith had worked for a housing charity.

There was no-one from senior business management or from the financial services sector, but are they any more representative of 'real life'? Anyway, given the overwhelmingly Tory ethos of business management, it would be odd to expect to find anyone building a career as a Labour politician from it. And though the ministers were all middle class professionals, quite a few had come from working class families and were the beneficiaries of the post war expansion of educational opportunities. Rather than being narrow apparatchiks, they had rather a wide range of experience and impressive academic qualifications.

It is always fun to point out where sloppy research undermines an argument, but I think that more important things are at stake. The book is riding a current wave of anti-politics, which I consider highly dangerous. It takes various forms; 'they are only in it for themselves', 'they are all the same', and other associated generalisations. Of course, if you ask people to expand on this and be specific they usually can't. This is because of a slippage between scepticism and cynicism.

Politics, as a means of managing our public and collective interests, is a necessity. It never goes away. I am deeply depressed about the awful level of current political debate, the dominance of an elite consensus on political economy and on the quality of political leadership. However, this is very different from a rejection of politics in itself.

Anti-politics is cynical not analytical. It is a blanket condemnation of politics and an expression of contempt for politicians, whatever they do or stand for. In itself, it posits no alternatives and has no analysis. There is the strange Tea Party anti-political movement in the United States, but perhaps the most egregious recent example is the Greek Sect of Revolutionaries whose first proclamation announced, "We don't do politics, we do guerilla warfare". Nobody knows what they stand for. I doubt if they do. Often this is an impulse that can be exploited by the populist autocrat who declares himself to be 'above politics' (the ultimate oxymoron for a politician), sometimes it can lead to the demand for a 'top businessman' to come and sort things out. Demagoguery replaces the building of movements, alliances and the representation of interests.

My deep disappointment with New Labour knows no bounds, and as for the new lot ...
It would be a huge relief to see politicians shunning conventional wisdom and media stereotypes in favour of good research and pursuing principles instead of exercising their own cynicism through media-driven populist measures to be nasty to whoever is the latest folk devil. However, we do need to be able to explain why we think like that, rather than simply hug the comfort blanket of anti-political sentiment. Intelligent politics is the answer to anti-politics, it can be just as critical, but with reason and, most importantly, it offers us alternatives.

Thanks to John


Will said...

for Zizek's opinion on irony please refer to chapter one of The Sublime Object of ideology. To Zizek, irony - an expression of cynicism - has replaced false consciousness as the engine of ideology.

WoT we need is an imaginative leap forward not just to moan about what is, but to imagine what has not yet come to be rather than the half-hearted and hypocritical cynicism we have now, that fools
itself with his own hipness. And meanwhile the juggernaught of capital continues to reek its havoc.

Will said...

*Its own hippness* that should read (obviously).

The Plump said...

Which also, in turn, relates to Luke's third dimension of power, which I have always read as being partially about the stifling of imagination.

Will said...

Talking of tory scum and cynical fuckking cuntS...

From Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2008...

"This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn't it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government?

Corporal cloGG must HanG.

Will said...

Norberto Bobbio once gave a minimal definition of politics, characterizing it as the activity of aggregating and defending our friends, and dispersing and fighting our enemies. Seems like he was influenced by Carl Schmitt also.

Corporal CloGG must hang.

Anonymous said...

Gordon Brown worked as a reporter for a commercial TV channel - STV

Overtired and emotional said...

A quick google on Oborne shows nothing between leaving Cambridge in 78 and journalism. Was he a wheeltapper or shunter? Did he design fine engineering products? Did he till the soil? The record is silent.

All that apart, I cannot remember a time when people had any respect for politicians. What I do recall is that those who entered politics, of whichever colour, did so after working their way in the world. That seldon now happens. Those entering politics do so having chosen fast tarck paths to fly into their party of choice. That is the point which Oborne somewhat inelegantly articulates.

In fact, we have really come full circle. Read Trollope, for example, and see how young men see a seat in the Commons as almost something to be had on demand.

What has been corrosive has been the treatment of the electorate. Perhaps we have universal suffrage to blame. A small electorate had to be answered to. Now, a mass electorate is something to be infantilised and bought off. Full circle again, perhaps, with bread and circuses.

The conclsuion? All is corruption.

George S said...

I think something is still working its way through the system, which has had a great traumatic shock. I'm with you on the political calling, Peter. A political class doesn't just appear, nor are sitting MPs or local party representatives the limit of the political class. A political class is a necessity but it may not be quite so easy to enter and ascend it as it seems.

As far as I recall it was the American poet e.e.cummings who wrote that 'A politician is an arse on which everyone has sat except a man.' I thought that was an easy and somewhat lazy thing to say. I do actually tune in to BBC Parliament now and then and follow one or other of the committee sessions. There is evidence of work and thought there.

Cynicism is too easy. Perhaps I am being unfair, but Zizek's own irony seems a bit glib to me at times.

The whole caboodle may collapse again. It won't be pretty if it does, but maybe then the 'imaginative leap forward' that Will talks about might happen. Who does the leaping and in which direction is not guaranteed.

Incidentally, that truly repellent Austrian hoarding on your other post, Peter, tells you something about which direction the leap could take. That has happened before. In precisely that part of the world.

Will said...

"Incidentally, that truly repellent Austrian hoarding on your other post, Peter, tells you something about which direction the leap could take. That has happened before. In precisely that part of the world."

Agreed. Which is why the cynical mind must be actively opposed. Obvious i know but still fuckking true.

Will said...

Incidentally -- George Szirtes is one of the few fuckking human beings left on this shitty planet that I would really like to drink with on a never ending bender. Wot a gent -- a real Human Being -- they are rare as fuck. That sort need to be held close and encouraged.

PS. George -- I looked in Blackwell's bookshop the other day for a book by you (any) and they didn't have a single fucking one. They are quite obviously evil fuckking macdonalds type bookshop selling cunts. I will have werDs with them the next time i am in there stealing the 70 quid type book I got about Lacanian Marxists the last time i was there.

The Plump said...

Re George:

Wot Will says.