Politics has been unable to withstand the assault of naive individualismby Gerry Stoker / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
David Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, may briefly revive his own party and even British party politics. But he will not reverse the decline in political participation, whether measured through party membership or voter turnout (in the 2005 election, just over a third of 18 to 24 year olds voted). This decline is usually seen as an expression of discontent with the political process, and gloomy think tank reports routinely talk about an emerging crisis of democracy in Britain—and much of the rich world.
Discontent expresses itself in two main forms: disengagement from politics and frustrated activism. There are many culprits: politicians themselves, the media, the decline of transformative big ideas and the left/right axis, overcentralisation, the power of entrenched interests, the self-absorbed citizen and many others.
Yet it is hard to establish that the behaviour of politicians or the performance of political systems has declined compared to some golden era. And the evidence does not support the idea that citizens are, in general, less engaged.
A far more promising explanation is to be found in the claim that a number of misunderstandings of the political process have taken root in mature democracies. The misunderstandings arise from the spread of market-based consumerism and individualism. Politics has been infected by one of the dominant myths of our time: that the goal of life is self-actualisation. Politics as an exercise in collective decision-making has been unable to withstand the assault of a naive individualism. The idea that it is only through individual choice that we can express ourselves has reinforced a negative view of politics compared with other forms of decision-making that we experience. People have disengaged from politics and become frustrated in their activism because they do not understand the fundamental nature of politics—that in the end it involves the collective imposition of decisions, demands a complex communication process and generally produces messy compromise.
Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The genius of the market is in part that rationing is internalised—you calculate knowing what you can afford—but in the case of politics, rationing is externally imposed. You get what the system gives you. And democracy means that you can be involved in a decision that goes against you and still be forced to follow it. As a form of collective decision-making, politics, even in a democracy, is highly centralised compared to markets.