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.
So why do we put up with it? Rich democracies depend not only on individual possession of goods but also on a shared, indivisible infrastructure, what are called public goods: a well-maintained and regulated system of roads, national defence, clean air. Decisions about these public goods need to be taken and implemented. Collective decisions, followed by centralised imposition, are required for many other reasons too: for example, the fact of conflict over scarce resources or a broad consensus supporting publicly funded schools and hospitals.
Centralised decision-making is a core part of our societies and politics is the mechanism for deciding what those decisions should be. We accept the prospect of coercion in order to live our lives more efficiently and in a way that meets our needs and interests. But politics as a form of collective decision-making relies on “voice” rather than the market mechanism of “exit.” If you don’t like something you see in a shop you can go elsewhere, but in politics the only way to get something is to use voice, and that carries far higher costs than exit. You have not only to make your views known, you also have to listen. Politics is not about individual choice, it is about collective debate. Knowing what you want, and knowing how to extract it from the political system is testing and complex.
Politics often involves a stumbling search for solutions to particular problems. It is rarely an experience of self-actualisation, of “getting what you want”; more often it is an experience of accepting second best. It works through a complex process of mutual adjustment as politicians and officials develop coping, or manipulative, modifications to their behaviour in the hope of inducing the right response from others. The results inevitably create a mix of winners and losers.
A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance, even in democratic societies—where power changes hands peacefully and citizens are protected by the law. But the disappointment has been getting worse in recent years for several reasons. First, politics seems more centralised, slow-moving and unsatisfactory when the economy and society around it are becoming more individualised and market-based. A generation ago many more people worked in big, collectivist organisations, even if they were in the private sector, and so had more of a sense of the necessary compromises and negotiations of political life.
Second, compared with one or two generations ago Britain is less hierarchical and deferential, and the idea of equal, democratic citizenship is taken far more seriously. That has raised expectations. People believe more than ever that they are entitled to have their voice heard, yet for many reasons—among them the decline of class identities and greater affluence—fewer are prepared to make the effort required to play a meaningful part in the increasingly technocratic arguments of formal politics. People expect a veto right over a game that they no longer play.
Third, far fewer people are involved in formal party politics, which means fewer people are familiar with its logic and constraints. Yet alongside the trend to disengagement, we have seen a rise of activism around single issues and campaigns. Such NGO-style politics often has an interest in stoking up dissatisfaction with party politics.
The misunderstandings about democracy, which these recent trends have exacerbated, extend to both left and right. In right-wing populist discourse, the state is seen as captured by a self-interested, liberal elite that is systematically betraying the interests of ordinary citizens. The answer is usually seen as more direct democracy in the form of referendums—especially on issues such as hanging or immigration—where the right believes it has popular opinion on its side. The left also sees politics as subject to manipulation by hostile forces—big business, for example—and proposes the countervailing force of the activist elite. Like the right-wing view, it is based on the myth of a single “people” with a single interest whose will can be expressed through more democracy. Hence the naive activist argument that because 1m people had demonstrated against the Iraq war, a large parliamentary majority for the intervention should be ignored. Politics by the largest number of people you can mobilise on the streets does not have an attractive record. Yet the government’s refusal to budge on Iraq is cited by many disappointed activists as proof that politics is not working.
So should people simply think harder about the nature of politics and be more realistic? This is part of the answer. But democracy—and the political class—also need to adapt to the new conditions and the new citizen, both more demanding and more apathetic. That means accepting that the era of mass participation politics is past, but it also means making it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to express and debate their political preferences—through appropriate use of referendums, e-democracy and so on. We need to create a new politics for amateurs. Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the 20th century. Learning to live with it will be the great achievement of the 21st century.