“We don’t need these institutions,” Nigel Farage said about pillars of the EU, such as its Court of Justice (jbdodane / Alamy Stock Photo)

The revolution will be institutionalised

The great liberal promise is that power must always be held to account. Agreed political rules and formal institutions are the means to honour it. But they are under assault by a populist right—and a misguided left
December 5, 2020

The dislike of power-hungry, right-wing populists for what might be called liberal institutions is not surprising. Indeed, it has become wearyingly familiar. Dominic Cummings launched a “hard rain” on the civil service. Steve Bannon called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Donald Trump vowed to “drain” the Washington “swamp.” Boris Johnson pitted “the people” against parliament, and then proceeded to prorogue it. “We don’t need a European Commission, we don’t need a European court. We don’t need these institutions,” Nigel Farage told the EU during his farewell speech; he’s now moved his sights onto “defunding” the BBC.

Less often noted is that these same institutions—political, journalistic and cultural—are under attack by the left, too. Once committed friends of the big state, strong central government and public service broadcasting, leftists now eye those behemoths with distrust. This is a problem not only for the left as a force for change, but—to the extent it leaves institutions friendless—for society as a whole. Deeply unfashionable as they may be, institutions remain key to ensuring the vulnerable are both heard and protected, that the mighty are held to account, and that our lives are enriched with the best that culture has to offer. It is time for those of us on the left with egalitarian ambitions to recognise that those ends are best furthered through the liberal means of robust and politically responsive institutions.

State of decay

Let’s start with the state itself. The left just about remembers that the one great levelling it has historically pulled off came with the construction of the welfare state. It is still a fan of the state’s products: health, education, welfare. But the state’s characteristics—“top-down” and centralised—are considered passé. While Keir Starmer bemoans the effects of austerity and deregulation, the solution set out in his leadership bid was not primarily state regrowth, but rather to “devolve power… out of Westminster and into the hands of local communities.”

Interestingly, this disdain for the old administrative “centre” is one thing that unites most Labour factions at a time when few other things do. The middle-of-the-road Labour MPs Liz Kendall and Steve Reed both stand in the tradition of Tony Blair (who cheerfully identifies as a “liberal,” “except on law and order”), and have argued that too many public services form an unhealthy “parent-child relationship” with clients. Bright red descendants of the 1960s New Left also critique the state, this time as a post-war monolith whose main aim is to maintain a healthy workforce for capitalism, and which is blind to the diversity of its users.

Then there are political institutions, from conventional parties to campaign groups. Out go traditional hierarchies and socialist vanguardism, in come fluidity, informality and spontaneity: what the political theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call “folk politics.” Some young leftists vest great hope in the “horizontal not vertical” organising potential of social media, and are deeply sceptical of the concept of authority, which is fundamental to institutions. They rarely pause to think whether politics has headed in the way they would like during the decade or so in which social media has come to rival its institutional, “mainstream” predecessor.

“Deliberative democracy” is all the rage; elected representatives, even if we chose them, are considered quaint or corrupt artefacts of an obsolete establishment. Citizens’ assemblies—like the experiment in East Belgium that I reported on for Prospect (December 2019)—are proposed to augment ageing democratic structures, or bypass them altogether. Digital democracy, meanwhile, is offering new ways for people to participate in policy formation and public spending decisions via platforms such as the Belgian software CitizenLab, or the open source tool Decidim, which grew out of Barcelona’s experiment in radical self-government. Closer to home, a group of independents have thumbed their noses at established parties and the formalities of local government and taken over Frome town council. Their DIY ethos of “flatpack democracy” has been replicated around the country with slates of avowedly non-partisan candidates in villages, towns and cities, from County Durham to Portishead.

Campaigners fixate on scrutinising organisational “power and privilege,” and asking “who is not in the room?” Not only must internal hierarchies be abolished but groups must also reflect, in terms of ethnicity and gender, the wider population. If the emphasis on identity is most associated with the young left, it has nonetheless found its way into the Starmer stable, with his appointment of Claire Ainsley as Head of Policy. Ainsley eschews the old Marxist class struggle in favour of following the public’s “four top values—family, fairness, hard work and decency.” “Policies do matter,” she has written, “but only take you so far.” The fundamental things are “social identities”; policies are merely “clues” which tell voters “who the party is.” The task Ainsley has set for Starmer is to persuade voters that he shares their values, rather than persuading them to vote in their economic interest.

The big idea is not exactly scrapping institutions but converting them into demographic mirrors. Politics becomes a theatre of avatars, where politicians strive to “represent” through who they are, rather than representing interests and standpoints through the democratic process.

And then there’s culture. Broadcasters, museums and heritage bodies are in the grip of a pincer movement, accused by the populist right of being too “woke,” and by the left of institutional racism. The polarised response to V&A Director Tristram Hunt’s recent Prospect essay on the place of museums in the culture wars encapsulates where things stand. A left-wing academic on Twitter accused him of “dismissing” the project of “reclaiming public spaces from racist monumentalism”; a conservative historian in the Letters page of the Winter Special accuses him of looking away from Africa’s own culpability for slaving, presumably because it doesn’t fit with the supposed impulse to demonise the west. The left should be defending these shrinking islands of public value, not allowing embattled judges, the “mainstream media” and endangered aesthetes to be hung out to dry.

Brute power, correct pronouns

Well-meaning attempts to abolish hierarchy can end up pushing power underground. (As long ago as 1980, the American feminist Jo Freeman was warning her generation of 1968ers exactly this, in The Tyranny of Structurelessness). The same white guys dominate the room, but now they use the correct pronouns. As well as failing on its own terms, “horizontalism” is functionally ineffective. The Occupy movement was undone, as one former activist Yotam Marom has acknowledged, by its “mantra of leaderlessness,” which not only prevented its leaders from being held to account, but also made the movement unsustainable: “how, really, could we train new leaders,” he writes, “if there weren’t supposed to be any in the first place?” A clear chain of command is essential for getting things done.

Efforts to dismantle organisational cultures from within may aim to challenge oppression, but can end up compromising the task of creating a more equitable society. Meanwhile, the left is neglecting what should be its fundamental priorities: tackling endemic poverty and gaping inequality.

By reinforcing public hostility towards “politicians” as an undifferentiated group, the left cedes the ground of mainstream politics to the right and erodes faith in the democratic process. Public anger about a lack of fairness is turned against the very structures that could and should be tasked with securing it. Institutions are tainted with the problems they are—or should be—uniquely well-placed to fix.

Just as David Cameron’s barefoot-guru-turned-Trump apologist Steve Hilton promised that “disrupting” political institutions would bring power to the people, Silicon Valley tech barons dismiss “elitist” cultural “gatekeepers”—the infrastructure of literary agents, record company A&R departments, foundations, committees and many others. As the carefully accumulated knowledge these institutions embody is washed away, the result is not, as promised, the placing of the tools of cultural production in everybody’s hands. Instead, it is the razing of an ecosystem that has enabled—by providing decent livelihoods for generations of emerging and mid-range artists—more substantive diversity and opportunities to break through than the emerging web-based order, in which superstar names clean up while other creatives work for free.

Similarly, the undermining of media institutions has led less to vibrant grassroots journalism, but to PR-handled selective briefings and “People’s PMQs” sessions held on Facebook. Not everyone, it turns out, has the time or energy to become a citizen reporter. “Democratisation” too often ends up with surrender to monopolistic markets or, increasingly, machines.

As broadcasters like the BBC tie themselves in knots trying to appeal to young and diverse viewers and listeners, galleries and theatre groups spend ever-more time convincing funders of their commitment to “engaging new audiences.” These performative displays are a substitute for genuine equality. As our intellectual life dissolves into worthy “boxes ticked” mediocrity, wealth accumulates undisturbed.

The real rot

Holding out hope for institutions as agents of progress is complicated by their—sometimes grave—flaws. As scandals in the Catholic Church, the BBC, the army, the NHS and many more have shown, the same institutional cultures that can be a force for good can also work to protect abuse. But such flaws are not, contrary to the caricature, always a story of “closing ranks.” Failures also occur as the result of external pressures. A court system that is supposed to apply the law without fear or favour too often allows perpetrators of sexual violence to walk free. But that problem may have less to do with “cosy” professions such as lawyers “marking their own homework” than inadequate funding for prosecution services. In other circumstances, from classrooms to benefits offices, professionals have ended up neglecting their true stakeholders because they are jumping to politically-inspired performance targets.

The “democratic deficit,” likewise, is not baked into political institutions. Its origin is circumstantial and rather recent. Politics has become compromised by professionalisation: too many MPs enter the House as researchers or “Spads,” and too many leave through the revolving door into business, and especially businesses that brush up against the state.

The real rot stems not from “snouts in the trough,” but from our highly financialised Anglo-Saxon capitalism. City institutions are at least as corrupt as those in Westminster—recall the Libor rigging scandal as just one example. But the political institutions are much more visible, and so mop up disproportionate blame. While the bankers were despised after the 2008 crisis, they were resented as a faceless enemy who had engaged in trickery that few really understood. But the news was soon filled with the more vivid yet nugatory details of the MPs’ expenses scandal. It’s far easier to feel aghast at the Labour chancer who claimed for minor repairs to her partner’s seaside cottage or the Tory toff who wanted taxpayers to clean his moat than it is to appreciate how gambling through credit default swaps had blown up the economy. And let’s not forget that the financial crash resulted, ultimately, in a crisis not for banking, but for politics.

Gotta get political

Institutions have lost both support and their sense of direction because of fundamental confusion over whether or not they should be political. Bodies that should be neutral have become neoliberal, and those that should be animated with political energy have become bloodlessly technocratic.

Neutral institutions such as the civil service have even been exposed to the political fray through the charge that they are already political. And precisely because of their traditional neutrality, they cannot answer back. Thus Cummings, a political appointee, made no secret of his desire to sack officials while the Spectator garden party appears to enjoy the run of the British state. Likewise, BBC news’ meekly uncritical coverage of the government is partly the result of relentless complaints of liberal bias. When Boris Johnson launches accusations of “judicial activism,” it is he who muddles the conventional apportionment of powers by impugning judges’ motives in upholding their separation.

[su_pullquote]“Matthew Arnold wrote that the value of institutions resided in their unflustered endurance”[/su_pullquote]

While disinterested institutions are threatened by the dubious presumption that they are pursing agendas, legitimate political commitment is toxified. Blair claimed to be “beyond ideology” and only interested in “what works.” But ideologies don’t disappear, they just go undercover: he would hardly have presided over costly PFI deals or “light touch” City regulation if it were not so. Far from being suspect or sinister, ideological motivation is the lifeblood of political engagement. But as economic decision-making has drifted upwards into the boardrooms of investment banks, hedge funds and the Bank of England, political expression is drawn downwards, onto the streets and social media. It’s the bit in the middle, the political process, that’s been hollowed out.

The EU may look like a paradigm institution, but it has played its part in this hollowing out. As the late political scientist Peter Mair explained, its claim to disinterested supranational administration is an attempt to insulate itself from ideology. But scratch the surface of the EU, and a twofold political character emerges. First, there is a commitment to workers’ rights and environmental protections, which our Vote Leave government is desperate to find ways to dilute. Second, there is a neoliberal denial that the voters should be in any way involved in macroeconomic policy or the resolution between debtors and creditors—the side of the EU seen in the ECB’s disingenuously technical refusal to grant emergency funds to Syriza’s Greece during the Eurozone crisis.

Brexiteers are right to want democracy to operate at the level of the nation state. But they are wrong to embrace populism, which rejects institutions at all levels; because the sovereignty they crave relies on those institutions.

Technocracy and populism appear as opposites, but are actually flipsides: both appeal to a spurious notion of what is “good” for a supposedly homogenous populace. Politics proper, by contrast, is about competing interests. Accepting this is the first step to reviving institutions.

With nowhere to go, public desire for political agency is coalescing around individuals promoting highly circumscribed, local campaigns: Marcus Rashford’s free school meals in the holidays, Andy Burnham’s lockdown money for Manchester. Instead of funding the NHS properly, we cheer on Captain Tom Moore’s fund-raising efforts. Without institutions to corral conviction into coherent, lasting change, it quickly dissipates, or sours into conspiracy theories.

Parliament may appear lofty and out of touch, but its very elevation as a body means that citizens’ concerns can be expressed at a high level. A successful democracy relies on norms and traditions, institutional checks and balances, and unhurried deliberation.

Given the historical record, it’s tempting to subscribe to the iron law of oligarchy, first articulated by the German sociologist Robert Michels: that all complex, mature democratic institutions will eventually succumb to rule by an elite few. But the response should be vigilance rather than abolition.

Noisy (and sometimes justified) complaints that the system is rigged tend to mix up a critique of institutions’ intrinsic features with a lament about the politics of those who currently prevail. Figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US remind the left how political structures can come alive when their inhabitants are in touch with concerns that truly matter: dignity of labour, adequate social housing, universal healthcare and quality state education. Liberal democratic institutions can be liberal with a small “l.” They don’t have to be centrist dads.

To survive, though, they do need to engage a sceptical public. Electoral reform and well-crafted (not gimmicky) participatory initiatives may help. But would people itch to take part in decision-making exercises if the executive was balanced by backbenchers with clout, and if so much wealth and power wasn’t hoarded offshore?

Institutions can be local too. We once had a thriving civil society that served as a bridge between the system and the people: as well as local government, now outrageously depleted, there were the workers’ institutes and social clubs. Political parties also did a lot of this intermediary stitching together, but now they primarily muster as PR machines at election time. There is much rebuilding to do here.

Professional associations can sometimes appear to be self-serving closed shops deploying arcane language to keep the public out, but review by peers is a more reliable (and less liable to being “gamed”) route to probity and high standards than the target-chasing, performance-pay and market mechanisms of the “new public management.” Why? Because truth and for that matter high standards are not an absolute, but an accretion of record-keeping and verification, built up over centuries, and maintained by tried and tested protocols. At a time when many citizens live in separate bubbles, institutions create a shared public understanding of what reality is.

Matthew Arnold wrote that the value of institutions resides in their unflustered endurance. Yet in the current scramble to retain what little trust they still have, institutions are too easily buffeted. The problem is not complacency but panic. They lose sight of their core purpose and are compromised as a result, haemorrhaging even more trust.

If institutions are to be revitalised and valued once again, they need to have confidence in their own right to exist. Too much anger about economic injustice has been diverted onto institutional authority. We would do far better to re-establish the legitimacy of the institutions that hold the ring and then argue for change within them. While leftists echo the populist right’s calls to “rip it up and start again,” the same right-wingers are seeking to grab power for themselves. They may be “anti-system,” but they know the rules of the game.

However defective and damaged they are, institutions are our only bulwarks against demagoguery, our only scalable mechanisms for the provision of social security, and our only trustworthy arbiters of truth and cultural quality. We can decry their undeniable faults. But then one day we will look up from our Twitter threads and oh! They’ll be gone.