Some people might see a dissonance on this blog between my professing to be an anarchist on the one hand, and my engaging uncritically in the mainstream discourse of statist politics on the other. I don’t see that as a problem at all – the kind of anarchism that I believe in (authentic democracy) is one which will take generations to make viable. It will never exist in my lifetime and will require an entire paradigm shift in public thinking and political education over a number of years to make possible. It is an aspiration – a goal; a political system which I feel is most in line with our true nature and species-needs and interests – but it is not the world we live in right now. I therefore think it would be stupid not to engage meaningfully in the world as it is at the same time as I long for a different one. That said, I was recently asked for an “anarchist reading” of what was happening here in the UK with the Liberal-Conservative Coalition. The following is my take on the situation from an anarchist point-of-view:
The anarchist reading of what’s happening in Britain with Cleggameron is this: we had an election where the central narrative given by the politicians and the media was that the British public were fed up with Labour after 13 years in power. That sense of fed-upness was not particularly clarified other than to make vague allusions to the war in Iraq and the economic meltdown – the fact that Labour had ideologically betrayed its supporters by following essentially Tory economic and foreign policies for 13 years was not mentioned and, in fact, the Tory Party themselves were now painted as the only people who could save us from disaster.
The seeming fly in the ointment came when, during the first ever UK televised debate between the three competing party leaders, Liberal Democrat, Nick Clegg, was allowed to speak for the first time and the British public actually heard him. Offering a slight alternative to the dominant two-party parameters that had been the norm of discourse for so long, his words were heralded as radical, even though nothing that he said hadn’t already been published in the Liberal Democrat manifesto earlier that week. The media and public fawned over him and he was able to get a lot of traction out of several key ideas: not renewing the UK’s “independent nuclear deterrent”, Trident; introducing Proportional Representation into our voting system instead of the unfair “first-past-the-post” system; giving an amnesty to illegal immigrants already in the country, etc…all of which were genuine alternatives to what the Conservatives and Labour were offering, making Liberal Democrat’s polling numbers suddenly go through the roof.
Of course, this was all done in the context of safely knowing that the first-past-the-post system we have in place meant it was absolutely impossible for the Liberal Democrats to actually win an election outright, so there was no danger of any of these radical promises actually being fulfilled. And alongside the pages and pages of publicity for Nick Clegg there then came the very serious discussion of the likelihood of a “hung parliament”: no one party winning a commanding majority of seats in the House of Commons. This was put over to the public as being either a) a good thing or b) the end of Britain as we know it, but in all cases it was always put over, for good or for bad, as being a fundamental change in politics. Importantly, it planted an important seed in the public’s mind at a time when faith in our political system was absolutely battered in the wake of the MP expenses scandal, economic catastrophe and two illegal and unjustified wars: there is still a left-wing alternative to Labour, so you don’t need to go off and form any new and radical parties that actually represent something new, and at the very worst, if there is a hung parliament, it will be a chance for “radical” reform of our system which will wipe away all those bad memories of what happened under Labour and let us start again.
Chomsky calls this kind of thing “change of course”. We last saw it in the UK in 1997: after eighteen years of the Tories, New Labour were voted in on a promise of change and renewal only to continue doing exactly the same things that the Conservative government had done, but in a slightly different way, while throwing enough bones to the working classes to keep them happy.
Unsurprisingly then, after the huge propaganda campaign for it across the media, come election day we had a hung parliament. Logically, the Liberal Democrats then had two options as to whom they could form a coalition government with: an ideologically linked coalition with Labour (the two parties had very similar platforms on certain key issues throughout the election and are both, allegedly, parties of the left), or a numerically strong one with the Tories, supposedly their sworn enemies on the right. Now, there are many reasons why the Lib-Dems ultimately chose to do a deal with the Tories, but all that matters to us anarchists in terms of the state protecting itself and the interests of power taking precedent over the interests of people is that, now that they have done this deal with the Tories and the dust has settled, we have seen the real uniformity and similarity of vision between supposed political opponents and a brand new narrative has been established: this is a “new politics” and it is the “change” we all voted for. All those bad things that happened in the past – they were the doing of people like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. They were not systemic problems. There is nothing wrong with our system. They were problems caused by individuals and now those individuals have gone. We can start again. This is a new era. Everything will be different now. Sure – all those nice and radical proposals in the Liberal Democrat manifesto that so appealed to the electorate and gained them all that press coverage have been scrapped in the name of “compromise”, and the policy areas on which the Conservatives stood alone, such as making drastic and immediate cuts in the budget right away and allowing public money to be spent on essentially privatizing education, which the business world adored – the policy areas that 52% of the public specifically voted against – have somehow made it through…but that shouldn’t make one assume for one moment that the notion of a hung parliament and a coalition government has simply allowed our leaders to pull a bait and switch with their manifestos, turn democracy into a pantomime, and cherry-pick out only those polices which best serve the needs of the elite while discarding all the rest and calling it compromise.
There are lots of interesting things to say about what has happened if you want to jump on board the dominant mainstream narrative of the situation and discuss the three parties involved as if they really do represent three different and unique constituencies and ideologies and as if the new coalition government really is a major change in UK politics (which is exactly what I have hitherto done on this blog), but in terms of an anarchist reading I think it’s pretty straightforward: the political elites have saved themselves once again. They have taken the public’s threatening disillusionment with a crumbling political and economic system and directed its rage and calls for change into something safe and manageable: not revolution, not radical reform, not addressing the systemic problems which are causing our continued despair…but by putting two new faces at the top and letting them perform the same old politics of yesterday in a way that makes it look different.
"Change of course." Like how Obama saved America and undid everything bad that Bush did :-)