Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is democracy dying of consumption?

In a recent lecture, titled ‘A God of One’s Own’, Ulrich Beck proposes that there’s been a decline in people’s allegiance to religion (as a system or institution) but not in people’s tendency to religiosity (as an attitude or outlook).

He suggests that in developed countries, the religious impulse is taking a more individualised form, with an eclectic spiritual consumerism taking ground from authority, organisation and orthodoxy. This leads to people’s ‘faith’ becoming more personal, emotive and simplistic rather than being built around given sets of doctrine. As such, Beck argues that modernity is more about pluralism than secularism.

The same sort of thing’s been happening with public attitudes to politics.

As Gerry Stoker [PDF] puts it: “There is little evidence of a decline in interest in the content of politics in contrast to evidence of a decline of faith in the formal practice of politics.”

People still care about issues, but feel increasingly reluctant to get involved with the structures and processes of parties, elections and government. Let’s take an example.

‘That’s not what I ordered’

On the five-year anniversary this month of the large demonstrations against the Iraq war, John Harris wrote:

the march both dramatised and accelerated an ongoing disconnection between millions of Britons and the people who affect to speak in their name. In other words, you might like to think of Saturday February 15 2003 as the day that politics stopped working.

But the protest also represented something else, focused not so much on the issue of Iraq as on the sense that mainstream politics was drifting away from the public, and at least some of the marchers felt that in protesting, they might somehow drag Westminster back. …
To expect the energy created that day to find any long-lasting outlet was perhaps to misunderstand how modern politics works. In different times, some of the marchers might have been eventually propelled towards the Labour party, but the serial contortions of the Blair years surely ruled that out.

That last sentence is particularly stupid: no waffle about “serial contortions” is needed to see why a protest against government policy won’t propel people to join the governing party. Anti-war parties – most notably the Lib Dems and Respect – did attract some of the protestors, as evidenced by their performance at the 2005 election. But that support has not been sustained.

The rest of Harris’s argument – that “politics stopped working” and that “mainstream politics was drifting away from the public” – is well rebutted by Gerry Stoker (writing two years previously [subscription-only]). He notes a phenomenon, observable on both left and right, that he calls “the myth of a single ‘people’ with a single interest”:

Hence the naïve 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.

But Harris is half on to something: the psychological gap between formal politics and the public has widened. This is not, though, because Westminster has drifted away.

Hell is other voters

Stoker’s view [PDF] is that political culture has become more individualistic and consumerist while political institutions – of necessity – have remained collectivist. His argument is worth quoting at length:

the increased discontent with formal politics is better explained by a number of misunderstandings of the political process that have taken hold in the discourse of democracies. The pressure comes from the increased prominence given to market-based consumerism in the culture of many democracies. As a result many citizens fail to fully appreciate that politics in the end 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 political processes that are essential to steer government struggle to deliver against the lionization of individual choice in our societies. Democracy means that you can be involved in the decision but [that] the decision is not necessarily your choice yet you are expected to accept the decision. …

Second politics as a form of collective decision-making relies on voice rather than the market mechanism of exit to enable you make your views known. 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 more costs than exit. But expressing your interest or opinion is only the start of a more general challenge in politics that of communication. You have to not only make your views known, you also have to listen. Politics is not about individual choice it is about collective debate. Within it communication is a difficult time-consuming and problematic business. …

Politics often involves a stumbling search for solutions to particular problems. It is not the most edifying human experience. It’s rarely an experience of self-actualization and more often an experience of accepting second best. … The results tend to be messy, contingent and inevitably create a mix of winners and losers.

So it turns out that a propensity to disappoint is [an] inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies. I think that a substantial part of the discontent with politics is because the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. As a result too many citizens fail [to] appreciate these inherent characteristics of the political process in democratic settings.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this. Even in the cases of non-party movements that revel in their own communality and champion causes that are far from self-interested, many of those involved do seem to be acting as political consumers. They raise their voices with the aim of achieving a certain outcome, but if this isn’t forthcoming, or if they get an apparent breakthrough that turns out not to work out they way they’d have liked, or if the process of implementation takes time and negotiation, their engagement isn’t sustained.

(Make Poverty History springs to mind. How many wristband-wearers are still keeping tabs on development policy?)

Such political consumers seek to get what they want without much effort. If they can’t, then they get disillusioned with politics.

Exitism: getting out with your head held high

Actually, though, there’s another thing that can equally well happen to them. Some of them may well maintain their involvement to some degree – or at least their interest – but their disillusion will be with formal politics rather than politics itself. This reaction is still a form of political consumerism; but the aim isn’t to get policies implemented. The far narrower aim is to identify oneself (publicly and privately) with a certain position, to reaffirm one’s own values. Individualised consumerist politics can only work as a means of self-actualisation by dissociating the expression of ideals from the achievement of outcomes.

Consider the tens of thousands who quit Labour in the late 1990s and early 2000s because Tony Blair was taking the party too far to the right. Most of these people will have later been against the Iraq war, and many will have gone on the protests. In light of the failure to stop (British involvement in) the war, how many now regret their marching? Very few, I’m sure.

But I’ll bet virtually none now regrets leaving the party when they could have stayed and worked to keep its centre of gravity a bit more to the left. That would, I think, have been likelier to stop the war (or at least get a bigger parliamentary vote against). But, of course, it would have taken more time, effort and compromise.

‘Old Labour’ had problems with entryism by Trots who wanted to shift the party leftwards; ‘New Labour’ has had far more of its members to the left of the leadership. Many of the soft left, despite having strength of numbers and the inertial advantage of defending the status quo, chose not to remain and instead pursued a strategy of ‘exitism’. The result was a government even less to their liking. But they, at least, kept their hands clean.

When one’s aim in politics is simply to identify oneself as pro-this and anti-that, “the market mechanism of exit” will work just fine.

(The SDP defectors’ main achievements were a more leftwing Labour and a stronger Thatcherite government; but they did at least put the effort into forming their own centrist party.)

It’s often remarked that public engagement with politics these days is more likely to be through campaigning NGOs rather than parties contesting elections. Is this, if it’s sustained, an adequate replacement? I don’t think so. Of course, such groups are a vital part of civil society, but they can’t plug the gap: we still need people to legislate and govern, and so we still need electoral parties with as good connections to ordinary people as possible. A move from party membership to NGO membership means that the link between the grass roots and elected representatives becomes less direct.

Also, as Paul Skidmore [subscription-only] contends:

In the first place… civic groups have switched “from membership to management” over the last few decades. They are more professionalised, relying on media campaigns and lobbying rather than mass participation. Second, because they are issue-based and depend heavily on targeting national government through the media, these organisations tend not to have strong local roots or to offer their members the same training in the civic disciplines of organisation, negotiation and coalition-building. The effect is that their relationship with their members is closer to that of retailer and consumer than citizen.

Trammeled consumerism?

So, is consumerism an unstoppable threat to the culture of collective, deliberative politics? No: consumerism isn’t a universal acid but just one facet of the modern Western psyche.

As Ulrich Beck suggests about religion – that individualistic modernity has meant a decline in affiliation to religious institutions but not in personal faith – so it’s true that people’s political concerns for ‘the common good’ still exist despite falling formal involvement. And, indeed, the causation works both ways: politics influences the practices of consumption.

A paper by Alice Malpass, Clive Barnett, Nick Clarke and Paul Cloke [DOC] argues that “the archetypal individualised, rational, egoistical consumer” is a myth:

If consumerism is indeed an important contemporary political rationality, then it increasingly works not through the promotion of unfettered hedonism and self-interest, but by making problematic the exercise of consumer choice in terms of various, ever proliferating responsibilities and ethical imperatives. We argue that people are increasingly expected to treat their conduct as consumers as subject to all sorts of moral injunctions: in their capacity to exercise discretion through choice, in the everyday activities of social reproduction mediated through commodity consumption, and in relation to a very wide range of substantive concepts of the good life.

And Mark Bevir and Frank Trentmann [PDF] discuss “the well-documented social nature of consumption, where desiring, shopping, using up and throwing away are not viewed as separate individual acts of choice but as part of sociability, children’s health, family life, and so forth”. They construe consumerism not as an exercise in self-interest but as a form of social – and increasingly political – dynamic:

At a time when democracy and political parties are undergoing a crisis of legitimacy in several advanced affluent societies, choice and consumers offer a fresh resource for reinvigorating democratic culture. … [This] might be uncomfortable for established parties, but it is hard not to see that political consumerism has opened up fresh channels between private and public lives that had been blocked off in the older liberal model. If political consumerism has been criticized for its materialist characteristics and for failing the test of deliberative reason or creating a public consensus, its flexible, diversified mode has managed to expand the terrain of political action, identifying areas of change, and it has thus led to a more direct engagement with policy, holding policy-makers as well as companies accountable for problems such as high prices, poor working conditions, problems of public health, and environmental pollution. There are seeds here of a more interactive process of governance.

This is true: culture is more individual-focused (though not necessarily selfish), which opens up all sorts of possibilities for political reform. And yet, just as we aren’t purely consumers, so politics and government can’t become wholly consumerist. Sure, we might move towards a choice-based model of healthcare provision, let’s say. But the policy decisions to set up and fund such a model have to be made collectively and deliberatively. Gerry Stoker’s point stands: political consumerism can only have a viable role against a backdrop of complex, often-disappointing compromise arrived at collectively and then imposed.

We all know that consumerism can promote emotional, simplistic short-sightedness – but it doesn’t turn us entirely into infants. We still know that there’s a bigger picture. We still (most of us) know that public goods have to be provided based on negotiated settlements, which we won’t generally be directly involved with ourselves. We still know that we often won’t get the policies we want – and that it has to be this way.

We have to remember these things, and be reasonable in making political demands. It would help, too, if politicians, pressure groups, business and the media would show more maturity and humility.


Anonymous said...

As cogent and thoughtful as ever.

Anonymous said...

We have to remember these things, and be reasonable in making political demands

What rallying call, 'let's all be reasonable'. Not much in the way of genuine advancement has come about in making 'reasonable' demands of the establishment. All that analysis and you still can't work out why we don't think belonging to the Labour party is worth the candle!

Tom Freeman said...

I originally drafted that sentence as "be reasonable in the political demands we make". Then I changed it because my point was about the method of engagement (be willing to negotiate and compromise rather than just insisting), and I didn't want to seem as though I was urging people to neuter their ideals for the sake of not rocking the boat.

The boat needs constant rocking. but kicking it a couple of times and then swimming off when it doesn't capsize won't suffice.

Paulie said...


Sure - resonableness in the face of the huge resources of a bureaucracy make for sclerosis and a creeping suffocation of the individual by the state.

But, at the same time, a huge amount of damage is done to a political culture where the phrase 'be reasonable, demand the impossible' isn't just quite a funny line, but a way of looking at our relationship with the state.