Bored with politics?
Politics is not just about the antics of career politicians – or at least doesn’t have to be
If you ask people “what is a party?” they are likely to reply something along the lines of “a group of people who want to get elected”. If you then ask them why they think these people want to get elected, the reply, if they’re feeling charitable, will be “to do things for the country” or “to help other people”. If they’re not feeling charitable, they’ll say “to help themselves” or that “they’re just in for what they can get”.
The truth – both as to what people think and what politicians want – will be something in between. Since up to 70 percent of people turn out to vote at elections and vote for politicians and their parties, they can’t really think that all that politicians want to do is to line their own pockets or further their own careers. They must be giving them some credit for wanting to do more, otherwise they’d be exposing themselves as fools for voting for them. And some politicians can show that they genuinely want to help other people, while at the same time of course making a career and some money for themselves.
Being a politician is a sort of profession, like a lawyer or a doctor. A politician’s trade is to get into parliament or the local council to run the administrative side of capitalism. To do this, they must get elected and, to get elected, they must promise to do things for people; they must find out what’s worrying people and then promise to do something about it.
This is why parties don’t need principles. Or, put another way, they only need one principle (if it can be called that) and that’s “get elected”. In the past some parties, the Labour Party for instance, used to campaign to try to win people over to their point of view. Not any more. Today politicians just promise people what they want to hear.
Although Blair, Mandelson and New Labour earned themselves a reputation for cynicism by the way they raised this to a fine art, actually the best practitioners of this have been the Lib-Dems, who’ve long had “focus groups” to tell them what to promise people in some area they’ve targeted. Now the Tories under Cameron are practising this in a more serious way too.
This kind of politics – which is dominant today – rests on a number of assumptions and has a number of consequences.
1. It accepts the status quo. It accepts capitalism and seeks merely to work within it. Politics becomes a question of choosing the best capitalism-management team from amongst competing groups of politicians.
2. Politics becomes a profession. You vote for a politician to do something for you and you reward them for the service by voting for them.
3. Politics becomes an activity in which only a minority – the professional politicians – participate. Most people’s only involvement in politics is, literally, once every few years when they go and put an X on a ballot paper. Then they go home and let the person elected get on with the job.
4. Elections become more and more a sort of referendum, a plebiscite on the record of the outgoing government or council. People’s participation in politics becomes simply giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the outgoing administration. If they don’t mind what they’ve done, they vote them in again. If they’re not happy then they vote in some other lot.
Politics becomes a spectacle in which people are just passive spectators watching the goings-on of politicians. The media – especially TV – play to this, presenting politics in between elections as a soap. But it is not even a good spectacle. It’s boring and the actors are all second and third rate. It doesn’t work either. Nothing seems to change and nothing does change. The same old problems continue, with the professional politicians only being able to tinker about and patch things up a little.
The end result is that politics in seen as completely boring and that people don’t want to know about it, except in the few weeks before a general election. People know that voting doesn’t change anything and that the only power they have is to vote the Ins Out (or In again) or vote the Outs In; to change the management team, while their day-to-day lives are unaffected and unchanged.
No wonder people become apathetic, resigned and cynical.
A different politics
Can things change? Yes, they could but it’s not going to be through conventional politics, only through a quite different kind of politics. A politics which rejects and aims to change the status quo. A politics which involves people participating and not leaving things up to others to do something for them.
Besides involving people surrendering their power to act to others, conventional politics is based on the illusion that what happens depends on what the politicians in power do; that politicians really do control things; that politics is in the driving seat. But this isn’t the case. It is the way society is organised to produce things that is the main factor determining the way we live and what happens – and what doesn’t happen. In other words, what is important is the sort of social and economic system we live under, not which party of professional politicians controls the government. That’s why changing governments changes nothing.
The present system – capitalism, with its class privilege, production for profit and coercive state machine – is by nature incapable of being made to serve the common good; as a profit-making system it has to put making profits before meeting people’s needs. Before we can think about achieving a better world, it must go. What is needed, as a framework within which to solve the economic and social problems we now face, is a classless society where productive resources are held in common, where there’s production to satisfy people’s needs and not for profit and democratic administration not government over people. In a word, socialism (in its original sense).
When more and more people realise this they will begin organising for it, in the places where they work, in the neighbourhoods where they live, in the various clubs and associations they are members of, but, above all, they will need to organise politically. Who says “politically” also says “political party”. So we are talking about a “socialist party”.
Unfortunately so associated has the word “party” come to be with conventional politics that many people (including our anarchist critics) imagine that we, too, are proposing just another organisation of political leaders for people to follow; that we’re saying “vote for us and we’ll bring in socialism for you”. But we’re not. By “socialist party” we mean a party of people who want socialism, people organised democratically to win control of political power for socialism.
Obviously, a mass socialist party like this does not yet exist, but it is our view that, for socialism to be established, it should. Without having any delusions of grandeur, we try to organise ourselves today in our small party in the same way we think that a mass socialist party should organise itself: without leaders and with major decisions being made democratically either by a referendum of the whole membership or by a conference of mandated delegates and other decisions by elected committees. The “socialist party” would be a mass movement of people who wanted socialism, not a party of professional politicians or a party of professional revolutionaries or even of people who wanted to serve the people.
The same goes for participation in elections (since a mass socialist party would contest elections). Here too, we try to anticipate how we think a mass socialist party, when it emerges, should behave. Its candidates should not seek to be leaders, separate from those who vote for them, but should be standing as delegates to be mandated by those who want socialism. This is why when we stand in elections all we advocate is socialism. Not reforms of capitalism, not promises to do things for people, as the conventional parties do.
If you want a better world, you are going to have to bring it about yourselves. That’s our basic message. It’s no good following leaders, whether professional politicians or professional revolutionaries. In fact, following anybody (not even us) won’t get you anywhere. The only way is to carry out a do-it-yourself revolution on a completely democratic basis. Democratic in the sense that that’s what the majority want. And democratic in the sense that that majority, rather than following leaders, organises itself on the basis of mandated and recallable delegates carrying out decisions reached after a full and free discussion and vote.
That’s what politics can be, and should be. And has to be if things are ever to change.