2000s >> 2007 >> no-1237-september-2007

Book reviews

Politics of Apathy

Why We Hate Politics. Colin Hay. Polity Press.

Colin Hay is a Professor of Political Analysis and has produced a book typical of the academic genre tightly argued and well referenced if somewhat dense, and at times, abstract. His main focus is that politics is an increasingly dirty word and he sets out to examine why.

In fairness, some of the information he presents is rather good, especially in the earlier chapters where he looks at trends in political participation within the major developed states of the world, identifying and seeking to explain declines in voter turnout, falling membership of political parties and prevalent attitudes towards democracy and participation as sampled in opinion polls. He notes that somewhat paradoxically, just as traditional political participation has declined in recent decades, so have attitudes towards democracy as a form of running society improved, with less anti-democratic sentiment than in earlier times. This seems to be because while parliamentary democracy may not be perfect, any known, established alternatives to it (e.g. dictatorship from the far left or right) have proved to be even less attractive propositions.

While just over three-quarters of people in Britain consider democracy to be the best form of government this means rather worryingly that nearly a quarter would prefer something else (e.g. dictatorship), but this is one of the highest levels of anti-democratic sentiment still existing in the Western world, in distinction to the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Japan, for instance, where pro-democracy sentiments are almost universal.

Rather like a bourgeois economist, Hay examines contemporary attitudes towards politics and political participation in terms of demand and supply. He argues that most writers examining this problem have focused principally on the demand side of this equation, in that they have been content to analyse the declining demand for political goods amongst the electorate as manifested in voter turnout, political party membership and so on. When turnout declines the blame is apportioned to the voters, not the purveyors of political goods and services like the politicians and spin-doctors, who seem content to market themselves as competing branded versions of essentially the same product.

He argues that this issue of political supply and the problems associated with it has largely been ignored. The supply side essentially constitutes changes in the content of the appeals that the parties make to potential voters and changes in the capacity of national-level governments to deliver genuine political choice to voters. Interestingly, unwitting support for this supply-side view of political decline comes from the politicians themselves, who seem increasingly keen to abdicate responsibility for the running of society and for the political choices involved in this. In this respect, Hays piece de resistance is a quote from Blairs old lieutenant, former Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer:

What governs our approach is a clear desire to place power where it should be: increasingly not with politicians, but with those best fitted in different ways to deploy it. Interest rates are not set by politicians in the Treasury, but by the Bank of England. Minimum wages are not determined by the Department of Trade and Industry, but by the Low Pay Commission . . . this depoliticisation of key decision-making is a vital element in bringing power closer to the people.

While Hay seems to imply that this is a dereliction of duty by politicians that has led to even more cynicism from the public, it is just as much an admission of their practical failure to create worthwhile change or improvement through active intervention. After all, if theres little or nothing you can do, then why not (under the guise of being democratic) effectively hand over the supposed powers concerned to someone else? Then they can, at least, take any blame that is due from a weary and sceptical public.



Hope over experience?

Pirates of the Caribbean – Axis of Hope. Tariq Ali. Verso $23.95

A need to “counter systematic disinformation by the corporate media networks” coupled with the “revival of hope and the emergence of a modest alternative to the status quo” is the stated motivation for this book. One wouldn’t expect neutral views on any topic from Tariq Ali, but however strongly he presents them they are backed up with ample evidence of and references to the truths he is presenting. What one would expect and what one gets is a well-written, clearly argued book exploring the growing movements (mainly in South America) against the Washington Consensus which “can allow no enemies of globalization.”

Included is a reminder of the ravages of primitive accumulation affecting the whole continent; a brief history of Venezuela’s politics, dictatorships juxtaposed with spells of democracy and the odd coup thrown in; military control; states of emergency; mass protests following IMF restructuring; massacres and decades of exclusion for 80+ percent of the population. The background to the founding of the Bolivarian groups (in the army and air force starting in 1978) by young army officers including Chavez. Ali’s sources telling of the programme of political interventions in Venezuela are many, including one 1960s senior CIA officer. He lists books, documents and websites for those wishing to delve further. Two of the many interesting footnotes, one re: V .S. Naipaul’s refusal to be drawn into the disinformation racket after the 2002 coup attempt and the other re: a soon to be published book by Gregory Wilpert which totally supports “with a wealth of facts” the Irish documentary film “The Revolution will not be Televised.”

Ali is overtly supportive of the moves in South America against the Washington Consensus and points to the ways the balance of power is changing.

There is a section on Bolivia outlining the struggle of the people to oust Bechtel and their water privatization scheme described as the democracy from below that is feared by neo-liberal elites everywhere. Also offered is an insight into Evo Morales’ search for “a form of radical social democracy that is totally unacceptable to the Washington Consensus and its institutions.” Ali suggests we should all look at strength in unity (e.g. Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia), “All Andean paths that divert from the neo-liberal motorway will be worth exploring.” He gives some details of his first trip to Cuba in 2005 and reminds us of the 1962 Second Declaration of Havana expounding that their struggle was continental and anti-imperialist, as Chavez and Morales say now. Visiting the University of Information Technology he discovered Richard Stallman’s free software GNU/Linux to be the system of choice. When Ali met Stallman earlier in Caracas, at which time Stallman was ‘Linuxing the country’ and looking to do the same in Cuba, Stallman told him that China, too, had been very interested until they learned they couldn’t charge users for the facility.

The appendices prove informative too, with first-hand information, straight from the mouths of several involved horses, information we are not privy to from the general media. Evo Morales’ speech ‘In Defence of Humanity’ in Mexico City talks of ending selfishness and creating solidarity and mutual aid, of organizing and uniting against the (neo-liberal, imperialist) system, of strengthening the power of the people. The messages from this book are rousing, loud and clear, if, unfortunately, they are not the whole story; end of neo-liberalism and of empire, but no mention of the end of capitalism. According to Tariq Ali, “Hope has been reborn and that is half the battle won.” However inspirational it may be socialists suspect that this will in all likelihood be another triumph of hope over experience.



Life of an anarchist

The Anarchist Geographer: An Introduction to the Life of Peter Kropotkin. Brian Morris. Genge Press, 2007. £8.

This is a short (100 page), readable biography of the anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin. Born a prince in 1842, he became an anti-Tsarist revolutionary for which he was arrested and imprisoned in 1874. Two years later he managed to escape and left Russia, not to return again till the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917. He died there in 1922.

Before he became a revolutionary he had been involved in original geographical research in Siberia and had been elected a member of the Russian Geological Society. In exile he earned a living as a scientific journalist and writer. Hence the title of Morriss book. One series of his scientific writings was later published as Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, which became a socialist classic, opposing the Social Darwinists who saw the struggle for existence as the only factor.

In the 1870s when Kropotkin first became active in revolutionary and working class politics in the West in Switzerland almost all those involved, including those who were later to describe themselves as anarchists, called themselves socialists. So did Kropotkin, though he preferred to call himself a communist to distinguish himself from those who wanted from each according to ability, to each according to work done from those like him who wanted to each according to needs.

Kropotkin has been accused of (or credited with, if you prefer) creating a distinct (anti-) political philosophy called anarchism which embraced anybody who was against the State, even if they werent socialists/communists. In fact, this includes vociferous anti-socialists like the followers of Stirner, Thoreau or Tucker (individualist anarchists) or Proudhon (market anarchists).

Quite why Kropotkin felt and why some modern anarchists still feel some sort of affinity with these open anti-socialists is difficult to understand. But then anarchists do make the mistake of seeing the state, rather than capitalism, as the cause of workers problems, whereas the state is a consequence of economically-divided class societies.

Kropotkin wasnt consistently anti-state anyway. When WW1 broke out he immediately supported France (and Britain) against Germany, on the grounds that the German state was the greater evil.


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