The Bickerstaffe Record

The world beyond West Lancashire

Hopi, Steve, and conceptions of power

03.27.09 | Comment?

Hopi Sen has an interesting post up about why we need politics and why it will work in the end, which also reminds me that I wanted to link to a post on the Compass site by Steve Goodrich, about a seminar he went to run by Colin Hay, my favourite current British politics academic, and Gerry Stoker, possibly my least favourite, on ‘Why We Hate Politics’.

The start of Hopi’s post is inconsequential, dealing with the Orwell Prize and who won it or whatever. (Please remind me I said this in the very unlikely event that I ever get a prize for anything.)

But he soon gets down to business, defending the integrity of party politics against the doom-merchants he was being prize-awarded with, whom he reckons are mostly just anti-everything apart from what they’ve got to say themselves.

He singles out Nick Cohen, whom I stopped reading about three years ago and can’t believe anyone takes seriously any more.

His basis for the defence of politics is straightforward. While Nick Cohen et al. just like to ‘lecture’ people about how right they are, and are therefore essentially useless, politics is about listening to what people (especially voters) want and making sure as best you can that they get it; the most successful politicians, and parties, are the ones that do this best.

That’s an appealing idea in its simplicity. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

Not very, very wrong, in a Tom Harris MP wrong from the bottom of his boots upwards kind of wrong, but still a bit wrong in his interpretation of the role of politics, especially socialist politics. (To be fair, he modulates his view a bit in the comments, but I’m not going to let him off just because of that).

He’s wrong because the world is more complex than his relatively straightforward Downsian model of party and electoral competition would have it be.

In fact, it’s one of his regular right wing commentators who brings the flaws in Hopi’s argument to the fore. If effective politics is simply a question of doing what voters demand, says Mr RW Frothatmouth, why does a supposedly listening Labour government not do the things people say they really want, like stop all immigration today, stop all benefits for lazy scroungers, slash taxes, and so on and so on.

And, if you follow Hopi’s acceptance of the Downsian model through to its logical conclusion, that is indeed what should happen. Indeed, many on the Left would argue (and I would largely agree with them) that this is precisely what New Labour has been doing for the last twelve years, with its fabled ‘focus groups’, and Hazel Blears/Phil Woolas insistence that Labour must respond to the demands of the people, more or less whatsoever those demands are. And that is largely why the Welfare Reform bill has just been passed.

For Mr Frothatmouth of course, this veering to the right, this turn to the draconian because New Labour think they must be as vindictive to the poor as the non-poor would have them be, will never be enough. He will always want something more savage in the way of tax cuts, cuts to public spending, and he will see it as his right, because he is a middle Englander, and the middle Englander is right. Because the Daily Mail says so.

Real politics, real socialist politics, on the other hand, is not about the Downsian model of electoral competition. Real socialist politics is about power, and about the way power is exerted in a complex capitalist society. This is the point that Hopi misses.

In his post, Hopi assumes, at face value, that voter demands are legitimate demands, made by individuals, aggregated to form a voting public, who have all the important information they need to make decisions on what they want, and are perfectly free to choose what they want of the government. This is the classic pluralist stance of Downs, who says this is the case in a modern democratic state (in his case the US).

What this stance ignores is the subtleties of power, or as Lukes set out in his seminal work (‘Power: A radical view’), the ‘faces of power’.

The first face of power is direct coercion – making people vote one way or another, for example – and in general such coercion is not needed in modern democratic states, though it always remains available if need be.

The second and third faces of power are the ones that really count – the capacity of capitalism to set the agenda for what the public thinks its demands might be, and the capacity to formulate those demands for the public, most obviously through its control of the media and advertising but also through its control of the main financial institutions and of the state machinery, and what – a long time ago but still relevantly – Heclo and Wildawsky called ‘The Private Government of Public Money’.  It’s a little bit dated also now, but Dominic Hobson’s ‘National Wealth: Who Gets what in Britain’ is still a good read on this.

Through these mechanisms, capitalism, or the Right if you prefer, quite literally tells us what to think.

The job of the socialist politician is not to listen to what the public have been told to think, but to combat the powers that have told people what to think, by offering a different version. That is real politics, because it acknowledges and deals with power.

The tragedy of new Labour is that it has forgotten this tenet of socialism, and accommodated itself to the Downsian view of the world. In so doing, it has helped to create the world that Hopi abhors – the anti-politics of Cohen and co.

And here is where Steve Goodrich’s post on Colin Hay’s ‘Why We Hate Politics’ seminar comes in, because this is what Hay has to say (in his eponymous book) on the relationship between (Hopi’s) model of electoral competition – the party best at meeting overt voter demands should win – and the political nihilism of his fellow guests, not to mention the wider disaffection from all things ‘politics':

‘The intuitive notion of of electoral competition as analogous to that between rival businesses for market share and the associated intrumentalization of the appeal to voters-as-consumers may well have served to render the so-called rational voter paradox a self-fulfilling prophecy. The rational voter paradox- that in a democratic polity in which parties behave in a ‘rational’ manner, it is irrational for citizens to vote (since the chances of the vote they cast proving decisive are negligible)- has always been deemed a central weakness of rational choice theory as a set of analytical devices for exploring electoral competition. Yet, as the above analysis suggests, in a word constructed in the image of such assumptions, it may become depressingly accurate. Political parties behaving in a narrowly rational manner, assuming voters to behave in a similarly rational fashion, will contribute to a dynamic which sees real electors (rational or otherwise) disengage in increasing numbers from the facade of electoral competition.’

This is the key point that Steve glosses over in his otherwise very good review of the seminar he attended (to be fair, Hay may have laid a very different emphasis to the one he does in his book).

Hay lays the blame for widespread political disaffection and disengagement, and the concomitant rise of the far right to fill the ‘vacuum’, not on changing social norms or (as Steve seems to suggest) the government’s current economic performance, but on the very Downsian characteristics that we ascribe to our politicians, and which as a political class they – including New Labour – have been all to happy to identify with for too long.

Politics is in a mess, says Colin Hay, because the (supposedly) political class has forgotten what politics should be – that it should not primarily be about marketing techniques, that it should primarily be about who exets power.

In my own little way, in my own little Council world, that is what I try to remember. I try to draw out where the subtle power – the second and third faces of power – are being exerted by my Conservative Council, in ways that would have us believe that what they are doing or advocating is just ‘commonsense’. I’ve tried to do it here and here, for example.

I am confident I am on the right track because, just for doing this, I have had legal threats (about which I prefer to say nothing at the moment).  That is, on occasions where I’ve been able to strip away the veneer of commonsense and expose where the power is being exerted in a ‘second or third face’ way, the first face of power – that of coercion to silence via the law – has been swiftly enough brought into play.

Of course, my attempts to shatter the capitalist facade are insignificant, indeed pitiful in the grand scheme of things. The reason I raise them is that they may act as some kind of model of praxis for proper politicians – the proper socialist politicians we now need, who are prepared to do the hard yards in the face of the institutionalized power bases of the media, (not least through creating alternative socialist media), and to proclaim politics for what it needs to be – power struggle, not the power consensus of an ex-politics, depoliticized in the interests of capital.




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