There has recently been a small media storm over a question in the Eton scholarship exam, in which 13-year-old boys were asked to imagine they were prime minister and to write a speech justifying the shooting of protesters. The best response I’ve seen to this was by Chris Dillow on his Stumbling and Mumbling blog, in which he points out that it shows that Eton had a far better grip on the realities of power than those on the left criticising the question. Power, he argued, is a problem for the Left. And I think he’s absolutely right.
It reminds me of what my father always used to say about why Communists routinely got elected to office in his union, the NGA. Not because the nation’s printers were Marxist-Leninists, but because everybody knew that the Communists were the best negotiators. Confidence in their theory and a belief that capitalism was inevitably failing, added to disdain for the Public School arrogance and intellectual laziness of British management of the era, gave them a confidence that meant they negotiated without fear.
Management has of course changed. It’s become more subtle and more pervasive and has a body of theory of its own. Dillow quotes The Jam – “what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” – but it’s more subtle and sinister; a matter of firsts in PPE, sharp suits, MBAs, management theory and a whole host of ideologically-loaded guidance on human resource management (the term itself, Human Resources, being a perhaps unconscious throwback to the age when factory workers were dehumanised as “the hands”). There is now a substantial, thriving body of theory to be deployed by HR departments, couched in a language that conceals the essential purpose – how to get more out of people while paying them as little – and ignoring their rights as far – as they can get away with. Much of that theory uses psychological narratives that seek to give the appearance of scientific respectability, but which are themselves deeply ideological. Describing HR departments as the advance guard of market capitalism sounds ludicrous and bathetic, until you consider what they actually say and do (when I was a civil servant, it was a standard joke that HR departments were largely staffed by people who couldn’t hack policy jobs – largely because a sharp nose for the sort of unevidenced bullshit that was the stock-in-trade of Government HR departments was one of the basic requirements for doing policy work – although with a qualification I discuss below).
And that’s just a microcosm of the whole range of assumptions deployed by those in power. You see it in the way economists and foreign policy “experts” use technocratic language to dress up political consensus often based on the flimsiest of ideological assumptions; economics is a prime example, being ultimately based on a series of axioms about behaviour which in the real world are frequently contradicted. But they are resonant, and have power; and establishments – financial, political, bureaucratic, media – unite around them. We are told that Greece and Italy have “technocratic” governments; this is a euphemism for governments pushing extreme neoliberal programmes outside the jurisdiction of democratic control.
It is therefore obvious that if you are an elected politician seeking to effect real change, you have to challenge those assumptions. If you are in office, the work of the officials who advise you and implement your policy will be shot through with those assumptions – they are the basis on which permanent bureaucracies select their senior membership. Evidence-based policy-making in state bureaucracies can often be about moulding evidence in the service of ideology, rather than challenging it; a sort of collective intellectual heading-off-at-the-pass. And you must not be seduced by the accoutrements of power – whether you are Ramsay Macdonald speculating that every Duchess in London will want to kiss him, or New Labour with its culture of self-abasement in the presence of corporate power and wealth, or One Nation Labour seeking to avoid asking any of the awkward economic questions. Your whole philosophy of Government will be based on challenge – which quite obviously is not the same thing as bullying or ignoring officials, because (writing as someone who worked in both Whitehall for two decades, some of that time on European Commission projects) officials respond to challenge and strong political leadership (while reflecting that conventional notions of “leadership” are themselves deeply ideological).
All of this is a problem for a Party like the Green Party, which opposes existing power structures but finds itself engaged in electoral politics which, if successful to any degree, means that it will find itself managing those structures and seeking to implement its vision through them. I’ve recently been re-reading Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, so the thought of how Labour was seduced by a Parliamentary system whose essential purpose was to maintain the power and authority of the ruling classes is fresh in my mind (not just on the Right – there’s a fabulous irony in the way in which Tony Benn – the nearest thing the left has to a national treasure – used to base so much of his politics on the grounds of Parliamentary sovereignty) . One of the interesting points was that of a party focussed almost exclusively on parliamentary action – and condemnatory of extra-parliamentary action – was undone in part by the way in which the establishment managed to organise its own extra-parliamentary networks like the media in opposition to elected Governments. It’s a sad but telling fact that the real spade-work of neoliberalism has often been done by parties of the Centre Left – New Labour in Britain, Roger Douglas’ Labour Party in New Zealand – who, partly influenced by what have been presented as crises, have found themselves backed into positions where they do not have the political resources to challenge existing structures and being forced into compromises with “realism” - usually defined with reference to the ideological positions of the Right. It’s part of the genius of neoliberalism, and bolsters its claim that issues of economics and distribution are in principle above democratic scrutiny. With Labour having relinquished any pretension to socialism or radical change, its successors on the Left need to draw on those lessons and to understand the need to take on the value-systems of neoliberalism on the broadest possible front.
It implies that a rising political party of the left has to develop a strategy for dealing with power – a task that’s more urgent now when the ideology of reaction is more explicit and more pervasive than it has been in the past. It needs a narrative that can challenge “realism” with evidence and build democratic consensus around that narrative, which means understanding the nature of the beast it is opposing and exposing the values of the beast, rather than accommodating them. It also needs a special kind of discipline – not the discipline of the party whip and the witch-hunt but a rigorous understanding of how any lack of unity will be exploited by your opponents, and to develop truly democratic structures that represent that.
And that is very different from taking on the establishment at its own game. This is a dangerous delusion above all for Greens, who want to argue for a new form of politics. It’s not about behaving like the establishment, but about understanding it and developing the intellectual and organisational confidence to take it on. The challenge, once you achieve elected office, is to keep a firm grip on whatever power you have, and to be able to challenge the bureaucracy and its ready made assumptions. You never, ever relinquish that power to officers or officials. Margaret Thatcher was dead right when she said that advisers advise and Ministers decide; but then Thatcher was someone who used power with deftness and skill. You do not need to share her values or approve of her methods to understand how much of her political ascendancy lay in her grasp of this fact.
Technocrats do not change the world. Greens believe that changing the world – and building sustainable systems – is not just desirable, but an absolute imperative if our planet is to survive. If we are going to do that, we need to have a strategy and a language for speaking to power with authority and confidence, which means understanding that. And none of this is easy – which is why it’s desperately important for radicals to do the theoretical spadework. The rest, as they say, is managerialism.