Still no such thing as society?

Watching the coalition take an electoral thrashing is very gratifying.  Two parties who have executed a feral neoliberal programme for which they have no electoral mandate getting a tanking at the ballot box is good to see – and it emphasises their lack of any mandate – but the story is not really that rosy.

Most commentators have reflected on the record low turnout.  Part of this is because local government simply matters less than it did – funding decisions are taken by central Government and Eric Pickles’ localism agenda is really about the emasculation of local authorities, turning them from actively functioning government into commissioning bodies.  More people, surely, would vote if they were confident that doing so would make a difference in their communities.  And it’s clear that city mayors – rejected on low turnouts in cities like Nottingham – are a busted flush; it’s not so much that people reject the undemocratic nature of the project – itsel a symptom of the atomisation of political debate in its underpinning assumption that a powerful individual governs more effectively than a collective elected authority – that they just don’t care.

Lack of confidence in the state as an agent of progressive change runs through the warp and weft of our society.  On the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, it’s easy to see that as her most poisonous legacy – a poison that continues to affect all three main Westminster parties.  Of the three, Labour remains deeply conflicted – its active members often taking a very different line from its largely neoliberal leadership – but the fact remains that a narrative that emphasises the collective, that talks about society and the need for collective institutions, is largely absent from mainstream political debate. Instead we have hollow claims about big societies and all being in it together, and expressed through grand-projet patriotic elite extravaganzas like the Olympics and the Jubilee.  We remain a society in which the National Health Service – long portrayed as Britain’s best-loved institution – has been effectively dismembered with no effective opposition, and in which the demonisation of the poor and vulnerable as scroungers responsible for national decline is seen as both clever and acceptable.  Blaming the poor – how far have we really progressed as a political culture?

Richard Murphy’s book The Courageous State proposes a powerful analogy for society – the cappuccino cup, in which the strong black coffee is the state while the frothy milk above it is the private sector.  It’s a potent reminder that for all the rhetoric about individualism, it is collective institutions that make the expression of individualism possible; and that it is the state which allows decisions to be made democratically that control the licence of those with wealth and power.  But without a strong democracy, in all the meanings of that word, the strong black coffee becomes rancid and poisonous; it’s simply a measure of social control.  It’s a cumulative process; when 65% of the electorate stays at home, that poison is clearly at work, and allows the ideological narrative that the financial interests of the few – dressed up as the operations of the market – trumps democracy to take hold.  Who voted for the coalition’s neoliberal agenda?  Nobody.  But democratic apathy allows them to dress up neoliberalism as something to which there is no alternative.

Yesterday’s vote – I am writing this before the result of London’s X-Factor mayoral election is known – sends a powerful message within the political system.  Those who turn out to vote are rejecting an ideological agenda that has no electoral mandate in the first place.  But defeating what I regard as the toxic, anti-democratic fiction of neoliberalism needs far more than this.  It needs a real engagement, a sustained political and social movement that refuses to accept the Westminster consensus and learns how to participate again.  Democratic renewal is an atrocious cliché; but, yes, that’s what we need.  A popular, democratic – and, yes, courageous – state has to be the last best hope of getting out of this mess.

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