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June 19, 2013

Bottom-up needs to be more joined-up

The failure of our politicians to match up to expectations is one of the great disappointments of our time. Whether trying to assert control over the tax dodging global corporates, promoting the living wage or introducing gay marriage, the performance of politicians has consistently disappointed. But writing in the Guardian, Neal Lawson argues that all is not lost. He points to the emergent success of self-organised, single issue, resistance movements.  The only problem he sees, is that they continue to be so disconnected from one another.


Neal Lawson, The Guardian, 17th June

Must politics disappoint? This is the public affairs question of our age. Our economy is still in crisis, those who are least to blame are paying the highest price, and our environment is heading towards disaster. How is anything ever going to change?

We already know what needs to change. The economy must be made to serve the interests of people and the planet. These always inseparable interests coalesce around polices like a real green new deal, a financial transaction tax to stop wild speculation, and the breakup of the banks to end the “too big to fail” culture. Then a living wage, ratios to control runaway executive pay and a shorter working week. A myriad of other desirable ideas could be added.

The problem is that no one knows how things might change. The political parties merge into one another. Deep in the subtext real differences exist, but they don’t amount to much in practice. That’s because the old parties on their own are incapable of making the transformational change that’s needed.

Power and formal politics have been separated. Increasingly, power exists in two places. First, it is found at the level of global financial flows – over which national governments have little, if any, purchase. When investment decisions became the preserve of rootless private corporations, so demands for low taxes and free markets became irresistible. Control of the economy was severely reduced and democracy became the servant of capital.

As a consequence there is a pervasive feeling that our lives are beyond our control. Decisions are made elsewhere. And nothing any national politician is saying or doing will change that. The story of the last 40 years has been a gradually diminished party political system. Because of their ebbing power no party will dominate, and coalitions will be the rule not the exception. Even if Labour were to win the next election, it’s likely to be with 35% of those who vote, or 20% of the voting population. How can we create a responsible capitalism from such a narrow base?

But, in tandem, something equally important is happening. Power, as well as being globalised, is bubbling up from the self-organising grassroots. A culture of self-confidence in our views, voices and abilities is being enabled as the internet, social media and older organising techniques help people create new sources of influence.

This means the BNP was not defeated by legislation but by the Hope Not Hate campaign; the living wage is not an act of parliament but down to the organising skills of Citizens UK; tax avoidance isn’t a national agenda item because of the Treasury but the actions of UK Uncut. It is the disability movement that has drawn our attention to the unfair and undignified tests disabled people now face to obtain the support they need; gay marriage is becoming a reality because gays and lesbians demanded it; and it is black youth who have highlighted the grossly disproportionate stop and search policy they frequently endure. What all these movements and campaigns have in common is that they are driven from below; often involving democratic and non-hierarchical structures. This is where their power comes from.

But these are mostly single issues, and the multiple crises we face demand joined-up answers. The political parties we can’t live with, we also can’t live without. The urgent task at hand is to construct a politics that not only joins the concerns of all of us who seek a much more equal, sustainable and democratic world – a good society – but which finds a way of linking formal and informal politics.

But change is complex. No single issue or party can usher in a better future alone. Formal, vertical parties are going to have to work together, and also find ways to embrace the energy and idealism of this new (and not so new), informal, bottom-up politics. So the challenge to the parties is to democratise internally and practise pluralism externally. The challenge to the movements is to shift beyond single issues and join forces to tackle the root causes of markets that are too free or too powerful, and states that are too remote or too intrusive.

The defining political trait of the future will be an “open tribalism”. This recognises that people start from a party or a single-issue bias but that to succeed they are going to have to be pluralistic and respectful of others. Change will come from consensus, not control.

If we are to flourish as fully rounded human beings then the dividing lines are clear. They are between those who want to protect their privilege and the rest of us who want no more than decency, respect and some semblance of economic and environmental balance, but also between the old, closed tribes of heavy-handed politics and the new, open movements for change. The ideas, policies and structures to build a good society lie all around us. It is in our gift to construct them in a way that, in the words of the academic and writer Raymond Williams, “makes hope possible, rather than despair convincing”.