Among those of us who don’t accept that the current political and economic arrangements constitute the best of all possible worlds, there are, I think two main temptations. The first is to fall into a kind of “beautiful soul” idealism. Sometimes this means that we noisily reject all talk of reform, of change within the existing system. Thinking creatively about how to make the current arrangements work better is betrayal, talking about electoral politics is anathema. On the other hand, there are those who accept the logic of parliamentary politics in its current form and find themselves supporting the Labour party as the least bad option.
Of course, not everyone succumbs to one or the other of these two temptations. Some radicals try to build parties that can compete effectively in elections. In recent years, some have tried to use occupations, assemblies and other kinds of direct action as communicative forms in their own right, and as ways of connecting with large audiences via the major media. Though they often belong to very different traditions, they share a willingness to engage with the world as it is, without giving up on the politics of social transformation. Both of them have had important successes, though neither approach is yet poised to become a live alternative to capitalist austerity.
Still, these approaches show that it is possible to escape the current, engrossing opposition. We don’t have to choose between abstention from formal politics or engagement on terms dictated by others. We can think and act now, without losing sight of what is ultimately at stake. That is, we can organise in ways that register the existing parliamentary system in Britain, including its auxiliary institutions in the media, but that don’t accept its articulation of the political system as something defined by professionals.
“Once people begin to meet and communicate in the constituencies outside the existing party structures, we can decide how best to engage with the electoral system.”
This means taking into account the geography of political organisation. Britain’s political life takes place in defined locations – wards, constituencies and so on. An effective challenge to business as usual will engage with that business where it takes place. Once people begin to meet and communicate in the constituencies outside the existing party structures, we can decide how best to engage with the electoral system. We’ll be able to indicate our preferences beforehand and the fact that others will able to do the same will give us some clue about the context in which we act. In some places it might make sense to support an alternative candidate. In some places it might make sense to support Labour. In some places it might make sense to form a new political party to contest a particular election. But the emphasis on public communication, both face-to-face and through digital media, means that we won’t be acting in blind isolation.
Organising in ways that recognise the existing political geography doesn’t mean limiting oneself to electoral politics. Publics understood in this sense – as operant fragments of a body politic – can do as they please. Large and articulate groups of citizens can discuss the changes they want to see now, and the changes they want to see later. They can debate changes to the school curriculum and changes to local healthcare services. They can engage with their existing representatives and audition those who want to replace them. They can challenge the current arrangements at their most vulnerable point, by calling for reform of the media.
If politics is partly a matter of doing what your opponents don’t want you to do, surely media reform should be a radical priority? In the context of explicitly political publics those who identify as communists and anarchists can learn how to frame proposals for change in a way that makes sense to people who don’t share their starting assumptions, or ideology. Communists and anarchists can have serious fun, thinking about practical and incremental reform of the BBC and other important political institutions.
Most people don’t want what we have now, but most people think that nothing fundamental can be changed. The implications of intelligently presented and thoroughly reasonable reforms can be revolutionary. The apparently mild idea of civic assembly provides radicals with what we have long lacked, an audience. More than that, it provides us with an opportunity to engage with others in ways that don’t reproduce in miniature of the manipulations of the current political settlement. It also offers us an education in what can be achieved by ordinarily distracted and ordinarily well-intentioned people.
We will know we have failed if in the next election we allow right-wing nationalism to benefit from the very widespread discontent with parliamentary elites. We will also know we have failed if our fear of right-wing nationalism corrals us into reluctant support for a Labour party that doesn’t know how to deal with the fundamentals of Britain’s social and economic crisis, and that considers even mild Keynesianism a dangerous heresy. We will know we have succeeded if, the day after the election, publics organised in constituencies begin to assemble again, online and in the world, to discuss what has been achieved, and what is to be done.
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His e-book, Maximum Republic, will be published later this month.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind