look mum, i done a rant
a curious trait of our ‘liberal’ ‘democratic’ ‘culture’ has emerged from the damp smoking embers of last week’s election. apart from the blatant absence of any real understanding of/deep seated belief in our parliamentary democracy (“boo hoo hoo, why isn’t there a tory government when i and my friends all voted tory???!!!!”) the complex political wranglings initiated by the lack of a clear mandate have revealed an intriguing and seemingly un-Liberal shift away from the horizon of the individual.
in all the talk of minority government and coalition the (quite predictable) general desire – which is both reflected and ultimately generated by the mass media – has seemed to be for swift decisive and unswerving resolution. it has perhaps been no real surprise to the philosophically literate reader that when scratched away the neo-liberal paintwork of absolute choice has revealed an underlying desire for (and expectation of) diktat.
one intriguing aspect of the apparent paradox of the zealous desire to choose but equally potent disgust at divergence of opinion has been the apparent inability of the average social-networker, journalist or political analyst to grasp the key principle of coalition (which we might, if we wanted to push the envelope call ‘political community’). overwhelmingly the media rhetoric has been that of ‘strength and stability’ which given the current economic climate is of course no surprise. the surprise has been the apparent lack of an ability to perceive what politicians mean when they say – over and over again – something like “we recognise that what is necessary, above all else, is a strong and stable government”. it seems clear to me that what they are referring to is a political structure that will function to govern day-in-day-out over the next few months perhaps years – i.e. one that the individual MPs and members of the various parliamentary parties can actually live with and work within given the obvious ideological variation across and within the various parties.
what many commentators – be they professional or amateur – seem to be focussing on however is simply mathematics and naked power. numbers ruled election day being as it was a shit-storm of absurdly simplified statistics and meaningless on-the-fly extrapolation and now we seem to want them (that is the numbers themselves) to solve the problems for us. we are so used it seems to numbers dictating to us their own interpretation (or rather seeming to, while the hidden manipulators of the data remain such) that we can no longer treat numbers as what they are – tools for defining problems, demonstrating transitions and modelling interactions.
306 (cons) + 57 (dem libs dem libs dem dry libs) = stronger than 258 (lab) + 57 (lib dems) + 1 (green) + 1 (NIA) + 3 (SDLP) + 3 (PC) because 363 is a bigger number than 323 and bigger is stronger. or – put into words – gordon brown lost so he should sit down and nick clegg is the ‘kingmaker’ (a phrase i hope to never hear again) because he has the casting vote. the only problem with this reasoning is that these numbers irreducibly represent human beings with brains and eyebrows and toenails and convictions. a party whip is a negotiated tool not an absolute, assumed reality. attempting to let the numbers do the work relies on the notion that what we essentially have is three politicians who each have their gangs (who will do whatever they say). perhaps this is where the leaders debates led us with their unremitting focus on three individuals. we all forgot that very few people actually get to vote for any of those men and fewer still (0) get to choose between them at the polls.
the inescapably practical reality is however that parliamentary democracy relies on dissent not conformity, and that is why negotiating a functioning (i.e. ‘strong’) government needs be careful (and yes perhaps slow) work. we have been blinded by the logic of corporations into believing that it is unproblematic to think of companies of people as been essentially a single person. corporations think, act, sue and are sued like people – but they are not people. and they can only pretend to be on the assumption of effective hierarchy. political parties do not and should not work that way and neither should a society.
the paradox of the post-modern account of individual choice is that while endless alternatives constitute a positive, the ambiguity created by a lack of consensus in collective decision making constitutes a horror. what if we actually have to make meaningful decisions amongst ourselves? what if our choices need to represent foundational convictions and/or encompass civic duties? we are used to choice without responsibility, opinion without conviction and decision without duty. we are not used to having to know why we did what we did. we are also used to being and knowing political individuals defined by the ability to choose but divorced of substance – bodies and desires and beliefs (such are our private but never public idiosyncrasies). we can (and should) invest as much of our time as we like in personal development and self-transformation behind our closed doors, creating and dreaming about and investing in faux-dynamic narratives, but we should never look to change anything other than our own reality – that would be extremism. this is what thatcher meant by “there is no such thing as society, only people” – “shut up, mind your own choices, do as you are bid”. that is the iron hand inside the ever-proferring glove.
what i perceive in the media confusion and occasional outrage that has poured out of my computer, radio and tv in the last few days is in part the shock of political personhood. real people are complex and awkward and messy. cooperation requires nuance and negotiation. society requires polyphony. all of which it seems is an inconvenience to most. a coalition government with a small (and perhaps only ever theoretical) majority will require those involved to do actual political work. and not just once. but it will also require us as the electorate to follow the workings of parliament, to engage in the ongoing political process and to rely on more than just the ability to judge someone by their dress sense or media-awareness or how many celebrities like them.
there are such things as society, community, dissent and compromise. and one outcome of what most people seem to be hailing as a disastrous election might just be that we learn as a culture to fully embrace the work of sketching out, serving and celebrating that liminal, nuanced, mediated thing we call the common good.