Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Coming Revolution

The huge election victory by the Spanish conservatives represents a rejection of the institutional left. For Daniel Hannan, it also represents a rejection of the Indignados movement that has, since the summer, been clogging up the public spaces of Madrid and Barcelona - and whose pale shadow can currently be seen clinging to the pavement outside St Paul's Cathedral. Hannan writes:

Happily, no one can now question the PP's mandate. Throughout the campaign, Rajoy promised to cut the debt and get people back to work by reforming Spain's sclerotic labour laws. The indignados turn out to be very much minoritarios: the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

EU Referendum is scathing:

It is the complete inability of the likes of Hannan to understand or even recognise this deeper mood which guides him to the belief that we are seeing a standard shift in between the normal left-right paradigm. But the mood for change is indeed much deeper. Standard politics no longer has a grip and the average politician is the object of contempt which is fast becoming universal.

Instead, we're pointed to a Guardian article claiming that, au contraire, the result was actually "a mandate for the Indignados". The evidence for this is that, while conservative voters were casting their ballots in the usual way, the creative dissidents of tent city were busy scrawling the words "ballot box" on drainpipes and encouraging people to spoil their election papers. As a result (it is claimed), there were eleven million abstentions and spoiled papers, more than twice as many as last time and more than voted for the winning party.

Nothing new there. In 2005 in Britain more people voted for no-one than voted for Tony Blair's Labour Party. This, too, was looked upon as proof of massive disenfranchisement. In the United States, the very home of democracy, it's now rare for any presidential election to have more than a 50% turnout. But abstentions and spoiled papers don't count. However much a result may be said to lack "legitimacy" as a result of widespread non-voting, it does not lack the legal legitimacy that comes with gaining the largest number of votes that are actually cast.

So are we seeing politics as usual, one mainstream party temporarily obliterating another as the pendulum swings its inevitable swing? Or is this the beginning of the great cataclysm, as the various campers-in would have it?

Over the past week I've been attending some lectures given by Professor Manuel Castells, veteran Spanish sociologist and guru of "network power", currently the leading theorist of the transformation of politics in the digital age. Castells is an old Sixties radical, and there was more than a hint of Sartre saluting the Soixante-huitards in his somewhat misty-eyed evocation of the Indignados and their primitive democracy. Indeed, he'll be giving a potted version of his lectures to Occupy London itself on Friday. (Anyone going along should be warned that his analysis is in places quite theoretical and despite many years in the United States he has a thick Spanish accent, both of which made him quite hard to follow.)

Katharine Ainger, in the Guardian, writes that the Indignados have been "exploring ideas that go far beyond party politics or even changing electoral law, such as participatory budgets, referendums, election recalls and other forms of citizen-initiated legalisation." Castells described this process in some detail: no formal leadership beyond rotating "moderators" ; decisions made by ad hoc assemblies after lengthy discussions, but which might be overturned another day if a different bunch of people turn up; no coherent ideology ("the ultimate anarchism is when they aren't even anarchists").

In the Internet age, Castells maintains,

Social change comes from communicative action that involves connection between networks of neural networks from human brains stimulated by signals from a communication environment through communication networks. The technology and morphology of these communication networks shapes the process of mobilization, thus of social change, both as a process and as an outcome.

All very interesting, I couldn't help thinking, until the police turn up and start whacking people over the head. In the end, there's a limited amount that can be achieved by passing resolutions. As distinguished and intellectually opaque as he is, I fear Castells ended up sounding all too like Laurie Penny.

But he did make one fascinating point. He compared what is happening today with what happened to European liberalism in the period before the First World War. Parties that had been what might loosely be called the "establishment left" or the progressive wing of the ruling elites, lost credibility, support and then political power as they were outflanked by new political organisations rooted in the working class. This is the scenario described by George Dangerfield in his famous study The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Castells' point is that this was a crisis in politics on the Left. Bourgeois liberal parties were eclipsed and either disappeared or went into a decades-long decline; their support fragmented, some going to the new working-class movements like the Labour party, the rest being absorbed into the mainstream centre-right. But the conservatives didn't go away, because conservatives never do: conservatism represents something eternal in politics and in the human soul.

Ultimately, then, politics reorganises itself into something new. But this process invariably takes the form of one vehicle of progressive politics losing its legitimacy, to be replaced by something that better articulates radical aspirations. It looks like transformation, but only half the political spectrum really changes, and it's always the same half.

The Spanish election result may well bear this out. Hannan is correct to see it as a rejection of the Socialist party, but the Indignados are equally right to see it as further proof that the old politics is dead. The old Left politics, at least.