Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The politics of the present

The case for hanging on to your vote in the general election, while exercising your democratic right to go beyond the present exhausted political system, has more to do with the way we look at the world than most other considerations.

What it boils down to is a choice between 1) a view that accepts that the world external to our thinking is in constant flux and change or 2) an outlook that bases itself on more or less eternal “truths”.

The first approach to analysing the real world acknowledges that all phenomena – including society and its component parts – eventually assume entirely new qualities, often within an old form. They are both the same and yet not the same at any given moment and this is the result of internal contradictions working themselves out as a process.

By contrast, the second outlook is inevitably rooted in the past. Although this view allows for changes, these are viewed as incremental and incidental. They are not allowed to invalidate previous assumptions. Needless to say, this empirical ideology predominates within contemporary capitalist society and helps to reinforce the status quo.

In our view, attitudes to the question of Parliament and the general election, which is likely to be called a week today and held on May 6, are dependent upon analysis. This must set out the qualitative changes that have taken place within the state and political system since working men won the vote in 1867. For example:

Is New Labour a modern form of the original Labour Party or an entirely new quality in the shape of a capitalist party produced by the corporate-led globalisation of the last 30 years? All the evidence and experience points to the second conclusion.

Is Parliament the centre of the political system? Was it ever? If so, it was a long time ago. As political scientist Anthony King notes in his recent book The British Constitution:

Commentators frequently refer to the decline of parliament – that is, the House of Commons – in recent decades, but parliament’s decline as a legislative assembly began in the middle of the 19th century and was complete by, at the latest, the 1880s or 1890s. Nothing much of constitutional significance has happened [to parliament] since then… It goes without saying that the British House of Commons is now, and has been for a very long time, the archetypal arena assembly. It is simply not equipped to function as a transformative legislature, and of course governments of all political parties are anxious to ensure that it never, ever becomes so equipped.

Can voters influence the course of events by participating in local, European and parliamentary elections? That is no longer possible.

As a result of globalisation, the capitalist democratic process has been undermined further. There is now a seamless relationship between government, state, corporate and financial power as well as external undemocratic bodes like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. The government is accountable not to Parliament but to the markets. MPs are reduced to various levels of corruption to fill in their time.

So the case for taking the right to vote into new territory is based on what has changed. It’s time to move democracy on, and give the right to vote a new significance and weight. We could do this by encouraging people to create their own democratic bodies like People’s Assemblies. This would challenge the power of the existing state to decide, for example, that ordinary people should bear the pain of a crisis of capitalism that is not of their making.

Above all, it means living and thinking in the present, while learning from the past, and acting to shape the future in our own interests. You can be sure that whatever government emerges out of the election will be doing exactly the opposite.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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