“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
V.I. Lenin. The State and Revolution.
“The Politics of the Unpolitical” was the title of a collection of essays written in the 1940s by the English anarchist poet and art critic, Sir Herbert Read. He was the only anarchist to receive a knighthood. As surprising is the fact that someone seriously describing himself as an anarchist should have accepted a knighthood. Perhaps such occurrences can be best explained as one of the occasional eccentricities thrown up by the English establishment that also resulted in a life-long Stalinist, Dr. Hewlett Johnson, whose public life-span ran more or less parallel to Read’s, holding the office of Dean of Canterbury for four decades. Read’s anarchist politics, albeit in a rather genteel English form more attuned to William Morris and John Ruskin than to Bakunin or Kropotkin, suffused much of his work. So what might he have meant by the apparent oxymoron of an “un-political politics”? This question came to mind during the recent media interest in the opinions expressed by the well-known comedian Russell Brand.
Brand is an anarchic, youthful-looking cult-figure whose lean, hirsute appearance might be described as Christ-like were it not totally lacking in any semblance of serenity or divinity. He is immensely popular with young people amongst whom he has a Twitter following of more than seven million. He is also immensely wealthy. In an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight recently, he raised the hackles of the programme’s abrasive presenter, Jeremy Paxman, by asserting unapologetically that he has never voted and had no intention of doing so. A few weeks ago, in a long, discursive essay in the New Statesman, which he had been invited to guest edit, he expounded his anarchistic views, writing off all politicians as contemptible creatures and demanding root-and-branch systemic change. He praised rioters, the occupy movement and all forms of direct action aimed at overturning the apple cart, and advised his supporters not to waste their time at the ballot box. Mainstream political figures and commentators have dismissed him as a loquacious, muddle-headed, drug-crazed know-nothing. Paxman, who is well-known for his sometimes relentless interrogation of interviewees, later admitted that in the light of his own experience, Brand’s contempt for professional politicians was understandable and probably justified. Paxman, in his turn, is now on the receiving end of a scathing attack by the leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. So, why has Russell Brand caused such a stir?
“Politics”, we are led to believe, is the practice of politicians. In Britain this refers primarily to what goes on at Westminster. Members of Parliament and the government are those who have opted to make a career of politics, hopefully to govern the country as our representatives. People “go into politics”. It is a profession, like medicine, the church, academe or the armed forces. Professional politicians, like bankers, are held in very low esteem nowadays. This worries them and they are anxious to avoid further decline in their abysmally low public opinion ratings. Ever since the introduction of universal manhood suffrage in the later nineteenth century and the emergence of modern political parties, the parliamentary system under a constitutional monarchy, with elections every four to five years, has supposedly been the sine qua non of democracy. Apart from some piecemeal reforms to the system, this is the best we can do. This is what democratic government means. This is what Lincoln meant by “government of the people, for the people by the people”. Any other interpretation is nothing but a utopian dream. “The people”, quite properly, are required and expected to play no more than a passive role. Their participation in “politics” begins and ends on entering the polling booth every five years to elect their “representatives”. Those elected are the politicians the electorate sends to Westminster. The rest of the population are not politicians, unless they are elected as councilors in municipal elections, in which case they may claim the title, but only as poor relations of their Westminster counterparts. So the term “politician” has come to refer almost exclusively to those elected as MPs to the House of Commons and those appointed as peers to the House of Lords and to whoever else may be appointed to government office.
The low esteem in which such “politicians” are held has been an important factor in turning people off politics. The widespread perception – an accurate one – that those with most power and wealth in our society, such as bankers, press moguls, the CEOs of giant multinational corporations, exercise undue influence over government and are unaccountable to democratic procedures, has led to widespread cynicism. This is particularly evident amongst younger people. For the first time in more than one hundred years, a generation is coming to adulthood facing a future with living standards lower and prospects poorer than their parents’ generation. With record levels of youth unemployment their outlook is bleak. These in particular are the ones who respond to Brand’s message. They are members of the “un-political” masses who are likely, in increasing numbers, to shun the ballot box at the next election.
But implicit in Herbert Read’s “politics of the un-political” was the postulation of two senses in which the term “politics” may be used. There is the politics of the mainstream, Westminster politicians – the politics of “representative democracy”, that is, the politics of the system, of career politicians. Then there is the world of extra-parliamentary politics. When he retired from parliament after a lifetime as a Labour MP, Tony Benn said that he had retired in order to devote himself to real politics. The organizations and campaigns to which he and thousands like him have devoted their time and energy are grass roots movements; popular mobilizations on vital local community and national and international issues – trade union anti-cuts campaigns, opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, UK Uncut demonstrations against corporate tax evasion, the Occupy movement and resistance to hospital closures in defense of the NHS. All such activities are dismissed or ignored by most professional politicians. When they cannot be ignored they are tolerated with the condescending acknowledgement that in a democracy people have the right to peaceful protest - with the implication that real politics should be left to real politicians. But such activities are profoundly political. They challenge the mainstream career politicians’ practice and confront their claims to be the sole legitimate representatives of the popular will. The participants in grass roots popular movements proclaim that the politics of protest and resistance, of challenge to the unelected power of corporate capitalism, betokens a more authentic expression of democracy than that associated with the passive role assigned to voters in parliamentary elections.
Anyone inclined to sympathize with Russell Brand’s views about politicians and the inefficacy of voting would have felt vindicated by watching the televised cross-examination of the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ by the cross-party intelligence and security committee. The three spy chiefs, appearing in public for the first time, were given a free ride by the committee members. There was nothing remotely resembling a serious cross examination. The stuffed-shirt, hatchet-faced spooks sat smugly before a committee so supine that they were permitted to propagandize virtually unhindered. The day before the hearing The Guardian newspaper had published 10 simple but pointedly probing questions about what Edward Snowden’s files had revealed about the sweeping range of their spying activities. These questions, had they been put to the heads of the intelligence agencies, would have helped to dispel the perception of the committee’s critics that its members were too deferential. Not one of the simple questions was asked. It was as though the controversy raging internationally about the violation of privacy on an undreamt of scale had not happened. No attempt to hold those responsible to account. Instead, collusion with the spy chiefs in facilitating their propaganda exercise. The government was thereby handed a further weapon in its determination to criminalize the whistleblower and prosecute serious investigative journalists. In parliament there is no real opposition to this.
A main purpose of real politics – “the politics of the unpolitical” – must be to question and challenge anything and everything that the “professional” mainstream politicians say and do, ostensibly in our name. Does this mean that there is no point in voting in parliamentary elections; that only extra-parliamentary political activity is worthwhile? It is worth remembering what Chomsky, who is widely regarded as an anarchist, said on this subject. He is reputed to have claimed that he has never voted for anyone in his life, but that when he votes, it is always against someone. A case can be made for this approach. One should vote, but without any illusions. One might also keep in mind I.F. Stone’s advice:
“Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.”