I have recently returned to New Zealand after 9 years of living in the United Kingdom. One of the most striking similarities between the two countries I have noticed is the almost complete failure of the political class to discern the historical moment and its opportunities. Of course, such failings are not confined to New Zealand and the United Kingdom; there is currently a near universal quality to the myopia and stunted imagination of politicians. However, what’s even more depressing is the profound lack of serious debate in the political realm and the mainstream media about the world-changing issues and tectonic changes currently under way, and the incapacity of the current political system to deal them. While the planet edges closer and closer to unprecedented economic recession and impending environmental disaster, and the manufacture and trade of weapons spreads misery and chaos across the globe, seemingly oblivious politicians merrily continue with business as usual. Their most pressing issues are whether to sell a few more state assets or build a few more casinos.
The problem is not simply that politicians fail to heed established evidence and ignore expert advice, although this is a conspicuous and enduring failure of politicians who seem to care more for appearances, or who are in thrall to special interests. How often have we seen politicians make quite stupid policies on gambling, alcohol, education, health, crime, development assistance, and countless other issues which contradict years of academic research and the advice of leading experts? At present, our politicians ignore a veritable mountain of evidence, including a study by the IMF, which shows that austerity measures most often fail to stimulate economic growth, and instead determinedly press ahead with policies of austerity that are far more likely to exacerbate rather than rectify the crisis. Our politicians also ignore the by now overwhelming evidence which shows that if you want to reduce rates of crime, depression and mental illness, teenage pregnancies, anti-social behavior and a host of other social ills which reduce communities’ happiness and sense of well-being, then you have to make greater equality a serious policy aim. Instead, politicians press on with the same policies that have increased social inequality for the past thirty years, thereby condemning us all – rich and poor – to living in unhappy, blighted societies. I won’t even mention the evidence which shows that nonviolence is morally and practically superior to militarism, and how a single day’s military spending could improve the lives of billions immeasurably.
The problem is also not the fault of the mostly supine and intellectually feeble mainstream media, although their failure to play any kind of fourth estate role has been more than obvious since the Iraq war. A combination of corporate ownership, celebrity culture and the one hour news cycle means that we can no longer expect the media to ask the hard political questions; it seems they no longer have the time or the inclination to do the necessary research for intelligent analysis. Their best option is to take the nicely pre-packaged press releases handed out by ministers and corporations alike and try not to ask any awkward questions which might deny them future access to the news goodies.
No, the real problem is, as the Occupy Movement and countless other protest groups have argued, that the political system itself is broken; irreparably. It is no longer fit for purpose. It’s actually no longer a political system in which genuine political alternatives can be properly debated. It’s become a management system for maintaining neoliberalism. This is why the loyal opposition cannot really oppose; they can only quibble about whether the current government has got their sums right, or whether deficit reduction is moving too fast. It’s also why the politicians cannot suggest anything other than more of the same ideology, and why they cannot launch a real inquiry into financial and corporate crime and malfeasance. It’s also why the media cannot really ask why that is. In the current system, the political elite are there primarily to ensure that neoliberal capitalism functions smoothly, in part because they still believe that this will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. This means that the interests of capitalism have to come before the interests of the majority, or the environment, or the truth.
The point is that we know now that this belief is hopelessly wrong: neoliberal capitalism does not produce the greatest good for the greatest number. It produces the greatest inequality the world has ever known. It produces unimaginable wealth for the few, and declining living standards for the rest. It produces corruption, exploitation, over-consumption, waste, and environmental disaster. The amazing thing is that you know it, and I know it. Scholars know it. Probably 99 percent of the world knows it. But the politicians don’t know it. Instead, they keep insisting that if we keep going with the austerity package, if we sell off some more assets, if we privatize a few more things, if give a few more tax breaks to the rich, things will eventually work out. The economy will come out of its slump. There will be rewarding jobs for everyone. We will all be able to go back to former consumption levels and ever-upwards economic growth will return. Why do politicians keep on insisting on this, despite the fact that everyone knows they’re wrong? Because they have to; they’re part of the system. They believe in it. And it pays their bills.
I think this is why Occupy and other protest movements around the world have decided not to launch national political parties, and refrain from engaging in electoral politics. Because they know the system is unfixable. They figure, hey, what would be the point of becoming part of an entrenched system where there’s no real politics: Where we can’t seriously debate whether to abolish the military and spend the money on schools and hospitals instead? Where we can’t talk about having a maximum wage as well as a minimum one? Where we can’t tell the police to go after tax dodgers and interest rate manipulators with the same zeal as they do rioters? Where we can’t discuss making sustainability the primary value of a state-owned asset rather than profitability? Where we can’t debate replacing GNP per capita with happiness and fulfillment as the measure of the nation’s worth? Where we can’t discuss the option of defining our national goal as a socially just and sustainable society rather than a competitive one? What they are saying is, what would be the point of joining a system where the only real debate is whether we should aim to reduce the deficit in two years or three?
This may land me in hot water, but I have come to largely agree with this point of view. I no longer have faith in the political system. I don’t think it’s fit for purpose anymore. I think we’re deluded if we think that the political class can do anything for us anymore. They work for others, not us; they are part of the system. The implication of my position is that on election day I think we should all conspicuously avoid the polling booth and instead go to the local town hall or park or square and have a debate about the kind of society we’d prefer to live in. Some real political debate, outside of the suffocating prison of the political system, might even lead to some decent ideas. It certainly couldn’t do any worse than the politicians. And if no one voted, the politicians might have to come out and really listen because they could no longer claim a mandate. In the meantime, before the next election, educate yourself. Question. Discuss. Enjoy some real political debate.