We produced this exchange during the summer of 2013 for publication in the forthcoming special issue of New Formations on neoliberal culture. One of the topics we discussed was the relative importance of parliamentary, anti-parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. At one point in our discussion it was actually suggested that it might be political journalists more than anyone else, more even than professional politicians, who can’t acknowledge the fact that the existing institutions of liberal democracy have become inherently dysfunctional.
The recent public spectacle of Jeremy Paxman’s horrified bemusement and wilful miscomprehension when Russell Brand made exactly that point seems to us entirely to substantiate that claim. Robert Webb’s open letter to Brand – which in its implication that militancy always leads to dictatorship makes an argument very little different from one that would have been made by Burke or Hayek – seems further to confirm this impression, while also opening up an important class dimension to the issues concerned. Webb’s claim that Orwell’s naive and simplistic political allegories somehow reveal a universal truth of democratic politics echoes a rhetoric that has been deployed by defenders of the social status quo at least since the days of Wat Tyler. It could be heard in the attacks on the Levellers during the Putney debates and in the arguments against working-class representation in the nineteenth century, and we hear it still every time demands for radical democratisation threaten to resonate with the felt injuries and dissatisfactions of working-class people.
Those people know better than anyone else that mainstream politics is bankrupt. Privatisation, weakened unions, deregulated labour markets, insane financial speculation, endless tax-breaks for the rich: we can all see where this has led. But how to respond? With disciplined organisation, a return to effective party politics, and a restoration of ‘traditional’ community values? Or with a rejection of a discredited political system, new forms of networked organisation and a break from all forms of hierarchy and institution? Supporters of the latter position often describe themselves as advocating ‘horizontal’ organisation over the ‘vertical’ methods of their more conventional opponents. Which way is the right one?
The answer is ‘both’. Effective progressive politics always has at least two dimensions: a vertical and a horizontal. Effective change always needs an institutional dimension, consolidating gains, building effective institutions. But to be real change at all, it must also have an experimental aspect, working to break down concentrations of power wherever they arise, looking for new ways to maximise real freedom for all. Our enemies have always understood the multidimensional nature of power, and use every outlet and organisational strategy at their disposal to achieve their aims. If we want to challenge them effectively then we must do the same, building a movement which can encompass both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of power and change.
We’ve seen one version of the ongoing debate between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ politics played out in the public media over the past few weeks in the public spat between these two TV comedians. Brand’s public articulation of a general critique of existing democratic forms – a critique which is already implicit both in a widely-shared constellation of attitudes and in a number of emergent political tendencies – has provoked elation and contempt in equal measure. Webb, Labour Party member and Orwell enthusiast, insists that any alternative to the received forms of liberal democracy necessarily leads to the Gulag. Webb is right that calls for total revolution and apparent appeals to charismatic authority should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who remembers the twentieth century. But his position blithely ignores Brand’s basic argument: Brand isn’t arguing that democracy as such – the rule of the people by the people – is a bad thing. He’s arguing that the present form of liberal democracy does not actually offer the majority of citizens any kind of say in how their societies are run. In this he is demonstrably correct, and the significance of his intervention was more to do with the form of his insubordination than with the content of what he said. The content merely revealed the implicit logic of the current system; but the insubordination demanded to be seen as the start of something else: a process in which working-class people regain the power to speak for themselves and take control of their own lives. This wasn’t someone from a working-class background swearing at a TV presenter, as the Sex Pistols famously did in the 1970s; it was a largely self-educated person besting a class ‘superior’, using reason, argument and wit. What Brand said was not one more contribution to a tired ‘debate’; it was already an act of seizure (‘I’m taking it’) of a mainstream media terrain which had seemed almost entirely colonised by the imperatives of communicative capitalism.
Neither Brand’s nor Webb’s positions is adequate on its own, but both offer insights which we can’t do without. If Keir Hardie or Nye Bevan or the Pankhursts had remained as attached to existing institutional forms as Webb seems to be, or as indifferent to them as Brand claims to be, then we would never have had the Labour Party, women’s suffrage or the NHS. If we can’t get beyond their dichotomy today, then democracy has no future and the planet will continue to burn.
Here is our exchange in its entirety. It begins with a discussion of Mark’s work on ‘capitalist realism’ and moves on to consider issues of political strategy on the left.