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September 25, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

In Defence of Politics

Over the last three years I have become increasingly frustrated with the way politics operates.

My concern is not directed at what political parties say or what they do, instead it’s directed at the political space in which they talk. Something is missing from our generation’s politics. Something important, and it’s been lost.

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, said the that most important thing in politics was the power of ideas. What he meant by this was not that political parties were going to win hearts and minds by proposing new, populist policies. Instead, he meant that in order for politics to work properly, in order for it to matter, it needs to be based on a vision.

Visions, principles, values—these are amorphous things but they matter. Trying to pin them down and make them real is always a challenge, but its important. But in contemporary politics the power of ideas is conspicuously absent. And it has been since the late 1980s.

Thats not to say that ideas are not acknowledged. They are. But they have transmogrified into something more vulgar. Major political leaders now only pay lip service to values. Evocations of freedom, equality, personal responsibility, environmentalism or reason are bound up in the discourse of brand and image, not ideology or vision.

This represents something that is increasingly disturbing about the role and importance of politics in peoples lives. The Harry Potter generation no longer see politics as something that is empowering, or as something that can make our collective lives better. Our parents did, as did theirs before them. Earlier this year in the Dominion Post, Professor Jon Johansson said that if you truly want to meet a cynical person, talk to someone aged under 25. I think he has a point. The oft quoted reason for this is because our generation is blasé and apathetic. That probably plays a part—but as an explanation it is entirely insufficient. It is simply describing a sociological symptom, not a cause.
The reason for this disconnect is more fundamental. It goes to the heart of how our generation views the sociological role of politics. Since the mid 1980s, the power of political change and of political thought has become increasingly undermined by politicians, perhaps inadvertently. The rise of the individual has inherently shunned the importance of politics (of any ideological persuasion) as a force for good. Apparently, politics is now no longer needed to regulate society, it has been rendered defunct, superfluous to requirements. Instead, individuals acting according to their own interests will eventually lead to order and stability. Because we are rational, obviously.

The result of this was that politicians or political activists are no longer seen as visionaries—but instead as managers. Democratic elections have become an exercise in consensus over who we can trust to “run” the country. They are a competition for who we can trust to ensure that the apparatus of the State, along with the services we need to oil the wheels of individualism, are looked after and protected. Government, and the politicians who manage it are engineers within a system. There to keep us safe from unseen threats—the most obvious being international terrorism.

Ironically, it was Tony Blair and his third way Labour Government that contributed in the most obvious way to the removal of the political from politics. In the early years of his administration the British State was transformed from a vehicle that promoted patrician values to a public choice machine that simply provided people with whatever they wanted.
New Zealand’s own experiences of State reform during the 1990s and 2000s was similar. Even within a leftist-social democratic framework major policies were directed at the individual or the family—not at the nation, as part of a progressive vision.

The current National-led government personifies this insipid “govern by the numbers” approach to political life. This is reflected in the legacy of the last generation of student politicians—of which I would consider myself a part. Inadvertently or not the approach has been to manage the competency, sustainability and viability of our student institutions. It has not been to promote a vision about what it could be or what it should be for. This is nobody’s fault—a fact that frustratingly reflects a political culture which subconsciously shuns the political.

In order to break this cycle there needs to be resurgence in the power of ideas. There needs to be a re-appreciation of the importance of ideology. Not of only one, but of all ideologies—from the Libertarian right to the Communist left. Scarily, it is only the fringes of political society, the tea-partiers or the anarchists, who still cling to Utopian dreams. But they are only heard loudly because they are the only ones talking. We must have a conversation that drowns them out.

The purpose of politics is not just to figure out who gets what, where, why and how. It is to try to imagine how to create someone different. Without re-injecting the political back into politics we, both as individuals and as a collection of individuals, will never figure out how to change the world for the better.


About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

Comments (2)

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  1. Michael says:

    Oi, leave Harry Potter out of this.

  2. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Is the apathy you speak of really a new phenomenon? My research requires me to spend a hell of a lot of time delving through primary source material from the 1920s/1930s, and it fascinates me just how much the politically mindful of that generation – both on the left and the right – bemoaned the ‘apathy’ and ‘ignorance’ of the average elector.

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