By Tuesday evening over here, Gordon Brown was well on track for a coronation when Labour meets to elect a new leader in June. With the deadline for nominations closing on Thursday, he’s got 282 names signed up, with challenger John McDonnell currently stuck on 27, and needing 45.
McDonnell’s getting a lot of support — but it’s all from outside the Labour Party, from people desperate to see anything resembling democracy take place in the selection of a leader of the nation.
By coincidence, while I was reading about this, someone mentioned the name of Gregory Bateson. Bateson isn’t much read today, but he was an enormously influential systems theorist in the ’50s and ’60s, probably best known for developing the concept of the ‘double bind’.
But it was an argument about the paradoxical nature of animal play that got me thinking. Bateson pointed out that the fact that dogs, say, could play at a fight that would otherwise be lethal told us something about how representation works, for the content of their mock fighting is circular: “This game is a representation of something real but the real activity that gives the game its identity is by definition not what is going on here — thus the game both is and is not the thing itself.”
Which is pretty much the post-democratic era on a Chinese fortune cookie. That poor old John McDonnell can barely scrape up enough left and dissident votes to have an actual leadership contest suggests that — across the whole political spectrum — there is no position of serious dissent, no actual alternative. But to admit this would be to concede that democracy exists only as a series of formal institutions, with no genuine existence.
Therefore, a candidate doomed to failure must be got up to the nomination stage in order to show — by running a campaign essentially stillborn — that democracy lives.
People haven’t yet got their heads around the era we’re going through in the West, because there is a persistent desire to see politics and parties as nothing other than the clash of ideas. But once enough of the Western working class has been drawn into property ownership, then the principle political question is over, and politics becomes a matter of adjusting settings.
Voter turnout starts to fall, and will fall indefinitely (France is the rule-proving exception: the 85% turnout was the last gasp battle for and against old-style socialism. From now on, French politics will converge like everyone else’s, with a few simulacra demonstrations along the way).
Indeed, it’s not impossible that in a few years a smooth process of post-democratic administration will become the norm. It really began with the granting of ‘independence’ (ie control by non-elected officials) to central banks in the ’80s and ’90s — for it was control of banking that animated politics across the 20th century.
At some point, someone will suggest that a whole range of policies — environment, economy, social service, surveillance, national security — over which there is no dispute, could simply be handed over to the bureaucracy, thus gaining the advantage of longer-range planning.
That won’t last, of course, and politics will come roaring back eventually. But when it does it won’t look anything like the divisions of twentieth-century politics. What leaders of the convergence — political, media and corporate elites — are desperate to do is to give the impression that there is still a real difference to organise around. Bad luck.
By Wednesday, Brown had 308 nominations and it was all over — McDonnell was stuck on 29. A case of overshooting the mark, for how else is one going to convince people that something real is going on is to play up, play up and play the game? The dogs.