Ideas for the struggle #7 - Reasons for popular skepticism towards politics and politicians
By Marta Harnecker, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 1. I have said that in order to wage an effective struggle against neoliberalism we must articulate all those who are suffering its consequences, and that to achieve this objective we must start with the left itself, which in our countries tends to be very dispersed. But, there are many obstacles that impede this task. The first step to overcoming them is to be aware of them and be prepared to face them. 2. One of these obstacles is the growing popular skepticism towards politics and politicians. 3. This has to do, among other things, with the great constraints that exist today in our democratic systems, which are very different from those that existed prior to the military dictatorships. 4. These low-intensity, controlled, restricted, limited or monitored democratic regimes drastically limit the effective capacity for action of democratically-elected authorities. The most important decisions are made by unelected institutions which therefore are not subject to changes produced by electoral results; such is the case with national security councils, central banks, institutions for economic advice, supreme courts, ombudsmen, constitutional tribunals, media, etc. 5. Groups of professionals, and not politicians, are responsible for making decisions, or as a minimum have a decisive influence over the decisions made. The apparent neutrality and depoliticization of these entities conceals the new way in which the dominant class does politics. Their decisions are adopted outside the framework of parties. We are dealing with controlled democracies, where the controllers themselves are not subject to any democratic mechanism. 6. Moreover, instruments for manufacturing consensus such as the media—which are monopolized by the ruling classes—have been dramatically improved, and condition to a great extent the way in which people perceive reality. This explains why it is that the most conservative parties, which defend the interests of a tiny minority of the population, have been able to quantitatively transform themselves into mass parties, and why the social bases that support their candidates, at least in Latin America, were the poorest social sectors in the urban peripheries and countryside. Happily this situation has changed in the last decades. 7. Other elements that explain this growing popular skepticism include, on the one hand, the unscrupulous appropriation of the language and discourse of the left by the right wing: words such as reforms, structural changes, concern for poverty, transition, etc., along with a questioning of the idea of the market as the solution to all problems and support for a regulatory role for the state, today form part of its everyday discourse. On the other hand, there is the quite frequent adoption by some left parties of political practices that hardly differ from the habitual practices of traditional parties. 8. We must bear in mind that people are increasingly rejecting clientalist, non-transparent and corrupt party practices carried out by those who reach out to the people only at election time; that waste energy in internecine fighting between factions and petty ambitions; where decisions are made at the top by party elites without a genuine consultation with the ranks; and where personal leadership outranks collective leadership. People are increasingly rejecting messages that remain as mere words and are never translated into action. 9. Ordinary people are fed up with the traditional political system and want renewal, they want positive change, they want new approaches to doing politics, they want clean politics, they want transparency and participation, and they want to regain confidence in politics. 10. This distrust of politics and politicians—which also permeates the social left—is growing daily, but is not as serious a problem for the right as it is the left. The right wing can operate perfectly well without political parties, as it demonstrated during periods of dictatorship, but the left cannot do without a political instrument, be it a party, a political front or some other formula. 11. Another obstacle to the unity of the left—following the defeat of Soviet socialism and the crises of welfare state promoted by European social democracies and Lain American developmental populism—was that it has had great difficulties in elaborating a rigorous and credible alternative to capitalism that takes into account the new global reality. 12. Capitalism has revealed its great capacity to re-invent itself and utilize the new technological revolution for its own ends: fragmenting the working class, limiting its negotiating power, and creating panic over unemployment. Meanwhile, on many occasions, the left has remained anchored in the past. There is an excess of diagnosis and an absence of remedy. We often tend to navigate without a political compass. 13. Most of the obstacles outlined above, that disrupt attempts to unite all of the left, are due to realities imposed on us from outside, but there also exists obstacles that come from within. 14. On the one hand, during the last decades the political left has had many difficulties in working with the social movements and winning over new social forces. On the other hand, there has been a tendency within the social left to dismiss parties and magnify their own roles in the struggle against neoliberal globalization, an attitude that has not helped in overcoming the dispersion of the left. Our next article will focus on these issues. This is the seventh in a series of twelve articles that were first published in 2004 and have been updated and revised for publication in a second edition the pamphlet Ideas for the struggle.