Marta Harnecker: Ideas for the struggle #7 -- Reasons for popular scepticism concerning politics and politicians

[This is the seventh in a series of regular articles. Click HERE for other articles in the series. Please return to Links regularly read the next articles in the series.]

By Marta Harnecker, translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

1. In one of my previous articles, I stated that in order to wage an effective struggle against neoliberalism, it is necessary to unite all those suffering its consequences, and 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 scepticism regarding 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 to those that existed prior to the military dictatorships.

4. These low-intensity, controlled, restricted, limited or monitored democratic regimes drastically limit the effective capacity of democratically elected authorities. The most important decisions are made by unelected institutions of a permanent character, and 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.

5. Groups of professionals, and not politicians, are responsible for making decisions, or at minimum have a decisive influence over the decisions made. The apparent neutrality and depoliticisation 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 -- monopolised by the ruling classes -- have been dramatically improved, conditioning 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, are the poorest social sectors of the urban peripheries and countryside.

7. Other elements that explain this growing popular scepticism include, on the one hand, the unscrupulous appropriation by the right wing of the language and discourse of the left: -- words such as reforms, structural changes, concern for poverty, transition -- today form part of its everyday discourse; and, on the other hand, the quite frequent adoption of political practices by some parties on the left that hardly differ from the habitual practices of traditional parties.

8. We must bear in mind that, increasingly, people are 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 the collective. 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, they want to regain confidence.

10. This distrust of politics and politicians – which also permeates the social left – which is growing daily, is not a serious issue of the right, but it is for 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 crisis of the welfare state promoted by European social democracies and Latin American populist‑developmentalism -- is that it has had great difficulties in elaborating a rigorous and credible alternative to capitalism -- socialist or whatever you want to call it -- that takes into account the new world reality.

12. Capitalism has revealed its great capacity to re‑invent itself and utilise the new technological revolution towards its own ends: fragmenting the working class and limiting its negotiating power, 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 tend to navigate without a political compass.

13. Most of the obstacles outlined above come about due to realities imposed on us from outside, but there also exists obstacles that disrupt attempts to unite all of the left which come from within.

14. Moreover, during the last decades, the party left has had many difficulties in working with the social movements and winning over new social forces. While, on the other hand, there has been a tendency in the social left to dismiss parties and magnify their own roles in the struggle against neoliberal globalisation, an attitude which hasn’t helped in overcoming the dispersion of the left. Our next article will approach these matters.

Marta Harnecker’s bibliography on the topic:

La izquierda después de Seattle, Siglo XXI España, 2002.

La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo posible lo imposible, Published in: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1999; España,    Siglo XXI Editores, 1ª ed., 1999, 2ª ed., 2000 y 3ª ed., 2000; Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000; Portugal, Campo das Letras Editores, 2000; Brasil, Paz e Terra, 2000; Italia, Sperling and Küpfer Editori, 2001; Canadá (francés), Lantôt Éditeur, 2001; El Salvador, Instituto de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas Farabundo Martí, 2001.

[Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution, and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.]