‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ Wrote the famous anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu in 2003. ‘If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality’.
Citizens of western democracies cannot claim to live under the full weight of the elephant’s foot; the Orwellian boot-on-face states have vanished. Big Brother, doublethink and Airstrip One, endure in the European imagination as symbolic antipathies to what the West claims and aims to be, subjugation versus freedom, despotism versus democracy. Nineteen Eighty-Four embodies a certain type of dystopia, fictional horror born from the collective experience of a pervasive form of twentieth century totalitarianism.
For all his polemic clarity, Orwell’s analysis of revolution and state control remains limited and one-dimensional. In Orwellian dictatorships, control derives from direct force by brutal suppression of language, culture and thought. Orwell overlooked the coercive levers of power that operate through subtler channels of exploitation. He never questioned if societies can function through superficial opposites, as for example, totalitarian and promiscuous, repressive of political dissent but tolerant of personal freedoms.
In the West, protection of personal freedom is not only enshrined in law but saturates every dimension of culture. Westerners are encouraged to indulge in a plethora of consumerist freedoms through the daily bombardment of advertisement. Liberals applaud personal freedom as a zenith of human achievement and the apex of modern civilisation. They believe Western society presents endless personal and political possibilities. Westerners can eat and drink what they want, sleep with whom they choose and are free to construct individual and diverse personal identities. Politically, citizens can vote in elections, run as candidates and criticise the powerful openly without fear of repercussions. Stable states and prosperity has resulted in improved health and life expectancy, illnesses that would have resulted in serious injury or death can now be cured and curtailed.
What would Orwell make of our society? Would he claim that progress has dulled our appetite for change, or would he applaud our prioritisation of personal freedom, would he claim that we have reached the antipathy of his Big Brother, would he conceive that we have created a certain form of liberal utopia?
If we have achieved a high level of personal freedom and stability, how can political disengagement be explained? A stable and prosperous state requires political engagement or risks slipping into the service of undemocratic interests. Even if there is no visible elephant’s foot, is political neutrality and indifference a betrayal of Tutu’s sentiment?
Peter Hitchen’s of the Daily Mail seems to think so, in a recent article published on his blog about political engagement in Swindon, Hitchens claimed that the British public ‘recoil from the responsibility of deciding the future of the country. We pretend to be interested, but we run from any real decisions.’ For conservatives like Hitchens, the public remain disengaged because they are sedated by vulgar commercialisation, hedonistic pleasure and ‘plenty of fun’ and ‘fast food for sale, and wide uncluttered highways to drive on.’ Hitchen’s sombre view of political disengagement is a sharp contrast to the liberal argument and only superficially explains political indifference.
The End of History
The best way to understand indifference through a liberal lens is to read Francis Fukyama’s magnum opus The End of History and the Last Man. Fukayama wrote his essay against the backdrop of a dissolving Soviet empire, revolutions in Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, his work was thus imbued with a sense of victory and myopic triumphalism.
He claimed that since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 there remained no competitive ideology and system of societal governance to rival western individualism, free market capitalism and liberal democracy. For Fukayama, liberal democracy constituted the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the final form of human government’.
What Fukayama meant by the “end of history” was not that there would no longer be any ‘occurrence of events, even large and grave events,’ but that what had ended was history as understood ‘as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times.’
Although we may not consciously ponder his argument, most of us are still Fukayamarists. And as Slavoj Zizek argues ‘liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the final found formula of the best possible society; all one can do is render it more just, tolerant and so on.’ To Zizek, we can imagine small changes within our system but struggle to construct any viable alternatives. ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’
Fukayama concluded The End of History and The Last Man by considering the prospect of ‘centuries of boredom at the end of history,’ that could possibly ‘serve to get history started once again.’ Have we reached that point of boredom? Or is there a deeper fundamental problem facing our democratic system?
Fukayama’s idea of “boredom” – feeling the repetitive nature of reality, there is nothing more, we have reached the end – and Brandite apathy – “we don’t like how things are being run, but what can we do.” – dialectically reinforce political indifference. We might believe that we have reached the end of history but we are also cynics. This scepticism can easily be taken as a sign that people – particularly the young – are no longer interested in political engagement. 56% of young people between the age of 17 and 25 did not register to vote for the 2010 general election. A recent YouGov poll concluded that almost 60% of first time voters would not vote in the upcoming general election.
What these polls cannot capture is people’s engagement in broader political issues. Voting is simply a facet of democratic engagement and does not consummate the democratic process. Russell Brand has emphasised this point and challenged traditional liberal calls for the young to vote.
It’s easy to sneer at the pseudo-spiritual comedian-turned-political-commentator, but to his credit; Brand has engaged a wider audience in a discussion about the nature of democracy and representation. Brand’s basic point is that the democratic system in Britain is no longer representative of the majority of people, and that voting supports the continuation of a system that ‘destroys the planet, creates economic disparity and ignores the needs of the people’.
To some on the left, such as Mark Fisher, far from disengaging people, Brand has helped energies the forces of progressive discontent through a symbolic role. Brand
‘Functions as a figure of identification who intensifies and links together already existing struggles, and incites us to breach the invisible thresholds that lock us into atomised impotence.’
If we consider Brand simply as a figurehead, as Fisher does, then he has succeeded in bringing a multitude of issues into public discourse. Above and beyond his symbolic role, Brand represents an indifference that needs to be given coherent political structures. Brand was correct to conclude that voting is just one facet of the democratic process, but his solutions – or lack of – contributed to young peoples disengagement with politics more generally. Brand lacked a coherent alternative and was therefore unable to challenge the power he criticised.
The Blairites effectively moved Labour from its working-class roots and early radicalism towards a full-unfettered embrace of the markets and deregulation. Progressives were left with a choice between the parochialism of mutant nationalists and Brandite abstention. That, however, has all changed according to BBC Business editor Robert Peston. Commenting on the ‘sheer scale of Miliband’s repositioning’ Peston suggested that Miliband is more like Thatcher than Foot, an opposition leader looking to reshape the economy while simultaneously dismissing the ideology of the old guard.
Miliband has slowly been edging himself towards the left by rejecting Blair’s centrism. His awkward orchestrated shuffles leftwards, culminating in an interview with the notorious non-voter and left wing populist Brand, are significant developments for the Labour Party. The interview was viewed by the Right as a dangerous flirtation with the extremities of the left; “red Ed” was attacked for massaging the Comedians ego in what they saw as a contemptible PR stunt that reeked of hypocrisy. The interview, and the proceeding endorsement of Labour by Brand, saw the marriage between the populism of Brand and the structures of the Labour party as the vanguard of a popular left-wing movement. Brand’s u-turn as the figurehead of indifference, to supporting Labour and urging people to vote, signifies that Labour now represent a coherent political structure for the apathetic on the left, as UKIP does on the right. Its move away from New Labour has allowed for this capitalisation.
Regardless of Miliband’s stance, if Labour fail to form a government following the upcoming general election, he will almost certainly be deposed and its left leaning strategy will be seen as a failure. If such a scenario materialises, the Blairites will take control of the party and move it to the right, probably under the leadership of Chuka Umunna.
Would the rise of neo-Blairite’s in the Labour Party confirm Fukayama’s end of history theory? The neo-Blairites are end of history ideologues – ‘’The big difference between 1979 and 2013 is that we are all capitalists now’ Umunna claimed –, but their possible ascent to power post-election would reveal more about a lack of a coherent alternative than confirm Fukayama’s argument. A move to the centre could result in a PASOK style meltdown for Labour, its traditional working-class base feeling disenfranchised and the newly captured Brandite youths returning to disengagement, indifference and apathy.
In the run-up to the general election, Brand is now actively encouraging people to vote. He has realised that change comes about through both organic mobilisation and coherent political structures. Pre-election, by moving away from the centre, Labour has managed to capture the popular discontent on the left and has put itself forward as the party for change. We have not reached Fukayama’s end of history but are instead witnessing the collapse of his theory, the Labour party, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and UKIP are all challenging fundamental aspects of how our society and economy functions. Fukayama’s vision of the end, of liberal democracy and free market capitalism will either need to adapt to new demands or be replaced. Voter turnout may be low, but there now exists – on the left and the right – a more fundamental demand for alternative visions and ways to engage people in democracy, Fukayama’s last man is awakening from his ideological slumber.