What does real change look like? It may seem like one of the most obvious questions liberally or radically minded activists could ask themselves. It is the case that millions of people feel insecure and uncertain about their futures and they want that to change, so the question arises, how does real change come about?
I remember attending a lecture on the history of community activism at a west Belfast festival in the Upper Springfield, in 2016. During the Q&A, I made the point that, in spite of the ongoing hard work of radical political activists, there seemed to be an absence of a clearly defined modern and coherent political philosophy for the left. I was not asking if anybody present had personally formed an all-encompassing political philosophy, but simply pointing out that as far as I could tell, the absence of one was apparent. Misinterpreting my point, an audience member replied they ‘didn’t have the answer, and weren’t sure if one existed’, and suggested that if I believed such an idea was possible, perhaps I should try to formulate one. This seemed ironic to me at the time, and I didn’t respond.
(Ballymurphy: The People’s Co-ops Community Lecture, Gael-Ionad Mhic Goill. October 2016)
In the run up to the event, I had listened to George Monbiot give a talk on his 2016 book, How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality & Nature. With typical sarcasm, he opened with the following statement; ‘It’s as if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of Communism’. The point he was making was in relation to the ‘big idea’ that permeates every single one of our social, cultural and economic relations, the ideology of ‘Neoliberalism’. He characterises Neoliberalism as a coherent and deliberate system, the defining feature of our political and economic lives, ‘the ideology at the root of the financial crisis, the epidemic of loneliness, and the rise of Donald Trump’, among other things.
To my amusement, he teased the academic crowd, asking audience members if any of them would be confident enough to provide the room with a clear definition of Neoliberalism – as expected, he met with blank stares and silence.
It is an astonishing fact that the political doctrine that literally governs our governments is virtually unknown to the overwhelming majority of society, including many liberal and radical activists. Its anonymity is both a source and a reflection of its power, and it continues to remain virtually anonymous due to the tacit complicity of the entire political class, from party politics to the media.
However useful an elucidation of Neoliberalism may be, it is not what I seek to draw out in this short piece. Rather, I would like to focus on its potential counterpart, or to be more specific, the absence of it.
There is no doubt about the intentions of the vast majority of left activists. That is to say, most of those I have been lucky enough to meet, work with, learn from, and campaign with, are well-intentioned hard working people with noble ideals and a proactive method in trying to realise those ideals. I suppose there is no overstating the value of these activists, but I have noticed two particular phenomena in relation to the politics of the left, that have given me pause for thought.
On the one hand, there is division, that finds its expression locally in the fact that the two main left wing parties vying for my vote in West Belfast are concerned with scoring political points against one another on social media, instead of working together to broach the divide. There are diligent councillors and activists in both parties, but the phenomena is unappealing and counterproductive in terms of winning the hearts and minds of potential progressive voters.
(The People’s Front of Judea: Monty Python’s, The Life of Brian)
On the other hand, there is fanaticism. Following from the division, it is the case, although many party political and non-affiliated activists will deny it, that new-kids-on-the-block, that is to say, young people who are becoming interested in political activism, are given an unspoken ultimatum; you can either nail your flag to this or that mast, or remain outside of party politics and work from the grassroots.
This approach is unlikely to inspire effective collective politics, because by its very nature, it is divisive. It can sow in those who decide to remain outside of party politics, a sense of superiority derived from working ‘outside the system’ and ‘not selling out’. Likewise, for those who join parties, it can sow in them a sense of superiority based on the principle that ‘the only way to change the system, is from within’, and ‘those who work on the outside, however well intentioned, are naive in their approach’.
For the purpose of clarity, I do not mean to say that being non-affiliated is superior, or that those who are affiliated are not working at a grassroots level. But, is it any wonder the left is lacking a clear and coherent counterpart to Neoliberalism when leftist political leaders, both affiliated and not, are lacking a clearly defined modern and coherent political philosophy for the left, in other words, a big idea that could change the world.
I think that real effective change can only come through a big imaginative idea, a vision of another kind of future. This vision, whatever it may be, should seek to connect with, and offer a release from, the insecurities and fears that millions of people of all backgrounds experience. So why are there no new big ideas in left politics?
Well, lurking underneath the liberal mindset in particular, is a deep fear of big ideas. Liberals need only look back at the ‘big ideas’ of the twentieth century to identify the source of this fear; the rise of Nazism and the corruption of Socialism under Stalin. The truth of the matter is, that real change brought about by a big idea, is scary. Imagine being in an earthquake, the solid ground upon which you stand begins to tremor. Soon, all the old foundations begin to crumble and in their wake things become unrecognisable.
That is a frightening thought for the liberal middleclass, namely, those not flirting with the margins. In this context however, many liberals may ask themselves whether a big idea is necessary or not, or whether it is safer in regards their own interests to turn a blind eye to the vices of Neoliberalism, and thus many decide that tinkering with the relatively safe system is preferable to real momentous change.
(Charlie Chaplin giving his famous speech, The Great Dictator)
Unfortunately though, for such liberals who feel they may have too much to lose, the margins are swelling, and the issues facing those traditionally side-lined sections of society are increasingly growing and spilling into the middle ground. This is happening as a result of the rapacious nature of Neoliberalism; the great vision of the future laid out by the New Right, Reagan and Thatcher.
It follows from this, that liberals and others who share this mindset, cannot simply sit around forever tinkering with a broken system, because the fact remains that millions of people need change, and an increasing number feel like they have nothing left to lose. The problem, looking at Brexit and Trump for example, is that many of them are being led by the right. So things won’t remain the same, and society will most certainly go off in ways that most people don’t want, unless a powerful modern coherent vision of the future is developed.
With all of its inherent risk, this vision may be able to offer people an escape from the alienating and sometimes lonely nature of neoliberal existence. In surrendering to such a vision, people may be able to effectively challenge the substantial forces of power that run the world. If the vision is good enough, they may even change the world.
However, in the process of doing so they may lose a lot, and this is the forgotten thing about politics, according to English filmmaker Adam Curtis. In surrendering some of your individualism to a big idea, you lose something in the process, but you gain in a bigger sense, because you have changed the world for the better. So, where do we go from here?