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Raging Against the Machine

This is an article I have produced for ResPublica’s blog, the Disraeli Room.

“Without power, you are pointless”

Thus one glimpses the ideological point upon which William Brett’s recent article ‘Bring Back the Machine’ pivots. And, accepting for the moment the immanentised ethic upon which the assertion rests, one can concede a certain coherence to the argument. After all, if society requires the political, and earthly politics is about power, then political engagement of the social realm requires the fetishisation of power. So that, ‘In approaching the concept of community, of the local, it is above all power – who has it and what they do with it – that matters.’

Perhaps, in response, the best one can offer is a slight shrug and a simple rejection of the worldview which underlies such a vision of the social. After all, one could suggest that renouncing power is actually the most powerful thing an individual can do: only, this kind of power-lessness will be rejected by the instrumentalist, as antithetical to the definitions upon which his world system rests. Additionally, one could maintain that a real boundary exists between the political and the social, and that the sovereignty of each territory should be respected – yet this will be countered with the assertion that all territory is underwritten by the power that resides there, which is by its very nature political.

As such, perhaps the best counter-argument is one that merely points toward the consequences of such a structuring of the local. As I argued in my initial piece, radically politicising the civic runs the risk of establishing political structures that more effectively strangle the local, rather than liberate it. And if, in response, one proposes to more intimately engage the local in that very strangulation, then one can hardly be surprised if power is simply idolised, and all at the expense such lofty impediments as the ‘common good’.

In this respect, we are not wholly without precedent. Labour’s embrace of the ‘identities’ agenda, which involves chopping society into often fractious segments and servicing them accordingly, provides the clearest example. Having assiduously cultivated highly politicised locales based on specific group identities, Labour believe themselves to have in some sense sewn up the vote of these identities – ‘community leaders’ become the loose equivalent of precinct captains, their pockets stuffed with taxpayer pounds for this initiative, or that project, or this outreach work. By painting themselves as the natural party of ‘minorities’, and trapping swathes of voters within such identities in the process, Labour have in fact made their own crude attempt to ‘bring back the machine’, and the bloc-vote mentality that underpins it. In essence, this cultivates difference as the very basis of engagement, in order to better service it – and it expects loyalty in return for the investment (hence the drop-jaw incredulity that certain ‘minorities’ might consider voting Tory).

Of course, it might be argued that this is a quirk of a highly diverse society, and that a happily homogenous locale – one geographically constructed, say – could be serviced without the necessary frictions that occur between competing power interests. However, this puts the cart before the horse: common endeavour is the healthy sign of a society that can configure identities, loyalties and desires that transcend the immediate boundaries of the local – a harmonious vision of the good in which all wish to share. An associative civic realm finds ways to spread cords of harmony that can unify manifest differences, as people come together to find common pursuit.

By contrast, the machine segregates the local in order to emphasise difference, since it is the servicing of this difference that guarantees the loyalty of the vote. This emphasis is corrosive, and in it one glimpses the lack of common empathy that characterises the ‘broken society’. As such, we ought to avoid turning the civic realm into a sectarian power play for ghettoised interest groups, and instead encourage an associative realm in which diversity is embraced as a healthy corollary of the system, rather than an absolutised foundation of it. In short, the particular must be rooted in something that transcends it – and naked political power offers no such unificatory appeal.

This is not to deny the problem that Mr Brett diagnoses – to take the example of local bin collection, closer relations between service providers and service users may indeed be desirable, especially where the result is a more efficient service. However, the proposed solution is premised upon a polarised view of the social, in which the service provider remains fatally distinct from the service user. The result is an ‘us-and-them’ social sphere, in which the demand of the machine is for ‘them’ to hold a monopoly on civic power – purchased either through political favour or crude bribery.  Accordingly, society becomes dangerously susceptible to the use, and abuse, of political power. More generally, societas loses its autonomous and historically corrective role, and is subjugated to civitas –  in truth, this is little more than a democratically delivered totalitarianism.

This, it seems to me, is the scenario a correctly configured localism can help us avoid: state monopolies of power can, where appropriate, be allowed to simply melt away, in so doing clearing the space for the green shoots of an associative society to spring forth – a rejection of the omnipotence of the bureaucratised political realm, and an embrace of the organic, associative commons.

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