Russell Brand and Bernie Sanders: Blurring Lines Between Formal and Informal Politics in a year of elections

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The coming 18 months will be marked by a string of national elections from the UK in just a few days from when this blog was published, through the EU – significantly Spain in December 2015, to the US next November. In all of these nations, and many besides, the mood among the voters is one of apathy and bewilderment. The old framework of Left and Right wing formal political parties and their attached institutional infrastructure is failing to bring about desired social and economic changes. As the below video from Represent.Us shows, a Princeton University study in 2014 asked the simple question “does the government represent the people?”

They found that the 70% of the least wealthy Americans had literally zero impact on policy; ie your desired social changes as documented through opinion polling studies did not lead to congress passing legislation to realise those ideas. As you moved up the income scale, you get more influence on policy. Those in the top 1% have a better than likely chance to get what they want. Essentially meaning that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy as believed.

So when people feel like there’s no point in voting, that they’re small and alone, what could they do to change anything, why bother trying, this is just the way things have always been and always will be, just accept it and mind your own business etc etc, in a lot of ways they’re absolutely right. That’s the way oligarchy and neoliberal consumer capitalism (or what I describe as a global form of ‘New Feudalism’ in my research) teaches you to behave, feel and think about society. You’re an individual. There’s no such thing as “society”, as Thatcher used to say.

But obviously things don’t have to be this way. Social change has been done before and can be done again, so the debate isn’t if things have to stay this way, its “what organisational strategies will most effectively implement it?”

Enter Russell Brand and Bernie Sanders.

The former is best known for his cynicism about electoral politics, going so far as to tell Jeremy Paxman’s fine Newsnight viewers not to vote because it’s pointless.

For much of the time since his book Revolution (which I thought was quite good, despite the panning it received from critics) was released, Brand has been singing the gospel of social movement mobilisation and arguably ecological-anarchist/postmodern something. He’s lent his hand to community organising initiatives the New Era Estate in central London, which successfully prevented an American luxury apartment developer from turfing out tenants of affordable housing. Through his Trews (True News – get it?) YouTube channel he has reached out to audiences from across the political spectrum and broadcast a message that largely validates and soothes the anxieties of the masses, frustrated with being ignore under oligarchy, and in the process encouraged them to spurn electoral politics as a charade, a facade for the real decision making, happening behind closed doors.

But in a widely publicized interview with Labour Prime Ministerial candidate Ed Miliband, Brand endorsed the Labour party, to much uproar from the bewildered media who had made hay ridiculing his undergraduate, immature anti-politics of donkey voting. In the interview, he emphasised the cruelty of the austerity response to the global financial crisis of 2008, with the Tories being portrayed as the architects and chief implementers of policies which were squarely aimed at tearing down what remained of the Welfare State; pensions, public education and healthcare funding, unemployment assistance, disability support and so on. That it was portrayed as a temporary emergency, only to be later locked in as permanent is typical of how Neoliberal economic policy become accepted as normative – see Naomi Klein’s thesis in the ‘Shock Doctrine’.

Brand seemed sincere when he said a vote for Labour would amount to a popular rejection of that regressive austerity agenda. A look at the wider context in the EU would seem to suggest that parties as supposedly left wing as the Allande’s Socialist (in name only) party in France and the “Socialist Workers Party” of Spain – the national equivalents of UK Labour, both implemented the austerity agenda, vigorously. So whether Miliband genuinely intends to reverse this tide or not, history is working against him being able to do so within the current framework of the EU.

Across the pond, Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president has been given a shot in the arm with an endorsement, the first ever issued by the leaderless social movement organisation, from Occupy Wall Street. Given Occupy’s tendency to reject electoral politics as a charade, like Brand, what might the significance of this endorsement actually amount to? I would argue very substantial.

The cynic says “its all for show, the movements are being co-opted only to be sold up the river the day after the election when the big corporate donors pull up with their IOUs in hand”. But the old lines between formal and informal theatres of political contention are blurring. Populist social movement radicals are infiltrating mainstream political parties and having at least some success in broadcasting a critical message about the injustice of Neoliberal capitalism. A more politically engaged population, which demands to participate¬†rather than merely spectate and passively consume, is redrawing the lines of contention, melting away old divisions and conceptions of “politics”. If nothing else, it will be hilarious to see Hillary Clinton grow increasingly furious at Bernie Sanders for drawing attention to class conflict and the decay of the Welfare State, making her announce promises that her Wall Street faction of the Democratic party will definitely have some reservations about.

Edit 11/5/2015

The UK election results with the surprise electoral coup of the Scottish National Party in the background and the Tory party expanding its majority at the expense of the Lib-Dems and Labour together underscore the sense of structural pessimism and helplessness among the general population, in addition to the push for devolution of the outdated Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Protests erupted in London literally within hours of the election results, indicating the level of popular discontent at the electoral process’ failure. Those (including Ed Miliband) who dismissed the influence of ‘old media’ oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch have egg on their face. Any cursory glance through the coverage in the tabloids in the months leading up to the election would be marked by a stunning absence of any mention of David Cameron or the Conservative party, despite abundant coverage that there was an election coming up and all these incompetent idiots from the Labour and other parties were running. Evidently old media and old politicals are symbiotic self-perpetuating phenomena that must be countered collectively by civil society in the struggle against the ugly politics of Neoliberal austerity.

On the bright side opportunities now open up for the Left to prefigure democracy outside the formal apparatus of the British State. Agitation for system change from civil society actors like Uncut UK for example can now happen free from the interference and cooptation of an opportunistic but valueless Neoliberal Labour party and its allied institutions. Indeed, Labour will no doubt now be pressured by the political class to lurch yet further to the right, back to the Blairite legacy which granted it such electoral acclaim in the past decade.

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