Is this it?
Negative politics are what the British general election campaign is now
all about. Instead of promoting their own policies, the main parties devote
their mighty publicity machines to rubbishing the others and abusing rival
Ask the Tories how they intend to build a better future for us, and they
tell you about how Labour's 'double whammy' will harm the taxpayer, how
Neil Kinnock was a student firebrand, and how various Labour MPs once sponsored
an Irish Freedom Movement march.
Ask Labour the same question about their plans, and they will tell you about
how the Tory 'VATman' will harm the consumer, how John Major used to be
Thatcherite, and how assorted Conserv-ative MPs are liars.
The Tories are even said to have hired dirty tricks experts from the USA,
a country where they have been perfecting the art of negative politicking
for some time. The results can be seen in the smears and counter-smears
dominating the early stages of the US presidential election campaign.
You might imagine that those trying to become the Democratic Party candidate
would be grilled about their ideas to end the deep US recession. Instead,
the biggest question facing the presidential hopefuls has been 'are you,
or have you ever been, an adulterer/drug-smoker/draft dodger/mafia Don?'.
Meanwhile, over in the Republican Party, George Bush (a man who became president
thanks partly to an election campaign accusing his Democrat opponent of
being a black rapist's best friend), has now been branded as a sponsor of
A lot of commentators have complained about the negativity of the current
election campaigns, not only in Britain and America but also in France and
Italy. Yet few seem to grasp why this is going on.
It is certainly not the case that politicians are somehow more low-life
than they used to be. It would be difficult to sustain the argument that
Bush is a dirtier fighter than president Richard 'Tricky Dicky' Nixon was,
or that Major is more cynically manipulative than were Margaret Thatcher
and her media man, Bernard Ingham.
The reason why electoral politics are so negative today is that British
and Western politicians have absolutely nothing positive to campaign on.
They have never had a good word to say about each other's policies. Now
they don't even have a good word to say about their own.
Take apart the programmes of every major party in the Western world, and
you will not find one inspiring idea, never mind a wider vision of a better
future for society. It is easy to blame this boring state of affairs on
the dullards who are today's top politicians. But the problem goes much
deeper than the shallowness of their intellects.
The parties are downbeat because the capitalist system which they aspire
to manage is in a downward spiral.
The last time British or American polit-icians campaigned on a truly positive
programme was probably back in the sixties. Then, Lyndon Johnson's Democratic
Party offered Americans the Great Society, while Harold Wilson's Labour
Party pledged to regenerate Britain through the 'white heat' of a technological
These policies came at the end of a relatively long period of postwar pros-perity,
when it seemed that Western governments could afford to launch big initiatives.
That illusion has since been shattered by three serious recessions, culminating
in the current economic slump.
Britain, as the weakest of the senior capitalist economies, provides the
best example. Many commentators have argued that Britain is in its worst
recession since the 1930s. In fact, in terms of capacity to recover, things
appear even more desperate than that. In the thirties, British capitalists
still had the largest empire on Earth and a big manufacturing base to help
support them. Today, they have the square mile of the City of London and
some Japanese car factories.
The British economy now has a negative growth rate, a negative investment
rate, and a negative balance of trade. And they wonder why parties which
want to rule the ruins of capitalism in this country find it difficult to
The general election campaign is contentless, avoiding the key question
of what is happening to British society. What debate there is centres on
relatively unimportant or eccentric issues puffed up by the parties' public
relations departments - training, taxation, tinkering with the constitution.
In the overwhelming mood of negativity, each party's basic policy comes
down to this: 'However bad we might be, that other lot will be worse.'
The way in which the Anglo-American crusade against the third world has
been adapted for domestic electoral purposes shows how low Western politicians
now have to stoop in an effort to look good. Major's Tories and Bush's Republicans
have both stepped up the propaganda offensive against Iraq and Libya, presumably
because they feel that their best chance of victory is to make out that
they are running against Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi.
It is quite conceivable that Bush might even stage an air-strike to boost
his poll ratings. Another dirty little war in the third world is just about
the most positive initiative that Washington and Whitehall can offer.
Against such a negative background, it is not surprising that there should
be widespread rejection of the whole political process in the West today.
Nor should it come as a shock to discover that the only parties making headway
disassociate themselves from the discredited traditions of the old left
and right alike.
This trend can lead to the rise of something like the Italian Party of Love,
a coalition of striptease artistes and porn stars. Far more dangerously,
it may also boost support for a populist movement like Le Pen's Front National
in France, which can exploit the negative political mood to build on anti-immigrant
So is this it? Is this electoral charade what politics has to mean? Or is
it possible to envisage a positive alternative?
It is ironic that the supporters of the existing system always accuse anti-
capitalists of being negative. Every time a criticism of the status quo
is raised, they dismiss it as the work of 'whiners' and 'moaning minnies'.
Yet it is now obvious that they themselves can only speak in negative terms.
Anti-capitalist ideas like those put forward in Living Marxism are
necessarily critical. After all, our first intention is to expose the shortcomings
of the system. But that is very different from the negativity of the mainstream
They resort to the politics of abuse in order to avoid discussing the all-important
question of how society could be organised successfully - a question to which
they have no answers. By contrast, our criticism aims to put this issue
in the spotlight, by demonstrating the ineffectiveness and irrationality
of the market system.
Their negative, nothing-much-is-possible approach legitimises the slump
society in which we live as the best option. By contrast, our attack on
the exploitative and undemocratic character of capitalism points to the
possibility of creating a better future, by revolutionising the way in which
things are run.
The anti-capitalist argument is fundamentally positive because it is saying
that the majority of people want more. It is demanding something better
from society - and indicating that the resources exist to make a better life.
The case for capitalism is essentially negative, on the other hand, because
a crisis-ridden system built upon the pursuit of private profit for the
few cannot provide what the many need.
As the election approaches, the answer to the question 'is this it?', is
'yes and no'. This empty circus is indeed all that we can expect from politicians
and parties which are in the service of the old order. But there is no reason
why we should accept this big void as the be-all and end-all of politics
in Britain or anywhere else.
Those who wish to create a new and positive political outlook will in the
first place have to adopt a negative attitude towards all of the politics
of the past. The general election seems as good a time as any to start.
When the negative campaigners for the pessimistic parties ask us to support
their nothing programmes on 9 April, let's just say No.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992