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Editorial Mick Hume

Perot, the Danes and the 'end of politics'

'Is this the end of politics?', asked novelist Anthony Burgess, surveying the American opinion polls which put Ross Perot ahead of both major party candidates in the presidential race, and the results of the Danish referendum which rejected the Maastricht treaty.

Not exactly the end of politics, no. But these are the latest signs of the end of politics as it has been known since the Second World War. And the sooner we face up to that, the better our chances of creating a new alternative.

Take Ross Perot, the Texan with plenty of dollars but without a party, who has overtaken both Republican president George Bush and Democratic Party hopeful Bill Clinton in the early stages of the race for the White House. What is that all about?

Perot is a presidential candidate without any publicly declared policies, a man who appears to stand for nothing, except perhaps the right to make and keep your own money. Declaring that you have no interest in politics might once have been considered something of a disadvantage for somebody running for high political office. But not today. In fact, that is Ross Perot's selling point.

The Texan billionaire has come to prominence by riding a populist wave of anti-Washington, anti-politician, anti-politics feeling. In America he has been dubbed the 'kick the bastards out candidate'. As an individual Perot is pretty irrelevant, and could disappear as suddenly as he emerged. But for the moment he symbolises the cynical mood among many American voters.

The logic of Perot's supporters is simple enough. They know that all politicians lie and break their pledges; so why not have a president who makes no promises in the first place? They can see that no politician sticks to his avowed principles: they conclude that it makes most sense to support the man who has none to betray. If politics is all about scandal, graft and governmental incompetence, they say, we would be better off without it.

One Perot campaign worker was at pains to explain to the Sunday Times that his team 'aren't lobotomised fanatics for Perot', and don't think the little man from Texas is 'the messiah'. Instead, they were supporting Perot to show their disgust with corrupt US politicians who are 'getting so blatant and arrogant about it', and their contempt for a president 'who thinks you can revive an economy by buying 15 pairs of gym socks' (24 May 1992). A Newsweek poll has shown that 52 per cent of Americans who claim to support Perot do so because they 'dislike other candidates'; only 12 per cent of them said they backed his 'stands on issues' (15 June).

Of course, there is nothing new about corrupt, lying or incompetent American presidents. Every incumbent of the White House would fall easily enough into at least one of those categories. For the past half a century, however, they have usually been able to get away with it, thanks to the combined power of Cold War politics and a booming economy.

The anti-communist ethos of postwar American politics overshadowed all else. Just about the only qualification needed to enter government was to be a staunch and vigilant opponent of the Soviet Union and the Red Menace. A politician did not have to stand for anything much, so long as he was firmly against 'un-American activities'. And while the US economy was literally delivering the goods, it was easier still for the Washington elite.

Now that the Cold War and the postwar boom are both gone forever, US statesmen stand exposed to critical scrutiny. Instead of railing against the evil 'un-Americanism' of others, the politicians have had to show the public what their 'Americanism' stands for. So far, they have shown that it stands for economic slump and political scandals; for presidents who say 'watch my lips, no new taxes' and then raise them anyway, or who secretly back an Iraqi dictator one week and publicly brand him 'the new Hitler' the next. The result of this process is the widespread rejection of politics, and the rise of Ross Perot.

There may not yet be a direct equivalent of Perot outside of the USA. But the same trends are evident throughout the West. Everywhere, the end of the Cold War and the onset of recession has produced circumstances in which the post-1945 order is unravelling and conventional politics is in disgrace. The Danish referendum vote to reject the Maastricht proposals on European integration was a graphic example.

Many commentators have tried to present that Danish referendum result as a conscious rejection of the provisions of the Maastricht treaty by a growing political movement opposed to European unity. This is rewriting history. A look at why Danes voted 'no' reveals that it had nothing to do with any politically conscious movement, and not all that much to do with the issue of Europe. It was largely a consequence of an antipolitics mood already obvious in the decline of support for the old Danish parties of right and left alike.

The Danish 'no' vote was a gesture by people who are increasingly alienated from the established parties and political system, which they feel has left them without representation or influence. It was a case of disillusioned and embittered voters lashing out in 'up yours' fashion; against the Danish political establishment, against the Euro-bureaucracy, against the Germans, against politics. Maastricht just happened to come along at the right time to catch the backlash.

The factors which produced the Danish referendum result are also at work in other European countries. As we examine in full in a special feature in this issue of Living Marxism, the whole continent is experiencing governmental breakdowns and national identity crises. The role of Ross Perot is being played in Europe by emergent parties and splinter groups espousing various strains of regionalism and right-wing populism, all of which are opposed to the established political order.

Even apparently stable old Britain is not immune. The general election may have resulted in another Tory victory, but beneath the surface, the cynical drift of opinion is clear. Like Perot's supporters in America, the majority of people polled in Britain said that they were voting negatively, against the other candidates, rather than positively for the party of their choice. Here too, politics is increasingly seen as an irrelevant charade that does not touch upon the reality of people's lives and problems.

None of this really means the end of politics. Rather, it represents the triumph, at least temporarily, of the politics of low expectations. Supporting Perot or lashing out against Maastricht is a way of saying that you expect nothing worthwhile from the politicians, but neither do you really believe that there is any alternative which would change things for the better.

This mood poses problems for those of us concerned to build support for such an alternative. So what can be done about it?

We could try to find something positive to latch on to in current trends, by courting public cynicism and encouraging more bitter gestures. That is the approach adopted by much of the old left in Europe. In Denmark, the left ran what amounted to a joint campaign with the far right for a 'no' vote in the Maastricht referendum. And in Britain, left-wing Labour MPs like Dennis Skinner have joined the Tory right in championing a backlash against Europe.

This might help the left to create the illusion of success by appearing to promote a popular cause. But by abandoning any pretence of standing for something different, and lining up with reactionaries, the old left is only strengthening public cynicism about politics and compounding people's low expectations.

It is time we accepted that there is nothing positive which we can relate to in public affairs today. The parties of the postwar left are now exhausted. And two-fingered gestures like those which the Perot campaign or the Danes have given to the political establishment do not represent a genuine alternative, but a narrow, blind reaction against the discredited old order.

The consequence of accepting this fact is that we will have to start from scratch in creating a new kind of politics. This is the project which Living Marxism is here to help advance. Our aim is to promote a fresh, critical approach to the problems of capitalist society, which can demonstrate the need for fundamental change. Furthering that critique of capitalism will be a key theme of Towards 2000, the week of discussion which Living Marxism is sponsoring in London from 24 to 30 July (see centre pages).

Tackling the mood of cynicism and low expectations is a must. But giving people a positive belief in politics cannot be done simply by changing the candidates for US president, or by altering the arrangements among the governments of Europe. It will depend upon convincing people of their own capacity to improve things, by getting organised behind the politics of anticapitalism.

Such a revolutionary perspective has often been dismissed as unrealistic. But what other option is there today? All of the more 'realistic' options we were offered have failed, and we are left with an unappealing choice between the parties of the past and a Perot. Those who want to do something about 'kicking the bastards out' for good will need something better than that.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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