One way in which people have felt [the ideological changes brought about by the end of the Cold War] is as a crisis of political representation, as a growing sense of being denied a voice, and of political institutions as being remote and corrupt, as the creation of a democratic deficit. The sense of being politically abandoned has been most acute within sections of the traditional working class, whose feelings of isolation have increased as social democratic parties have cut their links with their old constituencies. As mainstream parties have discarded both their ideological attachments and their long-established constituencies, so the public has become increasingly disengaged from the political process. The gap between voters and the elite has widened, fostering disenchantment with the very idea of politics.
The new political faultline in Europe is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the more technocratic, post-ideological world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless.
Kenan Malik asks what happens after liberal democratic capitalism wins?
This is Malik talking about Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, which some of you may recall was my own Baby’s First Political Theory, and thus something I’ll always have nostalgia for, even if (like everyone else, up to and including Fukuyama himself) I no longer think much of the theory itself. Malik’s take here is that Fukuyama was right in the sense that the end of the Cold War marked the end of the main ideological battle of the bands of the 20th century, i.e. the knock-out fight between capitalism (primarily in its “liberal democratic” flavor)1 and Marxism (primarily in its “autocratic communism” flavor).2 Because capitalism “won” that fight, it’s held total sway over politics for the last few decades, and reduced all political debate in Western countries to, in effect, choosing what flavor of more capitalism they’d like to implement, rather than whether they’d like any capitalism at all.
What Malik is arguing is that this endless nitpicking has left huge swathes of the electorate behind and, specifically, those huge swathes that in previous decades would’ve rallied behind various flavors of socialism. This in turn has resulted in a growing “both sides suck the same”/”a pox on both your houses” kind of polity, on both the left and the right, with a political class that more interested in twiddling the knobs and dials of the existing order3 than it is in selling any kind of high-level vision of what society could be.
It’s also meant that both the left and right of politics (again, in the West) have had to remake themselves in capitalism’s image. For the left, Malik argues it’s been the move away from the Marxist class-based politics and into a kind of market-segmented “identity politics”, where one can “shop” for one’s preferred brand of social justice, be it anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQIA+ issues, or whatever. The right, meanwhile, has rediscovered capitalism’s autocratic arm, i.e. ultra-right nationalist fascism.
It’s worth noting at this point that I don’t… love the way Malik describes modern leftist/progressive politics, though I do think his argument is at least worth thinking about, if not uncritically accepting. I also tend to side-eye anyone who plays the “class-based politics is Real Politics™, identity politics is nonsense” card, since they all tend to be, a) men, who b) conveniently forget that a lot of traditional leftist/Marxist political movements are just as alienating to marginalised communities as their equivalents on the conservative right.4
Either way, I’m only giving a very bare-bones summary of a fraction of Malik’s whole argument, which is an interesting and thoughtful read, so… go check it out.
- Also, the fact that “liberal democracy” is commonly used as a synecdoche for “capitalism” is, let’s face it, telling in-and-of itself… [↩]
- Ditto. [↩]
- You may hear this expressed as, “It’s the economy, stupid.” [↩]
- Or, arguably, moreso, given people generally expect the the right/conservatives to be bigots, while the eternal conflation of “the left” with “progressives” can mean that running into an actual non-progressive leftist can feel like a deeply personal betrayal. [↩]