Celebrating Political Uncertainty

Celebrating Political Uncertainty

William Davies (Goldsmiths, University of London)


It is something of a truism to say that representative democracy is in a bad state. The argument, now notoriously associated with Russell Brand’s 2013 Newsnight interview, that voting is not worth it apparently captured a large swathe of public sentiment, especially amongst the young. In his posthumously published book, Ruling the Void (reviewed in detail by Wolfgang Streeck for New Left Review), Peter Mair traced the sustained decline of party membership and participation in elections across Europe since the 1950s.

As Mair argued in that work, without mediating institutions to the public (of which political parties are the most important), politics becomes something which people view as observers, forcing elites to become performers and therefore judged according to matters of private aesthetic tastes. While Mair’s empirical analysis is unusually incisive, the critique itself is a familiar one, reminiscent of Zygmunt Bauman or Colin Crouch in the UK, and any number of American theorists, bemoaning the disappearance of some vaguely remembered Tocquevillian idyll.

Add to this the pervasive influence of a rational choice view of everything, as propagated by pop economics books such as Freakonomics, and it’s a wonder that representative democracy has any life left at all. The obvious resonance between Brand’s worldview and a public choice position – both agreeing that voting probably doesn’t change anything – produces a common sense in which change must come from somewhere other than elections. This somewhere else is either direct action (for Brand) or the market (for economists). Such is the condition of what Crouch terms ‘postdemocracy’.

What these pessimistic analyses tend to rest on is either a normative vision of what democratic participation ought to look like, or an exaggerated view of what benefits it ought to yield. The normative view is of patient, respectful, often unmediated social relations, gradually congealing into something more than the sum of their parts. The exaggerated view is that voting ought to ‘change something’, a bit like spending money in the market ‘changes something’ (a belief that becomes less naive, when held by a wealthy party donor, of course). In an echo of the culture wars, the former view complains that people simply can’t cope with deferred gratification any longer, while the other is too busy seeking new sources of gratification to listen.

But once we suspend these assumptions, the 2015 General Election suddenly appears not only interesting, but actually quite exciting. The main reason for this is that nobody has a clue what is going to happen on 7th May. Political scientist Chris Hanretty, who is crunching poll data from multiple sources, believes this is the hardest election result to predict of the post-War era. In addition to that uncertainty, even when the result is known, nobody has a clue what sort of government it will produce. And in addition to that uncertainty, even when the formation of the government is known, nobody has a clue how it will actually govern over the subsequent few years.

The precedent of the Scottish referendum is significant here, signaling how a popular movement can potentially shake the British state to its deepest foundations. In that instance, the spread of a democratic movement reached the point where the Queen was mobilised in support of the ‘No’ vote, a sign of political emergency if ever there was one. The examples of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain over the last couple of years has provided additional evidence of the capacity of representational democratic politics to produce surprises. Add to this the calculation made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that the fiscal divide between the two largest parties is greater than at any election since 1983, and the 2015 General Election has the potential to significantly disrupt the status quo in some way.

Is it enough to be enthused by uncertainty alone? Or does that place one in a similarly ‘immature’ camp as that associated with Russell Brand? To revel in the sheer unpredictability of the democratic process could be seen as a form of nihilism, or – worse! – political geekery, where there is no concern for the outcome, but merely wonkish fascination in its unprecedented character. Yet while few would pursue uncertainty as a political goal in itself, the rise of political uncertainty in Britain, and the role of representative democracy in generating it, should be celebrated as sources of hope. This is especially true given the rise of financial services and neoliberalism since the 1970s, whose function is to convert the future from an object of hope, to one of modeling and speculation.

In my book The Limits of Neoliberalism, I draw a distinction between two forms of uncertainty, one that I term ‘competitive uncertainty’, and one that I term ‘political uncertainty’. Neoliberal thinkers, exemplified by Friedrich Hayek, have always viewed uncertainty as politically desirable, inasmuch as it blocks the creation of plans of a collectivist, proto-socialist nature. However, there is a deep ambiguity here within neoliberal logic. For while the uncertainty generated by competition (in the market, amongst entrepreneurs, but equally in other quasi-market contests such as university rankings) means the economy develops dynamically and spontaneously in defiance of political dictat, neoliberals are far less enthusiastic about ‘political uncertainty’. One way of understanding neoliberalism is the deliberate effort to replace the uncertainty of politics with the uncertainty of competition. Politics must become predictable and technocratic, in order that markets and business can then retain their capacity to surprise.

There are few things more troubling to the neoliberal mindset than an unpredictable general election, even when most core tenets of neoliberal political economy are apparently still beyond question. The very capacity for politics to surprise represents a form of defiance, albeit a very meager one in the first instance. It’s in this context that we can understand the bizarre suggestion now circulating, that Britain would be best off with a Tory-Labour ‘unity coalition’, where ‘best off’ means keeping the state maximally insulated from democratic differences.

Given that Labour has decided it cannot publicly challenge the logic of austerity without losing political ground, the capacity for this General Election to cause intentional upset to the status quo may be quite limited. However, it was never political intentions themselves that worried figures such as Hayek: it was unintended consequences. And it may yet be that the 2015 General Election becomes viewed in retrospect as the moment when technocratic neoliberalism encountered a serious political crisis, of the sort that re-makes elite power, for better or worse. The increasingly neoconservative commentator Martin Kettle has suggested that Britain could be on the cusp of losing its global power status, as a direct result of what happens on May 7th.

How this plays out cannot be foreseen: that is the whole point. It is the existential condition of uncertainty that, for political theorists such as Hannah Arendt, made the space of politics a hopeful and yet dangerous one. The fact that action may determine the future, and not a causal mechanism or institutional logic, is the distinguishing characteristic of the political, as far as Arendt was concerned. Therefore, before we engage in teleological or ideological questions, we must in the first instance ensure that a space for political uncertainty is opened up. This is the very same space that neoliberal thinkers have always hoped to close down using technocracy, or replace with a calculative, competitive logic instead.

For the social sciences, political unpredictability serves as a useful prompt for reflection. Social sciences which purport to stand outside of the fray, beyond the space of the political, risk being not only empirically wrong, but siding with other anti-political forces in neoliberal society, of which data analytics is amongst the more recent. And while a form of sad nostalgia for Fordist social democracy may be more appealing (at least to some tastes, my own included) than technocratic positivism, it is arguably no more respectful of the indeterminacy of the present. Both positions purport to know how everything is going to end up.

What is surprising, and potentially hopeful, about the emerging juncture is how democratic movements have begun to circulate around and disrupt the state. The Syriza government has given cause for hope on the Left, even as ideals have given way to compromise. In the context of the post-crisis Eurozone, this may be less significant as a case of ‘Left vs Right’ than of democracy against technocracy. The tipping point in such conflicts, which the British Labour Party is still a long way from reaching, is when political parties no longer recognise the ultimatum of capital flight as a veto against democratically-mandated action. The Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign demonstrated that the threat of capital flight (the main argument of the ‘No’ side) no longer had quite the political clout that has been assumed since the 1980s.

Indeed, the threat of capital flight has lost some of its political potency as it has become increasingly clear how much capital has already flown. This is the case in regions that have suffered sustained economic stagnation or depression since 2007, which have commensurately less to lose. But it is perhaps also challenged by rising public awareness of how much capital exists (or is accounted for) offshore in the first place. The political opportunity exploited by Syriza was not only created by a catastrophic decline in collective output, but also by pointing the finger at non-tax-paying oligarchs and discredited tax collectors. As Wolfgang Streeck shows in Buying Time, rising indebtedness of European states since the 1980s is a symptom of under-taxing, not over-spending.

It may seem odd to hope for an electoral mess come May 7th. But in the context of a mess, various other things become possible. Voices of those with little to lose start to become heard, albeit including those on the Right. Thanks to the work of investigative journalists and groups like UK Uncut, subsequently exploited by Ed Miliband, the question of tax and the territorial status of capital is a live political issue. The revival of taxation as a political issue has knock-on effects for the revival of representative democracy. The assumption that the state will act on behalf of finance capital may not be weakened by any deliberate democratic agency. But it may nevertheless be undermined by sheer political contingency.


William Davies is Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Image Credit: Tony Madrid Photography