In regular high-school rituals, teachers berate students for their disinterest in, mockery of, and/or failure to focus on “the important issues” in elections for student government. Students are forced to hear about cherishing their right to vote, taking the issues seriously, and participating fully. Most never do. Some notice that teachers likewise take little interest in their elections for faculty government either. The explanation: education “administrations” exercise exclusive power over most of what happens in schools. Teachers and students have very limited powers over very secondary issues. Whether and how they participate in student and teacher politics reflects their reaction to the realities of power inside schools.
Politics in the larger society increasingly resemble this school situation. In the United States as in many other advanced capitalist societies, politics today reflects a deepening mass withdrawal. People increasingly disparage politics and politicians, inform themselves less about political issues, participate less, or focus on less general, more narrow issues when they do. A June 12, 2007 Los Angeles Times poll showed that a historically very low 27 per cent of Americans think that Congress is doing a good job. The June 10, 2007 French legislative elections saw the largest percentage of eligible voters not bothering to vote in such elections in recent French history. British polls show historically high distaste for parties and for the entire parliamentary “circus.” The Los Angeles Times poll also showed that the brief spurt of hope in the US after the Democrats won the November 2006 congressional elections had dissipated by June 2007, when once again 73 per cent of Americans bemoan the US Congress for doing “business as usual” — a very negative judgment.
Interest and participation in civic affairs including politics has been declining since the mid-1970s. Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 bestseller, Bowling Alone, documented that for the US. The evidence suggests that withdrawal from politics is a transnational phenomenon. Indeed, it is part of neo-liberal globalization. As the ruling policies and ideas advocated and the ruling policies implemented a reduced role for the state, mass political engagement shrank.
The last quarter century has seen the greater or lesser undoing of welfare states in countries across the world. Those welfare states had been established to dig those countries out of the Great Depression, World War 2, and their social consequences. Governments suddenly became much more massively involved in caring for people than ever before. Beyond unemployment insurance, social security, and government jobs, a widespread feeling arose that governments could, should, and would serve peoples’ basic needs. Starting in the disastrous 1930s, politicians did not merely talk about government serving the people. The government actually did so in dramatic, unprecedented ways. The general public then could and did see the point in political engagement: learning about candidates, parties, and platforms, following the relationships between promises made and kept, participating in meetings, organizing, campaigning, and voting.
Since the mid-1970s, the decline of welfare states — neo-liberal privatization and deregulation — produced two hardly surprising results: (1) ever fewer people received public services and (2) their contacts with a public sector increasingly pinched for resources yielded disappointment, disgust, and disengagement. Political efforts to stop or reverse this flow of events were repeatedly insufficient. The mass of people witnessed this. They have felt less and less interested in or related to politics as government retreated from the quality and quantity of the basic services it had provided to the people since the 1930s. Had its enemies responded to neo-liberalism by effectively mobilizing mass confrontation against neo-liberalism’s financiers and supporters, contemporary politics might have taken quite a different turn. But that has not — or at least not yet — happened.
This broken relationship between the mass of people and politics takes many forms. Abstention from voting is only one of the reactions when the basic issues of life (jobs, personal security, health, housing, etc.) are ever less objects of effective state activity. For those who maintain some involvement in politics, they focus on different issues — in the US, access to firearms, immigration, abortion, global warming, homosexuality, and so on. Because so many of today’s shrunken mass of voters fixate on such issues, commentators mistakenly infer that those have become “the more important” to voters. An alternative interpretation holds that the basic issues of life remain as important as always but neo-liberalism has increasingly taken them out of the government’s realm of activity. The state is blocked ideologically and practically from attending to them since they are “better left to the private free market.” Thus, mass interest in politics correspondingly reduces to the issues around which state policies still matter, e.g. gun control, homosexual marriage, abortion, pollution controls, etc.
Those mobilized by and around such issues stay in politics. The rest of the population loses interest in politics or perhaps votes for those candidates whose take on such issues they share. Increasingly, voters are only casually and momentarily involved by the crescendo of TV ads preceding elections. Hence candidates must raise millions to buy the ads without which they cannot win. One week after the election, few remember or care much.
This situation afflicts all political parties: both those perceived to have engineered the welfare state’s demise and those perceived to have failed to stop it. Their constituents are ever less engaged or involved. Politics reverts to little more than the machinations of tiny political apparatuses composed mostly of the elected officials for whom politics and personal career are identical. The “political struggle” becomes chiefly one in which those apparatuses compete for contributions — largely from the same sources among businesses and the richest individuals. The latter correspondingly gain ever greater influence. For the rest of us, politics is a spectator sport suffering declining interest and attendance.
So long as those victimized by neo-liberalism respond with political withdrawal, neo-liberal politicians will keep smiling while reciting the usual homilies for democracy (like the school teachers). They will scold nonvoters while insisting that their votes would not have changed the outcomes (quite the encouragement to vote!). They will stay focused on fund-raising from neo-liberalism’s chief beneficiaries to keep themselves in power.
The key question: can neo-liberalism’s enemies find ways to convert a withdrawal from politics into a serious challenge to the social forces that undercut the post-1930s welfare states?
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002) and (with Stephen Resnick) New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006).