Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.
– Jimmy Reid, Glasgow University in 1972
Overcoming alienation, explaining the ‘undecideds’
On recent mass canvases in Glasgow we have found there to be a very large number of undecideds. Scanning social media reports its seems to be the case that there remains a high number don’t knows in places all over Scotland As a result many have asked why this is the case. Are there any particular issues? Is there anything we can change about our messaging? And so on.
In truth there is no magic wand, or simple solution to this. This article deals with a specific form of being ‘undecided’. One person may be balancing the arguments, carefully, critically. They may be tuning into every debate, reading the latest developments and speaking to friends about the referendum. But another, bigger, section are not really ‘undecided’ on the basis of the arguments as such. They are undecided because they have not yet thought about it in any serious way.
This in part helps explain why undecided voters are so high in areas where there is low voter turn out. The richer you are, the more your interests are represented and reflected in the political and financial institutions. Thus, there is a reason to take an interest, because your own interests are more likely to be acted on institutionally. Conversely, in areas where the interests of the electorate are not even an after thought, alienation from the political process is deep. Indeed this alienation is in and of itself a long-term process of demobilisation. Structural and social issues coalesce to create a barrier to political action, including the fact that daily life is enough of a struggle.
Neoliberalism versus democracy
But the daily struggle of life acting to subordinate an individuals engagement with national political questions, makes up only part of the answer. The system itself breeds disengagement. We live under a system where the state and corporate interests are one and the same. The operation of the state and the economic system are mutually reinforcing, with the establishment now engaged in delivering a lasting ideological and structural assault on the welfare reforms won after 1945. The disastrous levels of poverty and disengagement experienced today are a result of decades of privatisation and neoliberal consensus. This has had a profound impact on the ability of the major political institutions to operate in a framework where the interests of working people are able to penetrate the axis of corporate-state power. Noam Chomsky concludes:
‘Democracy is permissible as long as the control of business is off-limits to popular deliberation or change; i.e., so long as it isn’t democracy. Neoliberal democracy therefore has an important and necessary byproduct – a depoliticized citizenry marked by apathy and cynicism.’
Augmenting this process, neoliberalism has atomised the workplace and sucked the life blood out of communities up and down the country. Often when there is talk of life blood being sucked out of communities, the automatic response is to think of jobs and the economic impact that follows. True though that is, it is not the end of the story. Unemployment, the shutting down of day centres, cuts to community funding and the lack of local projects driven with funding from the massive wealth in the economy results in the shriveling of democracy. Again, to Chomsky:
‘To be effective, democracy requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens, and that this connection manifests itself though a variety of non-market organizations and institutions. A vibrant political culture needs community groups, libraries, public schools, neighbourhood organizations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens.’
Of course these are the very amenities and associations we have seen less and less of in recent decades. When people ask why there is disengagement, this is the reason. It’s not just because people don’t trust politicians, or that people feel there is no point in political engagement because they have not seen any evidence to suggest their action makes a difference. These are not unimportant – but the problem is systemic in nature. In essence the neoliberal democracy is limited to the parameters of the interests of big capital, and in addition the tapestry of organisations, groups and community facilities needed to catalyse and maintain a culture of political engagement have been systematically undermined, shut down and shattered by years of strategic neglect. Permanent austerity is now the over-arching strategy which incorporates all of this, underlined with an ideological demonisation and a further fracturing of our society along the lines of race, benefits claimants, the ‘work-shy’ and so on. they have not just been cutting services, they’ve been destroying democracy along the way.
If this is the problem, then the solution to the democratic deficit is obvious. Re-build a culture of solidarity, reverse the upwards distribution of wealth and power and energise community programmes, cooperatives, public meetings and so on. That will take nothing short of a mass social and political renewal which will require a strategy based on the long-term detoxification of neoliberal failure.
But that doesn’t answer how we might seek to win the disengaged and disenfranchised to a voting Yes in the next 5 months, especially as we know how important a Yes vote is for a democratic revival. But understanding why exists the way the do is the first step to finding solutions. these are some suggestions borne from the preceding analysis:
- The opening the referendum offers is in part that this is not a vote for a party. The independence movement is much wider than the SNP, to the degree where very small organisational units, with no financial backing have flourished into full-blown campaigns. But that is not the impression for many tens of thousands of potential Yes voters who see the referendum through the lens of the political party; and primarily between Labour and the SNP. We need to amplify the compelling message that this vote is more than a party, and that for once, you are in the driving seat of its outcome. That is incongruous to the neoliberal norm and should be seized upon.
- The tradition of the public meeting is being brought back as hundreds flock to independence meetings up and down the country. The vast majority of these meetings are composed of Yes voters. That understandably leads many to the conclusion that public meetings are of secondary importance to canvassing. But there is a qualification needed here. The public meeting is vital to generate quickly the bonds of solidarity, and the emergent political culture necessary to bring about a wider shift towards Yes. As we get closer, public meetings can become hubs where people go to find out more. A good idea would be to tie canvassing with the promotion of a regular question and answer public meeting. It would help if meetings also included some music, or food. Let’s build that community atmosphere that’s been missing for so long. Big speeches are important, but so too is the buzz of conversation over some food and drink. Lastly, public meetings, if they are to kick-start democratic revival in communities should not all be at 7pm on a weekday. Try lunchtimes, Sunday afternoons in cafes etc. Try a mix of formats and events that go beyond having a top table then questions. You will get a different crowd.
- Raising ambitions. Neoliberalism has ground the ambitions of so many people down. The world seems so vastly unequal, and political institutions so out of touch that it is impossible to change and futile to try. Additionally, aversion to risk, even if you currently have very little, is a category heightened by precarity and living on the edge or below the poverty line. The wealth divide is also a psychological divide. The super-rich feel all-powerful. So we need to say that in this referendum the establishment are not getting it all their own way, and that things can change. Without raising our collective ambition there is no will to change. That is the crux of the ‘Another Scotland is Possible’ message. It says we can change the society around us, and that the system that perpetuates poverty is not invincible. We need to take this out in concrete terms: let’s not simply say Scotland is a wealthy nation. Let’s say we are a wealthy nation, but here’s how we can be a wealthy people.
These are some ideas, but of course there is no easy or quick solution to reversing decades of a systematic concentration of power to the establishment. Democracy has been undermined as part of the interplay between the state, corporate power and neoliberal ideology.
With hard work it is possible to haul back some of the ground we have lost. In-fact we have already achieved a lot in this direction, in the short time since the start of the official referendum process. This shows we have the potential. Those who usually don’t vote because there is nothing gained by filing in the ballot paper can play the key role in winning Yes and beyond.
Our answer to alienation is quite different to the Westminster establishment, who are quite happy with the present state of affairs. People power can win, if we can show those who are currently disengaged from the process, that on this occasion, their vote can be cast to bring about genuine change, and at last, start to form the basis of a serious challenge to neoliberalism.