Among the worst things a UK politician can do is a u-turn. The reasons for this cluster around the suspicion that uncertainty is weakness. On the contrary, more diffidence is exactly what’s required of a responsible politics. The managerialism implied by single-minded, certain delivery of policy requires intellectual dishonesty, and public anaesthesia.
One motivating challenge of politics in general is to define itself despite the contingencies of reality it is sure to face. Part of this challenge is to justify political domination of public and private spheres. The transformation of the norms in these latter contexts, in order to yield to politically determined alternatives, must be grounded in something other than simple threat of force. In some very general sense, this justification has to do with the maintenance of a public sphere. How, in such a sphere, can it be that diverse aims and ends will cohere enough to avoid chaos and facilitate personal freedoms?
The private desires of property-owning bourgeoisie classes were once thought sufficient to maintain a ‘public virtue’ of a unified public, just because in order to use the market as a means of satisfying their vices, the bourgeois would need to ensure that market’s perpetuation. This would secure a public sphere. In this way, the necessity of the market in mediating private desires could be seen to ultimately secure public virtue.
But this image disintegrates owing to the necessity for the division of roles within it. As long as the ‘haves’ need the market to retain and sell their goods and satisfy their wants in a context of limited resources, there must be ‘have nots’ whose role is at best to facilitate the market.
These classes are excluded from the public-as-market-stewards, simply because their stakes aren’t in that structure. The market-modelled public fails those without capital or commodity; the norms required for the market cannot be expected to coincide with those of an effective underclass, to whom the market is superordinate.
The public opinion of the private people assembled to form a public no longer retain[s] a basis of unity and truth; it degenerat[es] to the level of a subjective opining of the many.
Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
What is the political role of government in such a context as this market model? On the face of it, the function would appear to mirror in many respects that of the property-owning consumer classes.
Market-maintenance is supposed to ensure public coherence, and the ease of the consumers’ lives in achieving this makes such coherence more likely. So, government ought to deliver easy lives for consumers. It ought to make market transactions as easy as possible. It ought to strive for a broader market-context such that shocks are minimised. It ought, in sum, to direct the majority of its attentions to consumers. Insofar as the have nots appear on governmental radar, in this picture, it is likely in terms of potential market-shocks to be avoided.
Government such as this represents an abandonment of politics in various major ways. One central way is in being uncritically sure of a position, and simply delivering policy to enable that position.
Political action here cannot pretend to be normatively accessible to all and so it must degenerate into one genre of particular regulations, on a managerial scheme of command. The policy genre involves simply an affirmative attitude toward that selective ‘opining of the many’.
The other ‘many’, those whose exclusion from the privatised regulation of the public sphere is mandated by the unchecked norms of essentially consumerist activity, cannot merely subsist forever. Especially not so when the public, intuitively understood as a general space in which to be, departs further from anything recognisable to them.
When norms systematically diverge from interests, over extended periods of time, harm is inevitable.
This has been seen in the UK acutely in terms of Brexit, and in horrifying retrospect as the enabling conditions for the Grenfell fire.
US author and poet Adrienne Rich writes,
When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.
When we think of someone with the authority of a politician, who not only describes, but actively constructs a world and you are not in it, what must ensue?
The norms built through the subjective opining of the many serve to ease their own market behaviours. Government, reduced from any pretensions of universality, serves to ease that ease. Those left looking into an empty mirror come to see that the glass has been purged by material decision, actions from those to whom no recourse is possible.
The optimism of the bourgeois consumer class, and their political correlates, that a better world was to come through self-interest’s transmutation into public virtue is revealed as simple self-interest.
This serves to shatter the basis for any public legitimate enough to preside over its own perpetuation. It comes as a direct result of political certainty, and the eschewing of discussion.
With Brexit, democracy was wielded as an ideological weapon of majoritarianism when its authentic function is to ground reasons for collective action in public discourse. The public is not intact, the reasons did not materialise, but the opining many strode on with a misplaced confidence. This will be their undoing, and everyone else’s.
Grenfell tower burned unknown numbers alive. This was likely related in part to an economy of £5,000 on the part of the developer in not buying flame retardant materials.
The developers insist everything done was done to requisite standards. Yet this demonstration was apparently necessary for some to see that the standards were faulty. Politicians, in a position to review these sub-standards refused to do so. In the face of grimly prescient pressure from those seeking change, government responded that something would happen ‘in due course’.
The market didn’t intervene to incentivise exceeding minimal compliance with standards.
The market didn’t intervene to raise standards.
The market didn’t intervene to provide a platform for the voices desperately and rightly demanding change.
The market made money for a few, and left others to destitution, to suffocate, and to burn.
A broken public doesn’t require strong management in order to regain integrity. It requires diffidence, openess, well-asked questions. It requires that those who brought about the breaking consider that they perpetrated it. There is no idle power.