lecturer in politics at University of Oxford, and founding member of the Manifesto Club
Over the last couple of decades we have seen the demise of the political sphere as an arena for fundamental debates over the organisation of society and how we face the future. In their place we have seen an emptying of the political categories of left and right, and the rise of a new politics of managerialism and personality. This new politics is one in which traditional ideological conflict seems to have no role. It is also the case that this politics of managerialism leaves the majority of the population uninspired, disenchanted and disinterested. As a result, democracy has little relationship to the idea of individuals engaging in the political sphere in order to gain greater control of their lives.
The decline of politics as a sphere in which the majority of the population is engaged in debates about how to take society forward has lead to a sense that the future can be no different from the present. Contemporary culture has lost a sense of the present as the result of past achievements and as the precursor to building the future. The sense that human beings are engaged in a constant process of making and re-making the world has been replaced by a sense that we are cut adrift from our capacity to create the world and to control the future. The result of these processes is a severely diminished sense of what politics could be, and of the role that we can play as human beings in creating and controlling our destiny.
However, while this creates a serious problem for those of us who would like to see a more dynamic politics, it also creates a number of new possibilities. The unravelling of the outdated structures of the past means that we are now in a position to begin to re-imagine what politics and democracy could be. We are in a position to jettison all the old questions, debates and allegiances that have little relevance for the present and to ask what kind of society we would like to live in – what are the values and the structures that we want for the future.
This is a hugely exciting possibility, but it depends upon us recapturing a sense that individuals are robust enough to engage with each other in the world and to begin to have the kinds of debates and contestations that are central to the political process. The key challenge at present, therefore, is the question of how we view ourselves as human beings and as individuals. Do we have enough belief in our own capacities to start imagining a future built upon individuals asserting themselves, arguing for their interests and pursuing their own visions of the good society?
The question of how we view ourselves is the core issue that we need to begin to address. This is not only a philosophical question, but also a very practical question. It is central to contemporary debates around freedom, security, rights, as well as the bigger question of how we will face the future, re-enliven politics, and begin to take society forward.
If we take seriously the idea that the politics of old, the debates between left and right, is exhausted, then there is a need to approach politics in a new way. For those who are uninspired by the contemporary political landscape, we need to start working out new ways of engaging with one another. But in order to do this we first of all need to start thinking about the kinds of questions that would underpin a new politics. In my view, the most important political question of the moment is that of freedom: how do we begin to organise society over the next few years around a belief in real freedom? Unless we see ourselves as individuals who can aspire towards freedom – towards thinking for our selves and acting in accordance with what we believe, towards having more control of our own lives – then a more enlivened politics will be beyond us. If we are incapable of acting as free, self-determining individuals without codes of conduct, limitations upon what we can say and how we should act with one another, then there is little chance that we can begin to build a new future.
James Panton is a contributor to The Changing Role of the Public Intellectual (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))