“I don’t really care about politics. Politicians are all the same and they’re all just out for themselves.” You often hear such sentiments expressed these days, and they’re usually taken as examples of how people have become “apathetic” about politics in recent years.
The reasons given for this allegedly rising apathy vary. Some blame it on consumerism and technology, arguing that we are all too busy playing video games or chatting to each other on the internet to bother with our social responsibilities.
Others blame the promotion of individualist attitudes during the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, or the shift away from manufacturing jobs towards service industries.
The theory goes that things were different until fairly recently. Our depoliticised and disengaged way of life today is contrasted with a time – usually the 1960s and 1970s – when people were passionately involved in politics and when community bonds played a vital role in our lives.
These “common sense” assumptions about the changes in our lives over the past three decades form the backdrop of a new book From Anger To Apathy: The British Experience Since 1975 by the liberal historian Mark Garnett.
Garnett finds, somewhat to his own surprise, that the superficial “anger to apathy” thesis masks some deeper complexities and contradictions.
For starters Garnett shows that most of the policy changes and social attitudes we habitually associate with Thatcher and the 1980s in fact started in the mid-1970s under the Labour government. And after the Tory period, New Labour continued with those policies.
“The end of a prolonged period of Conservative rule could hardly cure a malaise which had taken hold long before Mrs Thatcher took office,” writes Garnett. “As it was, Tony Blair and New Labour did nothing to reverse the trend.”
Nonetheless, the statistics suggest we are dealing with a real rather than an imagined phenomenon.
Garnett notes the recent collapse in turnout at elections. From 1928 (when universal voting was introduced) through to 1997, over 70 percent of people would vote in general elections. But in 2001 the turnout plummeted to 59 percent.
No single constituency recorded a turnout below 50 percent in 1997 – yet by 2001 there were 65 seats in which less than half of those eligible voted.
These figures have led to much navel gazing and breast beating among the political classes. Yet as Garnett notes, it would be a mistake to equate not voting with a lack of interest in politics.
It’s true that there are some “apathetic” people who are both uninterested in and uninformed about politics.
But there are also those who don’t vote because they know that “the policies of the main parties were broadly similar”, and those who don’t vote because they see “that their individual votes would make little difference”.
And there are “alienated abstainers” – those who know a lot about politics but dislike all of the electoral parties. Garnett traces much of the blame for this alienation to the Labour Party’s refusal in the late 1980s to offer any kind of alternative to Thatcherism.
The book works well as an overview of life in Britain since the 1970s. But Garnett is unable to offer any kind of explanation for the changes he outlines. By the end of the book his tone becomes increasingly despairing and pessimistic.
While noting the huge anti-war march of 15 February 2003, he dismisses the marchers as “impotent”. Democracy and civic society are going to hell in a handcart, he seems to suggests, and he does not know what can be done about it.
Yet four years on from that great demonstration, the ideas of the anti-war movement have penetrated deeply into society.
The kind of understanding of the war that was once confined to a radical fringe is now echoed in ordinary conversations up and down the country – and even within the military establishment itself.
And this allegedly “impotent” anti-war movement has cut short the political career of its main target – the former prime minister Tony Blair.
None of this suggests that mass protest is useless, or that people are powerless. So what has gone wrong with Garnett’s analysis? The problem is that his liberalism cannot get to grips with the issues at the heart of the changes he describes – class and class struggle.
He has some insights into what happened to the workers’ movement in the 1970s – noting, for instance, how the failure of the 1977 Grunwick strike heralded a wider downturn that was in full flow by the end of the decade. But he never grasps how central workers’ resistance was to holding back the neoliberal project, why Thatcher went out of her way to break that resistance – or how it could return.
Garnett’s pessimism spills over from politics into culture. He surveys today’s world of trashy reality television shows, contrasting it to an earlier age when the pop charts could accommodate groups like The Clash and The Specials.
It can’t be denied that much of popular culture is dominated by poor quality products designed purely on commercial grounds. Competition in the media forces every television channel to cut costs, dumb down and chase ratings – as the job cuts at the BBC announced last week attest to.
Nevertheless, surveying culture in this manner can be misleading when it comes to predicting political trends. France throughout the 1960s was notable for its stifling cultural conservatism – until the explosion of May 1968.
And even when radical movements are defeated, they do not disappear – rather they go underground and are liable to erupt again in new and unfamiliar combinations.
Often some unexpected event acts as a flashpoint for class anger. The current postal dispute, for instance, arose from a variety of complex issues surrounding pay, pensions, privatisation and “flexibility” – but once the strike was called it makes postal workers more aware of the general class divide in society.
Moreover, strikes that hit hard enough – especially unofficial action – cannot be ignored by the mass media.
The images of postal workers on wildcat action earlier this month – or of prison officers taking similar action at the end of August – act as focal points for all working people. They are talked about both in the media and in everyday workplace conversations.
In fact many popular attitudes of today display the same “left consciousness” that Garnett rightly notes persisted throughout the 1980s, despite Thatcherism and the Sun. The massive opposition to the war in Iraq is one example of this.
A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that a huge amount of people still see class as important, with 89 percent saying they are judged by their class.
Distrust of politicians stems not from “apathy” but from a healthy understanding that those who are prepared to lie to go to war are prepared to lie about anything.
There is also a growing recognition that Britain is becoming a more unequal society.
This widening gap between the rich and the poor is part of the very nature of capitalism – and the neoliberal ideology that fuels all mainstream economic policy these days simply serves to accelerate the growth of that gap.
As people feel more and more cornered in terms of their economic position, two choices will increasingly loom large – further despair, or a decision to fight back. So some sections of workers have stepped out of the shadows of past defeats and taken strike action against neoliberal cuts to their jobs, pensions and wages.
A decision to fight back has consequences. The experience of collective action, and of consciously taking such action, transforms the way people think about themselves, the world they live in – and, crucially, their ability to change that world.
Mass demonstrations such as those against the war feed into this collective radical consciousness. Mass strikes – which hit at the heart of the capitalist system itself – can force things further, into a socialist consciousness that deliberately aims at creating a new and radically egalitarian society.
These in turn can feed back into the class at large, creating a political dynamic whose limits cannot be determined in advance.
The elements for class struggle to return are very much in place. The question is whether popular attitudes of bitterness towards bosses and cynicism towards politicians can be transformed into a broader, deeper and more radical class consciousness and confidence.
That involves looking beyond prevalent notions of “apathy” and recognising the potential of people to take charge of their world.
It also means engaging with every struggle that erupts – and encouraging the socialist ideas that can grow up within them.
From Anger to Apathy: The British Experience since 1975 by Mark Garnett is available from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848, » www.bookmarks.uk.com