Politics, Duck Houses, and Postmodernism

In case you’re in the UK and hadn’t noticed, there’s an election looming over the horizon and there’s much talk of who will win, whether there will be an outright victory in any case, and whether the expenses scandal will affect the way people vote. No doubt if turnout drops lower than ever before, the blame will be placed on Duck Houses and Second Home Allowances.

However I feel there is a factor at play here that represents a threat not to politicians as such, but certainly to the way that the political parties function: the implications of a postmodern society.

Postmodernism is a term that you might hear a lot, but understanding what it means is another matter. Philosophers and Social Scientists argue about definitions and whether it actually exists as something other than a rejection of Modernism.

Some of the things about Postmodernism are however quite striking. The “Melting Pot” – the idea of a homogenous culture – is a modernist idea in many ways, while the postmodern idea is more one of diversity and valuing distinctives. But the thing that I feel is key for politicians is the concept of the metanarrative, and the postmodernist rejection of the role of the metanarrative. Indeed, Lyotard – a key thinker in the field of postmodernism – says… “simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”

Simply put, a metanarrative is an attempt to provide an over-arching story that can then be used to explain history, society and so on. Religions offer a metanarrative through their holy books, their continuing history, and their view on the future. Marxism can be argued to provide a matanarrative too, by offering the struggle against market capitalism by workers as being a way of understanding history and providing a different way of doing things.

My argument is that what political parties generally attempt to do is to offer a metanarrative – a way of viewing the world and deciding what should be done – and that therefore they risk rejection by postmoderns who simply do not trust their metanarrative.

Consider the two main parties in the forthcoming election. Traditionally the Labour Party has used socialist ideas to provide a metanarrative, arguing that society will be better if there is equality of opportunity, wealth redistribution through progressive taxation, and public ownership (or at least regulation) of certain major components that affect society such as the postal system and major utility providers. Whether it still does so is a moot point.

Meanwhile the Conservative Party offers a metanarrative that sees successful free markets as generating wealth for all, and a role for governement that is about limiting regulation and supporting “traditional” institutions and structures.

What happens if many reject the whole idea of a metanarrative is that a number of voters regard party structures – whatever their politics – with suspicion. The way the parties operate encourages this suspicion; it seems that the typical way into politics involves a career starting with some form of local party activism, progressing through becoming a local councillor, to eventually being selected as a parliamentary candidate, and then eventually (often not on the first occasion) becoming an MP. To continue on up the ladder, the perception is that they have to toe the party line. Effectively, they have to not only be part of the party, but to swallow its metanarrative completely. Party Whips make sure they do as they are told, and many transgressions may see them lose the backing of the party structure.

These people do not appeal as candidates to those with a postmodern outlook. They are much more likely to look at the personal level, at the relationships they have, at how the candidates have benefitted themselves and their area – and if that’s not satisfactory for any of the candidates, why vote at all?

The turnout at the General Elections recently has seen a big drop. 1992 saw a turnout close to 78%; in 1997 that had dropped to 71.4%, in 2001 to just under 60%, and stayed at just above that figure in 2005. My argument is not that voters have become apathetic; it’s that in a postmodern society, they find none of the candidates particularly appealing as they remain bound, through their party structures, to a metanarrative that they have already rejected. Unless the parties find a convincing way to address this – and I am uncertain that they can – I do not expect turnout to get to 65% this year, or indeed for the election after. 

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