Another email into my inbox from one of several campaigning groups, asking me to lend me name to an undoubtedly worthy cause. The mechanisms of such campaigns are fairly familiar – an issue is located and a campaign started to make those who hold power realise that it is in their own interests to listen. It is a strange manifestation of a vaguely democratic mode of thinking with its basis in the idea of a benign but uninformed leader, or if you are more cynical, of a government desperately sensitive about the ability of single issues to define or destabilise.
It is similar to what Slavoj Zizek has called the humanisation of capitalism in his thinking on the way which society is required to ‘highlight’ certain issues through consumerism, the support of charity and the construction of individual everyday people as a moral guide in the behaviour of governments, corporations and institutions. It relies very heavily on the centrist addiction to general social doxa and public opinion which has come to define contemporary British politics, evidenced by the protestations of senior politicians that they are ‘listening’.
It must be said that dogma is just as dangerous as the apparent contemporary lack thereof (though one might argue that centrism is a kind of dogma in itself). As Milan Kundera writes on the nature of mass protest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”
The heart of Kundera’s argument is that any movement reliant on the orchestration of thousands of people shouting in union has closed its mind to the possibilities of dialogue, nuance, and independent thought. It is not desirable to live in a society in which problems are solved by shouting loudly – by protest instead of construction – even if we might happen to loosely agree with what is being espoused.
The same might be said for the process of governance by headline and petition. Pressuring politicians into making the decisions we might wish them to make implies a sense of resignation, or perhaps a lack of self-confidence, when it comes to thinking and speaking for ourselves.
To sign a petition asking the Prime Minister for clemency in one area or another is, on a purely functional level, a good thing. Demonstrably so in fact. The well-orchestrated campaign to save woodland in England and Wales proved that there is indeed a point in letter writing, and that governments do indeed care about what voters think, albeit perhaps only as a means of self preservation.
But to look at the genesis of these petitions is to understand how the spread and cultivation of political campaigns work. There are very few people who see politics as a distinct part of their identity, though they are generally good and fair-minded, and would indeed probably find their views in line with a particular political party when asked. By inviting people to lend their support to various worthy causes they become not instigators but respondents.
Furthermore, the petition-writing masses who operate on an issue by issue basis cannot fundamentally change the way in which a society works. This is why we have elections, and this is also why certain quarters are so terrified by the idea of the British parliament operating a system of fair elections. You might call it the illusion of empowerment. We are invited to approve or reject someone else’s ideas, but rarely are we asked by ourselves to produce a blueprint for the future.
Like Zizek’s analysis of the pitfalls of ethical consumerism, causing a bad government to make one fewer bad decision is as transformative as buying a cup of rainforest alliance coffee from a company which dodges billions in tax, and comes no closer to giving people the agency which should be their democratic right.