Nicky Hager's latest political expose "Dirty Politics" has exposed attitudes towards power which could be called "entitled", as well as the toxic interpersonal relationships which drive the people at the centre of our political system. It is in some ways shocking, the lack of self censorship revealed by emails and messaging, shows shrill hatred towards not just towards particular individuals, but entire groups of our fellow humans. One cannot help but wonder if the attitude of Cameron Slater towards Cantabrians is shared by our parliamentary leadership, and indeed if this has lead to many of their current miseries.
But though the litanies of immoralities, jingoism, jobism etc . . looms large, there is a central premise within Nicky's book which must be noted. There is a general decline worldwide in our democracy, it appears weak compared to what it once was. Voter turnouts throughout developed countries are generally in decline, there is increasing alienation between voters and their representatives and a proliferation of minor parties, some, such as golden dawn are openly fascist. Nicky suggests a quote by Simon Lusk provides some illumination to this quandary.
“There are a few basic propositions with negative campaigning that are worth knowing about. It lowers turnout, favours right more than left as the right continues to turn out, and drives away the independents.’ In short, many people stop participating in politics. If politicians cannot be trusted, if politics looks like a petty or ugly game, and if no one seems to be talking about the things that matter, then what’s the point of bothering to participate? Just leave them to it. There are innovations in US Republican Party thinking on this point; election tactics do not have to be just about winning votes; they can be equally effective if groups of people in society just stop voting altogether. We should not assume that everyone thinks low voter turnout is a bad idea. Sitting in the midst of the negative politics was John Key…"
- Simon Lusk.
The ideas within this quote are problematic to say the least. The idea is that revulsion with the political elite will essentially tarnish all political opposition as well, that politics will become a stinking corpse that none would dare touch from fear of the disease. But corpses must be buried, and this system would ultimately create its own gravediggers. Even the most violent, bloody, dirty political regimes in history are eventually confronted with social forces which seek their destruction, this has been repeated a hundred times over. Undermining parliament in the long term threatens the very power these parties seek to win, it's contradictory to engage in such politics by choice.
Secondly the idea has a circular logic to it, dirty politics depresses voter turnout through alienation. This alienation then leads to lower turnout strengthening the practice of dirty politics. More dirty politics are practiced lowering voter turnout further, strengthening the practice of dirty politics. This forms a perfect circle without a history or future, nor does it offer any explanation for the rise of dirty politics or most importantly how to fight it?
To this end I would like to advance an alternate perspective on the context within which dirty politics must be understood. An international context with clear historic, economic and ideological origins.
"With this generalised involution has come a pervasive corruption of the political class… Commonplace in a Union that presents itself as a moral tutor to the world, the pollution of power by money and fraud follows from the leaching of substance or involvement in democracy. Elites freed from either real division above, or significant accountability below, can afford to enrich themselves without distraction or retribution. Exposure ceases to matter very much, as impunity becomes the rule. Like bankers, leading politicians do not go to prison… But corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order. It is also, of course, a symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?"
- Perry Anderson.
Here Perry Anderson offers an alternative explanation for the spread of dirty politics, as Marx pointed out "the political follows the economic". Dirty politics do not represent a development separate from our system of economic development, it is a way of maintaining the ideological dominance of capitalism broadly and neo-liberalism specifically. We can see examples of this throughout the neo-liberal political-economy that now pervades. Examples include misinformation campaigns and defamation attacks by petrochemical companies against global warming advocates, Clothing corporations over the conditions of workers in the global south and defense of executive bonuses within the financial sector after the financial crisis they perpetrated, not one went to jail.
What Nicky Hager has revealed in his book is the connection between these corporations and our 'so-called' representatives. The sharing of tactics, resources and political objectives. But we do not need Nicky's book to provide examples of the mutual interests of the state and capital acting against the interests of the population. Casino deals, financial bailouts, deregulation and attacks on welfare are all examples of the complicity of the state, often under the direction of 'Commissions' lined with the cream of business.
To this end dirty politics does not represent a political strategy for retaining office but the spread of capitalist neo-liberal ideology within the political parties which alienated large sections of the party membership, allowing the growth of corporate interest and control to every party aspect including parliamentary strategy. Dirty politics then becomes about maintaining the corporate control of parties.
Fighting dirty politics then must not just be a political endeavour, it must transform the economic conditions which lead to the rise and maintenance of dirty politics. Fought not just with the vote but with the struggle for the minimum wage, secure hours and democratic control. Corporate economic power can only represent a temporary victory unless it consolidates its power to once again dominate political power. To fight this dependency and free ourselves from the stinking corpse of politics we must become 'gravediggers' not just of capitals influence over politics but of the economy as well.