French theory, Tunisian practice

Question: what connects a 26-year-old Tunisian market-stall holder, who died in 2011, with a French civil engineer who died in 1922?

Answer: a theory of revolution – written by the latter and put into practice by the former, a man who just wanted to sell tomatoes.

The stall-holder was Mohamed Bouazizi, whose story is now well known. Bouazizi had a handcart from which he sold fruits and vegetables to the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid. On December 17th 2010 market officials demanded a bribe that Bouazizi was unable or unwilling to pay. The officials confiscated his produce and his equipment, and he was slapped in the face by a female inspector.  He went to both the town hall and the central government building to complain and to get his goods returned, but he was brushed aside. The final act of his short life was self-immolation. He died on January 4th.

The civil engineer was Georges Sorel. Late in life, after retiring from service to the French state, Sorel turned his mind to political theory. He read Marx and developed a theory of class struggle and the role of violence in it. His best known work, Reflections on Violence, first appeared in 1905-6.

Sorel may seem to glorify proletarian violence, which he tells us, is ‘a very fine and heroic thing’. But this is no vindication of mindless thuggery. Sorelian violence is a highly idealised act of war, in which everything ‘is carried out without hatred’. In fact ‘a great development of brutality accompanied by much blood-letting is quite unnecessary’; a few very particular acts of violence will suffice. Sorel was fascinated by the early Christian martyrs and their willingness to endure violence for their beliefs. There ‘was no necessity for the martyrdoms to be numerous in order to prove… the absolute truth of the new religion’.

‘Truth’ here bears no relation to facts, indeed ‘no ideology was ever more remote from the facts than that of the early Christians.’ ‘Truth’ instead relates to belief in a myth. That may seem self-contradictory, but ‘myth’ here does not mean ‘untrue’, a myth captures a complex set of ideas in a simple, colourful form that has the power to mobilise revolutionary action. This is faith not rationality.

For Sorel, the proletariat would never grasp a complex sociological analysis of class, so they needed a simple, inspiring myth, and that was the idea of the general strike. Proletarian martyrs for the general strike, persecuted by the bourgeoisie, would mobilise the masses. This was Sorel’s insight – even if the economic conditions were in place for the class war, you needed the human element to set things going.

Unfortunately for Sorel’s reputation he inspired Mussolini, who advocated the myth of the nation. Perhaps, now, Sorel keeps better company, with the myth of democratic freedom acting as the catalyst for insurrection. Bouazizi’s violent death has served to make him the inspirational political martyr that Sorel believed necessary to inspire revolution; as thousands of Tunisians protestors chanted: ‘Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you’.

An increasing number of Arab dictators are finding themselves submerged under the shockwaves of the Tunisian democratic revolution. There is a certain irony here, given Sorel’s contempt for parliamentary democracy, but the story brings to mind J B Priestley’s observation that if you could understand why a retired civil servant had written Reflections, you could understand the modern age.

Mathew Humphrey

Rebels and causes

MPs are on a week’s recess.  It will give government whips some time to recover from what has so far been an extraordinary session.  The first session in any parliament – especially those formed after a change in government – are usually fairly quiet (as this paper shows).  The government usually basks in its election victory, MPs don’t want to rock the boat and new MPs take time to learn the ropes.

This one is different.  There have already been 110 separate backbench rebellions by government MPs since the coalition was formed in May 2010.  Less than a year into this government, there have therefore already been more rebellions by government MPs than in the entire Blair first term, as well as more than in the whole Attlee government (both terms), as well as more than in the parliaments of 1951, 1955, 1964, 1966, and February 1974.  Indeed, there have been more rebellions so far than in the entire period from 1945 until 1959 combined.  We are closing fast on the figure for the whole of the 1959 Parliament as well (120), and we wonder how long it will be before rebellion surpasses the figure (159) for the first Thatcher term.

Sixty of the 110 rebellions have involved just Conservative MPs, 27 have involved only Liberal Democrat MPs, while 23 have comprised both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs.  Yet even disaggregated from figures for the Coalition collectively down to its constituent parts, these figures are still extremely high.  The 83 Conservative revolts represent a rate of one Conservative rebellion in 39% of divisions.  This is as high as anything seen in any session in the post-war era (matching the 39% seen in 2004-5), whilst the overall coalition rebellion rate of one rebellion in 52% of divisions easily surpasses anything seen since 1945.

A total of 104 Coalition MPs have broken ranks: 76 of these are Conservatives (representing one quarter of the parliamentary party), while 28 are Liberal Democrats (very nearly half of their MPs, and almost all backbenchers). The most rebellious MPs are nearly all Conservatives.  Philip Hollobone leads the way (59 rebellions), followed by David Nuttall (40) and Philip Davies (33).  The remaining members of the top ten rebels are: Richard Shepherd (31), Peter Bone (30), Andrew Turner (28), Christopher Chope (27), William Cash (26), Bernard Jenkin (24), and Mike Hancock (22).  Hancock is the only Lib Dem MP in the top ten rebels and Conservatives make up 17 out of the top 20 Coalition rebels (David Ward and Andrew George being the only two other Lib Dems).

The good news for the whips is that the average (mean) size of a Coalition rebellion so far is only seven.  MPs are rebelling often, but not yet in large numbers.  Backbench discontent is clearly widespread and persistent, but is not yet coalescing into anything that may be dangerous.  Government whips are not yet reaching for their revolvers.  Disharmony within the two wobbly wings of the Coalition doesn’t appear to threaten its durability. Not yet anyway.

Philip Cowley

Politics is corruption, apparently

Everyone’s against corruption these days.  That’s certainly a theme that unites recent mass protests in countries ranging from Bahrain through China, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe.

But let’s not get the idea that such demonstrations are confined to non- or quasi-democratic states. There have been anti-corruption protests in India as well as post-communist countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia and Russia.

And even in more established European democracies, there have been significant protests against corruption in Greece, Spain and – most notably – Italy, where demonstrators in Rome recently chanted ‘After Mubarak, Silvio Berlusconi’.  Across the world, it seems, citizens are expressing contempt for their corrupt leaders.

But what is the corruption provoking such protests? The difficulty with the notion of corruption is that it is so wide ranging, with one commonly accepted definition being ‘the abuse of power for private gain’.  But that means we can bracket together examples ranging from the day-to-day petty instances familiar in many states where local officials take bribes all the way to ‘state capture’, where major policy decisions are sold to the highest bidder.

Of course, for victims of corruption, such niceties may not matter.  But for those trying to combat corruption, it is essential to understand what it is they are fighting – both where it takes place and how widespread it is.  The standard approach for many is to look at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which is published annually and ranks countries on a scale of 0 (most corrupt) to 10 (least corrupt).  The CPI helps us think we ‘know’ which countries are the most corrupt.

But, as I have argued in a recent article with Staffan Andersson, the CPI can be criticised on several grounds: definition problems, perception bias, false accuracy, a flawed statistical model, and a failure to capture long-term trends.

Perceptions matter in politics, but in regard to corruption they are susceptible to manipulation and misinterpretation.  Take, for instance, a recent Eurobarometer survey of European attitudes to corruption, which found that nearly 80 per cent of EU citizens saw it as a ‘major problem’ in their country.  Only in Denmark, Luxembourg and Sweden did fewer than half the respondents agree.  Those seen as most likely to be corrupt were politicians at national level, followed by officials awarding public tenders and those issuing building permits, then politicians at regional level.  However, personal experience of corruption was very low, with just 9 per cent of respondents having been asked to pay any form of bribe for access to services over the preceding twelve months.

The gap between personal experience and perception may be explained to some extent by the regularity with which the press now exposes ‘scandals’ involving national politicians.  As a result, any misdemeanour by a political figure – particularly if it involves sex – is seen as evidence of ‘corruption’, with that term becoming something used to describe anything we don’t like about politics.

In turn, the risk – and indeed the reality in some parts of the world – is that all politics comes to be seen as corrupt.  Politics is corruption, and corruption is politics.  Such a view carries real dangers for all of us.

Paul M Heywood

Is all politics local?

To varying degrees all mainstream British political parties have signed up to the underlying principle that political institutions should (broadly) reflect the social characteristics of the people they represent.  This is most obvious with sex, where quotas for Westminster parliamentary seats were used by Labour in 1997 and 2005, with other measures used in the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales.

There are also ongoing debates about ethnic minority representation; witness the 2008 establishment of a Speaker’s Conference, which initially set out to examine the representation of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled, and which was then expanded to include sexuality as well.

Yet in the UK the goal of greater representation of women has often become framed as a zero-sum game against men, especially local men.  This was at its most obvious in the constituency of Blaneau Gwent, a formerly safe seat lost by Labour to a local independent candidate in 2005, after the imposition of an all-women short list. The same tensions are however evident in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

This is, at least in part, because whilst lots of the academic literature focuses on characteristics like sex and ethnicity, the public appear to care much more about localism.

In 2008, as part of some research in which I was involved, the polling company YouGov asked a sample of adults whether they would prefer their MP to be a candidate of the same sex – but who came from outside their area – to a candidate of a different sex – but who was local. Overwhelmingly, they preferred the local over the outsider. Men preferred a local woman (76 per cent) to a man from outside the area (6 per cent), with 18 per cent don’t knows.  Women preferred a local man (75 per cent) over a woman from outside the area (5 per cent), with 20 per cent don’t knows. In other words, women said that they would prefer to be represented by a man as long as he was local rather than a woman if she came from outside the area, by a factor of 15:1.

This article, just published in Political Studies (and for which a subscription may be required), examines whether the claims made for the descriptive representation of women and black candidates can and should apply to local candidates.  Co-written with Sarah Childs from the University of Bristol, it draws a distinction between the representation of a territory (which is common to most representative systems) and the representation of a territory by someone from that territory, a similar distinction to the difference common in the gender and politics literature between the representation of women by an elected representative and the representation of women by women representatives.

We found a hard and a soft form of this second argument.  The latter applies to almost every constituency in the UK, but it is a claim not based on arguments for the presence of the disadvantaged, however much voters may want a ‘local’ candidate. However, the case for a local candidate to represent a more disadvantaged constituency, the harder form of the argument, can be made on almost all of the criteria applied to other excluded groups identified in what is often called the ‘politics of presence’ literature.

Political parties and academics need to take this issue more seriously than they do at present. Despite the fact that the academic literature on the politics of presence pays relatively little attention to the desires of voters, it would be foolish for the political parties to ignore an identity that voters clearly feel matters to them.

Advocates of the descriptive representation of groups, such as women or minority ethnic communities, essentially have two choices. First, they can choose to challenge the concept of the ‘local’ candidate.  Or, alternatively, they could choose to utilise it. If what is stopping the selection of, say, women candidates is that they are (geographic) outsiders, then gender equality activists and party HQs might usefully spend their time mobilising local women and/or trying to bring local women into the party in order to increase their numbers.

Philip Cowley

It’s déjà vu all over again

On 17th February 2010, the Coalition Government unveiled a bill that promised to bring about ‘the most radical shake-up of the welfare system for sixty years’. We’ve been here before. At least since Thatcher’s social security reforms of the mid-1980s, ‘the most radical reform of welfare since its inception’ has featured somewhere in the first year programme of most new governments. And since the 1990s, ‘making work pay’ has been the mantra of all parties, none more so than (New) Labour, which is one reason why that party’s response to the latest proposals has been so muted.

The story of ‘radical’ welfare reform is one of repeated disappointments. And one of the key reasons for this is captured in ‘This is the Road’, just possibly the savviest political cartoon of the twentieth century and itself now more than sixty years old. It’s worth taking a look at. I reproduced the cartoon in the preface to my book Beyond the Welfare State?. Anyone who understands this cartoon is at least half way to understanding the politics of the welfare state.

‘This is the Road’ is the work of David Low, best known for his scathing account of the rise of fascism and its appeasers. The cartoon dates from the opening weeks of 1950 but it’s brilliant and economical insight into the politics of the welfare state could have been published, to the same telling effect, at almost any time in the last sixty years. Sat in the driving seat, smiling confidently, with a trademark cigar and sporting the top hat and coat of Mr. Micawber, is Winston Churchill. The signpost at this particular cross-roads points to both ‘tax cuts’ and ‘the welfare state’. Somehow the democratic politician must reach both destinations though they seem to lie in quite opposite directions.

Sat on a gate in the background, dressed characteristically if improbably for the Turkish bath, is Low’s stock character Colonel Blimp and his longsuffering Low-like sidekick. The good colonel is offering advice to his friend with his usual confidence: “A difficult trick? Certainly not, sir! It’s just a matter of clever steering”. Throughout the post-war world, the challenge for governments in Britain (and beyond) has been to deliver tax cuts (or, at the very least, a rise in real disposable personal incomes) while also delivering a (just as popular) growth in the provision of public services. Bashing the unemployed can buy you a little political credit but running an economy with mass unemployment is expensive however mean you are. And sacking nurses and doctors is suicide politics.

Can the circle be squared? It can – if you can deliver enough economic growth. A growing economic pie can give you an increase in personal incomes and a growth in your tax take at the same time. And what does it take to deliver this magic recipe? Clever (economic) steering. Governments (and economic advisers) of all persuasions have tried to make this trick work. In the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps in the later 1980s and in the early 2000s, it looked comparatively easy. In the 1970s and maybe in the early 1990s, it looked pretty tricky. It certainly looks very difficult right now.

A government that manages to deliver both lower personal incomes and a depleted welfare state is headed for deep trouble. The Coalition may have a couple of years to get its own show back on the road. If that doesn’t work, we could be looking at a very spectacular car crash. It was the genius of David Low to have spotted this fully sixty years ago.

Chris Pierson