Reading the Election Runes before the Polling Booths Open
This piece started as a comment on Mike Small’s article, ‘A liminal moment’, on the Bella website, but then got too ridiculously long to go in as a comment!]
Elections are always liminal moments, moments of ‘in between’ when the normal state of things is turned upside down and there is the possibility for completely other outcomes.
In the few weeks of an election there is a chance that people could completely kick out those who govern them. The classic picture of politicians kissing babies sums up the fact that those in power are – for these few weeks – dependent on the goodwill and support of ordinary people in order to resume their normal state of power.
The most important aspects of our lives depend on liminal moments – those moments when we fall in love, step out of the everyday routine to make decisions that change everything, risk talking more deeply with a neighbour or work colleague and find unexpected friendship.
Liminal in-between moments – when we are waiting for a bus, looking out the window, pausing for some reason – are moments when we are unexpectedly free of all the rush and are surprised to find ourselves here, aware of how precious it is to be alive, aware it doesn’t last forever, and aware that life is lived in connection in the moment, not in chasing (or being chased by) deadlines, gratification and isolating power.
That 17th century poet Thomas Traherne poem sums up the potential of the liminal state beautifully:
“You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins,
till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars;
and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world,
and more than so,
because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”
Society-wide liminal moments always either transform or more deeply entrench the status quo.
Social structures look solid but actually entirely rely on people believing in them and recreating them day after day. Liminal moments enable us to see that we can recreate the world differently and not just the same, but the juice of our openness, our awareness that the world can be different, has to rapidly self-organise to transform if it is not to be used to feed into and strengthen the power of the structures that dominate.
Such dominating structures of thought and society only have power to control to the extent that they allow themselves to be fed by liminality and at the same time deny their dependence on it, fed by the earth and the work of others while insisting that their wealth and power is the consequence of their unique ability.
This denial is the foundation of dominating systems, and the dominating system we feed is dependent on us believing the myth that humans are exceptions, that Western progress (or more specifically American destiny) are exceptions to the fundamental law of reciprocity: which is that you get what you give, that there is no escape from the consequences of your actions – there is only acceptance and deepening into relationship with all that you depend on, or there is flight from that responsibility and relationship which can only end in self-destruction.
Our system (both the economic entrepreneurial aspect, and the political persuasive aspect) depends on liminality – on the innovative liberating creativity of people working together to create new ideas and new possibilities. These can transform and liberate, but they can also be used to further appropriate people’s personal time and relationships and be used to put them at the service of fuelling the flight from connection. However, the distinction between – for example – when the internet is enabling us to connect, and so enabling us to open to the unexpected, and when it is further entrenching us in narrow beliefs and isolation is subtler than often thought. Eli Pariser’s TED talk about how internet search engines such as Google and Facebook filter what information we receive so that it conforms to our personal worldview is pretty scary on this:
Elections force us to choose between parties, but there is as much difference within parties as between them.
There are always those more inclined to assert their power by curbing the autonomy of others, and those more inclined to ensure all are empowered. In trying to distinguish between when someone is in thrall to power and when they are seeking to empower others, the most useful question may be: “Does this person shine in a way that puts others in the shade, or shine in a way that illuminates those around them?”
The old saying ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ points to the fact that to vote is to give support to the system. On the other hand there are some we may want to encourage by voting for them.
Here today in Portobello, Edinburgh, May 5th 2011, I have the problem of having to choose between two constituency candidates who have both shown real courage, leadership and integrity when in positions of power.
Ewan Aitken was the Council leader who showed real courage in trying to introduce congestion charging to Edinburgh and held anti-Trident events in the Council chambers, and Kenny MacAskill stuck his neck out in releasing al Megrahi on compassionate grounds.
As a Green I want the SNP to win as many constituency seats in Lothian so that there is more room for Greens to win a seat or two on the top-up list, and as a constituent I have appreciated Kenny MacAskill’s prompt responses, and have appreciated his willingness to engage positively with the Faslane 365 anti-Trident campaign and the Holyrood 350 community climate change campaign, as well as appreciating the SNP’s unambiguous anti-nuclear position.
Ewan Aitken is a long standing member of the Iona Community and, as someone who was practically born into the Iona community (or Iona communities: the Abbey community my parents were involved in, but also the Island community where we moved to for a few years when I was 6 months old), I think the Parliament would be hugely enriched by having his integrity, depth, independence of mind and strength of vision on the Labour benches. As others have pointed out: if you vote for Ewan on the constituency ballot you still get Kenny through the Lothian-wide ballot where he is number one on the SNP’s Lothian list.
When I described my dilemma – including describing Ewan’s record – to a couple of not very political friends, they were hugely relieved: “At last we can vote Labour again” they said. If Ewan doesn’t win today, or even if he does, it might be worth his reflecting on this. So many people have felt completely betrayed, not by the Labour Ewan represents, but by the way Labour sold out under Tony Blair – whether over Trident, the Iraq War, or the broader collusion with rampant financial greed. Ironically, if we move to an independent Scotland the Scottish Labour party may once again be able follow a social democratic (even socialist?) agenda.
The Scotsman came out for Alex Salmond as First Minister yesterday, hoping that he would align himself with the Tories (the party that paper supports). The paper asks whether, if he triumphs today, this will put him in a powerful enough position to do what he has so far denied he would do, which is to formally ally his parties with the Tories: ”Might such a revolutionary change be Mr Salmond’s ‘Clause 4’ moment?” it asks.
What was the original ‘Clause 4’ moment?
It was when Tony Blair signalled to the world that his election to office would not trouble the powers that be, that his New Labour had given up on the fight for greater equality, given up on its core purpose. Nick Clegg had such a moment, not when he entered coalition with the Tories, but when he reneged on his parties commitment on Tuition fees (a commitment he had never wanted in the first place, but one which represented the notion that voting LibDem would either help keep the Tories out or curb them from tearing apart yet more of those aspects of society which are about people caring for each other across generations, classes, gender and ethnicity).
For the SNP, a ‘Clause 4’ moment would have to mean reneging on their core purpose of seeking independence. Such an outcome may seem far-fetched until you remember the power for untold possibilities that liminality unleashes. Is Salmond’s allegiance to independence and renewables and making Scotland a ‘Green dynamo’? I would think and hope so, and if so then an alliance with the Greens could enable this vision to become a reality if the opinion polls are right.
But the polls predicting the SNP gaining over 60 seats and the Greens gaining enough to provide a majority in a 129 seat Parliament may not be right.
The Greens can get 7 or 8 seats or can get 1 or 2 or no seats, depending on the whim of a few thousand votes pushing our vote up above 6% or leaving it languishing just below in a way that leaves even Patrick Harvie out cold as George Galloway or the LibDems squeeze in on the list in Glasgow.
The last few weeks polling suggests that the SNP should beat Labour, but recent polls saw the gap narrowing. If the SNP beat Labour but not by enough, and if they find they have too few Greens to support them, might Salmond opt for the dramatic ‘Clause 4’ moment of proclaiming that the Tories are closest to his business and banking background and the independence question will have to be left until after another election?
A ‘Clause 4’ moment for the Greens would be to enter a formal or informal coalition with the SNP based on accepting the need to expand economic growth to fund environmental projects and get us out of the economic mess. A Clause 4 moment for the Greens would involve giving up on our core purpose: that of creating sustainable livelihoods that are fulfilling and purposeful rather than based on increasing economic growth and so further plundering the planet and further entrenching inequality.
A ‘Clause 4’ moment is not just about abandoning a party’s core purpose, it is about ‘triangulation’, which involves triangulating in one direction only (Clinton, Blair and Obama): towards shoring up the power of those who dominate. Such ‘Clause 4’ moments are achieved by leaders claiming that they above the fray, that they can achieve the party’s purpose through appearing to do the opposite. In this way leaders can use an exceptional moment to claim that they can achieve what previously seemed impossible through accommodating themselves to the powerful.
For progressive movements the cost of such an accommodation is that they lose the only power they really have: their vision for change, and the trust people have in them that they will act on that transformative vision rather than absorb peoples ideas, energies and enthusiasm and use them simply to seek power.
Hopefully all is well in the world; hopefully today’s voting will bring real progress within and between parties.
With the AV referendum looking lost, this election in Scotland is maybe the best chance England has of being enabled to shake off the illusions of Empire. It may also be the best chance the Labour Party in Scotland has of rediscovering its core purpose – something it may only be able to do if other progressive parties win, and not only win but then abide by, rather than abandon, their own visions.