Okay, fine, I hate Tony Blair. I despise him for his greed and self-interest like I despise few other people on the planet. I hate David Cameron. I think he is a spoilt brat with dangerously high levels of competence. These are emotional reactions to some of the most noxious human turds ever to float to the top of our political toilets, but they are not political analysis. I think it’s dangerous to focus on these thoughts too much because it leads us into one of the most useless dead ends of all political thinking: the idea that what we need is nicer people at the top.
There are a couple of problems with that idea. We all, at least dimly, have some idea of what it takes to get ahead in politics. We know that politicians have to lie and cheat and manipulate. We know we can’t trust a word they say. We know they betray their fellow party members for a sniff of power. We know they have to put on a good face as a likeable person but that they don’t act according to their public face. So we know there is a filtering process in place, and it is the turds that get through. So how do we want nicer people to get through? By sheer luck? Sneaking in the back entrance by bribing security?
The second problem is much bigger: the niceness or not of politicians is probably not that important. For one thing, as soon as they get anywhere near power they start to feel the pressure from various powerful groups: financiers, media moguls, other politicians, lobby groups with lots of money but low public profiles. Some of these groups are so powerful that they can and do hold politicians hostage. The finance sector and the media in particular has the power to do this. Conventional wisdom in the UK says that whoever Murdoch and The Sun supports will win the election. This may be an exaggeration but it is certainly not lacking in truth altogether. When certain people and lobby groups ask for an appointment with the Prime Minister they get it.
But I’m more interested in another thing that prevents a person’s ‘niceness’ being any good. They act within certain political and economic structures with long histories. When they get into office they are put in the cockpit and presented with the levers of power, so to speak. And these levers do have a lot of power still, despite the power held by corporations and other unaccountable groups. The problem with the levers of power is they are very blunt instruments. They force the person at the helm to start making decisions in certain ways: utilitarian decisions that sacrifice some people for a greater goal or for some other section of society. The person at the helm is a long way away from the people who are affected by their decisions. They don’t hear the screams as they pull the levers. Power corrupts not just in allowing leaders to be greedy and self-interested but in insulating them from the effects of their decisions. Power forces our leaders to make those decisions that result in them appearing on television and explaining to us that they had to make ‘difficult’ decisions: code for YOU HAVE BEEN SHAFTED.
And conventional wisdom says leaders do have to make these difficult decisions, have to sacrifice certain people for the ‘greater good’. This conventional wisdom is used very dishonestly much of the time of course – in fact they are sacrificing many of us for the benefit of a few, as David Cameron is doing right now – but let’s assume this is done honestly too. Should we accept a system in which this is the only way of operating? Is there really no way for us to imagine a political system in which individuals do not have so much power? Is there no way for us to imagine a world without those levers in the hands of a few? Where those levers don’t exist even? To take that leap maybe we need to steer away from thinking of certain politicians as arseholes. Maybe that’s a distraction. Because the insult implies there would be some other politician whose ‘niceness’ would save us, when the political and economic structures currently in place make it impossible for that to happen.
So those are the reasons not to call particular politicians arseholes. I think they’re good reasons. But I just can’t leave the post there. Because there are reasons we should call them arseholes after all – reasons that go beyond George Osborne’s face I mean. When institutions have been in place a long time, with those levers of power sitting there toyed with by different people for decades and centuries, it is pretty likely that a political culture is going to develop to match it. What will be considered desirable in politics are the qualities needed to pull those levers and not worry too much about the consequences. What is needed are people who can take ‘necessary’ and ‘difficult’ decisions and still sleep at night. The qualities most admired will be those that enable the ‘pragmatism’ needed to use power: a shrivelled sense of empathy and an acceptance that the distance between you and your victims is right and proper.
I suspect there are social circles to go along with this: ‘prestigious’ circles of people, the requirements for entry of which will be an uncritical attitude to those levers and their use. A sense of entitlement even, a feeling that they must be used, and we are the people to use them. These personality characteristics may well develop in public schools, yes, but they are also the markers of a certain class in our meritocracy. I think the lack of the more old-fashioned markers of class – country manors, barbour jackets, butlers – at least outside the Tory party, often deceives us into thinking we don’t have a political class with a high barrier to entry. In the world of New Labour’s new meritocracy, the barriers to entry are personality traits, attitudes, ways of seeing the world. Anyone can be an arsehole now.
So the individual arseholedom or not of politicians is not the point. They are arseholes as a class, as a matter of ‘necessity’, to make the institutions of the state function. That’s not to say one doesn’t slip through the net sometimes, someone with highly developed empathy and the ability to hide it from those around them. But as I said above, they won’t get far once they do get some power. And they don’t appear often enough to undermine the ways our meritocratic liberal democracies actually operate: we are ruled by a class of arseholes. And I now use the term ‘arsehole’ as a technical term, to denote a certain set of personality traits that make a person suited for power.
We accept this, or many people have done for a long time, partly because it wasn’t us that suffered for it. Our lives were comfortable enough. The wars happened in other countries. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Structural Adjustment Programs once used to asset-strip poor countries are being imposed on Western economies. Don’t blame David Cameron the arsehole for it. Blame the power structures of meritocratic liberal democracy. Not many people chose David Cameron, but for too long too many people have given explicit or implicit consent to a system that relied upon a class of arseholes.