Politics as we have come to know it is dead. The body is still flopping around, but the vital signs are all terminal. Resuscitation seems unlikely, so the only real question is: what comes next?
In the last century or so organised politics became party politics, the goal of which was to claim or at least influence government, especially at the national level. This arose out of mass democracy which was enabled by the rise of literacy and mass media. It grew up along with the modern nation-state in an age of huge entities - mass markets, vast factories, massive armies, mass industrial unions and ever-larger business firms. But unlike some of these things, democratic politics has never moved beyond the national scale.
This epoch is coming to an end, and with it, mass party politics. This is why politics seems so vacuous. Devoid of real content, politics is merely going through the motions. Increasingly the real decisions are made by global players with structural power.
So what is next? There are three basic possibilities. One is mostly positive, one depends on your belief system, and one is definitely negative.
The first possibility is that the world transforms into a different kind of society where large-scale entities devolve into much more human scale arrangements. Whether our needs are met by markets or social agreements, the principle is the same. Dissolving large-scale arrangements - like national governments and transnational corporations - shifts power downwards and disperses it. The working out of differences would become a much more pervasive, constant process, whether the actual mechanism was market exchange or community debate.
Some commentators have pointed out that such a society is suggested by the logic of digital information technologies. Most of our institutions, including governments and firms, were formed to process information and generate decisions. These functions can be replaced by information technology systems and increased social discourse.
However, such a vision seems increasingly unlikely given current trends, which brings us to the second possibility. Politics only exists where differences are recognised and to a degree accepted. If total rule can be established, politics disappears, and the best way of doing this is to establish an absolutist belief system. To dissent from such a system is not politics, but heresy. Last century the Bolsheviks and particularly Stalin went some way to achieving such a social system, as did the Nazis and Imperial Japanese, but the best model of such an absolutist system is fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalist religion, based on an unquestionable authority (such as a book) says there is one legitimate way of living, and all else is evil to be fought against and destroyed.
We are currently witnessing conflict generated by such absolutist belief systems. Global terrorism, perpetrated by people who follow such an absolutist creed, is at war with a social system led by a state which is itself increasingly shaped by another absolutist belief system. Both Osama bin Laden and President Bush speak in terms of God’s will, pure evil, the need for violence and the impossibility of negotiation. The irony is that in many ways these absolutist systems agree (for instance, both are essentially patriarchal), but absolutist systems can by definition abide no competition. In such a black and white world, politics disappears.
This leads us to the third possibility. There can be no real politics in times of genuine crisis. The first thing that happens when a country goes to war is that the citizens lose their right to dissent. Currently the “War on Terror” is being presented as such a crisis. In the west governments are rapidly installing systems of surveillance, arrest and imprisonment that undermine the accepted civil rights of modern society. No major parties have questioned this trend: instead a race to see who can be “toughest on terrorists” has arisen.
There are other crises imminent. The obvious one is the environmental threat from global warming, compounded by the apparent nearness of peak oil. The time for meaningful political debate on global warming is probably over. The whole subject was kept off the political agenda for 15 years by misinformation and public apathy; it is now too late to avoid the worst of it. Finally everyone knows it is happening - even the political leaders of the worst polluters - and still next to nothing is being done about it. Most likely little will continue to be done until a catastrophe occurs, and then the global power structure will announce emergency measures.
There is also the looming conflict between the US and China for global hegemony. In some ways this seems like an old fashioned international confrontation - the sort that led to two world wars last century. However, the world is now so interconnected any major conflict will cause repercussions everywhere, especially if it goes nuclear.
Any such crisis would provide a pretext for shutting down processes of open communication and organisation, as we are already seeing with the “War on Terror”. Meaningful politics thrives on reliable information and open debate, along with accountable government, but these are the first things to go under emergency conditions.
So, is there hope - can we recreate meaningful politics? The new information technologies do present an unprecedented capacity to reorganise for political debate. Even so, the debate must then be translated into political action.
Ultimately, it is a question of values. Things like free speech, active democracy and social diversity are the real achievements of western civilisation. But they are fragile, and they wither and die without constant practice and support, especially in troubled times.