What Happened? The end of modernisation

In the last few days, I’ve been reading Hilary Clinton’s What Happened and reflecting on it as an expression of a political centrism which I suspect is coming to an end. These self-defined ‘modernisers’ sought to adapt their respective political parties to what they saw as a new reality, necessitating that they be ‘change-makers’ while responding to change. The claims of the modernisers usually play out in two registers: the psephological and the epochal. The former is straight-forward as a case to adapt to shifts in the electorate themselves and their distribution across constituencies. These changes might be driven by other parties, necessitating adaptation to a changing political landscape. From loc 3544:

I came of age in an era when Republicans won election after election by peeling off formerly Democratic white working-class voters. Bill ran for President in 1992 determined to prove that Democrats could compete in blue-collar suburbs and rural small towns without giving up our values. By focusing on the economy, delivering results, and crafting compromises that defused hot-button issues such as crime and welfare, he became the first Democrat since World War II to win two full terms.

However, the epochal claims modernisers make are more ambiguous. As an empirical exercise, it is obvious that there are connections between social change and electoral change e.g. how post-industrialisation leads to a recomposition of the working class. There nonetheless tends to be a discursive separation between the two, in terms of how modernisers account for their strategy and tactics, which invites explanation. For instance, Tony Blair was prone to speaking in terms of epochal change, framing the new labour project in terms of globalisation and technology changing the landscape within which politics takes place. The influence of Anthony Giddens was undoubtedly key here, but this is nonetheless something which was drawn upon after the psephological case for new labour was already formulated.

This raises the question of the relationship between them: is the epochal language of modernisation merely a flowery idiom in which a basically psephological case is being made? I wonder if it serves a more subtle role, as switching between the two displaces the moment when political axioms confront empirical reality. If the psephological case is challenged, it’s possible to fall back on talk of modernity and globalisation. If the talk of modernity and globalisation is challenged, it’s possible to switch to a case framed in terms of electoral strategy. This ideology of moderation and empiricism postpones an encounter with its own empirical limitations, ensuring its adherents remain able to sustain their identity as pragmatists surrounded by fanatics.

In other words: the world ‘out there’ becomes oddly charged for modernisers, invoked continuously but in ways that distance themselves from it. It is a traumatic real which they avoid at all costs. It blinds them to their own role in creating the conditions to which they claim to be responding. Declining trust in politicians, disengagement from the political process and the subordination of politics to the media are presented as epochal shifts to which parties must respond strategically, as if this relationality plays no part in driving these political transformations. At one point in the book Clinton reminds me of Adorno, opining that “Solutions are going to matter again in politics” as she places her pragmatism in a bottle floating forward into an uncertain future (loc 3264). What Happened? The end of modernisation.

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