There is a widespread feeling that current political institutions are incapable of solving the urgent problems we face. Domestically, the dominant political parties offer only a narrow range of choices. They are increasingly alienated from citizens who no longer see much point in joining a party.
Globally, there seems little prospect that problems like global warming and environmental pollution, endemic poverty, wars and famine, will be solved by the actions of nation-states and international institutions. But we should avoid the temptation to fall into pessimism and even fatalism in the face of domestic and global crises. That temptation reflects a limited view of politics, which looks for solutions only from the official players and established institutions.
In fact, politics takes place on a much broader and more varied stage. Examples like the collapse of Soviet communism after 1989 and the more recent events of the Arab Spring demonstrate that what happens outside formal political institutions is often more important than what happens within them.
What is more, dramatic upheavals like these can never be predicted. Social revolutions are sometimes provoked by the actions of a single individual – like the market trader, Mohamed Bouazizi, who burnt himself to death in Tunisia. The overthrow of apartheid South Africa could hardly be imagined without Nelson Mandela’s courageous resistance.
Of course, as the events of the Arab Spring also show, the results of such actions are not always predictable and sometimes the opposite of what was intended. A movement in the name of liberty and democracy leads to military dictatorship. A secular revolution inaugurates a theocratic state.
Less dramatically but similarly unpredictable, over the last few decades western countries have undergone radical shifts in attitudes to women, to ‘racial’ and ethnic minorities, to homosexuality, marriage and the family.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ electrified the March on Washington and the anti-racist Civil Rights movement. The 1968 Stonewall Riots in New York sparked a successful movement of gay and lesbian liberation. The ‘second wave’ women’s movement has transformed attitudes to women and the family. Animal welfare, the environment and sustainability have become unavoidable issues on the agenda of politics. Major political parties have been transformed, new parties like the Greens have emerged. New laws and government agencies have been formed.
These changes came from outside the formal institutions of politics, from the civil society activism of social movements, from civil disobedience campaigns and boycotts, from cultural and identity politics.
Focussing on social movements and ‘extra-institutional’ politics is surely essential if we are to understand the political life of society in all its breadth, richness and complexity. We may not be able to predict events like the Arab Spring and longer term shifts in social attitudes. But if we adopt a wider lens on ‘the political’ in all its diversity, we are at least more likely to understand them.
At the same time, understanding politics in this more inclusive way makes it easier for us to see the point of political action. For one thing, it’s easier to see that our actions can always make a difference – even when it looks as if nothing will ever change. Politics is often surprising and almost always unpredictable. We can never know with certainty what will happen.
So there is no basis for either optimism or pessimism about the future – which is just as well, since both attitudes discourage us from acting politically. Optimism tempts us to believe that things will get better whatever we do, so why should we bother to do anything?
Pessimism makes us think that things will inevitably turn out badly, so again why should we bother to act? Unlike optimism, pessimism even tends to be self-reinforcing, because the less we do to bring about a better future, the more likely our pessimistic beliefs will turn out to be true.
By contrast, a focus on social movements helps us to see that the future always depends on what ‘we’ do in the present. It is always possible that our actions will make a difference. So there is always a point in acting politically.
Of course, none of this makes politics easy. We cannot be sure that our actions will have the effects that we want. It is never easy to get all of ‘us’ to agree what ‘we’ should do. The actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela brought led to significant changes, but only because other people were inspired or provoked to act as well.
But the more we recognize that our actions will help to determine the future, the more that future will be something we genuinely make together.
David West is deputy head of school at the Australian National University.