Punch & Judy politics

| 1st October 2004
‘He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ Friedrich Nietzsche

At the height of the Iraq war last year, shortly before the conquest of Baghdad and the cinema-cliché images of toppling statues, a young activist presented me with a leaflet in London’s Russell Square. The leaflet inveighed against the war and its authors, Bush and Blair, and so my response to it was – and remains – one of sympathy. But I was troubled by the predictable, yet still vicious, insults, the extreme and florid rhetoric, the personal vitriol in place of clear argument. There was a call for ‘resistance’, the nature of which was unspecified but implicitly violent. Even the schlock horror backdrop of bloodstains made me vaguely uneasy.

But the leaflet’s outstanding feature was its sheer lack of balance. Blair and Bush were presented as evil incarnate, while Saddam Hussein escaped the mildest criticism. I put some of these questions to the anti-war activist, who was probably a postgraduate student. He replied that violence was not the issue, but ‘the context of the violence’. Nor was peace the issue, but ‘opposition to capitalism and war’. He was explicit, and laudably honest, about his belief in violent change, and in peace marches as a means (one of many) towards that end.

More recently, an art historian whose article I was editing described to me the discrimination she had faced in her profession, principally as a woman, but also as an eastern European in the UK. She was, it seemed, still smouldering inwardly from the patronising put-downs and rudeness she had experienced in the 1970s. ‘If you don’t always struggle, how do you win victories?’ she demanded, in an unconscious echo of the regime she had escaped. At that moment, her combative expression was replaced by a look of profound unhappiness, even despair. Far from celebrating her own personal success, as she undoubtedly deserved to do, she admitted that she was still eaten up with anger. Her urge to struggle had taken over her intellectual and emotional life to the extent that no success could placate her, no ‘victory’ could ever be enough.

These two examples illustrate problems with the way we think about and organise politics. The first of these is the adversarial approach that shapes political debate and governs every aspect of it. Human sympathy and tolerance give way to dogmatic certainty, and moralistic slogans thinly veil amoral and cynical acts. ‘Winning’ becomes an absolute principle, overriding any attempt to arrive at truth. Captivated by the ‘struggle’ for ‘victory’, politicians and activists ignore the detrimental effects on both the victors and the vanquished, and the corruption of the ideal being struggled for in the first place.

In Britain adversarial politics find their nadir in prime minister’s question time. This weekly ritual involves the prime minister and the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition confronting each other across the House of Commons and attempting to score points off each other. It is of interest only to a narrow political class. The public, especially the young, regard it as an increasingly sterile Punch-and-Judy show. It is a sad and embarrassing relic that has done much to encourage apathy and disillusionment with politics. This is dangerous, because when parliamentary institutions are seen as talking shops, and the gap between voters and politicians widens, extremist attitudes take hold.


In the US, large sections of the electorate feel disenfranchised, sometimes with good reason (as in Florida in 2000). As I write, one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns of recent times is being waged, in which personal smears take the place of honest debate, let alone policies that matter. Both the US and the UK project themselves, in Iraq and elsewhere, as exemplars of democracy, yet domestically they have seen electoral participation decline to record levels. Adversarial politics, it seems, are threatening the democratic process instead of enhancing it.

The second problem, closely related to the first, is with progressive movements, be they parties or single-issue campaigns. Inspired by ideals of social justice and equality, and seeking positive change, they often take on the negative aspects of their opponents, usually the characteristics they most oppose. The aggressive pacifist, the man-hating feminist and the animal rights campaigner who seems to hate fellow human beings might all be political and social stereotypes, but we have all met them, or read their articles, or been affected by their actions in some way. They have their reactionary counterparts as well: the anti-abortionist who supports capital punishment; the family values campaigner who is indifferent to child poverty; or the type of ‘Euro-sceptic’ who opposes any cession of power to ‘Brussels’ but is slavishly submissive to the US. Adversarial politics encourage stereotyped thinking. By their very nature, they stifle creative thought and shut off intellectual and practical possibilities.

In their fervent embrace of adversarialism, progressive movements suffer at two levels. First, they are co-opted: they are changed by the system, rather than changing it themselves. Second, they lose their positive energy – the reason for their existence in the first place – and replace it with anger, fanaticism and personality cults. The more angry and fanatical a progressive movement is, the less likely it is to challenge the status quo. This might seem paradoxical to some activists, steeped in the new mood of militancy. However, they would do well to remember that Gandhi’s satyagraha (‘trust struggle’) and Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign for African-Americans succeeded, and altered long-term thinking, because they were non-violent – intellectually as well as physically, and created new ways of thinking about politics. It is significant, as well, that the most successful ever left-wing newspaper in the US was called The Appeal to Reason. In the early 20th century, The Appeal’s measured practical case for an American version of socialism represented the left at its best.

The rejection of adversarial politics is a sign of underlying strength and not a symptom of compromise, as too many progressives assume. On the contrary, those activists who embrace adversarialism are themselves engaged in compromise, as truth gives way to point-scoring and the hope of change yields to an attitude of permanent opposition. The violent ambitions of the campaigner at Russell Square and the hate-filled slogans on many anti-war banners should give comfort to Blair and Bush. For the protesters are buying into a political culture that finds its eventual expression in war. ‘Either you’re with us or you’re against us’: the words were Bush’s, but they reflect the mentality of many of his most vocal opponents. Such protesters frequently switch sides with notable ease.

Joschka Fischer, leader of the ‘realist’ wing of the German Greens, was a veteran anti-war protester, but as his country’s foreign secretary he has championed the bombing of Serbia. Blair and his New Labour colleagues began their careers on the left as militant ‘peace’ campaigners, but now form the most ‘pro-war’ Cabinet since the days of gunboat diplomacy. Superficially, Blair, Fischer et al have switched sides, but they have remained true to the same form of politics: them and us; either you’re with us or against us; demonisation of opponents. It is easier to switch from one adversarial position to another than to create a new form of politics like a Gandhi or a King, or the socialists and feminists of an earlier generation.

Adversarialism reduces political discourse to a series of artificial choices. In his book A Citizens’ Income, the leading Yorkshire Green Party member Clive Lord laments the divisions in green politics that stand in the way of unity on the environment. He cites as an example the divide on social issues in Germany between the left-oriented Greens and the smaller, conservative Ecological Democratic Party. The Greens support homosexual rights, whereas the smaller right-wing party promotes traditional family values. This is a classic example of sterile either/or politics, for there is no reason why one principle – support for families – should cancel out the other – that of equality and fairness. Yet partisans of both positions tend to assume that we must choose one, rather than have both.

Similarly, there is no reason why we cannot aim for parity between women and men and value the distinctive contributions and approaches of both sexes. A ‘war of the sexes’ is no more likely to achieve gender equity than a terror campaign to achieve lasting peace. And there is no reason at all why love for and loyalty to a region, or even a nation, should be incompatible with an internationalist perspective that extends to the rest of humanity and the planet.

All these issues are presented by adversarial politics as opposites, but in fact they are complementary principles, or parts of a whole. The game of adversarial politics creates artificial divisions that result in individual bitterness and disappointment, and the diversion of progressive movements from their original goals towards self-limiting cultural niches. At a global level, adversarialism assumes a more sinister form, fuelling the revival of ethnic and religious conflicts, masking a larger battle for control of the earth’s resources and the rise of fundamentalism, whether religious or economic.

The adversarial mode of politics creates increasingly extreme polarisations on cultural issues, both globally and in national life. At the same time, it obscures the lack of genuine political choice. Far from being opposites, Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties compete in their obeisance to the cult of market forces, the most dangerous fundamentalism of all. Both equate progress with economic expansion and seek to impose this model on all human societies – and on the rest of nature. In obscuring the lack of choice, the adversarialists also divert us from the most important choice of all: that between pursuing economic growth as an end in itself, and so willing our own destruction, and living within limits in a sustainable world.

Aidan Rankin is Research and Publications Officer for the Economic Research Council, London. www.ercouncil.org

Email: aidan.rankin@ukonline.co.uk

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2004

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