The postmodern election

Social theory tells us that postmodernity is the condition of culture in which the social structures which have shaped the modern world have largely dissolved. De-industrialisation fragments the class structure, psycho-cultural changes rework gender roles and family life, all traditional values including the primacy of reason itself come under challenge, and little or nothing can be taken as settled. Our 2019 General Election looks like the one in which democratic politics became fully postmodern.

To being with, the issue which for many people has defined the election – Brexit – is in large part an artefact. Being in or out of Europe was not a major preoccupation of the British public until the referendum. Led by Leave but with Remain in pursuit, propaganda around and since the referendum has resulted in us believing we were at war with each other on an issue of fundamental identity. In a major example of a ‘media effect’, this most bitter election has been fought over a contrivance, in which a grossly simplified binary has been heaped with cultural and emotional meanings which mostly belong elsewhere. It is a massive case of postmodern irony then that ‘Brexit’ was the reason for the election and the sole theme of the Conservative campaign, and was one of two or three major factors in determining its outcome.

Admittedly, traditional class-based ideology could also be seen in the campaign, in the emphasis Labour’s manifesto placed on redistribution and on state intervention in public utilities. While these policies expressed the enthusiasm of the recent cohorts of Labour support, some other voters were alienated from Labour by this. However the extent of this effect is not known, and without further analysis the claim that this was evidence of wide public distaste for more radical economic policies cannot be sustained, especially given that the core economic proposals could have been presented more persuasively and without the less plausible add-ons. It may be that other non-class based ideological issues, linked to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s general political leadership, were the most important – for example, the ideas that he was ‘soft’ on terrorism and on anti-Semitism within the party, and the party conference resolution on expanding immigration.

Whether ideology of any sort was a major factor or not, Corbyn’s unpopularity as a leader certainly was, combining as it did with the ‘Brexit’ factor to drive hundreds of thousands of long-term Labour voters away from the party and thereby delivering Johnson’s majority. This takes us to the most fundamentally postmodern feature of the election: the stage it marks in the decay of the party system, at least as all living memories have known it. While the Conservative majority may bring a deceptive stability to Parliament it does not represent stability in public opinion. Johnson won, as he says, on borrowed votes, and once the Brexit glue dries out his one-off constituency will fall apart. The Labour Party has a chance to begin a radical reconstruction of its place in the eyes and feelings of the public in the upcoming leadership contest, but Corbynism has exposed the depth of its divisions, and cast it as the place where egalitarian idealism goes to die (electorally).

And even if either or both of the major parties can hang together, more fundamentally the electorate is no longer segmented in the orderly way which brought some legitimacy to a two- or three-party system. In postmodern times we are more individualised, which is by no means all a bad thing. It brings psychological and cultural richness, for those materially secure. But politically it means chaos, at least during a long transition, and amongst some parts of the public it brings a hunger for the comforting togetherness of regressive populism. Also, the sceptical stance of postmodern thinking towards all traditional authorities has been a liberating cultural force, yet at the same time in politics it has ushered in the nightmare of a ‘post truth’ public sphere. And a very substantial minority of voters in this election, for both the major parties, have cast their votes for a leader they wouldn’t trust. This may be an extreme example of old-fashioned cynical pragmatism, or a sign that in the turbulence of postmodernity, the trust on which democracy depends is now in jeopardy (or perhaps it is both).

Moreover, even within ourselves, we are not coherent citizenly units, but endlessly varied bundles of values, impressions and impulses. The postmodern self is a complex and changeable entity: not the de-centred flux as some cultural theorists would have it, but still more open-ended than the highly structured modal self of classical modernity. Whether any of our existing political parties can be re-tooled in order to be able to address the postmodern public remains to be seen.