I find Politics dangerously embarrassing.
Dangerously, because my embarrassment about it makes me quietly leave the debate (any debate) to others. Dangerously, because everyone should involve themselves in politics (because politics has always already involved itself in them, not least in the formation of them as them (and, somewhere, as part of many bigger Thems)).
But why embarrassing?
Ever since I started to become aware there was such a thing as politics (about the 4th of May 1979), I have had the feeling that politics is an impossibility.
Politics is both beneath contempt and beyond our ken. Politics has to deal with both the most abstract undercurrents of History (History with a capital Kapital) (History as Tories trying to bunk off from History) at the same time as it deals all forms of blunt prejudice, from taxi-driver omniscience to conspiracy-theory organic-fruitcakery. Politics has, as its contemporary startpoint, X’s version of the bleedin’ obvious going into battle with Y’s version of the bleedin’ obvious (times by seven billion).
Most of all, Politics has somehow to incorporate gossip, fear, social climbing, politicos’ egos, psephology, televisuality, organized crime, capitalism, religion, terrorism, rhetoric, greed, applied maths, demographics, pseudo-global consciousness, jokes, sex-scandals, idealism, corruption, bureaucracy, ignorance, and at least a dozen more components I have missed.
How these components come together, making the Human-Machine that makes us human, is beyond messy. It is something so confusingly alive, changing changes upon changed changers, that it hurts to go near, look at or think about. Yet, at the same time, it is – I know – extremely banal.
I was once privy to a private political conversation between Andrew Rawnsley (The Observer’s Chief Political Commentator) and Paddy Ashdown (former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, to name but the most major of his middle-sized significances). The fact that Andrew Rawnsley, Paddy Ashdown and I were on a double-decker bus provided by Penguin Books, and were also accompanied by Nick Hornby, the woman who inflicted Angelina Ballerina upon parents-of-girls, and Peter Rabbit, is by-the-by. They are proper political animals. Andrew and Paddy were behind me, on the upper deck, and they were seriously talking serious domestic politics. And I was listening in, and I understood every word. And most of it was discussion of personality, not policy, not theory, not History. And never did they threaten to go beyond the language of the day-to-day Westministering and into a meta-language comprehensible only to behind-doors power-dealers. If I had been sitting beside mathematicians, or grammarians, or anthropologists or even Premier League footballers, they would fairly soon have said something I did not get because I didn’t have the language or the concept. But there was no danger I would get left behind by Andrew and Paddy’s chat about what X thinks of what Y thinks of Z, this week.
In other words, Politics does not take place in other words.
Politics, like proselytizing churches who have the New Testament retranslated every ten years into an even more approachable English – Politics is always returning to the most demotic demotic it can find.
Hence, politicians use of clichés (and occasional, grant them this, coining of clichés: There Is No Alternative, Victorian Values, New, We’re All In This Together). Politics is always an attempt to get back to what the people say about what they think. Even Enoch Powell, famously the last of the great classically-informed orators, constructed his classically-informed ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech entirely around vox pop quotes from plain-speaking constituents. Powell’s interpretational flourish was only a rhapsody upon public domain themes. He was merely retranslating the hating.
Vox pop is what counts because there is no other indication of how people will vote, or whether they will bring about violent insurrection in order to see their elected members dangling beneath Lambeth Bridge.
A politician is a great dirty ear attached to a muscular and responsive tongue and controlling a big pointing finger. You say this so I say this and so then this goes there, okay?
Both the word-pile Human-Machine of What Politics Incorporates and the Grotesque Ear-Tongue-Finger Creature will give you some sense of what causes my embarrassment. I do not feel comfortable around so much muchness. I am repulsed by the inane echolalia of Political discourse (for the Ear-Tongue-Finger Creature is constantly shouting in the dark cave which is its natural habitat).
Yet I am also obsessed by the question, ‘Given that things could be completely different to how they are (because they demonstrably have been in the past, and they inevitably will be in the future) – given the mutability of humans, how can we collectively make things better than they are?’
By which I mean, How can our interrelations be more just, or less unjust? In what better ways can we organize both to help people who need help and to leave completely the fuck alone people who don’t need help? What can we create, as a lifeworld, that is worth bringing more child-shaped things into and up in?
The Politics of the Politics of Politics – that’s where it becomes really interesting, and obviously worthwhile.
So, finally, I arrive at Václav Havel; as I’ve said before, my only political hero – though I went on to be a bit sniffy on the subject of his post-Presidential writings.
(Václav Havel (1936-2011), dramatist, dissident, last President of Czechoslovakia, first President of the Czech Republic.)
Václav Havel is a politician I can bear to look at, conceptually. This is not only because I admire him as a dissident; I also admire him as a President.
In the whole of my life, there is no righter-time-righter-place than Praha 1990 to 1993. I lived and worked there as a State employee (in the Economics Faculty of the Charles University).
During those years when everyone was quoting Wordsworth’s bliss-dawn, I saw what a people who had just rebooted their Politics looked like. And I saw a Police Force (and a State) which was unsure exactly what kind of law they were enforcing, and so almost entirely refrained from enforcing it. And I felt more free than I have ever felt (and, and this is the crux, more free than I can ever envisage my children feeling). And I saw, under the sign of Havel, a Politics that included absurdity and acknowledged it.
For the word-pile Human-Machine and Eye-Ear-Finger Creature are absurd, and should be acknowledged as absurd, rather than despised as embarrassingly grotesque. Nothing human is grotesque.
It is absurd that we try collectively to govern ourselves; it is absurd that we take the world as an entity and try to improve it. Politics is, at once, the absurd application of hope to society, and the continual management of disappointed social hopes.
Toby Litt is a writer of novels, stories, poems and essays. His ten books include 'Adventures in Capitalism', 'Beatniks: An English Road Movie', and 'Exhibitionism'. He is leading Conversation Drinks on Vaclav Havel on 19 November 2013 in celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Click here for details