One of the cornerstones of liberal politics, dating back to the Enlightenment, is the idea of a “separation of powers”. This typically refers to the tripartite system of government, separating executive, legislature and judiciary, on which the US constitution was built. But liberalism depends on other varieties of separation, or at least their appearance. It assumes, for instance, that “the economy” is relatively separate from “the state”. To most liberals, even the concentration of power in specific institutions – such as large corporations – is acceptable so long as that power is contested by rivals. What is fatal for liberalism, however, is the semblance of a single, undivided power bloc, or the emergence of one centre of power that dominates all others.
Without some distinction between rival centres of power, public decision-making cannot possibly be described as “fair” or “independent”. Only if judges retain their distance from parliamentary politics, for example, can their judgments be perceived as disinterested. By the same token, the BBC can perform its role in providing an “impartial” account of political events only if its distance from party politics is defended and respected. But a key tactic of the new conservatism is to mock the very idea of “fairness”, toying with it to the point where it becomes merely cosmetic – as when the Conservative Twitter account was rebranded as factcheckUK.
Johnson, Gove and Cummings are exploiting institutional decay, but they didn’t initiate it. Various ideological and technological forces have been undermining the conditions of liberal pluralism for some years. During the 1990s, a new orthodoxy developed among political scientists and sociologists that power now resided in networks, not institutions; for individuals, “networking” became a crucial career skill. In place of professionalism (focused on a single domain of practice), a new ethos emerged to celebrate flexibility and self-reinvention – the ability to leap from job to job and sector to sector as the market demands.
The simultaneous rise of the internet broke down the vertical divisions – slowly at first, and then all at once – between different genres of culture and communication. Where once there were newspapers, broadcasts, magazines, drama and light entertainment, now there are platforms where a torrent of undifferentiated “content” spills around. The political troll and fake news merchant exploit a simple truth– that it’s no longer possible to keep spaces marked “satire” and “news” away from each other. This new information ecosystem has given rise to a new type of public figure, who does not belong in any one of the old analogue domains, being at once an actor, a comedian, a politician and a media personality. Look no further than our prime minister. [Continue reading…]