Occupy Sydney Writers' Festival

Professor Simon Tormey appears at OccupySWF with authors Loretta Napolen, Chad Harbach and Sydney University’s John Keane to discuss the shifting tides of politics. Tormey explains how Bono, Public Enemy, an enigmatic Mexican rebel and you are part of a new political paradigm.

By Tim Groenendyk

Professor Simon Tormey

“People are increasingly less interested in mandating someone else to act for them - they want to act for themselves, and they want to do it now," Professor Simon Tormey.

“We’re going to be talking about something which is very ‘live’,” said Simon Tormey, the chair of the School of Social and Political Sciences, referring to his session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

“Something which is an important aspect of life here in Australia as well as around the world - which is: how do people express their anger and resentment towards the state of global inequality?”

The Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados, protests against Austerity, and Occupy movements over the past 18 months are a prominent expression of this anger and resentment.

Tormey believes these events are not only interconnected but also indicate a deeper shift away from representative politics.

“Across the Western world we see that the key measures of the health of representative democracy are going into very rapid decline.

“At the same time we’ve seen a rise in all kinds of other political action which is not mediated by representatives.”

Tormey’s bold thesis - as illustrated in a forthcoming research paper - is that we’re witnessing the end of a paradigm that has had a good run over the last two centuries – representative politics.

Technology, of course, is the conduit by which ordinary people can coordinate activities, what Tormey describes as, ‘disorganised politics’.

He cites Facebook, Twitter and activism sites like GetUp! as some of the major platforms for immediate petitioning and mobilisation.

“People are increasingly less interested in mandating someone else to act for them - they want to act for themselves, and they want to do it now.

Political parties are on the wane, and being replaced by “people making and forging all sorts of coalitions and alliances,” in an effort to “bring about real and serious changes,” Tormey said.

“Changes which they want to live as well as campaign for. This is part of the contemporary tapestry of politics.”

The new paradigm includes a decreasing role for leaders who are mandated by an election, but rather the emergence of spokespeople whose appeal relies more on ‘exemplification’.

“These leaders exemplify certain virtues or they speak in a certain way which that carries enough weight for them to be regarded as outstanding spokespersons that other people want to mandate in some way.

“It might be in the form of an indigenous spokesperson, like Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas or it might be someone like Bono or Bob Geldof. These are what we might term ‘post-representative’ leaders.

“No one’s elected Bono to go out there and start talking about global poverty; but because he’s animated about global poverty and willing to lead initiatives people respect where he’s coming from.

“He’s not a bureaucrat, he’s not somebody who’s clawed his way up a greasy pole, so people are prepared to listen to his message.”

Tormey also recognises other musicians who may proclaim an ideal more implicitly, such as Public Enemy and System of a Down, and therefore fit the model of post-representative leadership.

“They assume a kind of exemplification for a group of youth because what they’re singing about and how they’re articulating that really chimes with how people, particularly young people, are thinking.”

Although countries like Denmark, for example, appear to have a stable liberal democracy and healthy grassroots activism where necessary, liberal democracies with large populations and deep inequalities between elites and ordinary folk further destabilises the future for representative politics.

“The greater degree of inequality between those at the bottom and those at the top are all factors which make it enormously difficult to maintain what became the necessary fiction of democratic politics.”

“Occupy is a symptom that the fiction is increasingly being seen for what it is: the founding myth of democratic representation.

“As J.S. Mill, one of the main defenders of liberal-democracy put it, representation was never intended to be a system that permitted people to govern themselves; but rather a system that prevented them being ‘misgoverned’.

“The problem is, as the GFC showed, democratic governance seems unable even to achieve this modest ambition.”