Beige politics: unbeatable bland politicos advocating "beige policies that nobody wants"

Charlie Stross has a fascinating and insightful post about the growth of the political class and the "beige revolution" that has caused all parties to converge on a status-quo-preserving non-platform:

So the future isn't a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It's a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state. And resistance is futile, because if you succeed in overthrowing the beige dictatorship, you will become that which you opposed.

Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship


  1. “if you succeed in overthrowing the beige dictatorship, you will become that which you opposed.”

    No WAY, man, not me! I’ll NEVER stop ROCKING!

  2. This is pretty much my least favorite sort of political argument ever.  

    Just because the current splits in politics aren’t along the lines that affect you, interest you, or that you care about, doesn’t mean there aren’t fundamental splits in the political system.  

    So yeah, if you don’t care about the issues that the various political parties differ on at the moment, I can certainly understand why you might think everything is ‘beige’ and geared toward maintaining the status quo.  But for everyone else?  Not beige at all.

    1. I think you misinterpret his argument. Stross isn’t saying that aren’t splits or the possibility of splits in politics, but that over time these splits become less meaningful as parties migrate towards a political centre in order to preserve their electability. What happens is that this eventually leads to crisis, which is when you get some real fundamental political splits that cannot be easily solved by politics as usual. We are currently in one of those periods of crisis.

      1. I don’t think this migration to the center happens.  I think there’s always overlap, and always disagreement, and whenever I hear people making this fellow’s argument, it’s because they’re primarily interested in the area where there’s overlap and it makes the system look like it’s made up of people who agree on everything.

        1. There’s always going to be overlap and disagreement yes, but the point of his argument is how much there will be. In other words, at any given time, where does the main mass of a party’s members sit on the spectrum relative to the other parties? It’s a totally obersvable fact that parties over their history migrate towards the centre. Just look at the Labour Party in the UK! When they swept to power in 1997, they did so with the ideas of New Labour which borrowed an awful lot of neoliberal ideas from the defeated Conservatives, even though Labour has historically been a social democratic party. In fact, a lot of social democratic parties across the developed world have adopted neoliberal policies that were once the province of right wing parties.

        2. First of all, you can’t discredit someone’s argument by assigning an imagined motive to it and then arguing against that motive.

          Second, Stross is not claiming that everyone agrees on everything, or that there’s no difference between political parties.  He’s observing an emergent property of the political system:

          While politicians do seek to “get their way”, they seek primarily to gain and retain power, and that goes double for political parties.  And so although they have different ideals, politicians on all sides converge on a similar goal: gain the most possible support from the public and (probably more importantly) the corporate world.

          Since all politicians share this goal, they tend to converge over time around a common set of policies and political strategies, regardless of what their ideals, aesthetics, or values are.  Because all those things are secondary to the real prize: power.  In this way, political power perpetuates itself with only incidental impact on society at large.  The power-hungry are unlikely to change our world, and when they do they make things worse as often as they make them better.

          The result is churn, but no progress.  This is not an accident, it is not a sign of incompetence.  It is how the power-hungry prefer things to work.  If we want progress, we cannot look to them.  We must look to ourselves.

  3. Most of what Stross tries to frame as recent changes in political practices is as old as Rome. A self-interested political class, status quo policies, limited choice; these are not new! So while I agree with his discontent, I don’t think he stumbled upon the answer.

    Besides, any hypothesis regarding the current political climate that doesn’t account for the massive changes in the global economy is irresponsibly outside of context. It’s like talking about Imperial England without considering the effect of colonization.

    1. I think the current global economic situation is part of the symptoms of the political crisis Charlie describes. Deregulation of the banks and money markets, followed by the inevitable crash, followed by recession unnecessarily drawn out by austerity economics.

      1. You’re describing the boom & bust problem that, once again, is as old as Rome. Stross blames it on a recent political crisis.

        1. Boom and bust economic cycles are not as old as Rome. They are a comparatively recent phenomenon that has everything to do with capitalism. Previous economic systems tended to be fairly stable, if basically no growth and vulnerable to the weather.

          1. Capitalism is a boom and bust amplifier, but similar cycles can be seen in western mercantilism as well as in east-Asian pre-capitalist economies.

            Even if I’m wrong about that, boom & bust cycles are at least as old as modern representative democracies, which developed hand & hand with free market capitalism.

          2. While there was some elements of trade cycles in pre-capitalist commerce, it rarely if ever had any larger social impact, because it was effectively insulated from the rest of the agrarian economy. So booms and busts tended only to have consequences to those directly involved in commerce until the rise of capitalism which effectively commercialized every aspect of human life.

  4. Here in the USA with a two party system this is especially true.  The major party candidates are afraid of proposing ideas far from the center and people believe that a vote for a  minor party candidate is wasted.  I often wonder if a ranking system of voting, allowing people to vote for their favorite candidate without wasting a vote, would improve the situation.

    1. And just as importantly, the center between the parties, and policy agreements between the parties, are disconnected from the views and values of the people on the whole.

  5. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a best seller called “The End of History and the Last Man.” He argued (presaging Stross) that the fall of the Soviet Union and the corporatization of red China meant that war was over. He argued that the reason we had just gone through ten centuries of war was that feudalism and absolute monarchy were discredited, but it wasn’t obvious what would replace them; now that everybody in the world agreed that financialist capitalism was the ideal economic system and now that everybody but China agrees that some kind of constitutional democracy is the ideal form of government, there is nothing left to fight over, so there’ll never be another war.

    A year later, Islamists attempted to destroy the World Trade Center. Eight years after that, they succeeded, plunging us into 12 years of war and still counting. Twenty nine years after the original attack on the World Trade Center, Islamists are coming to power everywhere from Tunisia to Pakistan. No, it turns out, we didn’t all agree, and it didn’t take anything like a majority to challenge the status quo. The Islamists may yet lose; in the very long run, I’m assuming they will. But just because western elites declare something “settled” doesn’t mean that it’s actually settled.

    Case in point? By Calvin Coolidge’s time, financial trusts and machine politics were the elite consensus, and not just in the US. Herbert Hoover ran and won on a platform of more of the same, but run by a nicer guy. Franklin Roosevelt ran, originally, on a platform of more of the same, but run by the other party — and then, after the Bonus Army massacre, events forced his hand, and the machine politics/financial trusts consensus crumbled (at least briefly).

    There is no more reason to think that the current elite consensus is permanent than there was to trust Karl Rove when he promised “a permanent Republican majority.” If anything, there’s even less reason.

    1. Absolutely absolute monarchy is the perfect anti-war form of government since the monarchs (or their champions) can just sort things out in single combat.

  6. “It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”

    “You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

    “No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

    “Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

    “I did,” said ford. “It is.”

    “So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

    “It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

    “You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

    “Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

    “But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

    “Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”

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