Anti-Politics

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Contextual Citations

At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression.

— Gramsci (1971), Selections From The Prison Notebooks, p. 210


If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

— ibid, pp. 275-6 [1]


"Crucially, this detachment is not caused by the political class being less “representative” of their social base than in some previous era; rather, its lack of a social base makes the political class’ actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent. Under capitalism the ruling class doesn’t directly govern; there is an apparent separation between economics (relations of production / class exploitation) and politics (organised around the state, with its political class, and resting on apparent equality of citizens reflecting equality of exchange in the market). This creates the appearance of representation, one that masks the underlying social relations of domination. It is this appearance that is now breaking down."

- Humphrys and Tietze [2]

Description

"So what is this anti-politics? We think three things, which are interrelated: A widespread mood among ordinary people related to Gramsci’s description of “detachment”. This can manifest in spontaneous popular outbursts or be reflected in volatile electoral results, but tends to peter out if not given some kind of direction. To put Brand’s intervention into context, all he has really done is state this obvious fact, to point to the elephant in the room, that the political elite would rather have hidden behind claims it is “representative”. A political strategy by sections (or aspiring sections) of the political class, drawing on this mood for support. There are lots of variants on this, not confined to Left or Right: Bob Brown, Kevin Rudd, and Clive Palmer have all appealed to anti-politics in Australia, while UKIP, Beppe Grillo, and the people who led the early phases of the 15M (Indignados) movement across the Spanish state are overseas examples. In each case the limited nature of their anti-politics (few actually want to destroy politics altogether) means that these represent limited challenges to the existing order and often fall back into being “just like the other politicians” or collapse into moralistic opposition to the status quo. A consistent strategy of social revolution, which seeks to concretely intervene on the effective terrain in order to build a movement that overcomes politics by overcoming the state. This is “communism” as the end of politics (as Engels put it, when “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things”), a real movement that is a simultaneously theoretical and practical critique of politics, not simply replicating the inner logic of capitalist politics for different ends. (http://left-flank.org/2013/10/31/anti-politics-elephant-room/)


Examples

Luke Stobart:

"Fortunately, the latest elections confirm that detachment from the traditional political order does not just go rightwards. In Greece it was the radical-left party Syriza that topped the poll with 27%, leaving the once-dominant Pasok with 8%. In Portugal and the Netherlands opposition socialist parties overtook those in the centre.

The results in Spain were particularly noteworthy. The two parties that have dominated politics since the end of Franco's dictatorship – the ruling conservative People's party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers' party (PSOE) – saw their share of the vote plummet from 81% of the total in 2009 to 50%. Many PSOE votes transferred to the mainly Communist United Left (IU) – whose share rose to 10% – and smaller parties such as the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which came first in Catalonia.

The bombshell, however, was the 1.2m votes (8%) that went to an inspiring new organisation based on opposition to austerity and "the political caste": Podemos (We Can). It had only existed for four months, its campaign budget was a fraction of those of the other parties, and it received almost no media coverage (something that has radically changed since). It is now the third party in several regions, including Madrid and Asturias." (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/28/spain-podemos-anti-politics-not-monopoly-right)

Discussion

By ELIZABETH HUMPHRYS & TAD TIETZE:

"In this post we will try to clarify what we mean by “anti-politics”, and how this fits in a wider analysis of the crisis of politics that Left Flank has been developing since we started. Our analysis has moved on somewhat from pieces like this one in 2010, and we think it is worth acknowledging shifts in our analysis. Various responses to Russell Brand’s attack on the political system, and discussion here and on social media, have encouraged us to try to put our thoughts about “anti-politics” in one place. We apologise in advance for the abbreviated and schematic nature of what follows.

The starting point for understanding why Brand’s intervention struck such a chord is the crisis of representation that leads most people to see politics as completely detached from their lives. Crucially, this detachment is not caused by the political class being less “representative” of their social base than in some previous era; rather, its lack of a social base makes the political class’ actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent.

Despite purporting to represent the “general interest” of society, the state has interests separate from and opposed to those of the civil society on which it is founded, relying on a mixture of coercion and consent to maintain its rule. In Gramsci’s terminology the state and political society “enwrap” civil society, reshaping and incorporating resistance from below (this conception of “an integral state” provides the theoretical basis of Liz’s PhD research). Under capitalism the ruling class doesn’t directly govern; there is an apparent separation between economics (relations of production / class exploitation) and politics (organised around the state, with its political class, and resting on apparent equality of citizens reflecting equality of exchange in the market). This creates the appearance of representation, one that masks the underlying social relations of domination. It is this appearance that is now breaking down.

It follows from this that parties representing subaltern (exploited/oppressed) social groups are always contradictory phenomena. They both articulate subaltern groups’ interests in relation to the state and incorporate them into reproducing the system. One way to think about it is of politics as a “container” in which social movements are limited from above, but which also provides a structure into which resistance can be channeled from below.

The hollowing out of such political structures provides the social basis for the greater prominence of anti-politics. We won’t repeat Left Flank’s analysis of the period after the end of the post-WWII boom, except to note that the attempts by political elites to resolve the crisis of the 1970s via a “neoliberal” political project failed to provide a sustained resolution of those problems. In Australia this was especially acute because the central national political arrangement around Laborism reached its peak of influence in the Accord, which drove through the neoliberal project and thereby signed its own suicide note. The result has been the exhaustion of the old politics, but without a stable and confident new arrangement able to be implemented. This has happened across a wide range of advanced capitalist countries (hence Brand’s anti-politics can have resonance internationally), although local manifestations vary.

...


Critical responses to Brand’s anti-politics have come from across the political spectrum. Some are little more than snide attempts to dismiss the substance of what he has argued, for example claiming that his privilege and fame disqualify him from speaking for the disenfranchised majority (because, presumably, privilege and fame only qualify you to defend the political system). Others claim that Brand’s criticisms of politics is tantamount to an attack on democracy and licenses a descent into mob rule, or even places him on the slippery slope to fascism. A more serious argument from within the broader Left has been to acknowledge the failings of the political system, but to argue that the problem is that there are not enough people like Russell Brand on the inside, working to transform it. Yet if politics was somehow healthier three decades ago when large swathes of the sixties generation of radicals entered it to change things and we ended up with what is happening now, it seems at best naïve to encourage today’s anti-capitalists inside the tent as if this will produce a better result." (http://left-flank.org/2013/10/31/anti-politics-elephant-room/)


A critique of the anti-politics thesis

Alex Callinicos:

"In equating “communism” with anti-politics, Humphrys and Tietze make concessions to the autonomist myth that it is possible to change the world without taking power and thereby to renounce strategy.15 Many young revolutionaries in Egypt in 2011-12 were lured into abstaining from electoral politics by the illusion that the street movement was sufficient to itself, therefore handing the terrain over to the opportunist politicians who prepared the way for the military under Field Marshal el-Sisi. It is to be hoped that they will have the time to learn that it is necessary to pursue a variety of tactics in order to win the active working class support needed to break the system.

Worse still, by associating the anti-capitalist left with the prevailing forms of “anti-politics”, Humphrys and Tietze make the present situation seem better than it is. Gramsci discusses parties becoming detached from their social base in the context of:

The crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petty bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution. A “crisis of authority” is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the state.16

Gramsci warns: “When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by ‘charismatic men of destiny’”.17 He goes on to discuss different forms of political authoritarianism—Bonapartism and Caesarism, but certainly unstated in the background lurk Benito Mussolini and the fascism confining Gramsci to prison. But is it really plausible to describe the present situation in the advanced capitalist societies (as opposed to Egypt, for example) as a “general crisis of the state” necessitating a ruling class shift to more repressive methods? Gramsci envisaged the breakdown between ruling class and masses as one where the latter play a more active role. What we see today is a general decline in popular support for all the mainstream parties marked chiefly by a relapse into passivity, punctuated by spasms of protest voting, and by mass movements that erupt explosively but that, so far, have been unable to sustain themselves.

This decline is a consequence of two processes, one long term, the other more short term. In the first place, the general tendency in advanced capitalist societies towards the greater fragmentation and individualisation of social life erodes the bases of many mass organisations—not just political parties, but mainstream churches and many of the other institutions that helped to impose a degree of order and security during the early chaotic phases of capitalist development. This phenomenon was already visible during the post-war boom, when it was diagnosed as “apathy”, a disease of “affluence”. But it was limited then by the considerable investment that workers made in workplace trade unionism as a means of winning wage rises in conditions of full employment. As Tony Cliff argued at the time, “At a certain stage of development—when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed or closed—apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action”: the result was the explosion of mass workers’ struggles in the late 1960s and early 70s.18

Secondly, neoliberalism—a result of the ruling class response to this insurgency—has accelerated the tendency to fragmentation and individualism and weakened working class organisation. But it has also reshaped bourgeois politics as the mainstream parties have converged on acceptance of neoliberalism. What in France is called la pensée unique (the “sole thought”) ideologically integrates the political elite with media bosses, big capital more generally, and much of the academy in acceptance of market capitalism and bourgeois democracy as defining the horizons of rational social life. The resulting absence of genuine choice in electoral politics, combined with the material effects of neoliberalism and crisis, serves to alienate the “political class” (an expression symptomatic of the them and us terms in which mainstream politics is now represented) from the mass of voters. This alienation is reinforced by the centralisation of party life around the leaders and their personal staffs, closely integrated into the 24-hour media cycle, a micro-world from which the rest of society is excluded—with the signal exception of the corporations whose lobbyists indeed permeate the political field.

As Perry Anderson has pointed out in the case of Europe:

With this generalised involution has come a pervasive corruption of the political class… Commonplace in a Union that presents itself as a moral tutor to the world, the pollution of power by money and fraud follows from the leaching of substance or involvement in democracy. Elites freed from either real division above, or significant accountability below, can afford to enrich themselves without distraction or retribution. Exposure ceases to matter very much, as impunity becomes the rule. Like bankers, leading politicians do not go to prison… But corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order. It is also, of course, a symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?19

The structural divorce of the political class from the citizens it is supposed to represent and its integration into the moneyed world encourages popular rejection of all parties, summed up in “¡Que se vayan todos!”—All of them must go!—the slogan of the Argentinian revolt in 2001-2. This rejection—which can be called “anti-politics”—may be reinforced by more specific factors such as economic crisis, austerity, or scandals such as that over British MPs’ expenses. But on the whole the right-populist currents that have been most successful in exploiting this mood are not themselves “anti-politics”. It may suit Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage to project themselves as “outsiders”, but their real aim is to reconfigure the bourgeois political scene under the hegemony of their specific projects. Thus a new study of UKIP argues its leaders are no longer so interested in merely garnering protest votes in the European elections: “They were now more ambitious, training their sights instead on Westminster, and the ultimate goal for their grassroots insurgency: winning a seat at the high table of British politics”." (http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=994)