Anti-politics: Elephant in the room

by · October 31, 2013

‘They don’t represent us’ —Spanish Indignados protest

‘They don’t represent us’ —Spanish Indignados protest


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

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.

So what is this anti-politics? We think three things, which are interrelated:

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

But it is among some on the Marxist Left that the most troubling response has emerged. On the one hand this response welcomes Brand’s attack on “conventional” or “official” politics. But on the other it suggests that what is needed is to build a different, “unconventional”, “radical” or even “revolutionary” politics instead. In August, Tad wrote of such radical Left responses to the hollowing out of politics:

The result is a tendency to see the Left’s prospects as dismal, because the official Left’s decay is seen as proof of the limited possibilities for a more radical politics. And the crisis of official politics is therefore seen — paradoxically — as a negative rather than an opportunity.

Others describe the current context as “depoliticisation”. We don’t think this is helpful. To understand why it is problematic, let’s ask what “repoliticisation” would mean. Clearly something more than simply “people getting involved” is implied. What we have lost is in fact the mystified appearance that actually existing politics was “representative”, predicated on the hollowing out of the institutional structures that supported such an illusion. Is this really what we want to revive?

The demands that issue from such a view involve a kind of nostalgia for political institutions from a previous era — “we need strong unions”, “we need a rank-and-file movement”, “the ALP Left should fight for better policies”, “we need a strong parliamentary Left”, “we need more grassroots control of Labor and the Greens”, etc. The contradictory nature of these political forms — their historic role in constraining the social interests of subaltern groups — is downplayed in favour of wishing for their return. Such arguments are particularly odd in Australia, where the highpoint of the union movement’s institutional influence was during the Accord process that delivered full-blown neoliberalism to the working class. So while neoliberalism did undermine the strength of unions in Australia, as Liz has argued, and this represented a significant political defeat for the working class, it was achieved through a consensual project that the unions helped run. This points to the impasse of the institutional Left, as much as any victory by the Right.

If we assume that rebuilding historic “representative” institutions is a precondition for social revolution we are likely to find instead that we cannot return to a moment in time when the creation of such institutions was still possible. Worse, we will overestimate the strength of the political class and miss the opportunities their crisis creates.

The point is not that the crisis of politics means that capitalism is about to spontaneously enter some kind of “death agony”. A political crisis is not the same as a social crisis. But unless we start with a critique of the nature of politics, a concrete analysis of the effective terrain we find ourselves on, then we will not be intervening in what is actually happening, but what we wish it to be. Where the rising tide of anti-politics ends up will depend on whether and how revolutionaries intervene, and that depends on being clear on what is actually going on, or else we will simply cede the initiative to other forces, of the sort described in point 2, above.

A social revolutionary approach doesn’t eliminate the need for strategy and tactics, alliances and compromises. But these will need to be in the service of ending politics, not reconstructing it. The alternative, it seems to us, is fighting to the death to save relics of the past while the machinery of capitalism goes on unperturbed.

Discussion18 Comments

  1. There is much here I agree with, but a key part I do not. You write:

    “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).”

    The separation is not apparent, it is real. I’ve always understood the material basis of that separation through the dual nature of commodity production. The nature of exchange value is also the material basis for its inversion, i.e. that social reality appears as a political/ideological construct.

    In the context of anti-politics this is important, as one of the “projects” of politics (especially on the left) is to “strip away” that illusion. In doing so, it poses capitalism as an ideological construct that only the enlightened few can see through. In doing so, and while appearing terribly critical, the left merely repeats that inversion uncritically.

    Things are as they appear. That’s why change is a practical social activity. The only intellectual activity is a purely destructive one: anti-moralising, anti-ideological – and anti-politics.

  2. Andrew Self says:

    Once a great a very good piece Liz and Tad. And thanks for engaging with my ideas around Brand.

    There are a few things I would like to clarify on this issue. When I mention depoliticisation in reference to Brand, it is because what he represents is a spectacle, not anything political. And he doesn’t misunderstands what the ‘political’ represents outside of parliamentary democracy.

    Thereby, by the political I do not simply mean bringing back old political institutions. This is also a narrow view of the political field. When you state that:
    ‘If we assume that rebuilding historic “representative” institutions is a precondition for social revolution we are likely to find instead that we cannot return to a moment in time when the creation of such institutions was still possible.’
    I completely agree. This is why is it dangerous to call for revolution simply based on the fact that we are not being represented or whatever. The real crisis exists in the capitalist form which has a far larger reach than the ballot box.

    I would see anti-politics as very political, not at all related to neo-liberal, spectacle based depoliticization. In fact, the three points that you highlight in anti-politics actually sound quite close to the post-Gramscian theorist Ernesto Laclau’s definition of populism. And he sees this as politics par excellence.

    Brand’s comments are simply a symptom of a larger capitalist crisis, and he echoes what many people may feel. But because of the form it took, it lost any real political power.

    I hope I’ve made myself clear, I’m in a bit of a rush.

    • lizhumphrys says:

      If you are comparing me to Laclau, I’m not sure we can be friends 😉

      I want to think about this some more and come back to you, but I have to say that I think some of what we disagree on might be language related. One question and thought though…

      There is no political space outside bourgeois politics, so when people say they are doing ‘revolutionary politics’ I think we must be clear it is a activity to end politics. Do you agree with this, and if now where is it we disagree? (There is no outside the totality of capitalist social relations for me.)

      • Andrew Self says:

        No comparisons Liz, just pointing out something. My thesis supervisor says the same thing.

        I think you may be right around the language disagreement and how we use the term politics. But this can also move more into more problematic territory obviously.

        I will have to think about your statement, it’s an interesting one for me. I would tend to agree, but I am a little bit iffy on the idea that a revolutionary (or whatever) is ‘ending’ politics. Let me get back to you on that one if that’s OK.

      • Andrew Self says:

        I’ve had a bit of a think about your last comment Liz, and I think our disagreement is around the use of the word politics. If we define non-bourgeois capitalist politics as anti-political, then the political remains quite constricted. This definition gives space to actors who pretend not to be ‘political’ such as Palmer etc. Those who want to end capitalist relations are performing a very political act, just one against the hegemony.

        This requires much more thought and reading on my behalf, and it’s not my real area of deep knowledge. But worth an investigation. We should look at this further one day soon.

  3. Marc Newman says:

    I’m in broad agreement with Tad and Liz’s piece. But there are a few things I’d clarify, or at least state explicitly.

    i) Politics is a materially given fact, not something we can ‘decide’ to define in one way or another. Politics is that which goes on in political society, and more correctly corresponds to what the far left would call ‘bourgeois politics’, or what everybody else just calls ‘politics’, than the vaguer and inchoate notion that politics is everything from bourgeois politics, through ideology (for example ‘having revolutionary politics’ at a formal level), to revolution itself.

    Most especially, by collapsing the distinction between politics as such and ideology, the far left predisposes itself to the error of positing ‘political spaces’ outside actually existing politics which can be constructed according to some pure ideologically given model. This is part of what undermines the far left’s ability to present a revolutionary alternative to actually existing politics, and consigns the far left to marginality. Instead of developing concrete analysis as a guide to concrete interventions, general ideas are counterposed to the specifics of actually existing politics in way that completely undercuts the organic pull and value of Marxist ideas as a guide to action.

    It would be good if people discussing this could present (at least in outline) what they think ‘politics’ means if they intend to use the term, since there has been a lot of sliding around on this question by many critics of the ‘anti-politics’ analysis which I think merely confuses the issues at stake.

    ii) Anti-politics is most usefully understood first and foremost as the ‘detachment’ Liz and Tad refer to at (1). It is possible for that detachment to be framed politically in a number of different (and sometimes mutually antagonistic) ways. The majority of these forms are *objectively* ‘integrative’ in the sense that they do function to restore the broken appearance of representative institutions, which is what I think EH and TT are getting at at (2). But all are contradictory, in that in order to do so they must relate to the detachment of ordinary punters, by partially reflecting their detachment. The straddling of that gap is difficult, especially for those committed to the system (KRudd, for example). This creates openings for a genuinely anti-political framing of detachment, along the lines of (3). It is important to understand that this ‘straddling’ attempted by K Rudd is qualitatively different to a ‘left shift’ in traditional terms, but is still symptomatic of a situation containing immense opportunity. Ironically, a serious ‘left shift’ by the ALP, for example, would actually make things *harder* for revolutionary politics, by accelerating the reintegration of the working class. Such a shift is vanishingly unlikely at present, but the point stands. This, I think, is what the article is driving at when it presents a critique of ‘nostalgia’.

    iii) The degree of affinity between (1) and (2) on the one hand, which can respectively be characterised as the popular disengagement from the ruling class’ current hegemonic project, and the attempts by the political class to head off that process by superficially relating to it, and (3), a genuinely anti-political challenge, can be overstated. (1) and (2) are a largely organic and to some extent passive response to an ailing hegemonic project (neoliberalism), while (3) must necessarily be a conscious and collective process.

    The actual destruction of actually existing politics (3), however, can only come about to the extent that it is consciously developed as a practical challenge (in this sense I agree with Piping Shrike that change is a practical social activity). It is therefore inextricably tied to the question of the left’s response to (1) and (2) and its consequent interventions into and against politics as such. It is precisely the same thing as the working class developing a hegemonic challenge of its own, becoming a class for itself, etc.

    iv) It therefore is insufficient to have an ideological critique of bourgeois politics, the critique must be an actually existing, material force, existing in significant part within the ‘field’ of bourgeois politics. We cannot posit a politics outside politics, and fill the resulting space with high level ideas and abstractions of a pure yet anaemic sort, but must instead develop a concrete critique of bourgeois politics linked with practical critical activity. Put differently, we can’t counterpose revolutionary ideology with politics, but must become revolutionary politicians with intellectual tools and practical activity appropriate to undermining and ultimately destroying the political.

    v) Rather than simply seeking to regenerate bourgeois politics by providing a more authentic working class representation within it, the mode of engagement of revolutionary politicians must be calculated to *accelerate* the ‘detachment’ of subaltern groups from the illusions of representation which constitute politics as such.

    vi) Such an approach does not require abstention from the sphere of parliamentary politics, quite the opposite. But it does require a radically different method to that ‘normally’ employed by parliamentary parties. The ‘insider’ approach employed by the Greens over the last three years is an example how this leads to a dead end.

    vii) The dynamics resulting from the decay of the ruling class’ hegemonic project are central to understanding how the ruling class rules today, and what we must do to be effective. The dual processes of detachment and integration are the key axis around which a left strategy needs to be formulated.

    To take the Brand example: Without some version of an analysis of the phenomenon of anti-politics, it is impossible to understand both the appeal of and the limitations of Brand’s comments *concretely*. It can be understood on some eternal plane of ideas – this takes both ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘hostile’ forms, neither very usefully, in my opinion. But the ideas in an abstract sense have almost no relevance to why Brand a) made the comments now, b) why they have had such broad appeal or c) what we might do with them, beyond using them as a jumping off point for a discussion about revolutionary ideas in general.

    Context, context, context. It is only because these comments are appearing in a world where detachment in the Gramscian sense is as strong as it is that Brand’s remarks are so electric. It is fairly obvious that the ground that can be made solely by relating ideologically to the Brand phenomenon is tiny. This is because it is primarily a concretisation of the zeitgeist of detachment – people respond not so much to the details of what Brand is saying but the way it fits into their already felt and half articulated sense of what is going on in politics and in the world. The challenge for us to figure out how to take this further. For that we need to understand that zeitgeist and what it means.

    Good contribution from Tad and Liz to that project!

  4. Chris says:

    This comment is in the wrong place, but I couldn’t find anywhere else to put it.

    I follow Left Flank on an iPad, and the floating Facebook/twitter/Google+ thingy obliterates the left hand side of the text.

    Any chance of tweaking your HTML?

    • Marc Newman says:

      Chris, I’ll have a look at that. I’m in a similar boat myself a lot of the time, and have been annoyed by the floating social media box. But we use a shared platform and don’t have all that much control, so I suspect short of upping stumps, it might be beyond us to fix. Cheers, Marc

    • lizhumphrys says:

      Thanks Chris – you are not the first to raise it and we are trying to fix it as it is annoying I agree! We solved a whole host of problems moving to WordPress, to do with comments and readability in RSS feeds, but we do want to fix this.

  5. Torn Halves says:

    Agree with Andrew that it is unhelpful to identify politics as the state being the bully boy for the ruling class, and then insisting we should be “anti-politics”. The crisis of legitimation is an opportunity to redefine the political, calling into question the very idea of representation.

    You seem to be getting excited here about prospects for change. What’s the basis for that? Here in Greece where there has been a complete collapse of party affiliations and a complete loss of faith in the putative political representatives, there is also no significant grassroots movement for change. People need to be roused from their political slumbers. Brand does a good job at provoking a response, but will it achieve anything beyond boosting ticket sales for “The Messiah Complex”?

  6. […] Liz Humphrys and tad Tietze: Anti-politics – the elephant in the room […]

  7. Mike Fisher says:

    In short what you seem to be arguing is that we need a politics premised on a Marxist critique of the state: a politics that consciously seeks to defetishise the formal autonomy of politics itself.

    The constituency and agency for such a politics is, of course, almost non-existent. Much of the present left (broadly defined) would struggle to understand the nature of the proposition, never mind engage constructively with its implications.

    Therefore, to speak of strategy and tactics in this context is, I suspect, somewhat premature. What forces can we mobilise to effect any strategy or tactic?

    The crisis of politics today expresses itself mainly in terms of detachment from the established political parties. But I don’t think this has (yet) generalised into disillusionment with the institutions of the state and their accompanying ideologies.

    If labourism was defined by its willingness to critique capitalists, but not capital, contemporary anti-politics is characterised by a detachment from particular parties rather than the broader structures of party-based liberal democracy.

    The ALP and Greens remain defined by their fetishisation of the formal democratic character of the state. They will continue to subordinate extra-parliamentary movements to that character: decomposing the dynamics of anti-politics into the familiar categories of taxpayer, citizen and consumer.

    Securing this subordination is more problematic for the Greens today than the ALP. Labor normalised this subordination under Hawke and Keating.

    The positive aspect of Brand’s contribution is that it challenged the social democratic fetishisation of the state. The negative aspect is that it failed to recognise that anti-politics needs political articulation. In part this requires a clear and conscious strategy of working ‘in and against the state’ (as some Marxists used to say).

    This requires politicisation, but not in the sense of reconstructing the failed abstract universalisms of the past. It means developing political capacities outside the state to which any participation in the state is subordinate.

    But to highlight what is needed is to highlight how remote we are from achieving it. While formal politics may be in crisis the social and cultural conditions outside the embrace of the political are profoundly antithetical to a practical critique of the state as a capitalist state.

    It is the populist right that seems likely to make most of the running, with the left cutting its own throat by clinging to institutions and processes that mean increasingly little to those whose interests they purportedly represent.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Part of the purpose of our polemic was to try to shift the debate to the concerns you describe, even if only among those who already — abstractly at least — favour some kind of serious critique of the capitalist state. Therefore we start where we start, which is to try to at least understand the nature of situation we face.

      I’d also agree that in the absence of a deeper social crisis and/or social resistance on a larger scale, the institutions of the state can remain relatively stable despite the rolling political crisis. Our perspective is that both deeper crisis and more resistance are likely, because of the contradictions of capitalist society (and without any particular need for these things to be preceded by changes in mass consciousness), but that how we see things happening now will guide whether our future responses are relevant to what is actually happening.

      The reference to “strategy and tactics, alliances and compromises” is there to specifically mark out that the analysis is not one that says such things are no longer important, something we have been accused of, but one that can inform discussion of “what next?” as things develop. It seems to me that the political crisis provides us with an opportunity to start to develop clarity on these issues now, so that more of us can be better placed to intervene as the social contradictions mature. Otherwise we risk going into the crises ahead leaving all the running in the hands of either the populists you refer to, or the “old Left” thinking which will undoubtedly try to find ways to repackage things in containers which merely disorganise social action from below.

    • MisterWombles says:

      “The ALP and Greens remain defined by their fetishisation of the formal democratic character of the state.” — Love it!

      As I keep reminding my friends in the GP, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

      The problem for both politics and anti-politics today is the widespread sense that there are no other tools available. Tools and organisational forms are continually created (as well documented in Paul Hawken’s highly optimistic The Blessed Unrest) but, lacking the mass movement expression of earlier eras, remain below the radar. See, for example, the article in today’s Guardian on the OWS-rooted debt-buying campaign. If Brand would link his distaste for voting to support for a campaign like debt-buying then his celebrity contribution could be substantial (i.e. even more significant than the salutary debates resulting on left blogs).

  8. I don’t understand much of this thread. There seems to be a conflation between politics and the state, but the two are very different (if related) things.

    Anti-politics isn’t leading necessarily to an anti-state view, in fact in many ways the opposite. The public doesn’t trust political parties to set interest rates, it would rather the RBA; it doesn’t trust politicians to look at entitlements, it would rather an independent state body; it doesn’t trust politicians to look at the electoral system it would rather a judicial commission.

    Anti-politics is anti “politics”, not anti-state nor even just the main parties. In fact, I would have thought it clear that the far left are as much (if not more) a recipient of anti politics than the established parties more closely identified with the state.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      It can lead to even worse than that — to wanting a severe limitation of or end to bourgeois democracy as a whole, and direct rule by unelected sections of the state as a more efficient/effective way of doing things.

      And there are people/groups who would want to move in that direction the more disruptive the problems of the political class become.

      But thinking through the implications of that is something we need to do without simply harking back to restoring confidence in politics (for which there is not much material basis right now, as far as I can see).

  9. […] are not a representative of the voter but it is to say that the voter does not see the connection. Allowing the people to slip out of the vote due to apathy helps the corrupt politicians stay in […]