Why better politics can’t make anti-politics go away

by · February 3, 2017


A recent think piece by Spiked!’s theoretical guru, Frank Furedi, is an attack on the idea that anti-politics is any kind of solution to the current breakdown in authority of the political system. It’s worth examining Furedi’s case because it aligns with anti-anti-politics arguments currently found on the Left in its softer and more radical variants. It is also worth dissecting to clarify what this blog means by anti-politics, and why attempts to renovate politics are likely to fail.

Furedi correctly notes that for increasing numbers of people the ways of looking at politics that dominated the 20th Century, tied up with party affiliations and traditional social group loyalties, no longer make any sense. Further, while this has been a long-run process, it is not until recently that responses utilised by political elites to manage this decline — for example the technocratic turn of the 1990s — have given way to a more serious popular response rather than the passivity of “TINA” (Margaret Thatcher’s infamous pronouncement that “there is no alternative”).

What is missing is any sense of why politics may have exhausted itself and failed to come up with sustainable new ideas for a revival. Given Furedi’s Marxist roots what is striking is the lack of a social explanation for the decline of the old political order, which was organised around rigid notions of class and nation and divided along a Left/Right continuum.

This comes through in Furedi’s critique of identity politics and the Left’s “cultural turn”. He agrees with how the social movements of the 1960s and 70s rejected some “Western” traditions; i.e. “worship of hierarchy, and patriarchal and paternalistic practices”. But he argues they threw the baby out with the bathwater by also attacking “values of loyalty, sovereignty, tolerance and liberty”. It is hard to know from his argument how one would choose which bits of these traditions to keep or eject, except for Furedi’s arbitrary lumping of the second list with the Enlightenment (itself somewhat arbitrary, given the mixed inheritance the Enlightenment bequeathed). Why are these values inherently better than the cultural or identity politics Left’s (alleged) dismissal of them?

While it is certainly true that cultural and identity politics were ways of dealing with the apparent loss of the political system as a place where one would engage to drive social change, it is not clear why an assertion of certain values is any kind of alternative to that loss.

Absent from Furedi is any sense about an anchor that might hook what is progressive and reactionary to something based in social reality.

Indeed, the values Furedi describes hark back to an illusion, the notion that in the past politics itself could drive fundamental social change in a positive sense. Such ideas were acutely criticised by Marx when the Enlightenment was still something of a going concern. Furedi’s “loyalty, sovereignty, tolerance and liberty” correspond closely with what the French revolutionaries called “the rights of man”, or what more recently are recognised as “civil rights”, at least on paper, in liberal democracies. Marx made a searing critique of the limits of such rights in his famous essay “On The Jewish Question”. In setting out the difference between merely “political emancipation” (emancipation in relation to the modern state) and “human emancipation” (genuine human freedom), Marx argued that the very basis for such rights was a society of competing self-interested individuals, which rested on the social basis of (bourgeois) private property, and which necessitated an alienation of individuals’ private lives from their lives as citizens (i.e. part of the political community):

None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society, that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves. (MECW 3: 164)

In effect Furedi is harking back to a world where Enlightenment values only got as far as the limits set by the antagonism between civil society and the state, itself underpinned by the antagonistic “war of all against all” in civil society.

It is this uncritical approach to the opposition between the social and political spheres in modern capitalist society that leads Furedi to attack anti-politics:

It is tempting to think that anti-politics offers a positive alternative to an exhausted, self-serving political establishment. In fact, it merely offers a negative critique of the status quo. Anti-politics is not directed at a particular party or interest but at the very idea of politics. Its premise is that politics as such is futile. It is sceptical of the capacity of citizens to achieve positive results through political mobilisation. It doesn’t only criticise politicians — it indirectly attacks representative democracy and the citizens who operate within it.

For Furedi it is not that there is a fundamental problem with politics but that “political clarity is lagging behind the demands of the [populist] moment” reflected in the UK vote for Brexit and the election of Trump. The problem with Trump is not so much that he is using anti-politics to leverage political power (an understandable product of the moment) but that he is too steeped in the failed politics of recent decades to renovate politics properly. Further, when Furedi contends that anti-politics “indirectly attacks representative democracy and the citizens who operate within it”, he is arguing that social change can only be properly carried out in one approved location — the very circumscribed sphere around the political state.

Furedi’s argument thus connects with two positions increasingly present in left-wing discussion of the crisis of politics. The first, put by some left-wing social democrats and most of the Marxist Left, is that we need a politics that is sufficiently populist and mass-based to have wide appeal and provide the basis for taking state power. It is this view that leads to the interminable squabbles on the Left over exactly which points of unity and which lines of division are need to carve out the correct Left project — whether it be Owen Jones’s calls for a new Left populism to challenge the populism of the Right, or arguments by US Marxists about what kind of socialist organisation is needed in the era of Sanders and Trump. One might think that Greece’s disastrous Syriza experiment (see here, here and here for an obituary) would have chastened them, but one can always argue — as Furedi does in defence of his own version — that the lines of political recomposition were not the correct ones.

The second position, more common on the soft Left, is the demand that politics is properly limited to a narrow field of activity, that of “representative politics”. It could be seen in the Australian Left’s successful campaign to prevent a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, in part justified by the claim that civil rights should be the exclusive preserve of elected representatives and not the voting public. It can also be seen in critiques of the “new populism” (for example the widely-read arguments of Jan-Werner Mueller) which identify liberal democracy as needing to be narrowed down to electing representatives and having unelected sections of the state exert “checks and balances” to restrain the will of the majority, allegedly to protect minority interests.  While Furedi would reject such a narrow a conception of politics, it seems clear this would only be because he wants to revive representative politics with mass participation whereas critics of the new populism are resigned to a lack of mass participation and so want to better insulate representative structures from the public. Furedi’s fellow Spiked! contributor Brendan O’Neill has fleshed out this aspect of argument in a more recent criticism of Trump, written in the form of an open letter to the US leader:

Your pose as the anti-politician, the man who hates the political class, is getting wearisome. It has crossed the line from criticism of the establishment, which is good, into a trashing of politics itself, of the very business of people getting together and talking and voting in order to make things happen. When will your anti-politics shift into a conviction that you alone should decide how things should be run? That’s the logical conclusion to anti-politics, whether it takes the form of demagoguery (you) or technocracy (Hillary).

As spiked argued in May last year, everyone who believes in the potential of politics to change society for the better should be worried about you being president. What we need now is not cynicism or a ‘saviour’: we need a real, democratic political culture that engages as many people as possible in a debate about the future. Stop sneering at politics; be a proper politician.

For all of Spiked!’s claims to stand for human freedom, this represents a warning against letting the political order break down too much; a defence of the political order against popular sentiments that go too far.

This blog has long maintained that today’s anti-political moment is the product of a breakdown in the social bases of the political order — its parties, institutions, associated organisations and practices. The era of mass politics that started to unravel in the last few decades of the 20th Century had provided the material basis for ideas that people’s social interests could be won within the political sphere (even if, for the most part, they couldn’t). With the decline of civil society organisations (e.g. trade unions, mass parties, civic associations) that provided a social weight to the activities of the political class, that appearance has increasingly broken down, making more obvious the detachment and antagonism between the public and its political representatives.

Three separate but related phenomena become more obvious in such a period. First, the general stance of detachment from and hostility to politics in civil society becomes more widespread and intense, affecting not just those with least to gain from the system but infecting the socially privileged also, who no longer see the system as functional or responsive. Second, politicians emerge who seek to leverage anti-political sentiment for their own political projects. Such players can come from various points along the ideological spectrum (from a right-wing Trump to a centrist Beppe Grillo in Italy to the left-wing Podemos in Spain) but, in the end, they can no more drive serious social change than could the old parties whose decline they take advantage of. Both the first and second phenomena are inescapable features of modern life because of the separation between civil society and state is a permanent feature of capitalism, even if modified during a past era of mass politics. But there is no question they are more prominent now in the wealthy liberal democracies than at any time in living memory.

Third, there is the possibility of social struggles that directly challenge politics itself, by challenging the state’s rule “over against” society. While these have been at best embryonic in recent times (Spain’s 15M movement the clearest example, for all its limitations), they might be considered the beginnings of “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” that Marx and Engels described social revolution as being; that is, a “revolution against the state”.

Only the third phenomenon can be considered to point in a progressive direction, precisely because it is about society asserting itself against the existence of a separate political sphere. To fulfil their promise such struggles would also have to overcome the capitalist social relations that pit individuals in civil society against each other, but that is a discussion for another post.

Furedi argues: “The radical supporters of anti-politics overlook that the flipside of anti-politics is TINA — an acceptance of the world as it is. For without politics people are reduced to passive objects, shaped by fate.” He gives no sense that social forces are needed to profoundly change society, and that political activity underpinned by social passivity simply reproduces the current malaise. Hence he collapses into a tired and unconvincing call for a “battle of ideas” for the values he prefers. More bizarrely he claims that the dead weight of institutions like “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” is more powerful than the countercultural populist surge. Perhaps that argument would’ve rung true 30 years ago, but if the Brexit and Trump votes showed anything it was a lack of deference to the expertise and cultural authority of “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” that was in operation — a fact Furedi acknowledges but quickly forgets.

The problem is not the need for a battle of ideas to shape a better political culture all the better to involve the mass of people, but the need for social forces to move in their own interests — not to reinject the political sphere with some socially-relevant justification, but to end the existence of an alien political sphere altogether. When Furedi argues that people should once more feel that “being a citizen matters”, he is effectively enforcing what Marx called “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right”, where human freedom is reduced to merely political emancipation. This is a formula pitched at the development of a new political class, more sensitive and culturally attuned to the banal capitalist values of the masses it rules over.

It would be a tragedy if future social struggles ended up accepting such profoundly self-limiting strictures.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. Louis Proyect says:

    I’m surprised that anybody would consider Frank Furedi worth answering nowadays.

  2. Buildings- Roman says:

    Conveniently overlooks the fact that we are drowning in a $20 trillion debt with a population of 8 billion amidst a backdrop of increasing war , resource depletion and biosphere damage . On a more philosophical plane , reason and the logos as expressed by the enlightenment appear xhausted as the west enters its period of decline , just as Toynbee points out all previous civilisations have done .
    Reason as expressed by politics is being supplanted by unreason and quite possibly a new wave of religion at some point . Get with the program !

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