Concrete utopias

I spent a couple of days earlier this week attending a seminar on ‘the post-political city’. Lots of interesting talks about new forms of political action from around the world, yet all strangely framed by the idea that the world has been progressively ‘de-politicized’. There is something wonderfully self-confirming about the post-political narrative – on the one hand, it bemoans how there isn’t enough ‘proper politics’ these days; then, when you find examples of more or less contentious politics going on, this just confirms that the energy of ‘proper politics’ will always erupt against strategies of de-politicization which are meant to be all pervasive. All of which seems to confirm a suspicion that Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere and others behind the post-political analysis have managed to generalise a particular sort of personal disappointment into a broad claim about de-politicisation as a worldly condition, and in the process managed to get people to think that the only thing that counts as ‘real’ politics is a remarkably narrow strand of the totality of contemporary and historical collective action. I talked about how the post-political theme continues longer trends that can be found in discussions of the concept of ‘the political’, and if I had the time I would have said something a little more constructive about theorising politics ordinarily and how this might inform the analysis of urbanisation and politics. But I didn’t get the chance to spell that bit out – it will have to wait for another occasion.

The one thing I got from the seminar was a thought about why lots of ‘civic’ engagement these days does, in fact, openly describe itself as ‘not political’ – a few speakers mentioned this in passing. There are at least a couple of things going on here, I think: one, saying your campaign/organisation isn’t ‘political’ might be a good way of mobilising and enrolling certain types of people; two, of course, the same line might be an effective way of accessing corridors of power, by avoiding the appearance of being ‘partisan’. So, it’s obvious that this is a strategic line. Interesting, and worth thinking more about, but hardly evidence of the ‘post-political’, not as theorised by the neuvo-communists at least – there is, of course, a website enabling you to actively sign-up to be Post-Political, in this alternative sense. It’s a rhetoric of being anti-politician, while affirming a whole range of spaces of collective engagement beyond party politics and elections – hardly an indication of de-politicization.

The post-political analysis remains tied, of course, to an image of proper politics as all about fundamental ruptures. There is an interesting contrast with the style of political analysis found in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, which I managed to read last week sort of accidentally. It’s the culmination of a long-running project on the topic of Real Utopias, that has generated various other edited collections on deepening democracy, basic income, and other topics – all focussed on examples of institutional or organisational experiments in reviving, extending or inventing egalitarian, participatory political forms. It’s resolutely Marxist, but also convincingly egalitarian and democratic in a way in which evades recent ‘communist chic’ literature (it’s also been the subject of an attack by Russell Jacoby in Dissent, which sort of counts as a badge of radical honour I think).

Wright argues that a critical, emancipatory social science should be able to address three issues: an effective critical diagnosis (e.g. what is wrong with capitalism?); a persuasive and justifiable account of workable alternatives; and a convincing theory of transformation. His book is organised around these three dimensions. The book also acknowledges Wright’s attachment to Analytical Marxism (or no bullshit Marxism if you prefer) – it’s actually a rather good advert for this tradition of thought, if that is what it is. This aspect is evident in various ways: a style of functionalist argument in places; a disavowal of the labour theory of value, of course; and perhaps most tellingly, a consistent working through of the what the rationalities of unintended consequences means for visions of radical politics. Apart from the sustained attention to examples of experimental institutional design in democratic politics and economic practices, what is most interesting about Wright’s analysis is how he re-frames the temporality of radical change from these ‘rationalist’ premises – it leads him to reject strongly ‘ruptural’ images of social change, and focus more attention on ‘interstitial’, pre-figurative activities – hence the focus on ‘real utopias’. Not to everyone’s liking, I would suspect, but I find this a rather compelling type of analysis of how serious social theory can challenge the imaginations of political activism in genuinely critical and constructive ways.

Wright’s book is similar in one sense, at least, to Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the contemporary politics of human rights, The Last Utopia. Moyn probably has a different set of political affiliations to Wright, I would guess. But both focus in on the images of time that underwrite different imaginations of political change. They both locate transformative political action in institutional innovations which are far less than revolutionary too.

Moyn’s argument is that human rights is a very recent political discourse, from the 1970s and after, and not to be conflated with a continuity to ‘rights of man’ discourses. It is, more to the point, he argues, a discourse and movement that is resolutely post-utopian – which is informed by much of the same moral energy that informed previous ‘revolutionary’ models of politics but without the messianic belief. It’s an interesting argument, one informed by a strand of the same thinking about ‘the political’ that the post-political analysis comes from too, but with rather different political, and methodological, resonances – Moyn is a historian of ideas, translator and commentator on that strand of French theory about the political that includes Pierre Rosanvallon and Marcel Gauchet, and Pierre Clastres. In Moyn’s narrative, human rights as a contemporary movement is distinctive because it breaks the link between rights claims and state sovereignty – here is a sense throughout that this might qualify as a ‘post-political’ movement in a certain sense; but on the other hand, the emphasis is on this movement as rather effective organisationally, and not least in shaping global governance and legal regimes. After all, letter-writing might be just as effective a way of staking a claim to public space as protesting in a street or public park.

Moyn is also the editor of a new journal called Humanity, and has a blog too, both of which focus on this same set of issues – I guess the key difference between the ‘post-political’ analysis which sees depoliticization everywhere and this sort of work is the genealogical emphasis on the emergence of new forms of public action, not simply an ontologized lament for the decline of proper politics, understood in an entirely a priori fashion. Moyn has a piece in Dissent earlier this year in which he works through his own thesis about the newness of human rights with reference to the Arab Spring – which he sees as a version of an older, ‘rights-of-man’ style set of claims, shaped by claims for national citizenship and supposing sovereignty of the nation-state. It’s an interesting argument, not sure I wholly believe it, but it makes clear an aspect of the book more generally – the sense that it is the geographical framing of claims that distinguish the content of contemporary human rights discourses from previous discourses of universalism.

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