Local politics II: does politics only happen occasionally?

Kurt Ivesen, over at the Cities and Citizenship blog, posted a comment on my post about local politics in Swindon last week, which I have been thinking about for a week or so, busy with other things. I haven’t had many comments, so thanks, Kurt, you’ve made me think. But not change my mind…

Kurt raises a couple of substantive issues about different meanings of ‘the post-political’, and the use and mis-use of Ranciere on this topic:

“I think I would make a distinction between post-politics as a condition (i.e. “society these days is post-political”) and post-politics as a tendency or strategy. For me, the problem is when the concept is applied in the first way. And I think it can be kinda useful when applied in the second way.”

That seems fair enough, certainly arguments about post-political conditions seem dull and uninteresting and easily refuted empirically, and are unimaginative conceptually. But I’m still not convinced by the idea of post-politics in the second sense, especially not when informed by Ranciere’s style of political philosophizing. Kurt says that for Ranciere post-politics is “a characteristic of various attempts to put decisions beyond the realm of politics that we see going on around us all the time.” Now, of course, everything turns on what you think counts as politics in deciding whether certain strategies are moves within political games, or moves beyond them. I don’t really see why one should suppose that efforts by political actors (acting strategically to further their own interests and bolster those of their constituencies), to shape the terms of debates, to move issues and decisions out of fields of more-or-less deliberative, more-or-less participatory, more-or-less inclusive, more-or-less contestatatory forums should be thought of as a moving beyond politics, of post-politicization at all. It’s just one set of political strategies that might be pursued. The post-political diagnosis, in the second sense that Kurt endorses, seems still to depend on a rather narrow understanding of what politics is, or more precisely, what it should be – it’s an understanding of politics so narrow as to disallow the ‘political’ status of bargaining or deal-making, administrative rule-making, judicial decision-making, clientalism and patronage, the sorts of forms of ordinary graft and ‘corruption’ dubbed “political society” by Partha Chatterjee, the forms of strategic disorder discussed by Patrick Chabal in his account of African politics – none of these seem to accord with the criterion of the properly political as defined by Ranciere.

On Kurt’s reading, Ranciere might have inflected my little vignette about local politics in Swindon a little differently: “In the story above, sure, there might indeed be politics, and I agree that it would be wrong to characteriseSwindonas a ‘post-political town’. But it seems to me that there is a post-political tendency in the story too. Like when the wind-turbines are supported by both Tories and Labour alike because “there is no alternative” if we want to keep the plant competitive. Isn’t this an attempt to take the decision out of the realm of democratic decision-making and into the realm of economic necessity? And isn’t part of the movement against them a struggle to make the decision a political decision to be settled democratically, as opposed to a managerial one? As such, could some concept of ‘post-politics’ help in unpacking what is going on in Swindon and elsewhere?”

Actually, on reflection, prompted by Kurt’s questions, this seems to me a pre-eminently political story, all the way down. Above all, I see no reason to suppose that the efforts of political parties to frame issues in particular ways, to their advantage, and to define some interests as trumping others (i.e. the ‘general’ interests of the whole town in the success of Honda, somewhat differently understood no doubt by Tories and Labour; against the ‘narrow’ interests of local residents living close to the plant), is a sign of a move towards post-politics – it might be a sign of a reconfiguration of politics, but that’s a different sort of analysis entirely. That’s what political parties do, it’s what they are for, it’s what makes them political actors in the first place. And I’m not sure that the equally routine form of campaign by local residents against the wind turbines does really qualify as full-on dissensual action of the sort that Ranciere takes as the model of ‘democratic’ politics. An analysis that sees only post-politics or de-politicization in this sort of fairly ordinary example seems to me to be missing an awful lot of what makes politics political.

So, I remain unconvinced of the utility of this approach – it seems to turn on a conflation of politics with democracy, both rather narrowly defined, and rather weirdly defined too, by reference primarily to a generalised Kantian model of sublime experience (the last recourse for a whole host of French theorists of a certain generation and broadly shared political trajectory). If one thinks of the world divided between forces of order and disruption, constituted power and constituted power, or similar conceptual pairs, then I guess the seeming absence of dissensual disruption is always likely to look like hegemonic reproduction, the routines of ‘police’, the on-set of the post-political.

There is actually a shared spatial and temporal imagination across a set of currently fashionable theoretical approaches to ‘the political’, which might be usefully interrogated. For example, at what ‘scale’ is it assumed that ‘the sensible’ is partaged, so to speak? Are there local formations of the sensible; national ones? And likewise, over what temporal scale is dissensual-democratic-political action enacted – can it endure, be sustained over time, be institutionalised and maintain it’s status as dissensual-democratic-political action? Above all, is it possible to rule dissensually? Imagine that. Because, after all, democracy may or may not ‘mean equality’ (actually, doesn’t it imply equality, of a certain sort, which is not quite the same as ‘democracy means equality’). But it certainly seems to imply ruling and being ruled.

New Critical Inquiry website

Critical Inquiry has a shiny new website, including a Featured Authors section with archives of leading theorists old CI papers (current incumbents include Foucault, Spivak, Skip Gates and Stanley Cavell), and a set of essays on the Arab Spring. It also includes a link to a new blog, In the Moment.

Once upon a time, this is the journal I fantasized about getting published in – never happened, never even had the courage to try. Did get cited in it recently, surprisingly, which I now think is good enough, I can die happy with that.

Philip Pettit’s Republican Reflections on the 15-M Movement

A while back, I wondered out loud to myself about how the financial crisis and its impact in Spain might throw into new relief the involvement of Philip Pettit in advising and monitoring the Spanish government in implementing his principles of civic republicanism. ABC Democracy has a link to a new essay by Pettit himself reflecting on this very issue, in light of the demands for ‘real democracy now‘ articulated by the indignados of the 15-M movement. His piece revolves around the challenge of developing plausible accounts of alternative institutional design that move beyond the populist rhetoric of the magical collective power of the people.

Local Politics I: Take This Town

Two years into the Swindon stage of my life-long ethnography of the M4 corridor (eight years in Reading, eight in Bristol; where next?), and I’m growing fonder of the place. There is in fact, as my OU colleague Allan Cochrane reminded me before we moved here, a venerable tradition of urban studies research on Swindon – by Michael Harloe in the 1970s (a ‘town in transition’ then, an aspiring transition town now); subject of one of the ESRC Locality projects in the 1980s (Swindon really did have a proper ‘growth coalition’, once upon a time, apparently; and also an active Communist Party); and further work by Martin Boddy and others, who went so far as to suggest that Swindon might be the ‘city for the twenty-first century’. Not quite a ‘school’ like LA or Chicago’, not even the sustained history of case work that exists on places like Vancouver, or Columbus Ohio, or even Durban; in fact, Swindon is not even an ‘ordinary city’. It’s not a city. It’s a town. Very much so, a town.

It’s not a ‘post-political’ town, mind.

There is lots of politics here. And it’s not hidden, it’s quite open, and very much part of a vibrant little local public sphere.

One story rumbling through the local press (OK, the one local paper, the Swindon Advertiser, or ‘the Adver’) is about the plan for the Honda plant on the outskirts of town, one of the main employers and key to the economic success of the town over the last two decades, to build wind turbines on its site. This has aroused opposition from residents living close by to the plant. But the plan is supported both by the controlling Tory group on the Borough Council, and also by the opposition Labour group, on the grounds that it’s important to keep the Honda plant competitive (the Swindon plant lags behind other Honda plants on renewable energy targets, apparently).

None of this is necessarily is out of the ordinary (it fits with the image of local policy and political elites that emerges from those academic analyses of Swindon’s post-war development), it’s the sort of issue one can find all over the place (and it’s likely to become more common if and when proposed changes to planning regulations are introduced).

There is another story running alongside this one, which revolves around Honda’s relationships with UNITE, the union which represents some 1000 ‘associates’ at the plant. For some months, there has been noises about Honda seeking to de-recognise or minimize the influence of the Union at the plant.

The union story in particular has been very publicly sustained by reporting in the Adver, very sympathetic reporting one should say, that led in turn to a story with a slightly different inflection on BBC’s Points West yesterday.

As I say, none of this is terribly novel, although the juxtaposition of the wind turbines story and the union story is revealing of some of the ordinary political tensions that revolve around this kind of locally embedded link in a ‘global’ production system. I have been struck by the quality of the reporting on these sorts of issues in the local paper – which retains a much more obvious ‘civic’ orientation than I remember being the case with the equivalent daily papers in Bristol or Reading.

So, local politics, for local people only perhaps, but lots of it, and you don’t even have to look that hard to find it. No sign of the post-political, not here.

Agonistic pragmatism

News from the Political Theory blog  of a new book on democracy and pragmatism by Jack Knight and James Johnson, The Priority of Democracy.  It puts an emphasis on pragmatism as a tradition that focusses on issues of institutional design and experimentalism, but above all, places this focus within an understanding of politics as ineluctably about conflict and disagreement.

I’m drawn to the argument of the book because it sort of confirms the line of argument that I have tried to articulate in a paper co-written with Gary Bridge at Bristol, on agonistic pragmatism and the geographies of radical democracy. It’s taken us about four years to write, and it’s just now been accepted by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, which is nice. Our piece develops the same themes of experimentalism and institutional design in order to displace a stylized contrast between post-structuralist agonism and consensual deliberation that shapes debates about democratic theory in spatial disciplines like geography and urban planning – and we try to spell out a distinctive approach to spatial questions that follows from this agonistic understanding of pragmatism, via a reconstruction of the principle of ‘all affected interests’ and the concept of transactional space. I’m not sure when our paper will actually be out in public, sometime in the next year hopefully, but in the meantime, the Knight and Johnson book makes me think we might not be barking up entirely the wrong tree.

Libertarian paternalism: where’s the harm?

A newly published critique of behavioural economics by Gilles Saint-Paul looks interesting, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism. It seems interesting because it’s a ‘right-wing’ critique of the rise of paternalistic theories of policy informed by behavioural thinking in economics and other fields – ‘right-wing’ in so far as it is informed by a Hayekian conception of the inviolability of individual liberty and of limited government. Judging by the four-page intro that you can download from the publisher’s site, the main focus of the critique is on the ‘do-gooding’ that lies behind utilitarian approaches to government – the assumption that the state can make things better. There is some heady rhetoric in these four pages and the blurbs endorsing the book – behavioural economics and associated paternalist approaches might well be ‘dangerous’ “for those who believe in individual freedom and limited government”, in so far as they support intrusions into private decisions lives on the grounds of protecting people from themselves. All this is presented as a possible precursor to dictatorship: “If current trends continue, I foresee a gradual elimination of individual freedom as “social science” makes progress in documenting behavioral biases, measuring happiness, and evaluating the effects of coercive policies, while information technology provides ever more efficient tools of control to the government.”

Ho hum. But what does seem interesting is Saint-Paul’s identification of the sundering of the conception of a unitary self as the key challenge presented by behavioural approaches to neo-classical  assumptions that underwrite laissez-faire models of government, policy and state action. Despite the rhetoric, this does look like a serious engagement with the philosophical issues behind the proliferation of these approaches, coming from a particular perspective. And it should also interupt simple accounts that see soft paternalism and libertarian paternalism as just another moment in the rolling out of ‘neoliberalism’.

And one reason this perspective might be worth taking seriously is because of the uncomfortable convergence between this Hayekian critique, in the name of inviolable liberty, and the default anarcho-inflections that lie beneath a great deal of left suspicion of these approaches, not least those critiques informed by Foucault’s analytics of governmentality. These critiques sometimes seem to be caught in a bind of their own, between a libertarian reflex that is suspicious of the paternalistic bit in ‘libertarian paternalism’ and an inadequate conception of democracy as only ever about contestation, and which forgets the bit about ‘rule’. So this book looks like it might be worth engaging with, although it also makes me want to have the time to re-read Goodin on ‘permissable paternalism’ and Elster on adaptive preferences and models of the forum and various other things on the difference between thinking of democracy in terms of the aggregation of preferences and in terms of the collective, deliberative transformation of preferences (and it makes me want to know more about Sunstein’s trajectory from this latter sort of position to the libertarian paternalist position – and where the difference between them lies).