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.

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