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.

‘Learning in and through action’: thinking with Arendt now

Further to yesterday’s post about violence and non-violence in contemporary Theory, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl has posted some remarks on Arendt’s account of the difference between power and violence, originally made in an interesting context in Venezuela.

Theory in the streets

A feature of much of the instant commentary on political events from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya has been a focus on those aspects of these processes that can be grasped even if you don’t know much, if anything, about these places. This is partly what is going on around all the discussion of the role of new media in facilitating and translating contestation across the Middle East – this is the aspect of these events can is familiar even from a distance. Indeed, it’s the aspect that makes these events accessible in new ways, in certain respects, while occluding aspects that are not so amenable to being communicated through these mediums.

So, rather than focus on what is most comforting about these events – the degree to which they might confirm a certain predisposition amongst a digitally wired intellectual strata of the importance of being digitally wired, I wonder if there aren’t things about them that might unsettle received wisdom. I wonder in particular if they might unsettle at all any of the conventions of contemporary ‘Theory’? This might appear a rather obscure concern, but it’s been interesting me this week as the figure of Gene Sharp, political theorist of non-violence, has been profiled in a range of after-the-fact reflections on political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt in particular.  Sharp was mentioned in a New York Times article about these revolutions, and was then the subject of a follow-up profile. Interviews and blog notices about his influence  in shaping the non-violent strategies of protestors and with links to key publications have followed.

I particularly liked the blog posts which wondered aloud who Gene Sharp was, since he doesn’t seem to figure in a canon of contemporary political thinkers. In fact, Sharp is often a focus of attention when non-violent political action shakes more or less dictatorial, more or less authoritarian regimes around the world – he is credited with influencing non-violent political movement from Burma to Zimbabwe, Iran to Eastern Europe (there is an ultra-leftist riff on the blogosphere that Sharp is just an agent of the CIA, on the grounds that the events in which his influence is so often found tend to be supported also by the US government or US-based democracy promotion programmes).

What is interesting, theoretically, about Sharp’s analysis of non-violent political action, which informs the practical strategies picked up in such diverse contexts, is a conceptualization of power as being based on consent and obedience, not premised on violence. This might sound familiar – it is a Gramscian shibboleth to contrast coercion and consent after all. But in Sharp’s work, it is the basis of a pluralist understanding of the different ways in which power structures seek and secure consent – without reducing all of these to some fundamental substance in violence and coercion. It’s this difference between power and consent that underlies Sharp’s strategic understanding of the potential of non-violent action, which has clear resonances with Arendt’s account of concerted public action, as mobilising a fundamentally different register or mode of action than that of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The sense that power is not reducible to violence is also found in Arendt, even in Foucault. But its remarkably common in contemporary political theory and cultural theory alike to elide this difference, and to presume that in fact violence is the substratum of all power relations, or that apparent consent is really just the product of manipulation and manufacture – i.e., just a cover for coercion, which is not, one might suppose, what Gramsci was actually getting at. The failure to think through the political implications of the fact that consent has to be won is the focus of Michael Bérubé’s book The Left at War, and John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, great books which seriously think through the limitations of conventions of current theoretical genres in light of the spiralling politics of violence of the last decade.

The influence of Sharp’s work, and the examples of non-violent political action with which his name is often associated, is a powerful rebuke to the metaphorical over-inflation of ‘violence’ in so much contemporary theory, whether in notions such as ‘symbolic violence’, or the ontologization of violence that runs from Sorel through Fanon to Agamben. It also stands in contrast to the current excitement around The Coming Insurrection, the anarcho-communist text that has become central to the case of the Tarnac 9 (0r 10) in France since 2008, and garnered lots of attention, and a translation with Semiotext(e), as a startling new and original conceptualization of the ‘politics of neocommunism’, as one contribution to a renewed Marxism-beyond-class (what would be the point of Marxism without class?). Interpreted by the French authorities as a manual for terrorism, it’s also been described as ‘elitist revolutionary strutting‘ and identified as really just a symptom of the absurdities of a failed lineage of left theory. It’s certainly odd to find a text which identities a new subject of political revolution – ‘youth’ – but has recourse to such a resolutely middle-aged, crotchety analysis of generalised alienation. It is also notable, in contrast to the theory of non-violent political action currently being enacted in the world, how far this style of political analysis depends on drawing symmetries between the modes of action of ‘the powerful’ and those who challenge them – the theoretical significance of the rhetoric of war, attack, and confrontation in this document lies here, I think, in this moral and political failure to be able to think of politics outside of a logic of mimetic hostility. And of course, whereas Gene Sharp’s name keeps coming up when it is realised that non-violent political action is strategic and organised, the analysis of a communism-to-come that is a purely immanent resonance with the current system requires no attention at all to the hard work of political action.

Geographies of Labour

Becoming a parent is one of those occasions when one gets to see a lot of ‘the state’ – engaging with doctors, nurses, hospital administration; becoming a welfare recipient, through signing up for child benefit, or the now defunct child trust fund; visits from health visitors; registering a birth. Of all the professional people we have engaged with in this process, twice now, my heroes are the midwives. ‘We’ have had very different experiences of maternity care, first in Bristol, now in Swindon. In Bristol, with our first child in 2006, we were part of a progressive so-called ‘domino’ system of midwifery care, attached to a midwife-led maternity unit – this system is distinctive because the same midwives provide continuity of care through antenatal, intrapartum and postnatal stages. We were enrolled into this practice through one of our neighbours, at a summer street party actually, when she and one of her colleagues convinced us of the benefits of this approach, compared to the model in which community midwives provide antenatal and postnatal care, while different midwives are responsible for care while in hospital. The Bishopston midwife practice was, in fact, full of properly feminist midwives – Mary Stewart, our neighbour, was both a practicing midwife and a part-time PhD student at UWE at this time, and she is now an academic at Kings College London. I didn’t know this back then, but she is the editor of an important primer on feminist approaches to midwife care. I remember having a conversation with her, after the birth of our first child (she wasn’t actually the attending midwife at the birth), about her use of Judith Butler and qualitative methodologies in her PhD to understand midwives discourses about performing vaginal examinations during labour. The speed-reading I have done in this area, just by tracking Mary’s publications and where they lead, reveals an interesting and unexpectedly close relationship between high-falutin social theory – lots of Foucault in particular – and very practical concerns of how to enact, as they say, feminist principles of empowerment in contexts where midwives are mediating all sorts of imperatives, from surveillance of women, doing things to them, and sharing their experience and expertise with them.

One surprising thing about being part of this midwife practice was that we were quickly converted to the idea of having a home birth, which would previously have seemed like a bizarre thing to do. In the end, our first daughter wasn’t born at home, but the decision to start from a home birth as a first preference was an important aspect in ‘empowering’ and building confidence for my partner around the process of labour and giving birth. This second time round, in Swindon, things have been a little bit different. No domino system, and the Great Western Hospital in Swindon does not yet have a birth centre either (it opens later this year, and my partner couldn’t hold on). While not impossible to have a home birth, it was not in any way encouraged. Before Christmas, just as my partner started maternity leave, there was a rush of national news stories about funding cuts to midwife care and heightened risk to mothers in labour, and about ongoing controversies about the safety of home births. So we found ourselves in a context of renewed debates about medicalization of child-birth, and campaigns to protect maternity services in an age of ideologically-led austerity. But in the end, the birth of our second daughter involved two great midwives at the hospital, in and out in one day, and no sight of a doctor at all. And whereas we had planned to use a birth pool at home first time (I never even got to inflate it in the end), this second time ‘we’ did a have a water birth.

Two children in two different towns, both born in hospital but under different organizational arrangements. There is a large aspect of comparison to the practice of parenting – comparing one’s own conduct to peers and cohort groups, or to parents or sisters; and now, it turns out, comparing the second time to the first time. And then you remember there is something irreducibly singular about each birth, each child, each nappy. So I’m not going to generalize on the basis of our experience, not least because while in Bristol we got the ‘theory’ right, in Swindon we have had as nice, and in some respects even nicer, and as ‘empowering’ an experience despite being in a more classically ‘medicalized’ system. There is, of course, lots of serious social science about the geography of labour (though not really much in Geography), in at least two respects: the different arrangements available in different parts of the country; and at a different scale, but closely related to this, the differences between births planned at home, in midwifery units, or obstetric units. Our former neighbour Mary, since completing her PhD, has been working on a major Department of Health research programme, the Birthplace programme, looking at whether there are significant differences in outcomes for mothers depending on where births are planned. The results of the programme are due to be published later this year.