Saturday, 13 March 2010

A response to 'Politics - why bother?'

Just wanted to put up a great response my friend emailed me to my post the other day on politics and apathy. Not so much an argument against but just a different perspective on it.


I agree completely that the use of language is vital, in fact I might go as far to say that it the most important thing. So, aware of the limitations of our tools, let me offer a slightly different angle on ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.

I see ‘politics’ as the process of power and decision making distribution. In this, I wouldn’t limit it to states or government but wherever agreement is sought, on a course of action or dispute resolution. People recognise this process inherently involves give and take – see the popular usage of the phrases ‘office politics’ and ‘family politics’ to mean the ways by which those structures reach consensus (however successfully). Note that politics doesn’t apply in a strict command structure, no accommodation is necessary between the views of army generals and privates. Politics is the ‘art of the possible’ of compromise and deal making.

‘The Political’ on the other hand is a conception or explanation of society and the ‘good life’, (something you alluded to in your summarising paragraph) whether it’s at a local, linguistic, level as you describe or in formulating and applying a systematic explanation and solution to the perceived woes of society. So, feminism is right to assert that ‘the personal is the political’, our societies vision of harmony is in the family as we define it.

You are spot on about American exceptionalism – the deification of the ‘founding fathers’ has built an axiom upon which all American discourse rests, ‘the political’ has been set and as you say interpretation is the game (at which FDR was the master in the framing of the four freedoms and claiming of the mantle ‘liberal’). Consider then, the counterexample a British society where the state and the distribution has come about entirely by ‘politics’. The evolution of the UK has been through power accommodating and compromising itself in the pursuit of its own maintenance – as inspiring as the Magna Carta is, it’s essentially a deal as later the mollification of burning class conflict would be. That is not to say that actors within British history were not political, but there are no set truths of the British political. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, post-war we were able to re-define national success from imperial glory to basic welfare.)

However, despite this, I think the causes of apathy in both countries (and indeed many others) have similarities, in the inability for the practioners of ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ to respect each other’s discipline. There is a conception of both forces as almost viral – able to infect and damage people and institutions. This is most clearly seen in the ritual disappointment of politicians who win support with a inspiring vision of society (‘the political’) but are forced to compromise, take symbolic positions. They’ve ‘caught’ politics. This can be observed clearly (and frequently) but the reverse is also true. Those who focus on more practical issues and outcomes resent the imposistion of doctrines, ideology and ‘the political’ as at best naivety or indeed as dangerous, blind to practical consequences. Its often expressed as the populist cry of ‘why can’t we/they just sort it out?’ meaning don’t take – infected – decisions to fit your system of beliefs. Constieunts feel equally alienated from a representative who is engaged in constant horse-trading and one who checks her bible or das kaptial before every vote.

With both ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ having been perjoritised important parts of public life are ‘taken out of politics’. The Supreme Court or the Bank of England montary policy committee take vitally important decisions supposedly devloved of all ‘politics’ and ‘political’ factors. Now I can see the obvious vast merit in both bodies, their decisions are respected by particpants (litigants or the market) because of their structure and have mostly been quite wise. But it is lunacy to pretend that these decsions actually took place quarentined from eitheir ‘politics’ or ‘the political’ – witness the court’s (admitadly occasional) acqiuenscene to public opinion or the backgrounds of BoE governers and Fed chairmen (Greenspan was famously close to Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand!). I raise this because, as Habermas would descirbe it, these decisions have now been ‘de-coupled’ from public interaction.

One way out of this ‘toxicfication’ trap is shown by President Obama whose campign was in many ways a ‘politcal’ defense of ‘politics’. He emphasised America’s unity and assert the value and importance of using ‘politics’, and democracy, to improve the ‘good life’. Naturally, we can see this didnt last long but all of society and culture has to be continually re-asserted and as activists we must promote not only our issues but politics as the field for them.


Some quick thoughts:
Only point I disagree with is politics as the 'art of the possible' in a restrictive sense; in so far as I think it implies politics or government as an essentially practical process. I think we should see parliamentary politics, for instance, as the arena where different ideologies or views of the 'good life' robustly exchange views and force one another to different positions. The trouble comes when there is no broad range of ideological views or one over-whelmingly dominates. Then politics becomes what I think you see in the UK today; largely managerial, where pragmatism is an ideology in itself. Pragmatism should be a position argued to, rather than one started from; this just serves the political status quo. We shouldn't see, I don't think, Obama as 'catching politics', but rather engaged in a struggle against other ideologies that have a significant advantage in American politics for lots of reasons, and that have watered down his proposals, have forced him to be 'pragmatic'.

His side needs more dogmatic advocacy, rather than defeatism from the left which sees politics as grubby, as Martin Kettle beautifully outlines here. This is where I think that FDR quote from the first post has most resonance: he wants to and we must make him etc.

Anyway, i've blabbered on for too long here. Really interesting response, any more would be greatly welcomed :-)