Politics is the Undead

The position of politics, both in regards to everyday life and in its disposition as the primary focus of social science, is seemingly contestable and always shifting. Statements as banal as “everything is political” underlie the dearth of politics as anything more than a box for people to place different things within. Going into academic distinctions, we can see politics as encompassing this banality further. Mouffe sees politics as the production of grand visions within the Schmittian arena, where ideas lock horns to determine our wider systems of production and identity. However, the Habermasian position is more conceptual in seeing politics as spread across the system-lifeworld distinction, the former the seat of governmental and economic power while the latter is the production of the everyday, where micro-arenas of public and private debate intersect and integrate. In the realm of reality, such distinctions play out when seeing the contrast between new social movements as adhoc figures in overlapping structures of governance and decision-making. They don’t present grand visions, but instead look for pressure points within the system, exerting influence when they can.

This contrasts with a politics of mass, a grand vision that has a determination for every actor within its structures. New social movements can aggregate, but their tendency is to remain fragmented, keeping power where they have it and not spreading too thin. This life politics as described by Habermas and Beck doesn’t posit grand visions of mass, but instead intuitive understandings that interlink the system and lifeworld. And this is precisely the problem. Politics here is meaningless as it becomes synonymous with discussion or debate. Social movements in the era of the internet come and go as fads, growing and dying as different concerns pique different interests. The hope of a Habermasian micro-politics is thus dead, as movements can only influence and not truly create new structures. System continues to dominate the overt modes of production and the way our governmental structures are structured. Even in the most optimistic cases, social movements act more as partners in the bureucratic topology of government or subverting actors within particular corporate networks, usually promoting some kind of CSR.

However the position of massification and the development of grandiosity is itself a dead end. Despite the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and development of fully automated luxury communism on the left, and the election of Trump as a catalyst for the right, these movements are growing without a purpose. The rise of Momentum already has its own fragmentary elements as disagreements over political direction and purpose evolve from debate to antagonism. And the wider Labour Party has its own splits between its Blairites and its Corbynites. This is a whole party that doesn’t even hold power yet. Similarly, the election of Trump has hit the stumbling block of reality. Rather than a nationalist apogee, the American deep state and its full judicial and military arms have led Trump down a path of presidential normality (with added vulgarity). The only apogee has been the realisation that mass politics is a joke. Just look at Brexit[1]. These are just current examples. Peter Mair’s analysis of party politics and mass democratic engagement show a general trend throughout Western democracies[2]: political parties dry up and bleed membership, and partisan voting trends give way to minimal political engagement except a few months before elections. The grand vision, even with events like Brexit or Corbyn or whatever, is increasingly fragmented and disjointed.

In this respect politics isn’t dead but nor is it alive. It’s akin to Schrodinger’s cat, in a perpetual state of unknowing and ambiguity. Mass visions are indeterminate and fragmented, usually taking on characteristics of social movements and adhoc organisation. Going again to the rise of Corbyn, there are a multitude of groups within the Labour Party and within Momentum with their own agendas and beliefs. There is no doxic singularity even when placed under the same umbrella. Politics in this regard then is banal as groups aim at similarly stupid visions i.e. the attempt to centralise techonomic dynamics and tribal outbursts under one rubric. They can take the crude, pointless forms of Brexit or the election of Trump as attempts at reasserting a mass demos, or they can take the form of new social movements, moving in and through the cracks but going no further. Politics remains ambiguous, with the system behind it constantly overshadowing and controlling vast potentialities. For any vision to break free from this auspice, it must take the same ambiguous stance, looking to further exploit cracks rather than patch them up.

Kevin Carson’s concept of libertarian municipalism and modular production is defined by the principles of:

  • Protocol cooperativism: the underlying immaterial and algorithmic protocols are shared and open source, using copyfair principles (free sharing of knowledge, but commercialization conditioned by reciprocity)
  • Open cooperativism: the commons-based coops are distinguished from ‘collective capitalism’ by their commitment to creating and expanding common goods for the whole of society; in Platform coops it is the platforms themselves that are the commons, needed to enable and manage the exchanges that may be needed, while protecting it from capture by extractive netarchical platforms
  • Open and contributive accounting: fair distribution mechanisms that recognize all contributions
  • Open and shared supply chains for mutual coordination
  • Non-dominium forms of ownership(the means of production are held in common for the benefit of all participants in the eco-system[3].

These concepts are useful metaphors for a wider post-political vision. It is one that incorporates modular cooperation across platforms and jurisdictions. It allows for multiple bases of activity, decentring the production of values and the concentration on any particular doxa. A networked tribality of different groups setting up and creating their own visions and experiments. The idea of new social movements has some of this potential already, as they focus on patches in the system and don’t spread themselves across a range of activities. However this life politics is mostly focused on working within the system and fixing issues, as well as bringing voice to said system. But voice is nothing in the bureaucratic topology of modern governance. The fragmentary dynamics affect all, with bureaucracies becoming vast vats of human capital and data that has the potential to be set free, meaning their topology is increasingly broken and movable. Looking at UK bureaucracies like the welfare state and the NHS, the regular crises they face are combated by local action overlaid with provisioned resources. Winter crises in the NHS are solved more often by doctors, hospital governors and patients than by any politician or official in Whitehall[4] [5].

Moving beyond new social movements to post-network forms of organisation and the modularisation of societal structure, mass will surely be the enemy. In this regard, politics as the formation of mass is to be resisted by creating structures outside its auspice, in shadows and backrooms that allow for a general means of exit. Patching the modern system is the equivalent of treating brain cancer by banging one’s head against concrete, a complete waste of time. Things fragment and systems die. The ambiguity of modern politics as the surface of system means no matter how loud your voice or how important your cause, your attempting the impossible. It is better to move toward the exit door, looking not toward mass solutions or Habermasian life politics, but toward Bakhtinian speech as the discourse of experimentation and innovation, opening up bureaucratic topologies to a kind of protocol cooperativism. A syntax of exit is needed, that is heteroglossic and ambiguous toward the undead, those structures of politics that are banal and increasingly disturbed. Routing round will work better than routing through the mountain.

[1] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/12/31/the-brexit-lebenswelt-is-dead/

[2] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void, 2013

[3] Kevin Carson, Libertarian Municipalism, 2017

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-the-papers-42548687

[5] http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/winter-crisis-welsh-nhs-told-14113037

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