Politics of Nodes

The recent political scene of the West can be seen as the growth of fragmentation of nationality, social identity and the political collectivity. The most obvious events come to mind: Trump, Brexit, the Gilets Jaunes and other currents of populist fervour. However these events have greater lineages than is supposed in most media narratives. The tribalism present in modern politics and the ideological variation are built from blocks made during the fall of mass parties and the increasing relevance of policy automaticity and the growth of life politics. A politics of antagonism has built itself upon infrastructure of political disengagement and senses of consensus.

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The age of mass party participation interlinked various organisational facets under strong political rubrics. “During this ‘golden age’, the mass parties in western Europe strove to establish more or less closed political communities, sustained by reasonably homogeneous electoral constituencies, strong and often hierarchical organizational structures and a coherent sense of partisan political identity”[1]. The party was the locus for involvement and was striated through various movements and social projects. “These social collectivities were in their turn cemented by the existence of vibrant and effective social institutions, including trade unions, churches, social clubs and so on”[2]. These are projects of systematicity that integrate various nodes under one institutional and ideological framework. The mass party acts as the condensation of consensus amongst a culturally/socially variegated yet united demographic to organise against a perceived enemy. The Schmittian politics of antagonism, “predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities”[3], informs the demarcations between mass party organisations and their topographical instantiations. From economic and social forums to all manner of cultural issues, the mass party “sought to mobilize its own organizational resources, whether through its members or adherents, or through its own affiliated organizations, or through associated sponsors”[4].

The relation to meaning was one of collective identity informed through multiple mechanisms of involvement, from the social club to the workshop floor. However several interrelated processes have led to organisational decline. Deindustrialisation led to a decrease in community ties as the social institutions tagged onto factory workforce life declined. The institutional facets of the mass party lost touch as people found their ties unbound. Since the 1980s party membership rapidly declined, as did voter participation rates and the sense of loyalty one felt towards a particular political party. More interestingly, the interaction with politics became more ephemeral. There is growing volatility in identification with parties, and growing ambivalence toward politics generally. “There is greater uncertainty about whether any individual citizen will go to the polls, and, even if she votes, there is greater uncertainty about the preference she might reveal. In this sense, voting patterns have become less structured, more random, and hence also increasingly unpredictable and inconsistent. In France in 2007, for example, in the space of a brief eight-week period, there occurred a presidential election that registered a record high turnout of 84 per cent, and a legislative election that registered a record low turnout of 60 per cent”[5].

In these political developments politics itself becomes an external act, an afterthought of real-life divorced from deeper considerations. This drastic shift can be seen as the intersection of communal and systematic modes of life[6], where divorce has followed from the post-war attempt at integration. “There is a world of the parties, or a world of political leaders, that is separate from the world of the citizenry”[7].

This has produced a lockstep of changes as the institutional background of political involvement/engagement has radically changed. Processes of depoliticisation and automaticity in policy have shaped and been shaped by processes of deindustrialisation and socio-economic globalisation. Where in the post-war era, the economy was scaled along the lines of the nation-state and certain well-defined international institutions, the institutional fragmentation of globalisation means a wider competitive set of frameworks for the production and interpretation of sovereignty, law and policy. “What we have instead are numerous interlocking, sometimes-competing systems: governments, laws, corporations, the media, the professions, churches and religions, schools and universities, hospitals and transportation utilities”[8] that exist at arms-length from politics itself. Political parties in the modern landscape are also part of this fragmented, intra-competitive state organisation where the political elements of decisions are made internally. “First, party organizations, however defined, are now less well rooted within the wider society; and second, they are also now more strongly oriented towards government and the state. Thus, if we conceive of parties as standing somewhere between society and the state – the most obvious approach to understanding their role and location within a democratic polity – then we can suggest that they have shifted along the continuum from one to the other”[9].

In a world distinguishing between the citizenry and the elite, the economic conditions of extra-state bureaucratic control mean that politically, the decision-making of these institutions is considered automatic, removed from accountability. Where previously the integration of regulation and policy went through the chain of the mass party, from union halls to party meetings, the internal decision-making of bureaucracy was no longer challengeable from the base. When speaking of the EU, Mair states it is politically responsive “across its own institutions, to lobbyists, corporate interests, action groups, to individual citizens as well as other actors who gain voice through ‘self-representation’ in the courts and so on”[10]. This is increasingly the case in America as well, where lobbying groups, NGOs and bureaucratic organisations (both private and public) negotiate and delineate in competitive/collaborative arenas of political arbitrage. The American Legislative Exchange Council[11] can be seen as a conducive (and more extreme) phenomena for these kinds of policy forums, as different elements of governance (not politics) interact for decision-making processes. To think of it more simplistically, the people in this arena don’t exist. Individuals exist, and they exist in either organisational terms or as non-political entities to be regulated.

Thus we see the move from the politics of mass organisation to the politics of intra-competitive automaticity, where interests are reflexive and contingent, to be organised on certain planes and in certain nodes but never to be organisationally curtailed by political-ideological striations. Politics turns to governance, and governance is (at least meant to be) non-intrusive. It requires a basic following of the rules but doesn’t define where one stands, as that question falls into the non-political realms of life choices. Everything is ephemeral and liquid.

“While emancipatory politics is a politics of life chances, life politics is a politics of lifestyle. Life politics is the politics of a reflexively mobilised order — the system of late modernity — which, on an individual and collective level, has radically altered the existential parameters of social activity. It is a politics of self-actualisation in a reflexively ordered environment, where that reflexivity links self and body to systems of global scope … Life politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts, where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realisation influence global strategies”[12]. The above quote from Giddens is particularly prevalent, as its places the context of political modernity nicely. The post-political landscape here is shorn of enmity, denying the Schmittian practice of enemy-identification in favour of an explosion of desires and interests that curtail unitary forms, and instead prefer multiplication across formats. One’s influence on globalisation doesn’t come in the form of emancipation, but in the form of NGO involvement, of corporate social responsibility/philanthropy, and of brand loyalty and consumer preference. The communal form of politics as the integration of life under a collective roof falls through, as globalisation limits involvement and expands choice. But then where does the communal go?

It hasn’t disappeared, and its forced-to-be-underground nature has produced all manner of ills, from “dehumanizing, alienating, incomprehensible, senseless, meaningless, and utterly immoral”[13] pathologies to deep resentment toward the elites that have supposedly imposed these automatic mechanisms of power. Life politics has helped breed new enemies, and this is where the currents of populism can be (to an extent) placed. The politics of nodes incubated through extra-state bureaucracies, professional political parties, corporate HR departments and other fragmentary institutions has produced enmity that is beginning to boil over into electoral and policy decisions. When one has no clear sense of meaning or belonging, when one’s communal functions are replaced by the heterogeneity of interest, things begin to boil over, normally incoherently and contingently, thus ironically mirroring the nature of negotiatory, automatised governance.

Such can be seen in the values surveys taken around the 2012 US presidential election, where those identifying with either the Democrats or the Republicans as well as independent voters increasingly segmented into particularly value structures across various issues[14]. However while this suggests something of a return to the mass identification that defined politics in the post-war era, the actual issues that suggest partisan identity are incredibly varied and incoherent. Both partisan sides recognise an innate Americanism that projects greatness and strength. The sites of disagreement concern perspectives on social safety nets, environmentalism and secularism. Here then we can see the life politics of interests and individual positions infecting the collective political landscape, as parties turn into interest-factories for the reproduction of their increasingly splintered bases.

Similar polarities can be seen within 2017, where partisanship has increased with the election Trump and the issues that are polarising are increasingly related to value structures and the intersection of different competing entities in the wider polity. Thus “seven in ten (70%) Americans say that recent stories about women being sexually harassed and assaulted in the workplace are part of a broader pattern of how women are often treated, while about one-quarter (24%) say that they are isolated incidents” and “roughly eight in ten (79%) Republicans believe most reporters have a personal or political agenda, compared to only 31% of Democrats”[15]. Independents closely follow the trends seen amongst Democrats and Republicans as well, suggesting an increasing fragmentation in the value structures of Americans as all manner of intra-competitive/collaborative forces that I’ve mentioned above are caught in the crosswinds of electoral and personal judgments. The outcome of the 2018 elections, and the increasing distrust felt for institutions depending on one’s social background, appears to be ossifying these trends. Voters enter different nodes of political engagement depending on the values structures within the debate. Even amongst the more extreme supporters of Trump this phenomena is seen. Justin Murphy’s analysis of the citizens of Kekistan show an incredibly varied number of contexts and reasons for supporting Kekistani involvement and by extension supporting Trump and opposing political correctness. “What are the specific beliefs and interests that drive Kekistani Trumpism? The first answer is that free speech emerges as the top substantive issue that Kekistanis care about. The second answer is that there are many specific issues that only a small number of Kekistanis care about and they do not make a lot of sense”[16]. In this way political engagement is nodal, based on varying beliefs and values that evolve into a kind of ersatz life politics of interests and desires. One enters politics not as the vocation of mass collective action, but as the representation of reflexive value streams and structures.

Brexit too presents a similar political dichotomy that sits atop a variable stream of opinions and beliefs. The value structures that inform Leave and Remain supporters are completely different, with the former being influenced by thoughts of sovereignty, immigration and the nature of the nation-state while the latter prioritise the language of rights, economy and future stability/security[17]. Leave voters themselves held incoherent views regarding economics, generally believing in the current order of free trade regimes and market relations while being incredibly hostile toward the current cultural environment in the UK. “Polling data bares out this conclusion, as a significant proportion of leave voters backed economic perspectives and proposals that would seemingly be at odds with the idea of the leave vote being delivered by the ‘left behind’. In John Curtice’s polling work, where he asks people who voted in the EU referendum (irrespective of how they voted) there support or lack of on certain post-referendum issues, there is a clear support from all those polled on issues like free trade (90% support, 2% against), compliance with EU regulation (65% support, 15% against) and support for bank passporting (63% support, 6% against)” while “on wider issues such as social liberalism, multiculturalism, immigration and other facets of the modern world that are increasingly seen as the norm, the majority of leave voters polled view these things negatively as forces for ill”[18]. And like the American situation as the Obama regime ended and the Trump presidency began, the currents of Brexit have only served to entrench the polarisation and maintain the values-based fragmentation that informed the referendum result as evidenced here.

Finally, the Gilets Jaunes present a more overtly political development. Rather than being an event-based instantiation, the Gilets Jaunes are a loose collective of moments and protests that constitute something akin to a movement. They have even made lists of demands that range from “a constitutional cap on taxes – at 25%” to Frexit and the “immediate cessation of privatization”[19]. And like the previous examples of populism they too show an incoherence of demands and values, that range from politically expedient (i.e. cutting taxes, ending privatisation, banning plastic, etc.) to challenging other nodes in the state network (i.e. breaking up media monopolies, allowing for Frexit, guaranteeing citizen’s liberties and the cancellation of debts). The Gilets Jaunes themselves have been described as akin to medieval peasants. “When medieval peasants revolted, they did not think they would overturn the social order (as leftist ideologues spuriously claim in their ideological treatments of history). Instead, the peasants revolted to restore the natural order”[20]. To some extent this is true, as the demands hark back to the post-war bureaucracies of French life that ordered industry, trade unions and allowed the expression of livelihoods that industrialism produced. But in other ways, the Gilets Jaunes are not harking back to that time in any realistic sense. They are not and cannot be a mass collective party of various social institutions that follow a certain political tack. The demands they’ve already made are too varied and too similar to a Giddensian politics rather than something emancipatory e.g. these demands are not systematic and nor are their tactics. Rather what we can see is an attempt to build a communal mode of understanding one’s being on a background of postmodern value structures that encourage variability and reflexivity rather than any fixed point of identification.

The Gilets Jaunes, like those who voted for Trump and Brexit, are attempting to enter the networks of political reality (the intra-competitive networks of media, bureaucracy, corporate regulation, HR departments, etc.) that shape life and being through the same mechanisms i.e. through an interests/values based discourse that is non-fixed, ephemeral and contingent. It is the mixture of the communal with the postmodern. “There is an entropic-extropic process of de-massed institutions alongside increased complexity and movement, with hegemony breaking down in favour of a postmodern power structure of ‘potentia’, understood ‘as residing in individual beings, in their unfolding. Thus it is strictly ontological or what I would call (in the best sense) metaphysical as opposed to the physical’. Being in this sense isn’t defined by representation, but by ideas and concepts developed through different pathways and scales. Being becomes messy and multi-faceted”[21].

What these various populist instances show is that the developments of life politics as described by Giddens and others have not replaced the friend-enemy dichotomy Schmitt identified. Rather they have changed the nature of how one identifies and interacts with political enemies in the current landscape. The enemies of Trump voters, Brexit supporters and the Gilets Jaunes are not coherent masses of political activists, unions and social movements. They are the elite, the system or whatever you want to call it. They see (and quite rightly) a variable set of interlocking nodes (from media networking and corporate management to politicians, SPADs and think tankers) that mean policy and decision-making are removed from the typicality of the ballot box and into opaque networks of power. In engaging politically, they go through various value structures and beliefs sets that are contradictory and incoherent, pressing for demands amongst the nodes of the network while creating their own nodes of communication and ossification. If they are medieval peasants, they are the revolters trying to find their place in the flux of social change and postmodern topographies. Where this goes is anyone’s guess. As I explained in my previous essay Networked Tribalism, it could lead to further bordering and entrenchment of divisions as polarities collide and carve out their own institutional frameworks. Or something like Scott Alexander’s archipelagian structure[22] could emerge, where some kinds of centralised juridicality observes and regulates the various jurisdictions, maintaining order through clear bordering and the opening up of networks of political arbitrage. Or even differing levels of social violence and terrorism. Whatever happens, the increasing demands for social and cultural fixity will consistently clash with the barriers of the flexibility and liquidity of modern governance.

[1] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[2] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[3] Chantal Mouffe, On the Political

[4] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[5] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[6] https://meaningness.com/metablog/communal-vs-systematic-politics

[7] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[8] https://meaningness.com/metablog/communal-vs-systematic-politics

[9] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[10] Peter Mair, Ruling the Void

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Legislative_Exchange_Council

[12] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity

[13] https://meaningness.com/metablog/communal-vs-systematic-politics

[14] http://www.people-press.org/2012/06/04/partisan-polarization-surges-in-bush-obama-years/

[15] https://www.prri.org/research/american-values-survey-2017/

[16] https://jmrphy.net/blog/the-alt-right-is-not-all-right

[17] https://twitter.com/post_liberal/status/1089097439141916672

[18] https://thelibertarianideal.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/brexit-as-conjuncture.pdf

[19] https://www.sott.net/article/402396-What-do-the-protesters-in-France-want-Check-out-the-official-Yellow-Vest-manifesto

[20] https://medium.com/@TXHart/crisis-analysis-sancho-panza-rides-again-the-gilets-jaunes-as-rightist-revolt-b84817a98190

[21] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/nomads-and-the-esoteric/

[22] https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/06/07/archipelago-and-atomic-communitarianism/

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