The realities and codes of modern politics as a series of negotiations and compromises between political actors over distributional, international and regulatory affairs are giving way to something more viscous and difficult to map. The codifications of politics as a delineation of ideological variation between competing but generally set groups whose ideas were known through manifestos and negotiated through shared axioms are now being de-codified as situations are becoming more and more complex, eating away at these institutional capacities to cope. The axioms that were before set in place through loose constitutional frameworks and arenas for debate (parliaments, congresses and ballot boxes) are now becoming battlegrounds and fissures where difference gives way to disconnection and insularity, and where the totality of politics that was previously found in negotiated strategies is now found in singular issues and neo-tribal forms.
Of course much of this narrative of the politics of compromise was all so much guff, as while these did dominate for long periods in the post-war era, the internecine forces and elements that we are seeing form into their own axiomatic visions always existed beneath the narrative. It was the fact that institutions were capable enough with handling this complexity that things didn’t get out of hand, thus integrating social movements and insurrectionary forces into the wider structure. However, as socio-economic modalities grew institutions failed to keep up. Methods of meaning-making and the gatekeeping of knowledge through educational and media institutions have given way to the vast streams of information the internet provides. Economic institutions have given way to regulatory dispersion and self-regulation through the firm/corporation. Cultural institutions for solidarity have given way to multicultural doctrines and a diminution of common bases of understanding. These rises in complexity have not had concurrent institutional evolution, thus giving way to breakdown and fragmentation. The picture of a chess game presents a useful metaphor. Chess is defined by rules or axioms, yet the picture shows two knights confronting each other in a completely unrealistic scenario unless considering it outside the rules of chess. Political breakdown of the kind I talk about is similar. It is confrontation within arenas, where the rules that unified those arenas are no longer applicable. The rules are now part of the divisions themselves and thus no longer represent a structured, binding worldview. Axioms are being liquefied and institutions don’t have an answer to it.
This is the breakdown of the socius into constituent elements that compete conflictually, dividing what is left rather than developing shared projects. The roots of this can be seen in the increasing dissociation of the economy from political and cultural/social concerns, as firms are treated as purely profit-making entities and the economy has been stratified through statistics (GDP, inflation rates and other flawed measures) which fail to capture other societal concerns, such as national interests and collective frameworks for decision-making. This flowed alongside the breakdown of the political party as a collective entity, and the international gaze that came with globalisation and neoliberalism. Innovation and growth at all costs, even if that meant community destruction and significant inequality between capital cities and their surrounding regions.
Historically speaking this breakdown into political and economic fissures can be seen as a long wave developing since the Second World War. “With the advent of universal suffrage from around the 1900s, the earlier ‘parties of notables’ were supplanted by mass-membership organizations with strong, hierarchical structures, unifying voters on the basis of shared social experiences and collective hopes for what the party would achieve in government”. This was evident in modes of production too, where coherent classes negotiated strategies for the distribution of productive gains. From the 1980s, these cohered dynamics began to dissipate as production and manufacture became globalised, and with it the political communities that represented the bases of these parties were stripped of cultural and social unity. From there, politics evolved into “‘government by cartel’, characterized by the elimination of effective opposition”. There is a move here from the negotiations of antagonisms toward the sublimation of antagonisms to different axiomatic understandings that prise economic management above other concerns. There is a “‘hollowing out’ of democratic party government [due] to cumulative changes in the constraints and opportunities parties confront in the realms between which they have traditionally mediated: their social bases, on the one hand, and the pay-off matrices of the political arena, on the other. These involve two general trends: individualization and globalization”. It is a move from a Keynesian growth regime to a Hayekian one, and by extension the move from a politics of class represented through layered institutions situated within parties to a politics of de-collectivised individuals who are endowed with rights to market entry and participation. The issues surrounding the linking of wages to productive gains, as well as the growing intransigence of both trade unions and management, created a playing field where escape through globalisation was viewed as the rational thing to do, particularly in situations where high inflation and stagflation were present. By finding cheaper labour markets and production facilities, and combining these with innovations in logistical capacities, this problem was overcome at the expense of management-labour relations and the severing of communal ties between businesses and their workforce. Thus here coherence was decreased and the separation of culture from economics was inhered.
This trajectory has only been furthered by neoliberal currents that have maintained a separation of wages from productivity, and led to the financial turn in most Western economies where stock markets and services predominate. In this environment, political machinations have focused upon the individual subject as an element within a management hierarchy, to be trained into an entrepreneur of the self. In cultural terms this has meant a turn to life politics as sets of individual desires and drives that are to be encouraged irrelevant of other constraints. The professionalisation of business management has bled into political narratives that aim at self-improvement. “In the order that seems to be emerging, social bonds are construed as a matter of taste and choice rather than of obligation, making communities appear as voluntary associations from which one can resign if they require excessive self-denial, rather than as ‘communities of fate’ with which one either rises or goes under”. Here agency is prised over structure. This has found its way through the concept of the manifesto in modern politics. While before political parties cohered semi-totalising discourses and ideals that were strained amongst its many institutional substrates and mechanisms, which were negotiated within parliament and then decided upon in general elections, the modern professionalisation of politics as cartels, where party-in-government takes precedence over a party as a set of ideologically similar constituents, has led to the situation where the manifesto itself is the primary thing between it, its stakeholders and the general electorate.
Manifestos in cartel politics are codifications of negotiation that are removed from ideological lines. The modern political manifesto in this case is not a set of demands aiming toward a national interest, but more akin to a fully-written out contract between negotiating parties. It acts as a totality of agreement that one must sign up to by ticking a box on a ballot. It is thus representative of the political party and the groups behind it, being a connective totality that binds us all in a faux legitimacy, removed from the didactic process of debate within constituent structures. The manifesto is thus the totem pole for modern liberal democratic politics.
However, modern turns in our neoliberal era are decreasing the functionality of politics through the ballot box and increasing the distrust of politicians alongside businesses and the media, suggesting manifestos as contractual guarantees are hollowed out. In particular the narratives of Brexit lay this bare, where manifesto commitments regarding leaving the EU have been reneged upon according to supporters, and where parliament itself represents a varied set of interests that appear at odds with the strong cultural feelings that informed the reasoning for exiting the EU. Parliamentary chaos has been incurred as we see with the Brexit debate devolving into a series of wildly divergent plans all of which represent subsections of the society to varying degrees. Manifestos as clear-cut contracts have fallen to sets of demands, with these demands being not just binding but ritualistically closed. Remain tribes versus Brexit tribes. The totality of collectivity is giving way to the axiom as the political locus, particularly as individuation prises ephemeral commitments over lasting obligations and bonds. Brexit means Brexit has given way to Brexit means this and this alone. Similar dynamics are present in most electoral systems in the world. The Arab Spring showed this axiomatic mess when Islamists fought liberals, and the security state fought both. Trump and Bolsanaro, as well as Maduro, are also elements of this very dynamic, where the state as represented by a governor or president is at odds with an elite or establishment, amorphous concepts that degenerate into battlegrounds for control of the discourses surrounding politics.
This breakdown in politics has led to nodes in networks that contain a substratum of tribes and political/media ecologies that insulate narratives and proffer simplistic solutions to complex issues such as leaving with no deal or holding a second referendum for Brexit, or building walls and fences to stop immigration. Narratives here have liquefied as issues become singular and one-dimensional. Totalities of manifestos have given way to totalities of singularity on multiplicitous issues. Thus the historical trajectory of party politics dis-cohering itself has fallen into modes of individualism that are the result of this dissociation between economy and culture. Systems of identity construction have been focused inwards, within the inside of the system, becoming legible to neoliberal logics of individuation, competition along multiple metrics and the focus on singular issues within life politics. The manifesto as representative of this drift devolved from a set of ideological contiguities onto a series of contractual bargains within cartelised parties where axioms of agreement were structured beforehand, to our current system of axiomatic fragmentation where demands and individualised, singular issues prevail. Concepts like freedom of speech, freedom of association and other axiomatic markers that define liberal constitutional polities are now becoming part of this wider fragmentation.
The strategies for negotiation have evolved from intra-party negotiation and presentation in elections to fragmented forms of constitutional and agonistic negotiations, where axioms and principles fight out on multiple terrains. Thus issues become a matter of anti vs pro. Where constitutional negotiation breaks down, insularity in accepted narratives and the increasing prevalence of contradictory codes for multiple political situations leads to divergence and conflict through riot and contagion, as narratives bleed out into the media-sphere. Media trust is circumvented and the feeling of politics becomes a matter of not just personal opinion, but direct axiomatic opposition. Liberal vs. conservative or left vs. right take on wholly disjunctured meanings, defining themselves by what they oppose. In centrist initiatives, similar affects are unfolding where the Independent Group in the UK has defined itself in opposition to these very narratives, proffering not a negotiatory strategy of compromise but a totalising vision of a world that existed really only a few years before the 2008 financial crisis. They too have fallen into this axiomatic and historically prefigurative mould.
The idiom that society doesn’t exist has to a quite large extent come true, as nations become capital-centric and individualistic, and the dividing lines of politics thereby take on a multiplicitous character. Economic and political layers compete for resources that are more and more scant. Political divisions that are meant to give way to a founding of the national interest instead internalise into smaller units (the individual, the firm and other entities) maintaining the divisions across axiomatic lines, such as liberal vs. conservative, cosmopolitan vs. parochial, rural vs. urban or open vs. closed. The gaps are becoming unbridgeable with there being little evidence politicians, commentators or activists wanting to calm them, rather fanning the fire themselves. And this has spread into multiple institutions, to universities and businesses with their focus on driving human capital through campaigns that promote a cosmopolitan outlook, and to political parties that cleave to narrow perspectives and single issues. The dividing lines of left vs. right and the political layers that made up the national interest and defined political exigencies suggested a level of conflictual relativity i.e. “lasting organizations go from two opposing poles to triangles. this triangle is stable, and more stable than dipole, because each vertex checks the others. armies can crush merchants and churches. but merchants can defund armies and churches. yet churches can play mind games with merchants and armies”.
However the fragmentation of these poles into separate units due to the fractionalisation of the socius (i.e. politics separating from culture as the former focuses on life politics and economic performance targets) suggests an innate imbalance. The wider polarities of politics, culture and economy have skewed wildly toward economic concerns since the neoliberal turn, with the perspective that cultural questions are increasingly subsumed to economic ones and that economic questions themselves are separately treated as non-political matters for policy-makers in committees and bureaucracies to decide. Thus distrust in all facets, from firms to politicians to our modern cultural influencers. And again Brexit is indicative of this polarisation amongst the polarities, as the vote for Brexit was largely decided on cultural or nationalistic grounds, while the ongoing political debate is intensely focused on the minutiae of economic concerns and plans. These gaps seem increasingly unbridgeable considering the institutional landscape which cannot cohere the multiplicitous interests of individuated politics into a national or societal direction. There is the need for new maps to understand these axiomatic divides.
As breakdown of the human security system continues in venues of governance and logistics, this deconstruction into the building blocks of the structure seems to only be ramping up as fundamental questions regarding our production systems and how we define ourselves are caught in the battlegrounds of axioms and totalities that increasingly fragment such question into multiplicities that cohere around radically different lifeworlds. Identity construction becomes insular and skepticism of outside systems grows to conspiratorial levels. Think Russia-Trump scandals and Brexit protests x10. This is further exacerbated by the lack of exit mechanisms in the modern political sphere. With political parties attempting to totalise their reach first through connective tissue in the wider social sphere, and then with the development of manifestos that followed the professionalisation of politics, exit as a force was diminished significantly. Historically the peasant had the city to exit to. The farmer the frontier. And the warrior the mountain regions. Extra-state formations were regular exit mechanisms to let the heat out. However the striations of state surveillance and its implicit totality of control through technological infrastructure mean these exit mechanisms are limited. Industrialism has removed the frontier, the forest and the mountains as areas for exit or escape. Where once axiomatic divisions could be solved to limited extents by removing oneself from the situation and finding somewhere more commensurable, the delineations of power are such that exit in this sense is now found in the internet, where communities of fate and groups of ideological puritans can commune and further increase the insularity and extremity that feed this problem. The other exits available have been the simple act of not voting, thereby removing voice and loyalty, yet still being caught in the system’s vicissitudes. In building new institutions that cohere interests in non-antagonistic ways, the ability to exit meaningfully i.e. through sub-variations in the master mechanism may well be required to prevent the divisions from boiling over. But until such time, the fractals will remain and continue to fight along the battlegrounds of axioms, forming further totalising visions that collapse in chaos.
These disintegrative modalities seem to be speeding up rather than slowing down, as the unnatural naturalness of an international liberal order gives way to different modes of state-making and societalisation due to collapse and strategic positioning that allows certain groups to ride the waves of contingent breakdown. The dissociative complex of competing layers of governance makes this all the more tragic, as the need for world-building in the face of existential risk and the failures of current institutional modes is ever-more important. Possibly in mapping these axiomatic divides and thereby beginning to create a topography of institutional understanding we’ll see more nomadic structures inculcate between what can now be described as tribal groups, allowing for exchange outside connective forms that necessitate senses of shared community and fellow-feeling. However the “cold tribalism” of the business that Breitling notes doesn’t appear wholly stable either, as businesses themselves are caught in these battlegrounds of legitimacy. The drive to make businesses adopt an ethos or mission statement is indicative of this.
What is obvious is that these gaps are not being bridged, and the proposals that suggest they can be rely on outdated understandings of class division and the socio-economic sphere. Things like basic income and tax reform rely on an increasingly economistic understanding of identity construction. One that believes by providing people money, they drive themselves to find purpose outside the structures they previously inhabited. And of course it must be recognised that the politics of compromise are historical encapsulations that were shaped by two world wars. Internecine conflict and axiomatic divisions based on class, race and power are the norm, while compromise, pragmatism and negotiation in the aid of a national or societal interest that binds its constituent parts is the anomaly. The increases in social and cultural complexity that are driving these trends will only continue and the institutional structures that attempt to codify and emplace will constantly fail until new forms are found that can actually understand the flows of these complexities. These new forms will require an understanding of the political/ideological dividing lines, as well as mediatory entities that map where the axioms meet. In particular nomadic institutions may be required as the structured (yet separate) polarities of modern politics that make up the dissolute socius give way to unstructured disparities of identity and meaning. Political identity in instances like this means something more fractal, as individuals and collectives respond to politics not through totalising manifestos but through singular demands on particular issues. This exponentially increases the friend-enemy dichotomy, as enemies become multiplicitous. Thus mediation and arenas based on a non-cohered set of institutions are required for reasons of simple necessity as there will be a need to work together in some manner.
Social and cultural complexities will not decrease, with the further dissociation of culture from state and economy suggesting these modes will be amplified in their antagonisms. The shockwaves the liberal order is currently seeing will only ramp up as systemic issues of inequality, national identity and meaning-making are either not dealt with, or dealt with through particular axiomatic fields i.e. economistically or through a business ontology. What is evident is a need to map the divisions and begin to develop institutional forms that can deal with this complexity of organisation and axiomatic antagonism in a coherent manner. Whether those develop is an unfortunately ambiguous question.
4 thoughts on “Battlegrounds of Axioms and Totalities”
OK, just Wow!
Great description of what’s been happening to the socio-political landscape, and some hints at where we need to be heading to handle this
I’d love to hear more from you about how you think future political infrastructures need to be organized.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ve just written a new essay that explores future political infrastructures if you’re interested.
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