Difference and Politics

The everydayness of politics both brings forth issues of where the domain of politics sits and how such analyses overcome falling into banality as “everything as politics” devolves into inconsequential argumentation. Further, it raises questions of how one escapes or partialises themselves against battles for hegemony. A domain of politics has become increasingly fluid as issues surrounding art, ethics and identity become fodder for culture wars and key determinants for the production of new constituencies. Everything is a game of power in this sense.

Such is a consequence of the expansion of the liberal polity itself, as politics as the arena of the state and more fundamentally the cleavage of the community in defining the borders of a territory and national identity have become closed off. Heidegger defines politics through two key elements, the friend-enemy distinction as expounded by Schmitt and politics as the art of the possible[1]. The liberal polity has attempted to sublimate the friend-enemy distinction, instead seeing politics as a framework of negotiated agreement as in a marketplace or a courtroom. Concurrently this diminishes possibility as the possibilisation of political demands or the construction of alternative praxes of national identity and organisation are curtailed, boxed into professional networks and technocratic organisations that can enact negotiated settlements and preside over sectoral disputes.

“Today the political erupts in very different places and we are confronted with a paradoxical situation: ‘the political constellation of industrial society is becoming unpolitical, while what was unpolitical in industrialism is becoming political’. A series of new resistances have emerged which are grass roots-oriented, extra-parliamentary and no longer linked to classes or to political parties. Their demands concern issues which cannot be expressed through traditional political ideologies and they are not addressed to the political system: they take place in a variety of sub-systems”[2].

Hegemony is pushed into the extra-political arena of technocratic argumentation and geopolitical manoeuvres while political demands are caught within sub-politics as described by Mouffe. An economistic sectoralism emerges as demands remain at the level of “democratic demands”[3], limited to specific spheres that are encased within their own logics. Collective identities or multiplicities are superseded by networks that abstract and obfuscate political action and communication. Requirements of technical expertise or particular educational backgrounds become an increasing feature of this post-political landscape, as experts-in-theory are demanded to resolve social problems. Politics is then a set of constructed choices between differing models of society with similar core functions: a market economy, a limited-yet-strong state, a series of institutional and policy-making networks with associated think tanks and NGOS, and a communicative function funnelled through media organisations and a highly-regulated public sphere. A Habermasian tetralogy comprising economy, state, governance and civil society.

Yet the cloying nature of this tetralogy has produced backlashes against it, both using and subverting the sub-politics of a regimented public sphere to produce new organisational possibilities and meaningfully expand the friend-enemy distinction into networks of power themselves. The most obvious example is populism as a modality of politics. As a concept it has various guises, from Latin American populism (or Caudillismo) to right-wing populism. The rise in worker and farmer militancy across many Western countries (and preceding them in India and Sri Lanka) also suggests a new form of sectoral populism that focuses upon its immediate interests while also advocating wider strikes and acts of opposition against an array of institutional actors and elites. What all have in common is the re-instantiation of the friend-enemy distinction and the recognition of networks of power as a limiting factor of political action.

Laclau sees populism as politics tout court, the essence of the demand concatenating into political action that can overcome the stultifying administration of a bureaucratic technocracy. “What is crucial for the emergence of the ‘people’ as a new historical actor is that the unification of a plurality of demands in a new configuration is constitutive and not derivative”[4]. Through a plurality of demands new possibilities can be forged that (re)conceptualise a people as a unifying totem. Politics through populism is premised on the centrality of the demand as the functional part of distinction and possibilisation, the two elements of politics. This is done through the process of constructing equivalential chains out of particular demands, concatenating toward a partial whole that can then take on the project of hegemony against a designated enemy. Against the regimentation of politics into statecraft and microcosmic conflict, populism provides space for the emergence of a chain of demands that goes beyond their sublimation within an established framework of governance.

However, it also represents its totalisation and stultification. Populist reasoning shows a cyclicality, as it must either continually contain new demands producing infinite equivalential chains which must inherently dilute their content, becoming themselves abstractions which move beyond their capacity to be made, or make such chains restrictive in the types of demands compatible, thereby reducing the chain back down to a series of democratic demands. The difference inherent to the demand as an articulable problem in and of itself, something not simply amenable to established political action but something outside the frame of the politically conceivable (the Overton window), is brought back into the conceivable through the equivalential chain.

“A demand which is met does not remain isolated; it is inscribed in an institutional/differential totality. So we have two ways of constructing the social: either through the assertion of a particularity – in our case, a particularity of demands – whose only links to other particularities are of a differential nature (as we have seen: no positive terms, only differences); or through a partial surrender of particularity, stressing what all particularities have, equivalentially, in common. The second mode of construction of the social involves, as we know, the drawing of an antagonistic frontier; the first does not. I have called the first mode of constructing the social logic of difference, and the second, logic of equivalence”[5].

This isn’t a simple case of sublimation of difference by equivalence though. Rather, both sit in dynamic tension with each other as the production and addition of demands alters the discursive system of articulation. In other words, there is a constant conflict between forces of abstraction and forces of concreteness as demands are the implementation of real political forces/interests while their concatenation is an abstraction of these demands into unifying concepts.

The chain itself is homonymous, both demonstrating the extension of demands into the equivalential field but also becoming chained up, totalising the political into the abstract. If administration is the field of abstraction, the removal of politics from the polis and into the technic, the production within the equivalential field as chains grow longer and longer and demands are removed from their concrete or contingent origin inheres a vesica piscis between the fields. Demands abstracted become the formative position for new administrative formalities which produce further abstractions (of the people and their demands). The chain falls back into the realm of policymaking and demands once again become individuated and transparent to administration. Populism presents a Janus-faced character, going to the limits of the political while also falling back into its administrative modes.

Populism in its concrete representations demonstrates this Janus-faced nature. Latin American populism or right-wing populism in Trump or Orbán show the expunging of established politics and the concatenation of demands into an overarching chain bound with a meta-syllabic marker (nationality, sovereignty, dislocation) that can transform and/or conflict with administrative order. Trump’s “drain the swamp” or Chavez’s fight against Venezuelan media present the mechanism for this conflict: a new politics vs. an old administrative apparatus. Tired elites versus the people. However, as the new politics develops and produces its own administrative fetters, it also produces its own elites and corruptions. The Obrecht scandals in various left-wing Latin American governments[6]. The Trump Organisation’s tax affairs. Orbán’s distribution of favours and land to political allies[7]. As new demands grow within the new politics, chains can become closed off and existing ones are abstracted into almost ethereal conflicts (against economic imperialism or the deep state, both difficult to define but clearly existent) which shutdown popular opposition. The crackdowns on protests by Ortega in Nicaragua or Maduro in Venezuela show the limit of populism and the requirement for consistent renewal and engagement with the people on a concrete level. If populism is politics tout court, then it shows the cyclical nature of fields of abstraction and equivalence and the limiting factor of politics itself: the destruction of individuation in the goal of totalisation.

Thus if populism is politics tout court, then a concomitant politics of difference or of autonomy is required to limit the abstractions and corruptions of populism, maintaining the friend-enemy distinction without quashing the potentiality of politics within a massed people that limit or militate against political possibilities. Heidegger sees the political being within the will. “Will aims at a goal. But the one who is striving wilfully does not recognise and grasp this goal blindly and on its own; rather – and this is essential – it is seen in connection and in combination with the ways and means”[8]. It this unifying will, analogous to the equivalential chain, which encompasses politics. In this we see the Heideggerian theory of the state as the essence of the political, where the domain of the people sits in cooperation with the leader. The demand, where it exists, is surrounded by the state and its people, thus submerging it within the populist abstraction.

The demand sits before truth. Truth itself is an affirmation of power, the capacity to decide between demands and form a corpus of legitimacy. The demand is itself tension between interacting subjects but also within the subject too. In the Hobbesian state of nature, political origination doesn’t emerge with the first sovereign coupling but with the demand as an intersecting element that brings forth action from the milieu and that sits between individuals. The ways and means that Heidegger prioritises as secondary to the will, as its organisational element, are the foundational aspects of politics itself. In a politics of difference the essence of a political being is subverted by a univocal being, “a plastic, anarchic and nomadic principle, contemporaneous with the process of individuation, no less capable of dissolving and destroying individuals than of constituting them temporarily; intrinsic modalities of being, passing from one ‘individual’ to another, circulating and communicating underneath matters and forms”[9]. This goes from the state to the multiplicity as the organisational locus of political demands, and moves beyond a simplistic individualism or sectoralism toward essences of power and will themselves which are both constructable and de-constructable in their machinations.

This inverts what Heidegger describes as the origination of the state and the formation of the leader, taking politics beyond its limit if we are to see methods of exit from totalities which preserve lifeways and maintain the essence of demands themselves without their dilution in chains. Populism as a dynamic is a necessary component of any politics as the equivalential chain takes it to the limit, beyond the ordained or codified, allowing for alternative groups to seize power and distribute resources according to new logics. However, to go beyond stultification we must go beyond populism into the differential nature of the demand itself and into the origination of the categories of politics – state, people, polis, etc. This means not just inverting Heidegger’s historiography of the state but also Laclau’s framework of populism, seeing the demand as the infinite problem in-itself rather than the consequence of a pre-existing political field. The demand is the origination, the communicable variable that puts actions upon others, producing conflict and cooperation. It is outside the state or the administration as such, informing them but also deforming them as demands go beyond sovereign capacities. The demand then is the plane through which the friend-enemy distinction becomes codified but also through which it becomes violently transmogrified as enemies become indistinct, contingent and multiplicitous.

This also then raises the question whether the agonistic politics described by Mouffe is an adequate basis for the plane of demands, or whether it leads to the ossification and abstraction of the demand and thus de-individuates and massifies the people as a codified unit, easily swayed by an elite. “A democratic society requires a debate about possible alternatives and it must provide political forms of collective identification around clearly differentiated democratic positions. Consensus is no doubt necessary, but it must be accompanied by dissent. Consensus is needed on the institutions constitutive of democracy and on the ‘ethico-political’ values informing the political association – liberty and equality for all – but there will always be disagreement concerning their meaning and the way they should be implemented”[10]. However this very institutional consensus provides an opening for technocracy to re-enter the political arena, becoming part of the constitutive mechanisms. The very question of democracy and of the political domain must remain open otherwise massification and the entrenchment of totalisation become second-nature to an agonistic system as much as they are to a liberal one.

Agonistic politics is a structure for the containment of violence and the prominence of the demand as a representation of the popular will (and the contestation of wills thereby). However, it also inverts this in using violence to constrain the excess of the demand, routing it into particular conclusions which partialise and perforate it. The agonism here is doubled over, both affirming the demand while also dislodging its intension as an expression of particular will via its extension into a general will. Politics in this framework is both included and occluded as the structural terms always control the background.

Instead the agon should be conceived as one of exit and autonomy, of the production of difference and the possibility for new institutions to emerge outside of a mass framework of conformity. An “agonistic struggle being between different spheres, alongside an internal one”[11] goes beyond an institutional settlement into the very grounds, the ways and means of organisational loci and the demand as foundation of politics. The univocal being, that of a nomadic politics of drift that sits between and within the concepts of people and state is an unsettling one, dislodging accepted methods and opening up truths to criticism. This politics of difference is one of separation and autonomy, that neither escapes politics nor transcends but rather undermines and ungrounds institutional configurations, pushing forward both populist sentiments but beyond that singular demands outside established collective frameworks that complexify and overdetermine state and governance themselves.

A politics of the groundless, of the unmoored that represents pure difference. This isn’t a rugged individualism a la libertarianism (where individualism dies in the quantification of the marketplace) but a de-institutionalisation away from the centre toward the frontier. The excess of populism is entirely the popular exit from political institutions and onto the canvas itself – the creative capacity for forging new lifeworlds and extending the potentiality of the will itself. Politics here is both undermined and undergirded in that the demand is constituted across a multiplicity (of structures, forms and fragments of identity) rather than inscribed in a chain. This is a revolutionary populism in that it goes from the exegetical to the differentiating, forging lines of force that complexify and overwrite established vehicles of identitarian and political representation. This isn’t exit in a pure utopic sense but a line of critical and violent autonomy forged constantly through the conflicts of will.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Nature, History, State: 1933-1934

[2] Chantal Mouffe, On the Political

[3] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason

[4] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason

[5] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason

[6] Will Grant, Populista: The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman

[7] https://www.academia.edu/35905650/The_name_of_the_game_The_Regime_of_National_Collaboration

[8] Martin Heidegger, Nature, History, State: 1933-1934

[9] Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition

[10] Chantal Mouffe, On the Political

[11] Hugo Drochon, Nietzsche’s Great Politics

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