Since at least the 1990s, it might be said that Western liberalism has set the negation of politics as a primary objective. Perhaps a bit more precisely, it has seen the end of “the political” as the final outcome and greatest metric of its own success in a post-Soviet global order.
These rather triumphalist remarks of Tony Blair’s from 1998 – intended to lay out the principles of the Third Way political project – are emblematic of that zeitgeist:
“Human nature is cooperative as well as competitive, selfless as well as self-interested; and society could not function if it was otherwise. The grievous 20th century error of the fundamentalist left was the belief that the state could replace civil society and thereby advance freedom. The new right veers to the other extreme, advocating wholesale dismantling of core state activity in the cause of “freedom”. The truth is that freedom for the many requires strong government. A key challenge of progressive politics is to use the state as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organizations and encouraging their growth to tackle new needs, in partnership as appropriate. These are the values of the Third Way. Without them, we are adrift. But in giving them practical effect, a large measure of pragmatism is essential. As I say continually, what matters is what works to give effect to our values.”
Some readers will instantly detect certain rhetorical ticks – even if unfamiliar with the speech – thanks to the Blairite posturing having been so widely emulated: the synthesis of themes taken from the old right and left (competition and cooperation!); the fanatical commitment to “moderation”; the attempt to discard ideology entirely; the instrumental logic undergirding the whole thing (“what works“).
The specifics of Blair’s speech are not hugely important – I could have chosen innumerable other passages. But taken together its themes usefully illustrate the post-political, as I understand it, within the context of modern liberal capitalism.
That is: a political framework, both normative and conceptual, that sees politics as an enterprise of management and narrows its horizons accordingly. The “big questions” having been resolved, so the story goes, democracy is primarily about people selecting the best team of managers – representatives whose disputes, such as they are, will be limited to things like small tax cuts, minor subsidies to citizens or private enterprise, the adjustment of certain social benefits in response to global economic changes, etc. Adherents therefore practice what they take to be a politics without conflict or ideology where what matters is what works.
Readers of my work elsewhere will know that this particular contention of contemporary liberals – that they transcend the binary of left and right, even “politics” altogether – plays a big role in my general animus towards their project. For one thing, it’s impossible to be “without ideology” if by ideology we mean a way of understanding the world and having certain ideas about how it ought to be. I think there’s also a near irrefutable case to be made that this style of politics has contributed to widespread democratic disengagement and atrophy in countries like Britain and the United States, with huge sections of the electorates disengaging and political contests becoming increasingly low-stakes PR battles an ever smaller segment of the population pays attention to. In the face of right wing onslaught, it’s also proven totally impotent and inadequate – putting huge numbers of people at risk.
Post-political liberalism, as much as some op-ed writers would like to preserve it, does appear to be on notice.
It recently occurred to me, though, as someone whose expended so many words agitating against the post-political character of contemporary liberalism that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the category of post-politics itself.
In their own crude way, figures like Clinton and Blair had a dialectical view of history and human progress – not semantically unlike the Marxist one. The 1990s was, for them, the triumph of the last and best system by which our societies could organize themselves and, sincerely or not, they at least branded their project as a synthesis of left and right. Where the enterprise went fundamentally wrong was in thinking that social and ideological conflict could simply be ended by declaring it finished. Put another way, partisans of the Third Way were incorrect that the big questions had been put to rest (or were at least content to sublimate them, hail victory, and let the markets rip).
Instead of Clinton and Blair clones arguing over which taxes to cut, imagine a cooperative socialist society amicably debating how to best distribute abundant resources, how to cut necessary labour hours the most, or which galaxy to explore first.
Conflict remains and the fundamental interests of whole blocs of society are visibly at odds. Whatever the specifics or ideological contours of your analysis it seems impossible to look upon countries as structurally unequal as Britain and the United States (where the post-political Third Way was most fanatically embraced) and conclude anything else. Politics, of the kind which recognizes and embraces division, is the only potential avenue of escape or resolution here.
But supposing any of us survive to live in something resembling an equal society it’s likely we’ll see the return of the post-political, and in that case it should probably be welcomed. Instead of Clinton and Blair clones arguing over which taxes to cut, imagine a cooperative socialist society amicably debating how to best distribute abundant resources, how to cut necessary labour hours the most, or which galaxy to explore first. These debates would still be debates, but they would in some respects no longer be political – genuine, dispassionate differences of opinion about how to pursue a common objective rather than expressions of divergent interests between asymmetrical actors.
The point isn’t that conflict is desirable in politics – only that, in an unequal world riven with injustice, it is necessary.
One day, perhaps, it will be socialists who greet the post-political with open arms.
Image: “The Prologue and the Promise”, by Robert McCall. 1983.