Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Politics, our missing link

A movement without an electoral intervention is doomed to lose out, argues Mike Marqusee

September 17, 2012
7 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


  share     tweet  

We get the word ‘politics’ from ancient Greece, where polis was used to describe the city‑states that emerged in the sixth century BC. The polis was more than a community or concentration of individuals. It was a self-conscious unit of self‑administration (independent of empires) and from the start was made up of separate, contending social classes.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood explains in her revelatory studies of classical antiquity, Athenian democracy was itself the product of a class struggle and a class compromise, involving aristocrats, on the one hand, and, on the other, artisans and small-holding peasants, who became ‘free citizens’, sharply differentiated from slaves. It was in the context of Athenian democracy that politics emerged as a distinct activity, one concerned with the affairs of the polis, considered as an entity separate from (and superior to) family or clan. Crucially, the polis was contrasted with the more limited and subordinate oikos, household, the private realm of ‘economy’.

Today we’re told that the law of the oikos is dominant, and the polis must yield. Only of course the oikos is no longer the individual household – to which it is deceptively likened – but the imperatives of global capital.

In present-day Greece, we’re witnessing a dramatic clash between polis and oikos – democracy and capital. Here as elsewhere the latter prevails to the extent that it succeeds in making its laws appear implacable, the alternatives mere wishful thinking. Yet the roots of the crisis lie precisely in the non-political autonomy of the economic, in deregulated finance’s detachment from production.

Under neoliberalism, the political realm has been squeezed. Globalisation and privatisation have removed much of the life of the polis from democratic control. Since the fundamental choices have already been made elsewhere, and systemic alternatives are excluded, politics itself becomes depoliticised, a matter of management and expertise, not of ideology or mass constituencies. As the neoliberal consensus was imbibed by the parties of the centre left, politics increasingly became ‘politicking’: the manipulation of images and the clash of personalities.

This evisceration of the political lies at the root of today’s popular anti-politics: the complaint that ‘they’re all the same’ or ‘all in it for themselves’; the desire to get over or somehow circumvent the ‘divisiveness’ of politics; the calls for politicians to ‘work together’. ‘Politics’ is seen as an alien realm of duplicity, opportunism and contrived conflict, not a common concern. Ironically, no one is keener to exploit popular anti‑politics than professional politicians. See the rise and fall of Nick Clegg.

A cloud of cynicism settles over everything, leaving vested interests and real choices invisible. It’s a superficial, easily manipulated scepticism, a problem for the left and a boon for the right.

In the end, this illusory non-political politics is the property of the dominant powers. A good example is the Olympics, where the hoary old apartheid-era slogan ‘Keep politics out of sport’ is once again in favour. Of course, what those who say they want ‘politics out of sport’ really mean is that they want other people’s politics out of sport; they want no politics but their own (that is, corporate and state sponsored messages about competition and identity). This is the paradigm we have to reject, the political ideology that masks itself as non‑political.

We have to be clear that there is no non‑political, non-partisan answer. That politics needs to be ‘divisive’. That the anti-politics of today are impotent. That avoiding choices means handing them to others all too willing to exercise the prerogative.

Left-wing anti-politics

A kind of anti-politics is also widespread on the left. A healthy contempt for mainstream ‘politics’ is combined with a more ambiguous distrust of political organisation in general. We need to be careful that in our rejection of what passes for ‘politics’ we do not inadvertently mirror the de-politicised universe of global capital we want to challenge. In Britain (as elsewhere), politics is our weak spot, the missing mediator without which we can never achieve our goals.

Politics in the sense I’m talking about is the linking of principle with practice, ideas with power, processes with goals, movements with institutions (whereas the simulacrum called ‘politics’ separates all these). Politics means interaction, intervention, agency in relation to the polis – understood (as in ancient Athens) as the arena in which the direction of the commonwealth is set. It means contesting the existing balance of power.

Engaging with the polis (the citizenry, the larger political whole) isn’t about placating the majority but addressing it, honestly and in comprehensible and coherent terms. Politics is always and necessarily partisan. It means making enemies. It therefore carries with it demands for organisation, discipline and sacrifice; it can never be a continuous festival.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking for a politics stripped of desire, imagination, spontaneity. No politics can succeed without to some extent generating its own expressive culture. But that culture, no matter how subversive, cannot substitute for political action. Nor does politics mean abandoning utopia. On the contrary, utopian ideas are vital levers in the contest for political power in the here and now. Politics does, however, mean working out the links between today’s conditions and tomorrow’s utopia, the steps from here to there.

The left has no shortage of policy proposals and alternatives. They’re bubbling up everywhere, not least in the pages of Red Pepper. But politics means coordinating and integrating this welter of ideas, making choices, rejecting some, prioritising others – in other words, creating a programme.

It’s a hard and under-appreciated process, with a negative reputation for dogmatism and sectarian competition. Of course, a programme should be fluid and responsive to changing conditions; ‘the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life’. However, without a programme (forged and fought for collectively), we’ll remain at a hopeless disadvantage. It will always be an uphill climb to make ourselves more convincing, more credible than the prevailing consensus. Sheer negative reaction to the system will not carry us through.

Finally, politics implies the left‑right spectrum (which many greens seek to evade). This spectrum has its origins in revolutionary France, where it accompanied the birth of modern politics, and reflected a division that was not about ethnicity, religion, or region, but about ideas and classes, which is why it became globally recognised. And it is still, I think, unavoidable and necessary (if not always straightforward). When someone claims to have superseded the left-right spectrum, they’re evading the reality of a divided society.

The hardest task

To come now to the hard part. Yes, politics does imply elections and elections imply parties (and programmes). Of course, a party that is merely an electoral machine has actually abandoned politics. But a movement without an electoral intervention is doomed to lose out in the final analysis. Yes, we can hope to influence the mainstream, to push it towards the left, and above all to use our power in the street to change the political context. But being satisfied with that is letting down all those who need more, those who cannot afford to leave the same corporate-sponsored caste in power year after year.

Surely this is one of the lessons of Latin America, where social movements found or created effective political vehicles, won elections, formed governments and achieved real social change, however limited or fragile. To varying degrees, the left parties there have been able to break with neoliberalism, reclaim the polis and politicise the oikos. In contrast, the evolving Arab Spring looks badly hampered by the absence of political formations, leaving the popular movement at the mercies of western imperialism and conservative Islamism.

Back in Britain, the prospects for building a political alternative are so forbidding that most of us have given up talking about it. It’s the hardest task, with the least promise of immediate success, which is why it can’t simply be left to ‘history’ (to someone else). Having said that, I confess I have no road map, no concrete proposals to take us in that direction. First, I suspect, there will have to be a larger number of people agreeing that we do indeed need to redress the political gap and provide the missing link.

www.mikemarqusee.com

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


11