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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.
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.
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.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament