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.
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.