The curious case of politics in the street
There is some concern, much of it justified, around #OccupyDameStreet about suggestions it is ‘non-political’ or somehow above or ‘before’ politics.
But an antipathy towards politics, and the term politics – even if such antipathy is amorphous – will seriously hamper any attempts to grow this into a movement for changing how we organise and structure both our society and the economy.
The project to drive politics out of the public sphere could be given the codename ‘neoliberalism’. (This is “The beast to be slain” as Hugh Green put it)
Neoliberalism is distinct from the type of state-subsidised capitalism we saw in the 20th century - from America’s New Deal period through to the post-war welfare states of Britain and elsewhere across Europe.
Aidan Regan explains here that in the post-war period after the Great Depression:
[T]here was a general consensus amongst political and economic elites that the ‘laissez faire’ doctrine of letting markets rip was a complete policy failure… They all agreed that the state had an important role to play in mitigating the worst effects of the private market, particularly insuring citizens against market risk. It was widely accepted that citizens required social protection against unemployment, old age, sickness. Labour markets were to be de-commodified through social security and a variety of social rights were embedded in health, education and pension provision. The introduction of universal suffrage put in place a political mechanism whereby capitalism could be democratized. The state was essentially about managing this tension between capitalism and democracy.
Neoliberalism would see these supports removed and the 'natural forces' of the market allowed do their (nasty) work.
In ‘Never Make a Promise You Can’t Break’, Gene Kerrigan’s sardonic guide to Irish politics, he asks the question ‘What is politics?’:
Most politicians and their hangers-on and media groupies define politics as the business of getting elected and staying elected. Which means, it’s about constituency profiles and statistics, about first and subsequent preferences, about stroking the voters, watering the grassroots, deals, manoeuvres and back-stabbing; canvassing, polls, promises and getting the vote out on the day
He goes on to argue:
There is a wider definition of politics. It says that politics involves big issues such as economics and foreign policy. And bigger issues such as jobs and housing, health and education, the distribution of resources and all the various decisions that determine how we live.
Similarly, Fintan O’Toole says here:
The best functioning definition of economics is the question of ‘Who gets what?’ and the best functioning definition of politics is the question of ‘Who gets what?’ Politics and economics are both about the struggle through power for the allocation of finite resources. In that sense politics is inevitably economic and economics is inevitably political.
If you use the definitions offered by O’Toole and Kerrigan, any movement that is addressing issues to do with the allocation of resources - such as, for example, a nation’s oil and gas - is political. In saying you want a tyrannical financial corporation ‘out of our affairs’ you are making a political point. The very act of occupying a public space to make these points is political.
The 'long march of the neoliberals' involves a de-politicisation of people – as well as of politicians to a degree – so that when it comes to challenging power some feel a need to distance themselves from the hollowed out definition of politics in a neoliberal age – something which Kerrigan alludes to.
In an interview with Amy Goodman on the excellent Democracy Now! Dorian Warren makes the point that the New Deal package of social programmes and public work schemes (to both create real lasting jobs and build infrastructure) was the response to a sustained popular movement.
If #OccupyDameStreet can grow into a movement for economic and social change which demands that our natural resources be used for the benefit of the entire population (as is suggested in the directives of social policy in the Irish constitution under Article 45 2. ii.); that can halt the flagrant vandalism by corporate institutions and their subversion of democracy; that addresses the unemployment and underemployment crisis; that redresses social and economic inequalities; it will need to get political. Not the politics of bloodsport and ‘the business of getting elected and staying elected,’ but the Politics of taking our issues and concerns seriously. Our Politics must be for real. Theirs is merely a circus, stage-managed by the hangers-on, groupies, gossip merchants and marketing firms that coach them. To be sure, Politics (large P) is far too important to be left up to politicians (small p).
All of the true correctives in human history have come through movements that have never achieved formal political power. And that’s been true in American history, whether it’s the anti-slavery movement, the suffragists, labour movement, civil rights movement. I think it’s not our job to take power. It’s our job to remain fast around these moral principles…[T]he question is not how do we get good people to rule. That’s the wrong question. [M]ost people attracted to power are at best mediocre, which is Obama, or venal, which is Bush. The question is: how do we make the powerful afraid of us?
A movement for social and economic change should aim to exert its atmospheric pressure on the existing structures and government. It should seek constantly to impose the will of the public on state institutions rather than merely seeking to either eradicate them or seize control of them.
In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher writes that we are now in a political landscape littered with ‘ideological rubble’. As for a genuine new left (or “Lefts”), he posits that there is no point in repeating historical debates and clinging on to the ‘romantic attachment to the politics of failure.’
It [is] well past time for the left to cease limiting its ambitions to the establishing of a big state. But being ‘at a distance from the state’ does not mean either abandoning the state or retreating into the private space of affects and diversity which Žižek rightly argues is the perfect complement to neoliberalism’s domination of the state. It means recognising that the goal of a genuinely new left should not be to take over the state but to subordinate the state to the general will.
One final issue has to do with how to deal with other people outside of #OccupyDameStreet who too are trying to build social movements that want to also challenge power and the “distribution of resources” dichotomy. There are many activists that are both political in the sense that they do the canvassing and election stuff but they also wish to create a space for people to contribute to altering how things are done. Alienating or actively trying to exclude them will not help. There is no need to cut off the political nose to spite a movement’s face.
I’ll with a quote from Naomi Klein, who spoke in a wider context about the importance of the movement growing out of the #OccupyWallStreet encampment - which is entering into its fifth week and has lead to the establishment of occupation camps in many more cities around the USA.
When people are trying to co-opt you sometimes the reaction is to go in the opposite direction and just say, ‘We don’t have a structure or ideology and nobody can pin us down.’…I think that would be a mistake and I think it doesn’t live up to the moral responsibility of the moment. So many lives are on the line right now. This system is crashing, this system is crashing economically and ecologically. The stakes are too high for us not to make the absolute most of this moment.
Image top: Lusciousblopster.