The elephant is political

“Anti-politics” has become a phrase widely used to describe the state of politics today. In October 2013 Australian based socialists Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze published an important article “Anti-politics: Elephant in the room”  on the Left Flank site. Here, Colin Barker responds to Elizabeth and Tad with an examination of what ‘politics’ meant for Marx and what it means for revolutionaries today.

This response was first published in the the autumn 2014 issue of the rs21 magazine. Elizabeth and Tad will be speaking alongside Luke Stobart and Jonny Jones on a panel discussing anti-politics at the 11th Historical Materialism conference taking place in London 6-9 November.



Since it first appeared “Anti-politics: Elephant in the room” has stimulated a good deal of discussion. I welcome the article for sharply posing the question of the significance of “anti-politics” in the world today. But I also find part of their discussion a touch baffling.

Elizabeth and Tad’s argument falls into several parts. They begin with the detachment of large numbers of people – especially working-class people – from “politics”. There is evidence a-plenty for the phenomenon: an increasing number of people do not bother to vote, and there has been a big fall in the numbers actually belonging to political parties.

Opinion surveys have revealed widespread disenchantment with the existing pattern of politics. Growing numbers feel that politics doesn’t enhance their power and offers little hope for any kind of worthwhile alternative future.

To this we should add the declining numbers of workers belonging to trade unions, especially in the private sector, and signs of low involvement in union affairs among those who retain their memberships. (Though this fluctuates more: unions that summon their members into activity also experience bursts of new recruitment.)

This sense of detachment from the routines and parties of parliamentary democracy has been at its strongest in the past few decades, precisely when “neoliberalism” has become dominant in policy-making circles – or among what Elizabeth and Tad call “the political class”.

There are many expressions of this. One is the idea, famously enunciated by Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no alternative”. That idea is now the shared property of not just conservatives, but also liberal and social democratic parties.

The other is the popular commonsense (deepened in the past forty-odd years) that the next generation is going to have a worse life than the present one – whether or not “economic growth” occurs.

Elizabeth and Tad don’t set out to explain this, but rather to anatomise it. They then make something of a leap:
Its lack of a social base makes the political class’s actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent. Despite purporting to represent the “general interest” of society, the state has interests separate from and opposed to those of the civil society on which it is founded, relying on a mixture of coercion and consent to maintain its rule.

Here, the political class represents the interests of the state within civil society. That state has interests separate from and opposed to those of the civil society on which it is founded. “The state and political society ‘enwrap’ civil society, reshaping and incorporating resistance from below.” Their language is drawn partly from Gramsci, partly from Marx’s political writings of 1843-44. Quite rightly, if a little obliquely, they remind us of the profoundly anti-state character of Marx’s thinking (and that of Gramsci).

However, in that same period, and especially in 1844, Marx was not just anatomising the separation of modern society into “civil society” and “political society”. He also launched himself into the study of the political economy of that civil society, and discovering more and more clearly that it was capitalist society, whose dominant power was capital.

That seems rather absent in Elizabeth and Tad’s argument, which appears to concern itself only with “the state” and “political society”. It would not be unreasonable to amend their statement: the political class’s actual role is to represent the interests of the state and capital within civil society.

It’s not just that the state and political society enwrap civil society – capital also enwraps states and civil society. The argument about increasing voter detachment and the hollowing-out of political structures demands more attention to the political economy of neoliberalism.

Think of the role of state debt in the present period: again and again, a key argument for neoliberalism and more recently for “austerity” concerns the need to manage the vast state debts that enwrap state policies and narrow their options.

David McNally recently estimated that since the 2008 crisis the world’s states have spent some $29 trillion on “saving” banks and corporations. This has been a prominent theme in recent movements, notably 15M in Spain and Occupy in the US, as well as a host of movements across the Global South.

This context underlies the condition that Elizabeth and Tad discuss: “the exhaustion of the old politics, but without a stable and confident new arrangement able to be implemented”.

The same context also finds the left groping towards its own “stable and confident” understandings and strategies.

Here above all, I find myself dissatisfied with Elizabeth and Tad’s argument. Anti-politics, they propose, is more than a widespread feeling among today’s citizenry, or the opportunistic appeals of UKIP or Beppe Grillo. It has a deeper meaning than is offered by the largely moralistic rejection of “politics” by some autonomists and others. Anti‑politics offers a proper foundation for “a consistent strategy for social revolution”. This strategy, they say,

“seeks to concretely intervene on the effective terrain in order to build a movement that overcomes politics by overcoming the state. This is ‘communism’ as the end of politics (as Engels put it, when ‘the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things’), a real movement that is a simultaneously theoretical and practical critique of politics, not simply replicating the inner logic of capitalist politics for different ends.”

Here they are using shorthand when they should be spelling out an argument. Many readers, I guess, will find their remarks confusing.

Part of the difficulty lies in their use of the term “politics”. Engels, it should be noted, never used the phrase “the end of politics”, though he most certainly looked forward to the ending of the state and what he termed “political domination”.

Marx, in some his early writings, criticises what we could term statist politics – the belief that it was possible to solve social problems through the state. When he criticises “politics” in his early writings, he means bourgeois politics, the politics of the “representative” state that actually excludes people from real self-determination.

But Marx also used the terms “politics” and “political” in completely positive terms. He wrote in the Grundrisse: “Man is a political animal in the most literal sense: he is not only a social animal, but an animal that can be individualised only within society.” Politics, in the positive sense, is the means by which human beings are what they are and become what they can be, through their interactions with each other. It is how we develop our shared humanity.

Marx placed a completely positive value on that very political term, “democracy” – by which he meant the rule of the people over everything. He saw, in the democratic institutions established by the Paris Commune, “the political form under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.

To treat revolutionary Marxism as an anti-politics, without qualification, is surely mistaken. Indeed, one of the most important achievements of Marx’s theorisation of capitalism was its extension of the idea of politics to the criticism of the everyday social relations of production.

So is it meaningful to talk of a “Marxist politics”? I think it is. Its central concern is with emancipation from a condition in which most aspects of our social lives are outside our collective social control, whether this be in official politics (where Marx’s early writings are quite brilliant), in everyday economic relations (our subservience to the market and to the overweening power of capital), or indeed in the ecology of our planet.

Elizabeth and Tad distance themselves from those who argue that “what is needed is to build a different, ‘unconventional’, ‘radical’ or even ‘revolutionary’ politics instead”. But it is just that which is needed. If large numbers of people are turning away from normal politics, this is the moment, the opportunity, to be developing exactly that alternative: in theory and in practice. A “consistent strategy” is politics.

There are 5 comments

  1. swo8

    We no longer have a Parliamentary Democracy. The system has been so abused that the thought of it is ludicrous . We have a Corporatocracy where the government’s sole purpose is to serve big business. It doesn’t matter what party is in power since all sides have been liberally greased. There is too much power in too few hands. The 99% know what is going on and that is why a lot of them don’t vote.


  2. johng

    I agree with Colin largely. I’ve always found the use of the term ‘politics’ amongst *the Leninists* a bit confusing and fetishistic anyway. On the one hand politics is bad because its bourgoise (and hence limited ie ‘merely political’), on the other hand politics is very important (its a political question comrade), on the one hand politics must be subordinated to social transformation, on the other hand politics must be placed in command-there are so many use and mention problems to begin with that its hard to work out what to make of the latest version. I don’t like the implication that all we had to do was rediscover what Marx meant in in 1848 and on the other hand what we needed above all was concrete.Also find the implication that democratic demands, ie merely political demands, were in some sense superceded by a new anti-politics troubling in relationship to issues of oppression and potentially very dangerous in countries where issues of democracy are central (one thinks of recent and current struggles in the MENA countries).


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