Political Instincts?

Two men flank each other in shabby paramilitary attire, their MAGA caps hovering above the swirling tide of flags and megaphones. ‘We can take that place!’, exclaims the first. ‘And then do what?’, his companion asks. ‘Heads on pikes!’ Three years later, these rocambolesque scenes from the Capitol riot on January 6th – now firmly encrusted on liberalism’s political unconscious – have become a revealing historical hieroglyph. Above all, they epitomize a culture in which politics has been decoupled from policy. The protest galvanized thousands of Americans to invade the headquarters of the world hegemon. Yet this action had no tangible institutional consequences. America’s Winter Palace was stormed, but the result was not a revolutionary coup or a dual power stand-off. Instead, most of the insurgents – infantrymen for the American lumpenbourgeoisie, from New York cosmetics salesmen to Floridian real estate agents – were swiftly arrested en route home, incriminated by their livestreams and social media posts. Today little remains of their Trumpian fronde, even as the mountain king prepares for his next crusade. A copycat putsch in Brazil also came to naught.

The same disarticulation afflicts campaigns across the political spectrum, from the BLM protests in summer 2020, which saw nearly twenty million Americans rail against police violence and racial inequity, to France’s gilets jaunes and the current Palestinian solidarity movement. Compared to the long period of relative demobilization and apathy during the 1990s and 2000s, in which citizens protested, petitioned and voted less, the events that followed the 2008 financial crash signalled a clear shift in Western political culture. The Economist informed its readers in the early summer of 2020 that ‘political protests have become more widespread and more frequent’, and that ‘the rising trend in global unrest is likely to continue.’ Yet these eruptions had little effect on the spectacularly skewed class structure of Western societies; BLM has failed to defund the police or curb their brutality; and the regular marches against Western sponsorship of Israel’s punishment campaign have not stopped the unrestrained bloodshed in Gaza. As James Butler recently remarked in the London Review of Books, ‘Protest, what is it good for?’ 

This is partly an effect of state repression. Yet we can further delineate the present situation by examining a different, downward rather than upward-sloping curve. Throughout the recent ‘decade of protest’, the secular decline in mass membership organizations, which began in the 1970s and was first anatomised by Peter Mair in the pages of this journal, only accelerated. Unions, political parties, and churches continued to bleed members, exacerbated by the rise of a new digital media circuit and tightening labour laws, and compounded by the ‘loneliness epidemic’ that metastasized out of the actual one of 2020. The result is a curiously K-shaped recovery: while the erosion of organized civic life proceeds apace, the Western public sphere is increasingly subject to spasmodic instances of agitation and controversy. Post-politics has ended, but what has taken its place is hardly recognizable from twentieth-century mass political templates.

Contemporary political philosophy seems ill-equipped to explain the situation. As Chantal Mouffe points out, we still live in an age of ‘apolitical’ philosophy, where academics are reduced to pondering why certain people decide to become activists or join political organizations given the prohibitive costs of ideological commitment. By contrast, Aristotle once dared to suggest that humans displayed an inborn instinct for socialisation: a feature shared with other herd animals, such as bees or ants, which also exhibit strong cooperative traits. As exceptionally gregarious creatures, he contended, men also had a spontaneous urge to unite within a πολις, a term only meagrely translated by the Germanic compound ‘city state’ – the highest form of community. Anyone surviving outside such a community was ‘either a beast or a god’.

The classical Aristotelian assumption of man as a zoön politikon was called into question by modern political philosophy, starting with Hobbes, Rousseau and Hume (the latter two idiosyncratic Hobbesians). It was fiercely contested in Leviathan, where man appears as an instinctively antisocial animal who must be coerced into association and commitment. Yet even Hobbes’s pessimistic anthropology hoped to re-establish political association on a higher plane. For him, man’s antisocial instincts opened a vista onto even sturdier collective structures. This was an implicit appeal to Europe’s republican nobility: they should no longer get involved in murderous civil wars and, out of self-interest, submit to a peace-abiding sovereign. Similarly for Rousseau, antisocial amour propre offered the prospect of a higher political association – this time in the democratic republic, where the lost freedom of the state of nature could be regained. For Kant, too, ‘unsociable sociability’ functioned as a dialectical harbinger of perpetual peace. In each case, the apolitical postulate implied a potentially political conclusion: a lack of strong sociability served to temper political passions, guaranteeing the stability of state and society.

The nineteenth century saw a more pressing need to assure generalized political passivity. As Moses Finley has noted, to be a citizen in Aristotle’s Athens was de facto to be active, with little distinction between civil and political rights, and with rigid lines between slaves and non-slaves. In the 1830s and 40s, the suffrage movement made such demarcations impossible. Proletarians sought to transform themselves into active citizens, threatening the propertied order built up after 1789. To neutralize this prospect, it was necessary to construct a new cité censitaire, in which the masses would be shut out of decision-making while elites could continue to enact the so-called democratic will. The plebiscitary regime of Louis Bonaparte III, famously characterized as ‘potato sack politics’ in The Eighteenth Brumaire, offered an exemplar. This ‘creative anti-revolution’, as Hans Rosenberg called it, was an attempt to redeem general suffrage by placing it within authoritarian constraints that would enable capitalist modernization.

Walter Bagehot – luminary of The Economist, central bank theorist and eulogist of the English Constitution – defended Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’état as the only means to reconcile democratization with capital accumulation. ‘We have no slaves to keep down by special terrors and independent legislation’, he wrote. ‘But we have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution, unable to feel the least attachment to impersonal laws.’ Bonapartism was a natural solution. ‘The issue was put to the French people . . . “Will you be governed by Louis Napoleon, or will you be governed by an assembly?” The French people said, “We will be governed by the one man we can imagine, and not by the many people we cannot imagine.”’

Bagehot asserted that socialists and liberals who complained about Bonaparte’s authoritarianism were themselves guilty of betraying democracy. Commenting on the result of an 1870 plebiscite which ratified some of Bonaparte’s reforms, he argued that such critics ‘ought to learn . . . that if they are true democrats, they should not again attempt to disturb the existing order at least during the Emperor’s Life’. To them, he wrote, ‘democracy seems to consist as often as not in the free use of the people’s name against the vast majority of the people’. Here was the proper capitalist response to mass politics: the forcible atomization of the people – nullifying organized labour to secure capital’s interests, with semi-sovereign support from a demobilized society.   

Richard Tuck has described the further modulations of this tradition in the twentieth century, visible in the work of Vilfredo Pareto, Kenneth Arrow and Mancur Olson among others. For these figures, collective action and interest-pooling were demanding and unattractive; voting in elections was usually carried out with reluctance rather than conviction; trade unions were equally beneficial to members and non-members; and the terms of the social contract often had to be forcibly imposed. In the 1950s, Arrow recycled an insight originally proffered by the Marquis de Condorcet, stating that it was theoretically impossible for three voters to ensure perfect harmony between their preferences (if voter one preferred A over B and C, voter two B over C and A, and three C over A and B, the formation of a majority preference was impossible without dictatorial intervention). Arrow’s ‘impossibility theorem’ was seized upon as evidence that collective action itself was bursting with contradictions; Olson radicalized it to advance his claim that free riding was the rule rather than the exception in large organizations. The conclusion that man was not naturally inclined to politics thus came to dominate this field of sceptical post-war literature.  

Towards the end of the twentieth century, with the drastic decline in voter turnout, the plunge in strike days and the wider process of withdrawal from organized political life, human apoliticism seemed to mutate from an academic discourse into an empirical reality. Whereas Kant spoke of ‘ungesellige Geselligkeit’, one could now speak of ‘gesellige Ungeselligkeit’: a social unsociability which reinforces rather than sublates atomization.

As the decade of protests made clear, however, Bagehot’s formula no longer holds. Passive support for the ruling order cannot be assured; citizens are willing to revolt in significant numbers. Yet fledgling social movements remain crippled by the neoliberal offensive against civil society. How best to conceptualize this new conjuncture? Here the concept of ‘hyperpolitics’ – a form of politicization without clear political consequences – may be useful. Post-politics was finished off by the 2010s. The public sphere has been repoliticized and re-enchanted, but on terms which are more individualistic and short-termist, evoking the fluidity and ephemerality of the online world. This is an abidingly ‘low’ form of politics – low-cost, low-entry, low-duration, and all too often, low-value. It is distinct both from the post-politics of the 1990s, in which public and private were radically separated, and from the traditional mass politics of the twentieth century. What we are left with is a grin without a cat: a politics without policy influence or institutional ties.

If the hyperpolitical present appears to reflect the online world – with its curious mix of activism and atomization – it can also be compared to another amorphous entity: the market. As Hayek noted, the psychology of planning and mass politics were closely related: politicians would bide their time over decades; Soviet planners read human needs across five-years plans; Mao, keenly aware of the longue durée, hibernated in rural exile for more than twenty years; the Nazis measured their time in millennia. The horizon of the market, however, is much nearer: the oscillations of the business cycle offer instant rewards. Today, politicians wonder whether they can launch their campaigns in a matter of weeks, citizens turn out to demonstrate for a day, influencers petition or protest with a monosyllabic tweet.

The result is a preponderance of ‘wars of movement’ over ‘wars of position’, with the primary forms of political engagement as fleeting as market transactions. This is more a matter of necessity than of choice: the legislative environment for durable institution-building remains hostile, and activists must contend with a vitiated social landscape and an unprecedentedly expansive Kulturindustrie. Beneath such structural constraints lie questions of strategy. While the internet has radically lowered the costs of political expression, it has also pulverized the terrain of radical politics, blurring the borders between party and society and spawning a chaos of online actors. As Eric Hobsbawm observed, collective bargaining ‘by riot’ remains preferable to post-political apathy. The jacquerie of European farmers in the last months clearly indicates the (right-wing) potential of such wars of movement. Yet without formalized membership models, contemporary protest politics is unlikely to return us to the ‘superpolitical’ 1930s. Instead, it may usher in postmodern renditions of ancien régime peasant uprisings: an oscillation between passivity and activity, yet one that rarely reduces the overall power differential within society. Hence the K-shaped recovery of the 2020s: a trajectory that would please neither Bagehot nor Marx.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘After Populism?’, NLR 144.