The annual ritual of the UK political conference season has just drawn to a close for another year and whilst it is tempting to view this simply as an exercise in tribalism, a rallying of the troops, and, perhaps, a rather insular or even narcissistic exercise, is there a sniff of something else in the air this time? Whatever their lasting value, such events are an opportunity for parties to propagate their particular visions of society, and this time it seems that there are actually (at least) two clear and contradictory alternatives on offer.
On the one hand there is the first Conservative (albeit slim) majority for nearly twenty years with its rather peculiar mixture of neo-liberalism and what can only be described as neo-Blairism. On the other hand, in the wake of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party, there is what appears to a strange blend of neo-utopian socialism and good old fashion Labour values, e.g. bigger state, re-nationalisation of key industries, and so on. There also appears to be a rather new phenomena developing which might be described as class war by Twitter, i.e. the use of social media to propagate the competing ideologies . Ironically, perhaps, on this particular front the left seems to be winning at the moment.
However, one of the things that particularly struck me is Jeremy Corbyn’s notion of a ‘kinder politics’. By this he seems to mean that all political arguments can be won by civilised and rational debate, and that everyone should be given a voice and listened to. Furthermore it would seem that dissent, even at the top of the party, is OK and something to be welcomed. And even though David Cameron hasn’t quite gone this far, he does seem to be emphasising the more humane and socially progressive dimension of Conservatism at the moment.
The problem with this idea of a ‘kinder’ and more humane politics is that it glosses over the fact that there is something inherently ‘cruel’ and inhumane at the centre of political life. In order to begin to understand why this is the case, we need to start by differentiating between politics on the one hand and the political on the other.
As Yannis Stavrakakis points out, politics is seen (by social scientists, politicians and citizens) as a separate system and space, and one that is expected to remain within these boundaries, and to be performed by sanctioned agents, e.g. politicians.1 In this sense:
….politics can only be represented in spatial terms, as a set of practices and institutions, as a system, albeit an expanding one.2
However, Stavrakakis goes on to argue:
Politics is identical to political reality and political reality, like all reality, is, first constituted at the symbolic level, and, second, supported by fantasy.3
In other words, ‘politics’ become equated with the institutions, agents, practices and ideas that constitute the (separate) political system. And with the advent of ‘career politicians’, i.e. who have known little or nothing else since leaving Oxbridge or some other top university, this notion of a separate political class has only been reinforced in the eyes of the general public.
The political, on the other hand, has very little to do with ‘politics’. Rather, it constitutes the very basis of society itself. This idea has probably found its best articulation in the work of Claude Lefort, who defines the political as:
….not (in) what we call political activity, but in the double movement whereby the mode of institution of society appears and is obscured. It appears in the sense that the process whereby society is ordered and unified across its divisions becomes visible. It is obscured in the sense that the locus of politics (the locus in which parties compete and in which a general agency of power takes shapes is reproduced) becomes defined as particular, while the principle which generates the overall configuration is concealed.4
For Lefort, ‘the political’ is the basis for any society, rather than being contained within it, which is the case with totalitarianism. However, the knowledge that the political is such as basis is ‘repressed’ within mainstream political science and discourse. The political is not reducible to political reality. Rather, it is a dimension present in every human society – and, in fact, ontologically determines the social.
Different forms of society are shaped, defined by the political – which means it is impossible to localise the political within society. A focus on political reality (‘politics’) is an attempt to ‘domesticate’ the political – which moves attention from contingency and disruption of that governs the (re)construction of the social. Perhaps another way to express this is to say that the political defines the parameters of a particular social formation, a particular society. Therefore, it is meaningless (or rather, misleading) to try and define the political in terms of a particular society, e.g. capitalist, socialist, feudal etc. What is actually being defined here is the specific form of political reality – not the political per se.
It could be argued that politics, in the sense that we understand it and experience it (which of course for most people is a very mediated understanding and experience), is a way of avoiding or repressing the political itself. This is because the realm of the political is the realm of conflict and antagonism. Different types of political systems attempt, to varying degrees to minimise or even remove such conflict and antagonism. On one extreme are various forms of totalitarianism which essentially deny that there is any conflict at all; whereas at the other extreme are various forms of democracy, which appear to allow for some conflict and disagreement, albeit within strictly defined parameters. So, for example, in western democracies everyone can say what they like – as long as it conforms to liberal democratic definition of free speech, i.e. does not in any serious way undermine the values of liberal democracy itself.
Ideology also plays a critical role in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, in attempting to resolve the contradictions at the heart of any society. As Zizek argues, ideology can be thought of as a social fantasy. However, this should be read in terms of the social itself as fantasy, rather than particular ideologies representing specific forms of shared fantasy. In fact, ideology is probably the key ‘motor’ of political reconciliation, especially if we broaden the concept of ideology, following Althusser, to include the family, the media, education, and, dare I say it, psychotherapy. It is through these various forms of ideological apparatus that the core ideas and values of what constitutes ‘society’ are propagated. However, in doing so the fundamental contradictions and antagonisms that lie at the heart of any society are glossed over or circumvented. So, for example, the idea of class inequality and class conflict, which lies at the heat of capitalist society, is smoothed over in various forms, e.g. through the formation of a welfare state, employee relations programmes, trade unions, and so on.
To mis-paraphrase von Clausewitz we could perhaps argue that politics is the pursuit of violence by other means. In other words, at the heart of any political system, at the heart of any society lies an irreconcilable contradiction, a Real kernel.
A kinder politics…? I think not.