In the image above, in Ukrainian: “The month of modern US politics in the Ukrainian Wikipedia, 28 March – 28 April” (2014). The date signifies Obama’s urging of Moscow to pull back troops. (General Editor)
The following is the first of a two-part series.
In the divisiveness of the Trump era it seems that popular opinion might be summarized as the belief that politics plays too large a role in public life. Or this would be the case if politics could be defined as partisan bickering and character attacks on those who hold strong beliefs—opposite one’s own—which are attached to the predominant political metaphor of left and right.
As a group like the so-called Unity Party, as well as the separate but similarly named Unity 2020, would be quick to point out this formulation of the political in popular thought sees a two-party system attempting to represent not two but three distinct positions on the spectrum.
The solution to this problem for such unity-oriented groups is to bring reason and balance back into a system predicated on a simple binary of extremes. This solution might seem only obvious and reasonable due to the apparently extreme vitriol between progressive and conservative positions, as well as the plentiful but partisan rash of protests and unrest that the U.S. has seen in 2020 and beyond. In this light, a call to lessen the place of politics in American life, in the name of unifying around a sensible leader of merit, who will lead us with intelligence back to the common good can seem only natural.
In fact, one might be tempted to claim that there is no (reasonable) alternative. However, by diving more deeply into a study on the political and political subjectivity, it becomes clear that, far from occupying a disproportionately prominent place in American life, the political is a shrinking if not completely foreclosed avenue, and that not only is the vitriol between the right and left a symptom of this foreclosure, but that, through a theory of mutual abjection, it is in fact its catalyst.
In his book, The Ticklish Subject, Slavoj Žižek formulates politics, following Jacques Rancière, as a struggle not between two equal opponents facing off along a balanced and symmetrical spectrum, but rather as a “conflict [that] designates the tension between the structured social body in which each part has its place, and ‘the part of no part’ which unsettles this order” (221).
Reaching back to ancient Greece and the emergence of the demos, “politics proper … always involves a short circuit between the Universal and the Particular” because it involves a particular under- or unrepresented group positioning itself as the universal of society, thereby undermining the social order with their demands for representation (221). For Žižek this “elementary gesture of politicization … [is] discernible in all great democratic events” and therefore “politics and democracy are synonymous” (221).
Democracy, it should go without saying, not in the institutionalized form of representative electoral politics currently taking place in the U.S., but a democracy that is adequately disruptive to the existing social order. In other words, based on the way Žižek has formulated them above, democracy/politics proper is precisely what is lacking in our contemporary electoral system: “the political struggle proper is … not a rational debate between multiple interests, but the struggle for one’s voice to be heard and recognized as the voice of a legitimate partner” (221).
Žižek then lays out “a series of disavowals of this political moment, of the proper logic of political conflict” (223). These include: arche-politics, para-politics, meta-politics, and ultra-politics; the last being Žižek’s own addition to Rancière’s series. Let us look more closely at two of these disavowals.
First, para-politics is an “attempt to depoliticize politics” (224). According to this disavowal “one accepts political conflict, but reformulates it into a competition, within the representational space, between acknowledged parties” (224). Next, Žižek’s addition, ultra-politics attempts to disavow the political “conflict by bringing it to an extreme via the direct militarization of politics” (225).
I would argue that it is through a nexus of these two disavowals in the current U.S. political landscape that we have been effectively ushered into a state called post-politics. Para-politics operates on the level where the specification of the United States as a representative democracy holds a subtle anti-democratic valence. There is a distinct depoliticization at play in the two-party electoral system that always paints any variation in the form of a third-party vote as a wasted vote.
Likewise, ultra-politics has long played an important role in U.S. depoliticization, from the Cold War, to George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Additionally, whereas these examples closely adhere to this “Schmittian disavowal of the political” which highlights “the primacy of external politics … over internal politics” (225n21), Trump’s expressed desire to utilize military forces in response to 2020 protest movements signals a move whereby the external is brought home, so to speak, and a situation is illuminated in which we find a “war between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, our Enemy, where there is no common ground for symbolic conflict” (225) within our own sociopolitical landscape.
Thus, in the current crisis of neoliberalism, the centrist position, which is dominated by what Nancy Fraser has called “progressive neoliberalism,” (11) strives to maintain the primacy of external politics by positioning, not only Trump’s saber-rattling response, but also the two extreme ends of the political spectrum, as the external other which must be opposed in the name of a common good based in science and data; or what Wendy Brown might describe as “best practices” (135).
It is thus that we enter what Žižek calls “postmodern post-politics, which no longer merely ‘represses’ the political … but much more effectively ‘forecloses’ it” (236). In post-politics “we encounter the gap that separates a political act proper from the ‘administration of social matters’ which remains within the framework of existing sociopolitical relation” (236-237) in that “the conflict of global ideological visions embodied in different parties which compete for power is replaced by the collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists … ) and liberal multiculturalists; via the process of negotiation of interests, a compromise is reached in the guise of a more or less universal consensus” (236).
With its proclaimed basis in science and data, its emphasis on cooperation over and above partisan bickering, and its reliance on the nonthreatening nature of managerial soft-power, the post-political presents itself as a utopian development. However, given that “the political act (intervention) proper is not simply something that works well within the framework of the existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work” (237) the utopian glint of post-politics already begins to break down, in that it signals the foreclosure of any democratic ability to direct one’s own life.
What this leaves us with, then, is only one of the two forms of rationality which Max Weber “famously distinguishes,” namely the “instrumentally rational (zweckrational)” as opposed to the “value rational (wertrational) … [which] does not pertain to the rational quality of the value itself, but to the ‘self-conscious formulation of the ultimate values covering action” (Brown 118).
In other words, our post-political situation leaves up for debate only the efficiency of various methods by which a certain predetermined, and not consciously thought through by most, value is pursued. “It consists of pure calculation” and is, as such the only rationality of the two, the success and failure of which are capable of being factually verified (119). Consequently, says Wendy Brown quoting Weber, “from the perspective of instrumental rationality, ‘value-rationality is always irrational” (119).
It is on this basis that Brown outlines the way in which neoliberalism allows market logics to infiltrate the political realm and neoliberalism itself becomes the post-political instrumental rationality par excellence. In other words, “more than merely saturating the meaning or content of democracy with market values, neoliberalism assaults the principles, practices, cultures, subjects, and institutions of democracy” all while continually finding ways to mask its failures with utopian promises (9).
Brown states that “to understand how neoliberalism becomes a governing political rationality, we need to examine a set of developments in formulations and practices of governance” (122). As governance has “matured and converged with neoliberalism” it “has become neoliberalism’s primary administrative form, the political modality through which it creates environments, structures constraints and incentives, and hence conducts subjects” (122). Ultimately, governance is “‘governing without Government’ as well as a practice born from ‘hollowing out the state’” (123).
Brown points out a telling “lexical phenomenon” in which “‘governance’ is often used interchangeably with both ‘governing’ and ‘managing’ across a range of institutions—political, economic, educational, profit, nonprofit, service, and production industries” (123). This marks an important process of governance, in that it shows how the line is blurred between state and economy, government and business.
Referencing the work of Elizabeth Meehan, Brown points out another factor of governance that pertains further to the utopian promise of neoliberalism and ties in with another example of corporate-speak (best practices) that Brown identifies as having infiltrated our democratic institutions: “Governance differs from governing … in that it arises from ‘a lack of capacity by governments, acting alone, to effect desired changes’ today” (125).
Governance steps in in the face of “state-phobia” which Michel Foucault, in The Birth of Biopolitics, says “runs though many contemporary themes and has undoubtedly been sustained by many sources for a long time: the Soviet experience of the 1920s, the German experience of Nazism, English post-war planning and so on” (76) and promises essentially to achieve what these state apparatuses could not through “new arrangements and practices that include sharing public power among different tiers of regulation, privatizing the provision of utilities and services, and above all, increasing reliance on partnerships, networks, and novel forms of connection and communication about policy design and delivery” (Brown 125).
Above all, as a managerial mode of organizing, neoliberal governance pursues its utopian visions through what Brown identifies as best practices. In the most mundane sense, a best practice is simply the best, most efficient way of going about an undertaking. It is here that instrumental rationality over and against value rationality dominates the methodology of governance most clearly.
For instance, “the presumed interchangeability of processes and practices across industries and sectors and the consolidation of best practices out of many different sources have several important implications for neoliberal rationality’s dissemination of economic metrics everywhere, its generation of the basic contours and features of human capital, and its subsumption of public institutions into enterprise” (137). Furthermore, because best practices are testable and provable within the realm of instrumental rationality, they “can be effectively contested only by postulating petter practices, not by objecting to what they promulgate” (136).
Thus, best practices purport to build a genuine consensus and cooperation in a nonhierarchical manner. They “are exemplary of many features of neoliberal governance—its emphasis on soft power, antipolitics, buy-ins, consensus, teamwork, market metrics, and rejection of external regulation, command, partisan interest, and ideology” (136). Thus, in addition to provability and effectiveness, best practices lend neoliberal governance an air of utopianism, over the political, via their post-ideological pretense.
In fact “from the epistemological standpoint of best practices, politics appears as a combination of dicta or commands where there should be expertise, as particular interest or debates about ends where there should be teamwork for a goal, as partisanship where there should be neutrality and objectivity in both knowledge and practice, as provincialism where there should be the open doors and the lingua franca of the market” (139).
However, Wendy Brown is clear in her writing that far from fulfilling its utopian promises, neoliberalism has both managed to erode whatever democratic recourses to the political previously obtained in the U.S. and failed to usher in the utopianly prosperous freedom promised by the pervasion of market freedoms and logic. Instead, we are treated to concepts like devolution and responsibilization.
First, as part of its insistence on soft power, “neoliberal governance stresses the devolution of authority” (131). This comes, of course, from an “antipathy to centralized state power and as part of its emphasis on problem solving achieved by stakeholders” (131). Because in the context of neoliberal governance devolution is combined with what Wendy Brown calls responsibilization, devolution here is not “equivalent to throughgoing decentralization and local empowerment” (131).
Instead, it most often means that higher up offices with more power and resources will wash their hands of certain responsibilities, allowing them to devolve to offices and agents further down in the hierarchy who are less equipped and able to handle them. This works, not just for the offices in a bureaucratic hierarchy. In fact, neoliberalism’s tendency towards austerity functions as a factor of devolution that results in the responsibilization of individuals.
Responsibilization is drastically different from a simple willingness to take on responsibilities and instead “tasks the worker, student, consumer, or indigent person with discerning and undertaking the correct strategies of self-investment and entrepreneurship for thriving and surviving” (132-133). Thus, rather than instituting freedom, as neoliberalism claims to do, it “signals a regime in which the singular human capacity for responsibility is deployed to constitute and govern subjects and through which their conduct is organized and measured, remaking and reorienting them for a neoliberal order” (133).
From this, the failures of the neoliberal order seem obvious. Where we were once offered abundance, we now accept constraint, where we were offered freedom, we are now asked to make sacrifices (71). To be clear, this is not a critique based on a lamentation of lost decadence, but simply an attempt to point out the incongruities in the ruling system of neoliberal governance, and to ask whether this system is really worth making sacrifices for.
In the face of these failures, and despite the fact that today, in 2021, neoliberal governance seems to be thriving still, a certain fallout has indeed taken place. Nancy Fraser uses Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and “its organizational counterpart … the hegemonic bloc: a coalition of disparate social forces that the ruling class assembles and through which it asserts its leadership” to characterize and further define, via important cultural and political signifiers, the hegemonic bloc of neoliberal governance (10).
This is what she calls “progressive neoliberalism.” For Fraser, neoliberalism is dividable into two distinct camps, progressive neoliberalism and reactionary neoliberalism. According to Fraser, “the progressive-neoliberal bloc combined an expropriative, plutocratic economic program with a liberal-meritocratic politics of recognition” (11-12).
Meanwhile, reactionary neoliberalism, “housed mainly in the Republican Party and less coherent than its dominant rival … offered a different nexus of distribution and recognition. It combined a similar neoliberal politics of distribution with a different reactionary politics of recognition” (16). As Fraser points out, neoliberalism in general was, in many ways, the brainchild of the right (12).
However, progressive neoliberalism eventually rose to ascendency because “the right-wing ‘fundamentalist’ version of neoliberalism could not become hegemonic in a country whose common sense was still shaped by New Deal thinking, the ‘rights revolution,’ and a slew of social movements descended from the New Left” (12-13). Fraser goes on, “for the neoliberal project to triumph, it had to be repackaged, given a broader appeal, and linked to other, noneconomic aspirations for emancipation” (13). Put another way, progressive neoliberalism makes for a more convincing antipolitical utopianism.
Nonetheless, the failures of neoliberalism to live up to its promises, and the fact that as a “political universe” it is “highly restrictive,” in that while “one could choose between multiculturalism and ethnonationalism … one was stuck, either way, with financialization and deindustrialization” (18), resulted in hegemonic gap that came fully to fruition in the late 2010s. We are referring, of course, to the “2015-16” political season, … [wherein] long-simmering discontent suddenly shape-shifted into a full-bore crisis of political authority” (21).
Jared Lacy is a graduate student at the University of Denver. He is also an assistant editor of The New Polis and has published occasionally with us.