A few years ago, I gave my friend B-Rad some editorial advice on the first chapter of his Master’s thesis. One of the questions that he had trouble grappling with was the nature of the political.
I can totally understand why he was banging his head against the wall about it. What is political? The political is one of those ideas and words that are used so frequently and in such generally-applicable contexts that its meaning is amorphous, weird, shifting, inherently uncertain.
When I worked at McMaster, I met people from all places on the spectrum of that answer. One professor I had didn’t even consider social movements – today, think of #NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, the Alt-Right, trans rights – political because they weren’t political parties fighting elections.
It was a slow process of coming to that conclusion. It wasn’t a matter so much of changing my mind from what had been a strong opinion. I hadn’t really thought about it before I started researching a bunch of philosophical traditions rooted to social movements.
Understanding the political nature of social activism movements – of both liberatory persuasions like gay rights and oppressive ones like white nationalism – makes that state & election centric conception of politics laughable.
Social movements are about transforming an entire society’s values and morality, and building new kinds of subjects that compose society. That transformation process is really what any understanding of “the political” has to include.
Reading Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau over the last little while has been really intriguing for this line of thinking in my ongoing work. Because they’re very much heading in similar directions. Now, reading Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, not much of that is explicit.
The first chapters are pretty explicitly critical histories of Marxist economic and political theory. It’s the Marxists who come off most laughably there. Georges Sorel, Edouard Bernstein, and Karl Kautsky all appear hilariously out of touch with the realities of life in 19th century Europe.
There seem to be two fundamental mistakes about the nature of reality in traditional marxist thinking. I’ve discussed this in some of my posts from a couple of years ago when I was reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.
Classes unify in response to economic pressures, until there are only two classes and the frustrated class of workers who don’t have any control over property or their lives overthrow the rich. This never happened, of course, because human society always becomes more complicated.
We differentiate – diverging, splitting into new ways of life and adapting to changing circumstances. There’s an inherent creativity to humanity that drives us to variety. So those Second International marxists were totally off the mark.
The more profound mistake of this clique of theorist/activists came in how they understood the flow of time. In short, they considered the movement of history to be necessary. The superstructures of society itself – the structure and relations of social classes – would change according to their own large-scale natures.
Quietism was often the result, a notion that all the organization a workers’ movement needed was making people familiar with what would be necessary when capitalism collapsed. They didn’t have to work for it because it would happen on its own. Activism collapses when you don’t believe that individual human agency has the power, when working with others, to change society.
But the world is contingent – no body’s agency is ever completely subsumed in any large structure – conditioned, constrained, but never exhaustively determined.
Facing these facts, Laclau and Mouffe embrace humanity’s contingency and plurality. We always have the potential to take control of our lives, no matter how much the world’s wider pressures might constrain us. Human freedom – the core value of radical democracy* – establishes itself in the flowering variety of human life.
* The only democracy worth going for.