Blog Post

On the allures of upper case Politics and the advantages of lower case utopias

In his thoughtful and detailed response to my last blog postings, Lee Konstantinou further unfolds his initial remarks on my piece “The Terror of the Unforeseen: Speculative Fiction and Cinema after 1989”. Echoing Walter Benn Michaels’ reflections on what ended when, in 1989, history ended (in The Shape of the Signifier, and, more recently in The Baffler , Konstantinou wonders about my use of the term agency. He asks: “Wasn’t the end of history supposed to be precisely the time when politics went away for good, leaving only the refinement of technical systems, the solving of local problems, and a relaxation in ideological conflict?” Konstantinou also wonders, “whether the transition from pre- to post-89 might have had more to do with a stripping away of political agency, more a sclerosis of the political imagination than its renewal.” His own research on what he calls postirony suggests that the contemporary literary scene is populated by authors “who wonder whether they have any agency in an era of the world market, of the total system, of—in a word—postmodernity triumphant.” 

To substantiate his response to my suggestions regarding what 1989 may mean for contemporary literature, culture and politics, Konstantinou focuses on the book I invoked in my reply to his original question, J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. Specifically, Konstantinou refers to what I take to be a crucial turning point in Coetzee’s ironical and self-aware fiction: Anya’s claim that “Politics is all around us, it’s like the air, it’s like pollution. You can’t fight pollution. Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt.” As Konstantinou righty notes, my point is that Coetzee allows the character of Anya to bring to the fore the notion that “politics today might simply mean making sure that as many people as possible have clean water, minimal healthcare, functioning sewage systems and opportunities to advance. Adapting might mean seeing how this kind of politics is, indeed, ‘all around us,’ and accepting that challenge.” Konstantinou correctly points out that for me this stance is ethics and indeed politics without ontology. Yet he and I differ in our evaluation of Anya’s words. For him Anya not only describes “the dominant, pragmatic relationship citizens have to politics today.” Her words also indicate what Konstantinou identifies as literature (indeed our culture’s) farewell from “a certain kind of agency.” Hence he goes on to suggest that what is missing in my account “is a justification for what it is legitimate to disagree about, or criteria for determining what belongs in the category of small-p politics and what belongs to large-P Politics.  What is up for grabs, and what is off limits?”

I would first like to say that I don’t believe a categorical answer can be given to Lee’s question. There is no principle that would adjudicate a-priori how bad things must get before radical action becomes justifiable (raising the question, of course, justifiable to whom…?). Indeed, taking history seriously means letting go of the notion that there is some celestial rulebook that we could consult to help us decide such issues. But to say that there is no strict answer to Lee’s question does not mean that it is not an important one (as the grave issue of torture which he raises already clearly demonstrates), nor does it mean that there isn’t anything interesting to say about the distinction between politics and Politics. 

I would like to hinge that distinction on the different kinds of utopias that these alternatives suggest. To me, large-P politics is often motivated by a quest for purity, to be achieved through the radical reinvention of society and the self. This is the desire that Alain Badiou (in his The Century and elsewhere) aptly labeled as “the passion for the real,” the wish to conduct politics on the very ground of existence, as opposed to wallowing in the ever shifting sands of negotiation and compromise. Zygmunt Bauman captures the purist sentiment behind this kind of Politics (in his Modernity and the Holocaust), when he claims that its proponents view society as a garden, and their job as that of weeding it out. 

For me and for the type of progressive liberalism that I favor (Isaiah Berlin, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Mark Lilla and the likes), the only utopia we need is the lower variety, where alleviating human suffering and broadening the circles of social solidarity are the only sought-after goals. This view does not rule out large-scale projects, it only squints suspiciously at suggested projects of total revolution. Therefore, I can accommodate the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and the United Nations as instances of small p politics. None of these three examples was driven by the desire to remake the human garden, or the wish to utterly re-cast the socio-political order. The New Deal was the outcome of a democratic process in which an opposition played its due part. The Marshall Plan and the United Nations that followed the Second World War were an expression of the ability of different political players to negotiate, to compromise and to respect differences—all characteristic of small-p politics. The labor unions are another case in point, as was the anti-Vietnam War movement, until its fringes broke away from the SDS and began gravitating towards (inept) political violence, which was motivated precisely by the kind of bad utopianism that I am badmouthing here. (Incidentally, regardless of the sympathy one might feel for the deep commitment of the young Bill Ayers and his comrades, the Weatherman Underground’s fracturing of the SDS and subsequent alienation of broad swaths of the student anti-war movement from the Cause dealt a terrible blow to the group’s own original goal of hastening the end of the war.)   

In an interview with Critical Inquiry in 2008 Alain Badiou beautifully and emblematically expresses what a return to upper-case Politics might look like; what Politics that does not succumb to the “the refinement of technical systems, the solving of local problems, and a relaxation in ideological conflict” could (indeed, should) be. His main point is that such politics must be utterly dissociated from “the state”; political actors, for example, should refrain from “the electoral process.” This electoral process, maintains Badiou, “is simply not interesting.” The reason? It represents “for now at least, no veritable perspective on the future—there is no way, in this framework and by these means, that fundamental orientations can be modified…It restricts political independence…The electoral horizon has no real interest.” What would such Politics consist of? “An entirely new organizations of workers and peasants”—“1917” and the “Chinese popular army” could give us an idea…

Back to Diary of a Bad Year. As Konstantinou reminds us, in Coetzee’s novel Anya’s boyfriend Alan wishes to swindle C., Coetzee’s elderly protagonist. I read Anya’s humble act as expressing—albeit on a small scale—what small-p politics should be about after 1989, after we (at least for the moment) bid farewell to the revolutionary social engineering of the twentieth century. Sure, there is something to Konstantinou’s point that Anya’s type of action falls in the domain of an episode of Law and Order. However, given the choice—the choice of orientation towards politics—between Law and Order and the Great Leap Forward, I choose the former. 

In this I follow Hannah Arendt’s immensely valuable description of the political as a setting off, as a working towards the reduction of human suffering without abandoning or utterly remaking the modern agora. I hold this view because I don’t recognize a greater Good than alleviating suffering and do not think that we’ve come up with of a better means to achieving it than the familiar modern agora qua the institutions of Western liberal democracy. These are the institutions that encourage negotiating conflicting needs through public deliberation and democratic decision. This is lower-case P politics. Coetzee’s C. may be sad that upper case Politics and with it the dreams of a new human polity seem very distant after 1989. But, as Anya states and demonstrates, politics persist. And how can it not? We continue to disagree with each other about what to do and how to do it; political agency did not die after 1989, it is just recalibrating its scopes.

From what I’ve said so far, it should be evident that I do not agree with Lee that Diary of a Bad Year “dramatizes the difference between Politics and politics as the difference between caring about Guantanamo Bay and caring about getting through the day.” One should address the issue of Guantanamo, emphatically, and many have done so. Arguing, however, that doing away with Gitmo has to go through the overthrow of Caplitalism and the State seems to me both misguided and ineffectual.  If these social realities vanish some day, they would hopefully be replaced by something better, in an incremental process of historical change, perhaps when our children’s children come to regard, say 'the nation state', as obsolete rather than as the root of all evil. 

Finally, I would like to clarify that what is being promoted here is not conservatism; we may be as unhappy with the state of things as is Cotzee’s C., and just as indignant. What is at stake is not whether or not to do things differently, but rather a more subtle change in temperament that informs how we go about it. The first step is to stop mourning the loss of the Grand Narrative and nostalgically pining after upper-case Politics.