After Politics

by Hélène Strohl
Secessio Vol. 2, No. 1, Autumn 2013

In certain towns with a particularly alienated population, in the event of a low turnout the mayor may be elected by less than a quarter of the electorate, even though all pay taxes. Elections only attract a fraction of the citizenry depending on the time, the mood, or the weather, which perhaps have no less of a hand than TV shows – eliminating one candidate, choosing another – in shaping the course of history. A change of president or a change of star, political figures as celebrities are dependent on television viewers, whose reactions, being immediate and erratic, are hard to predict. Their motivation is emotional. Subtle aspects of candidates’ appearance and tone determine the outcome of elections more than party affiliation or interest in a political programme. Is this to say that public affairs, the life of the city, are of no interest to the citizens? For postmodern man, it is not so much the end of politics as its transfiguration.

The political system, in the specific form we have known since the French revolution, was constructed first and foremost on a vision of the future: what kind of country, what kind of France, what kind of Europe are we going to build? This engagement with the future no longer mobilises young people. The complaint levelled most frequently by adults against the young is that they live in the moment, they don’t have a project. The corollary of this is that citizens react according to changing circumstances rather than delimit themselves within a structured system.

The relationship with time – with the past, present, future – is one of the most fundamental elements of politics. Traditional societies, especially pre-Christian ones, had not developed a vision of the future. The past, by contrast, was profoundly present in these societies, with a very living relation with the dead. Christian society was the first to develop a vision in which the present was dedicated to preparation for future salvation. It is on this same model that Marxist ideology was constructed: history is an evolution, a progression, which, from rural societies accumulating capital to develop bourgeois societies, leads to a proletarian society, and then to a classless society. In trivial terms: ‘Tomorrow we get a free lunch”[i].

Many are the signs which indicate that it is no longer such expectations that structure collective life. Religious and ideological belief systems no longer hold any attraction. Christianity itself places the emphasis more and more on the present life, on social engagement rather than preparation for the hereafter. Revolutionary ideology, which promoted the realisation of ultimate ends by whatever means, has been widely called into question, in particular by the collapse of the communist bloc. Nowadays the systems of thought that attract us are those that accentuate a concern with the present, meditation rather than prayer, what is rather than what we want, care for the self rather than the wait for a paradise. What interests us is what happens in the here and now, the corollary of which being a prompt forgetting of yesterday’s deeds and events, political platforms and opinions quickly becoming obsolete. The incantations trotted out by certain political parties, recycling the most egregious stock banalities, are thus nothing more than a form of antiphrasis highlighting the impossibility, in postmodern society, of constructing a collective project which galvanises the populace on the basis of a common and structured vision of the future.

The end of ‘grand narratives’

Some in the 1970s envisioned a renewal of political thinking with the emergence of new social movements rising up in the place of traditional class warfare. Feminists, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, transgender people, squatters, high-school pupils and university students thus mobilised in turn with traditional militants in the cause of revolution. These ‘movements’ are becoming increasingly widespread and at the same time more ephemeral. They may be more nostalgic (old revolutionaries) or initiatory (movements of the high-school students’ type) in their expression, but in all cases they belong to the order of ritual rather than that of programmatic and rational action. The transformation of certain social movements into periodic parties shows that the important thing is the event, the gathering, the festive ritual, rather than the actual demand itself. Take Gay Pride for example, the forerunner of which dates back to a parade organised in favour of the alignment of the age of consent, or the technoparades, which began as a reaction to the banning of rave-parties[ii].

In this sense, the apéritif géant is less about the extravagant consumption of alcohol than demonstrating a force of cohesion, introducing into the city the presence of young revellers – a presence with no justification other than itself, the ‘flashmob’ of course being the paradigmatic example. In the face of such creativity – young people at these mobilisations ever more original in their forms, however trite they might be in their content – traditional protest demonstrations seem rather outdated.

The societal changes underway are so profound that no political party can fully tackle them, but rather have to content themselves merely with recycling their old values, using the stock vocabulary available to them to describe a reality which is totally alien. It must be appreciated that postmodernity is fundamentally characterised by what Jean-Francois Lyotard termed ‘the end of grand theories’. The fall of the Berlin wall and the routing that ensued in the old communist countries was indicative of the bankruptcy of Marxism and the quest for the perfect society as a vector of social cohesion. But it was in fact any historical objective, any grand theory that proved itself non credible. Even the three values upon which the French republic was built (liberty, equality, fraternity) have been affected by this generalised relativism.

The struggle for equality is often limited to scaled-down social demands, no longer able to assure of any real removal of elites. The extension of individual liberties collides with increasing aspirations for more protection – protection against incidents or natural accidents – which legitimises restrictions on the free exercise of collective or individual action. As for fraternity, the institution of the social system, and in particular compulsory and generalised insurance against life’s risks, admittedly accomplished by a high degree of mutualisation of risk, and thus fraternity, but equally by a bureaucratisation of its practice.

In short, the processes and values on which the republican political system was built no longer educe unanimity. And the disenchantment of the postmodern man with regard to politics goes hand in hand with a search for closer links, intimate solidarities, a communitarian rooting, and not just national and social.

From citizen to community

It is traditional to distinguish two types of social relationship: that of the individual to his immediate environment (those people he knows personally or indirectly) and that which links him to the social grouping in which he lives (in particular the nation). It is this latter link, connecting each individual to society as a whole embodied by the state, that was theorised by the Enlightenment philosophers as social contract. From the French revolution to the present day, history has been that of the primacy of the individual’s relationship to mass society through his anchorage in communities of place, of shared belief, of work. Solidarities have been organised according to a system of individual rights rather than as mutual assistance. Norms and directives emanated from the central State. The stability of institutions organised in a hierarchical manner was the guarantee of the continuity of this central state.

This political and administrative model, inherited from Napoleon, is no longer a guarantor of social cohesion. The assimilation of differences in a single model of the citizen no longer functions – even for the indigenous people – and the sentiment of solidarity is expressed less in the relationship with the nation (patriotism) than in entities which are smaller, closer, more diverse communities – or, in postmodern terminology, ‘tribes’.

Use the term ‘community’ (communautaire) and you will be treated as a communautariste. Here the great French fear of corporations manifests itself: the ancestral battle of the Republic against caste systems and feudalism. A curious fear for the country that has without doubt done the most to develop individual rights and liberties, protecting the individual against the various holds exerted by his family, coreligionists or companions in exile. Nevertheless, would be a mistake to deny the existence and growing strength of the search for community relationships. The development of informal groups and associations dedicated to sporting, cultural, or simply everyday activities shows this, as do the countless other groupings, not just those of a protest or anti-establishment bent but also the spontaneous formations and expressions of solidarity that arise in the event of some accident or catastrophe. The importance of online interactions (commercial, conversational, informative) is another clear indicator.

The tribes are distinct from traditional communities (religious, political, parish, district, union etc.) by dint of their more ephemeral character, their rapid efflorescence, the fact that one can belong to multiple tribes without there being a logical link tying them together, and finally the obsolescence of formal membership. Such characteristics are too often confused with the development of individualism, when in fact it is actually a matter of multiple and fluctuating memberships. The communitarian bonds which anchor individuals in various groups (territorial, emotional, affective, cultural, social) have little to do with a political organisation of communities such as that conceived by systems called communitarian. For the latter it is as a function of communities of identity and origin that certain rights and the distribution of powers is determined. This is clearly not the case here, when the same person belongs, for example, to a Muslim community in which she practises her religion, to her local football community where religious memberships are not a topic of conversation, and to a community of fans of some singer or another, not to mention the various discussion forums and other social networks.

Refusal to understand this need for a social link – warm, dense and intimate – refusal to hear the aspiration between close people, among like kinds (whatever it might be that brings together), this denial of the communitarian need simply exacerbates this need, or even, sooner or later, leads to the privileging of one particular type of communitarian link over all others. By choosing to ignore the communal impulse, the French political system makes the bed of communitarianism.

Human beings obviously cannot live in an isolated manner, turning to the State, social security or Employment Centre whenever they run into a problem. Day-to-day exchanges of advice and services, financial and material aid, comfort and various transactions within the communities are essential for individuals’ survival. And they create a feeling of security more robust than any social protection. Isolation can certainly necessitate financial aid, but it will be combatted first and foremost by better community integration: as will social problems, such as education and monitoring the academic progress of children of illiterate parents, the search for housing by the least well-off, the hunt for employment, support of spouses or children of dependent elderly people. Standard social work mostly extends merely to keeping them waiting, entering them into the file of housing applicants or jobseekers, giving them a meagre allowance. But when a trained social worker assembles a group of people who begin to look together for a job, or for accommodation, who support one another and ultimately break out of their role of helped victims, a genuine social link comes into being, and it is through such a communal bond that those involved find reinforcement. In Europe and America it is in this way that a feeling of pride and a conscience of collective endeavour is restored to those rendered vulnerable by social exclusion, material conditions or difficulty adapting to change.

The utilisation of existing communitarian links, whether they are based on common heritage (the immigrant community, shared foreignness), existential (age, sex, living environment) or casual (arising for example around some or other shared social problem), allows for the supersession of the forms that social action all too often takes, inclined towards assistantship and ‘victimphilia’. In a group, tribe or community, each individual finds strength in the strength of all. He can help himself in helping others, every gift engendering a counter-gift. Integration in a community allows for a life in common with the other, under the gaze of the other. And more and more often, conducting politics at the local level, that is, in the city, entails taking into account the innumerable communitarian networks, not so as to build them up into a rigid system (communitarianism), but rather so as to use to their full potential these fundamental bricks of postmodern social cohesion.

Is there a General Interest Anymore?

In a society which is more fragmented, more diversified, and also more unstable in its aspirations, it is increasingly difficult to determine the very thing which, as far as national and global are concerned, remains the foundation of political power: the general interest. In modern society hierarchical relationships were clearly defined. Citizens referred to the same values. The social and historical grounding was held in common. These criteria allowed for the determination of the superior interest, that which is essential to all individuals, being accepted by all. But this can no longer be the case with people who do not share the same values, not least since the interests of some may well contravene those of others. How then to grapple with distinguishing, in terms of good or bad, the questions affecting daily life?

What is certain is that it is becoming increasingly hard to decide what falls under the general interest and what can be sacrificed as an individual interest of lesser importance. And the authority able to impose it, moreover, is less and less tolerated. Our politico-administrative system, built on the basis of a priori universal rules and norms, comes up against ever more frequent protests and resistances. It is not that the sense of community has been lost to profit or to an individualistic egotism, but rather that the values are no longer universal. They pertain to different membership groups such that the conception of what should be imposed and what may be discussed is not unanimous.

The elaboration of law in this context entails the involvement of all parties who are consulted, intervene and propose amendments, not in the name of ‘the general interest’ or a global vision of the problem, but in the name of the impact of such and such a measure on their professional circumstances, family situation and so on. When the law is passed, no-one cares about the practicalities of its implementation, much less its monitoring and control. The law has thus become the instrument of social acknowledgement of the importance of a problem and of the professionals whose job it is to deal with that problem. Parliament is a sounding board for the various lobbies in the matter of political decision-making; laws pertain to a series of individual, sometimes contradictory measures. Transparency and citizens’ participation in the business of government are more and more diminished. Without going into petit-bourgeois criticisms about parliamentary absenteeism, or more serious ones about the paralysis of parliament by majority rule, it must be borne in mind that the content of the news media is not so much that of the parliamentary debate as its interpretation by individual lobbies, the relationship between journalistic reports and the actual activities of parliament often being tenuous to say the least.

The legislative process, once the tool through which the people exercised its sovereignty, has to a certain extent been drained of its use value, becoming, as it were, a symbol of democracy, reduced to this function. This was described very accurately by the situationists as the society of the spectacle, of which politics has become an important aspect, but also as unserious, and as little taken seriously, as the multitude of other spectacles.

To live politics as a spectacle of course implies a certain detachment: a generalised cynicism. This is without doubt caused less by the various gaffes of the politicians than by their celebrity status. This equivalence which has infected the political class raises serious questions as to the very principle of representation, the foundation of the policymaking of the modern period, since representativeness implies that citizens or groups correspond to their elected representatives according to an identical logical principle for all opinion represented. But the disconnect between citizens’ identity and political opinion is total: neither socioprofessional status, nor social class, nor lifestyle choice, nor beliefs nor tastes are enough to assume a voting choice. The disappearance of stable individual identities invalidates the very principle of representation. This is as true in elections as in opinion polls, the errors in which stem from precisely this general instability of political opinions such that one can no longer line up with a fixed social, familial or cultural status. Elected representatives themselves bear witness to this, as no party tenders an overarching blueprint deduced from the collation of the positions of their subjects any more. As for the citizen, just as he fills his supermarket basket with a wide variety of beliefs, of heterogeneous moral values, he has no qualms about assembling ever more elaborate political patchworks.

It is not just universal coherence of positions and opinions that is absent, but equally their continued existence. As soon as there are no longer any grand theories or overarching frameworks, or a universal standard of an explicit superior interest, there is nothing to allow public activity and the ongoing march of political debate to be directed down a one way street. Decision-making is determined by the event of the moment more than by a vision of the future or a defined project. This explains the indecision of the postmodern man in the voting booth and the fluctuation of electoral results. Political action, engagement and participation thus become secondary activities. They lose their importance and are no longer a factor of social cohesion. The French identity can no longer, as it were, erase other identities, be they identities of origin, inherited, or, conversely, chosen, planned, and profoundly changeable.

The Transfiguration of Politics

Is this to say that the political system, the administration of the shared home in a postmodern society will necessarily take the form of communitarianism? Absolutely not. Communitarianism has been devalued in the same way as representative democracy, and for the same reasons. Whatever one’s chosen communities, no longer can any one of them prevail as the sole and unique community of belonging of its members for the whole of their civic life. To be Jewish, Protestant, Catholic or Muslim no longer determines the choice of political representatives to decide on the common rules of town planning, public order, regulation of the market or the financing of social care. No longer does being homosexual, transgender or heterosexual lead to a choice of political party. Nor, moreover, does belonging to a privileged or well-educated social group or being disadvantaged and without education have complete and total influence on musical or televisual tastes, or indeed even over everyday language. How, then, to regulate the ‘being-together’, if the system of elaboration by elected representatives of national norms to be imposed on all is rendered inoperable on so many issues?

Postmodern society is developing and building itself on things acquired from the administrative and political system that preceded it. The French Revolution set out to institute the democratic and Republican system by making a clean sweep, and the complete reconstruction as much of regulatory procedures as of their symbolic signification. Hence the importance accorded to national holidays and national monuments, but also to the unity of civic education. This construction of the political system coincided perfectly with the objectives of the unity of values and modes of life. A diversified, fragmented, relativistic society does not build its system of regulation and administration of its common home in the same way. And if the political model of the modern era, founded on egalitarian representation and the regulation of collective life by the State, was an effective tool for public administration, it no longer appears to be in line with contemporary social reality.

There is a tendency to think of this change as the end of politics, the end of collective life. It is more a question of the emergence of different modalities of living. More everyday, more local, more fluid. The end of one form of solidarity – national, State-based – is not the end of solidarities. They are inventing themselves anew, day to day, before our eyes.

Translation by James Horrox

[i]Demain, on rase gratis’ – French saying relating to hollow promises. The phrase comes from the story of a barber who would place a sign outside his shop every day reading ‘tomorrow you shave for free’. Any customers who arrived at the shop to redeem their free shave the day after they had seen the sign would be surprised to learn they would have to pay anyway, to which the barber responded: ‘Yes, but the sign says that tomorrow it’s free’. JH
[ii] English in original. JH