Entpolitisierungskritik is a wonderful German technical term that captures both of the features I am interested in – depoliticization and critique – in a single word, while also suggesting that we compare it to its older cousin, Ideologiekritik. ‘Ideology critique’ has established itself as a passable English version, I suspect mostly because of the theoretical importance of the term. In that spirit, one of the goals of this blog will be to similarly establish ‘depoliticization critique’, or depolcrit for short.
But why, you may ask – what are the benefits of using this artificial-sounding concept? Let us continue the comparison with Ideologiekritik. The latter concept gained currency when Marxist theorists saw a need to posit distinctions between groups of people on the level of thought. From a rhetorical standpoint, to say that someone is under the sway of an ideology is to claim that they are unable to think for themselves. Their thought is framed by sets of assumptions, values, and beliefs that cannot be penetrated by rational discourse. (Based on Sloterdijk 1983.)
It is not clear that depoliticization has a comparably simple meaning. Of course, this does not stop us from using it in very different contexts. Let us briefly consider two examples. First, we may say that an economic policy is ‘depoliticized’ when it is motivated by expert counsel rather than what we may think of as properly democratic processes. Second, we may say that terrorist attacks are ‘depoliticized’ when we cast them as ‘attacks on our values’ rather than moves and counters in a conflict between political groups. The first example shows that depoliticization critique is centrally concerned with a notion of politics or ‘the political’, and that critical usage of the term can quickly lead to diagnoses of ‘unpolitical politics’. This will be the case when institutional politics is unable to do justice to what we regard as truly political. For instance, if real politics requires representative democracy, than a democracy that no longer centrally involves representation can be considered depoliticized in the sense that the real politics has been removed from it (Walter & Michelsen, 2013). The example concerning ‘attacks on our values’ shows that depoliticization critique resists passive, spectator attitudes toward political reality. Rather than casting terrorism, or economic policy for that matter, as an inevitable ‘force of nature’ that could not have been otherwise, depoliticization critique inquires into the historical and genetic conditions of the situation ‘objectively’ confronting us, and more specifically inquires into the role of politics past, present, and future.
What we can surmise from these brief reflections is, first, the involvement of depoliticization critique with what Marchart (2007) calls political difference: the distinction between politics and the political. Second, there seems to be a notion of responsibility at work, or at least a general sense that politics is not about passively reacting to matters of fact, but about action in some normatively pregnant sense of the term. But there appears to be a tension between these two fields of concepts, so that the idea of responsibility and indeed normativity itself is at odds with political difference as we know it. This tension revolves around the matter of the autonomy of politics. Theorists of political difference typically contrast a notion of politics as ‘derivative’ of other spheres (for instance, the social) with a notion of the political as a disruptive event that is necessarily only fleeting in nature. If the political is truly to be disruptive, however, then it cannot rely on pre-established categories.
This should make clear that the rabbit-hole called depolcrit goes quite deep. Just how deep remains to be seen. The tension between politics and the political, combined with a deep suspicion of politics as a response to a predetermined reality, shows many other concepts in a new light. Democracy and representation, in the forms that we are accustomed to, could come under fire. Populism stands to be re-evaluated: is it the pinnacle of politics in the true sense or a form of antipolitical mistrust? The theoretical angle of depoliticization critique shows how such discussions are themselves instances of the master problem confronting this kind of thought: how should we conceive of ethics? Is it a threat to the autonomy of politics, or do we need some notion of ethics to make sense of depoliticization critique? And how would we make sense of such a notion of ethics?
Before delving that deeply, we have to do some preliminary excavation work. Both examples of depolcrit that we have explored above involve a notion of politics and what it should be able to do. What we mean when we criticize ‘depoliticization’ thus seems to depend essentially on the concept of politics / the political we employ in the process. Depoliticization and depoliticization critique are thus tied to historical context. But what does it mean to claim such a thing?