When trying to analyse depoliticization critique in our current situation, we at first notice a distinct lack of the existential themes we saw Schmitt discuss in the last post. However, a striking commonality is that within contemporary institutional politics, (democratic) politics itself is regarded as something dangerous, given the stakes involved. Necessity confronts us in the form of objective economic forces. These forces change the nature of political action. We now have the option of managing them in a scientifically appropriate way. Any alternative to ‘optimal’ management of economic forces requires that we ignore the data in front of us, and/or act in suboptimal ways: and we choose such ways at our peril. Gathering the relevant data is entrusted to political experts, for instance economic advisors. The experts’ predictions continuously confronts us with the potentially disastrous consequences of political action. And indeed, in any voting situation the electorate is already informed in advance that the economy will collapse if a certain candidate is elected, or if we decide to issue a ‘No’ to the EU (more on this in the next post). The fact that the substance of these predictions can be vague and subject to variation does not weaken their suggestive power. As a result, any fundamental alternative is only conceivable in terms of a collapse of the entire system: an irresponsible response to an unbearable risk (Michelsen & Walter 2013, 12-15).
The context of this intrusion of economics into politics is a globalized economic world – itself a highly controversial issue. In terms of depoliticization critique, globalization is described as a “descriptive and normative term” created by a paradoxical policy of depoliticization rather than economic inevitability (Bourdieu 2002, 38). Such policy measures appear in the form of appeals to liberty, liberalism, deregulation, anti-bureaucracy, freedom of movement. In reality they have the perhaps unintended consequence of granting “economic determinisms” a “fatal stranglehold” (ibid). In other words, the forcing nature of economic forces is a political creation. Jacques Rancière adds that the political response to the “common condition” that was “posited” as global economic necessity during the nineties was limited to “consensus around solutions” that were seen to be imposed on all parties in the political spectrum (Rancière 2004, 4). According to authors like Wolfgang Streeck, we now find ourselves in a de facto situation of post-democracy, since democratic processes are no longer able to make a difference. This entails a subjugation of what are traditionally considered political aspects of society to economic ones. The economic necessities that politics finds itself faced with means that the possibility of “discretionary spending” is ever-decreasing: political differences cannot be articulated as different budget priorities, because those have already been set by economic agendas (Streeck & Schaefer 2013, 27). Voter turnouts in OECD-countries show a consistent downturn as the room for political action decreases (ibid, 10). The case has been made that this downturn is caused by the perception that institutional politics has become relatively unimportant.
I propose to describe this strand of depolcrit as a critique of political ‘self-withdrawal’. Authors like Bourdieu and Streeck emphasize that depoliticization is not made by markets, but enacted by states, in the same way that globalization is not an unavoidable fate born of purely external circumstances but a result of policy. For instance: social policies are actively dismantled in the name of austerity (Bourdieu 2002, 41; Streeck & Schaefer, 2013). Conflicts within society are addressed by way of a “simulation”, reviving precisely those narratives of the nation state that have been outmoded by policy itself (Michelsen & Walter 2013, 11; Bourdieu 2002, 40-41). This creates a shift of both the scope of politics and its connection to the affected citizens. The reality of politics (though not the way it presents itself to the electorate) becomes increasingly international – that is, removed from local and even national concerns, abstract, and invisible (Bourdieu 2002, 41). If, in Ulrich Beck’s term, we speak of institutional politics on the national level as a set of “zombie institutions”, which are dead and yet still alive (Bauman 2000, 6-8), we should not neglect the self-inflicted aspects of this zombification, both in terms of its historical genesis and as an ongoing process. Thus, policies of ‘liberating’ market forces and the enactment of such policies provide the historical context for depoliticization critique today.
I have not yet considered the question whether depolcrit along these lines is, in the final instance, the best analysis of politics in our day and age. However, one advantage of this mode of analysis is that we are able to understand the ever-increasing involvement of experts in politics, the related phenomenon of technocracy and the increasingly widespread perception that national citizens are no longer the main audience of politicians – which provokes anti-political sentiments throughout society. This is our next stop, in what is a slight detour: how should we describe the disconnect between politics and society that today’s depolcrit suggests, and how does populism fit into such a description?