We have thus far considered depoliticization critique in general terms, following the embryonic definition from the first post. We are now in a position to specify the critical point of depolcrit: when targeting part of what goes on within institutional politics, the critic of depoliticization singles it out as not properly or authentically political (Vollrath 1995, 48).This presupposes a distinction within politics that not only criticizes part of institutional politics, but also has the potential to cast what is truly political in terms that are not only contingently but essentially at odds with institutionalization as such. Oliver Marchart (2007) reflects on the often­made distinction between these two aspects of politics (or politics  and ‘the political’) and coins the term “political difference” to describe the rift.

We saw when considering Laclau’s theory of populism that his political thought dances around the topic of providing closure for politics once and for all; this kind of closure is considered both impossible and necessary. “Impossible, because the tension between equivalence and difference is ultimately insurmountable; necessary, because without some kind of closure, however precarious it might be, there would be no signification and no identity” (Laclau 2006, 70). This tension is an important historical starting point for political difference and can be traced back to post-war France, to a group of theories that can be called a ‘Heideggerianism of the Left’ (Marchart 2007, 2; Janicaud 2001, 291-300). These theories focus on the same double aspect we see in Laclau’s quote. On the one hand they theorize a weakening of the ontological status of ground or foundation: this weakening had been a central feature of Heidegger’s work. In other words: there is no certain first principle that can help us to grasp the world fully (Grund turns into Abgrund). This is then politicized as the impossibility of a final grounding of politics: there is no one principle or set of principles that can finalize politics. On the other hand, these theories insist on the necessity of responding to the “dubious if not despicable” politics of Heidegger himself (ibid.). In other words, even though it is not possible to get politics right in a definitive sense, we still have to try, and we do try (Ab-grund is still Grund). We can come to appreciate what this means when we recall Carl Schmitt‘s figure of historical depoliticizations in various domains of human life. It is, on the one hand, impossible to ground politics completely – to assign to it a neutral domain where its dangers can be forever contained – and yet there is the continued necessity of developing alternatives.

There is a lot of variety in theorists of political difference. We have already encountered Schmitt, Laclau, and Rancière (briefly); we will encounter very different thinkers still when we consider the likes of Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin. However, the important commonality uniting these thinkers is that they feel the necessity to split politics from within: politics as “a particular social system, a certain form of action” is contrasted with the political as “the principle of autonomy of politics, or the moment of institution of society” (ibid, 7). There needs to be an interplay between these two domains, yet they never really come into contact. How can this be? On the level of concepts, the solution is to see politics as the attempt to provide a ground for politics. It is now established that it is impossible to get it right in any final sense. An implication on the level of everyday politics is that no one political party, or coalition of parties, can do justice to all aspects of society – for this would presuppose a final grounding of politics. But this absent ground is not simply left out: its absence is felt and experienced. This results in a tension or (differential) play between the two poles of political difference: ‘ontic’ everyday politics and the ‘ontological’ dimension of the political. Precisely because it is impossible to get it right, the political can only express itself as an event; that is to say, as a moment, as something that is necessarily fleeting. It is doomed to crystallize itself as another social system, form of action, etc. and it will still not have the final answer.

Rather than being depressed by the impossibility of getting it right and finally laying politics to rest, these theorists see the spaces that exist in between the different attempts to get it right, and the political spaces that are untouched by hegemonic politics, as sites of freedom and political action. If it is not possible to get it right, then political activity of some form is not a defect, but a necessity. Rather than the straightjacket of a perfectly just system that one simply has to abide by, blaming oneself for every misstep in the process, we are set free to address the injustices that we see at work in the world. This ties back in with the question about morality. Theorists like Rancière distrust normativity (Genel & Deranty 2016, 40; 65). Why is that? Is there a contradiction between the aims of ethics and the concerns of political difference? We will consult various representatives of the theory, beginning with the crucial democratic theorist (who is also Laclau’s widow) Chantal Mouffe.


3 thoughts on “Depolcrit #4: Political difference

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