A few posts back, I proposed that the concept of self-withdrawal is key to understanding current depoliticization processes. Self-withdrawal depends on the kind of spectator attitude that is dismissed by depoliticization critique. The attitude itself is informed by a particular ontology, which is seen as objective and fixed. As Ernesto Laclau has put it, the political has increasingly been turned into a “superstructure, or a regional sector of the social, dominated and explained according to the objective laws of the latter” (Laclau 1990, 160). For politics to make progress in this situation, the priority relations between the social and the political have to be inverted. The self-withdrawal of politics is informed by a ontology of economic determinism, and the underlying logic is both simple and elegant. Its first step is to provide a set of principles in the form of economic laws, which are presented as the (hidden) essence of politics. Second, it “locates this ground (the economic ‘base’) outside of, or beyond, the immediate realm of politics, the latter thus being turned into a ‘merely superstructural’ affair” (Marchart 2007, 12) . Reversing priority relations, as Laclau proposes, means politicizing ontology itself. This is what I have called the ontological aspect of depoliticization critique. It is in relation to this aspect that the tension between depoliticization critique and normativity comes to the fore: this has consequences for what I call the ethical aspect of depoliticization critique.
In order to address this tension, we first need to distinguish between localized and generalized depolicitization critique. This distinction is the offspring of Karl Manheim’s work on ideology critique. Mannheim had distinguished between the particular concept of ideology on the one hand, and the total concept of ideology on the other hand. The former describes a particular kind of deceptive utterance that is interpreted as an expression of structural-ideological causes rather than as intentional deceit o the part of the one that makes it. The latter, the total concept of ideology, goes further: it not only unmasks particular utterances as having been produced by structural-ideological causes, but instead reconstructs the underlying Weltanschauung as such a product (Mannheim 1979, 50) . This in turn means that the particular concept of ideology “makes its analysis of ideas purely on a psychological level”, whereas the total concept of ideology looks at the ontological factors that influence such decisions (ibid, 51; 57). A final relevant implication is that the particular concept of ideology does not exclude the one who makes the deceptive utterance from a common frame of reference; but precisely this commonality is shattered when we extend ideology critique to the level of Weltanschauung. Once this level is reached, the skepticism that accompanies critique is “radical”, “thoroughgoing and devastating” (ibid, 57) . It signals the disappearance of common ground.
In terms of depoliticization critique, the first option is that it represents a localized concern, in which case it argues against the closure of politics in a particular way, and only in that particular way. For instance, Alexis de Tocqueville comments on th undesirability of politicizing property relations in America; doing that would have destabilizing consequences. This works the same way the other way around: if we want to ‘lift’ particular oppressive features of a given society, we may start to inquire what legitimizes that particular way of doing things. In some sense, this question in itself suggests that the oppressive feature has conditions of possibility that can be undone. Making things appear in this light is already a step towards making them the subject of political thought and action, since they are thereby moved into the realm of opinion (Arendt 1967, 297) . If the legitimation is found lacking, that may in itself constitute a good reason for reform – the very question of legitimation, at least if it is a real question, is in that sense a politicizing question. But, crucially, it remains perfectly possible to address this particular concern in a way that is fully legitimate, and indeed that any political question has a definite answer: that politics itself can be finally grounded.
There is, in other words, the potential for localized depoliticization critique to become a form of depoliticization itself. It asks critical questions of one aspect of society, while leaving open the possibility that questions of this nature can have a final answer. Localized depoliticization critique is uncritical of ontology and does not address the problem of a final closure of political space. Insofar as this indeed has depoliticizing effects, localized depoliticization critique is akin to what Herbert Marcuse calls protest against a background of repressive tolerance: one is allowed to speak up, but on the condition that the underlying system is not questioned (Marcuse 1969). As with Mannheim’s distinction between the particular and total concept of ideology, it is only with the second term of the distinction – generalized depoliticization critique – that we conceive of the ontological question.
This distinction is my way of driving a wedge through the heart of political philosophy. With it, I aim to show that even such ‘innocent’ commitments as that of Habermas to “the forceless force of the best argument”, and that of Mouffe to the ‘agon’ (as opposed to Schmitt’s unbridled antagonism) have a foundationalist structure – contestation, antagonism, and politics itself are ‘put in their place’. That line of argument will help us when we try to forge a constructive relationship between ethics (in the sense that we have covered with the help of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Derrida) and politics.