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Anti-politics and the Illusions of Neoliberalism

by Elizabeth Humphrys on February 23, 2015

The latest issue of Oxford Left Review has a number of engaging articles on the nature and consequences of neoliberalism. Neil Davidson from the University of Glasgow examines the changing social base of neoliberalism, where he explores the shift from vanguard to ‘social’ neoliberalism and the relationship of the latter to the middle classes. Matt Myers, from the LSE, writes on the breaking of the British working class in the neoliberal era and emphasises placing working class experience at the centre of any examination. Thomas Presskorn-Thygensen considers what features allow us to call something ‘neoliberal’, asking why neoliberalism has proven resilient — the ‘strange non-death of neoliberalism’ even after the 2008 economic crisis. While these three articles tend to emphasise the strength and power of neoliberalism, a piece by Tad Tietze and myself asks about the antinomies and fractures of neoliberalism exhibited in the process of ‘anti-politics’. This is a question we have been considering for some time, as we seek to appreciate a range of political features and events across advances capitalist countries (see here and here).

Disconnection from, and contempt for, political elites, is an important characteristic of the present period. This has been evident in trends such as low voter turnout at elections, crumbling political party allegiance, electoral volatility, collapsing membership of traditional parties, and declining membership of civil society organisations like trade unions. Peter Mair’s book Ruling The Void concluded, on the basis of a wealth of empirical data on these factors across Europe, that there had been an unmistakable trend towards popular disengagement from politics and a corresponding tendency by political classes to take positions increasingly hostile to their constituents.

Phrases like ‘political disconnect’, ‘cranky electorate’ and ‘political volatility’ have been bandied around, but there has been little shape or explanation given to those descriptors. For the last few years we have been considering how these phenomena — which others and we call ‘anti-politics’ — came about. We want to understand what form anti-politics takes and what its consequences are.

IndignadosAnti-politics expresses itself in a diversity of ways. In Spain, the mass mobilisations and square occupations of the Indignados movement — which utilised the slogan ‘they don’t represent us’ — led to local area activist groupings and the rise of a radical left party Podemos (which is recording just under 30 per cent in Spain-wide opinion polls). In Greece, the popular mood against both the right-wing government of Antonis Samaras and the old centre-left Pasok pushed Syriza to victory in national elections last month. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s UKIP has captured anti-politics sentiment to paint its right-wing populist formation as a rebellion against an out-of-touch Westminster political class. Yet UKIP’s rise has occurred at the same time as the popularity of Russell Brand’s attack on the political system for offering nothing to ordinary people, demonstrating how anti-politics has both left-wing and right-wing expressions. We have witnessed the Occupy protests in the United States, Comedian Beppe Grillo’s populism in Italy, and the rise of the Palmer United Party in Australia. How do we begin to understand these varied expressions and how they might be connects?

We argue there are three distinct but related forms of anti-politics taking place. First there is the prevailing popular mood of detachment from and hostility to politicians and politics, which expresses itself in short-lived bursts of protest, electoral volatility and political crisis, but tends to dissipate if not given direction. Secondly, there are political projects (on the left and right) that trade on an appeal to this mood but for their own political ends, and because of their limited nature usually end up being seen as simply ‘just like the others’ or collapse into moralistic opposition to the status quo. Finally, there is what Marx and Engels called ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ — a social revolution that would end ‘official politics’ and replace it with something truly democratic, participatory and emancipatory.

BailoutOur analysis has been developed through examining certain countries —most particularly the Anglophone countries of the US, UK and Australia and the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy and Greece — but we believe the phenomenon exists in various forms across most Western countries. It is our contention that one key to understanding the development of anti-politics is the political-economic reconstruction of the advanced capitalist countries since the end of the long boom in the early 1970s.

In the latest issue of Oxford Left Review (OLR) we look specifically at the connection between anti-politics and neoliberalism. While anti-political sentiment has been around for as long as modern politics, the neoliberal era sits at the heart of the present trend and has accelerated the process. Until the global financial meltdown of 2008, the steady unravelling of last century’s political set-up was seldom recognised, and the withdrawal of popular engagement with politics was mainly seen as a sign of how neoliberalism had succeeded in neutering opposition (whether by excluding people from democracy or rendering them apathetic about the political process). The retreats of progressive movements were displaced into visions of an unstoppable, triumphalist right, blooded in singular confrontations like Thatcher’s defeat of the miners’ strike or Reagan’s defeat of the air traffic controllers union PATCO. It was widely presumed that the left could only maintain electoral viability by going along with the neoliberal project, whether openly or in slightly moderated ‘Third Way’ or ‘New Labour’ form.

It is our line of reasoning, however, that such views overlaid ideological beliefs about the social power of neoliberalism onto what were really signs of a wider political breakdown — a collapse that the neoliberal project ironically played a role in hastening. Our new article therefore looks at three arguments about neoliberalism that are prominent, but we believe are false and which contribute to an attitude that neoliberalism (and the parties that implement it) is the only alternative. Our article considers the myths that neoliberalism involved 1) a ‘retreat of the state’; 2) that it has directly rolled back existing popular democratic control of society; and 3) that it has created a new subjectivity where individual market rationality had supplanted collective social solidarity.

While the rise of anti-politics destabilises the idea that the neoliberal project has been unambiguously successful, and shows how the political basis for driving through harsh restructuring has been eroded, myths about the power and ascendency of neoliberalism remain. These two positions are not compatible in our view, and the rise of anti-politics can only be explained by the contradictions and ruptures of the neoliberal era.

The articles mentioned here in OLR, and further pieces discussing neoliberalism, can be viewed online at the journal’s website (open access).

Elizabeth Humphrys
Elizabeth is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in Social & Political Sciences, within the Communications program, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Technology Sydney.

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