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Morbid Symptoms

by Elizabeth Humphrys on March 20, 2017
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The following is the text of a presentation I gave on 9 March as part of the Sydney Historical Research Network seminar series ‘History Now’. This week’s topic was ‘The History of Class Now’.

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer ‘leading’ [or directive: dirigente] but only ‘dominant’, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. — Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Q3 §34 (1930).

Interregnum originally meant the period between when one monarch dies, and another takes the throne. As Zygmunt Bauman notes, Gramsci gave the term a broader meaning, referring to the socio-political-legal order. One way in which this can be understood is a period where one arrangement of hegemony is waning, but prior to the emergence of another.

Although we are not in a period of unravelling or reordering that is similar to that on which Gramsci focussed—that might rival the Risorgimento in Italy or the upheavals around and following WWI—there is a profound historical shift taking place, and part of this is the collapse of the era of mass politics. By mass politics I mean the era that started at the end of the 19th Century and saw the formation of mass-based political parties, and the construction of mass-based trade unions, and which persisted for most of the 20th century.

Peter Mair, in his posthumously published Ruling the Void, surveyed the state of politics across the European Union and concluded that across a wealth of empirical data—voter turnout, party allegiance, electoral volatility, party membership, and membership of civil society organisations such as trade unions—there has been an unmistakable trend towards popular disengagement from politics. In advanced capitalist countries fewer citizens are voting and engaging with political parties, voting patterns are increasingly volatile, and distrust of political elites is on the rise. Citizens are less partisan with respect to traditional political parties, and although recent economic chaos has accelerated these processes of decline, the phenomenon long predates the current era of austerity. Some scholars, including myself, term this phenomenon ‘anti-politics’. And in many ways anti-politics predates the neoliberal period in general, although the phenomenon has accelerated in that period.

It is useful to conceive of anti-politics as having two distinct but related expressions or forms. Firstly, there is the prevailing popular mood of detachment from, and hostility to, politicians, parties and the political process—including radical forms of politics. This 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 from across the ideological spectrum that trade on an appeal to this mood for their own political ends.

This mood has been leveraged in the United States by figures like Donald Trump, who successfully campaigned for the Presidency against the entire political establishment after staging what was (in effect) a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, against the wishes of most of its elite members and donors. A similar mood expressed itself in the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, where voters rejected the stance shared by the vast majority of the country’s political class and mainstream media (see Inglehart and Norris, 2016).

On the Left parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have related to this sentiment, mobilising widespread disenchantment with politicians and the political process into new formations promising to ‘do’ politics fundamentally differently. In the case of Spain, Podemos was an anti-mainstream party of the Left built on a wave of anti-political sentiment in the 15-M or Indignados movement. A key slogan of Podemos was ‘No nos representan’ (‘they don’t represent us’). In a brief burst of national popularity, the comedian and activist Russell Brand was a progressive expression of this sentiment in the UK. It is also expressed in less ideologically coherent populist formations like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy.

A key question to ask over the coming period, is what might we glean from these morbid symptoms in terms of the history of the ruling and working classes now? The working class is disorganised as a social and political force, and it no longer recognises those who purport to lead it—be that the traditional social democratic and labour parties or the trade unions.

This is not to say class is absent, or that the class does not still act. While there have been relatively few workplace struggles and strikes, both here and in places like the US, struggle and antagonism persists. As Tithi Bhattacharya of Purdue University argued on social media:

The working class does not just go away and concede to the relentless attacks from capitalists. The relative decline in workplace organizing has meant that struggle has erupted outside of the point of production: for water in Ireland and Cochabamba, for land in Standing Rock, for reproductive justice in Poland, the right to live in Black lives matter struggle. These are all class struggles waged by working class people.

At the same time, we see expressions of class antagonism that are not organised, not clearly articulated, or progressive—most particularly in the election of a candidate like Trump. Trump was the most unpopular presidential candidate ever elected (since regular polling began), but he was elected despite the fact that many voters don’t like him. It is important to ask how and why that situation came about, and particularly to move beyond explanations that focus on facts directly related to Trump himself.

Neoliberalism has fundamentally altered society, and was a project not simply of parties and politicians of the right. Labour’s involvement in the construction of neoliberalism—most particularly in Australia, but also internationally—is surely also a contributing factor to why social democratic and Labourist parties — and the trade unions that underpinned their mass support—have been unable to recover support in recent years.

The decay of the old political order has not only led to new political projects seeking to leverage anti-political sentiment for their own ends, nor simply to the beginnings of new social movements directly challenging the primacy of political rule in late capitalism. It has also led to a hostile reaction by those involved in the practice of politics. Such reactions have insisted that the problems of politics are the product either of faulty political elites or a pathological public, or some combination of the two.

For example, significant words have been spent on identifying Trump as being personally unfit (the wrong kind of person) to be at the head of the world’s most powerful democracy. More specifically, criticism of Trump has been aimed not just at his character, but in terms of psychopathology—that he is an extreme narcissist, or even a psychopath, who must not be allowed access to the nuclear codes. These attacks have extended to his supporters, who have been portrayed as ‘angry’ and ‘driven by hate’, harbouring all kinds of personal pathologies (such as female voters, who were labelled as having ‘internalised misogyny’ for failing to vote for Clinton). This was most famously highlighted in Hillary Clinton’s claim that Trump’s voters were ‘desperates’ and ‘deplorables’. Pseudoscientific explanations claiming that Trump-voters’ brains were wired for authoritarianism, or so beaten down by marginal social existences that they were lashing out irrationally, were also widely reported.

Similarly, in the case of the Brexit vote, the result was blamed on selfish, bigoted, older, white, uneducated working class voters who had failed to comprehend what the experts were telling them — voters who had ‘stolen the futures’ of a whole generation of young people. In the UK, this identification of white working class voters as the ‘cause’ of unwelcome electoral results has led to a quasi-anthropological search for these fabled creatures in their natural habitats—once again marking their otherness from rational cosmopolitan European elites.

I would argue this is a pathologisation of politics. The effect of pathologisation is to render political breakdown as inexplicable in rational terms, and to situate a failing political order as one that must be saved from the illness afflicting it—even if that means limiting access of certain individuals from participation on the basis that they are the pathogen undermining the system. This line of thinking has been constructed in more sophisticated form by a series of theorists intent on further intensifying the withdrawal of the political class to the safe haven of the state, which Mair described with such alacrity.

For example, in What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller lumps a wide range of political actors under the rubric of ‘populism’, which he characterises as a dangerous deformation of democracy under the guise of imposing the popular will on the operations of the state. Like many other theorists he favours checks and balances outside voters’ control to impose limits on majoritarian incursions on minority rights. Taking things to greater extremes are the widely-quoted prescriptions of thinkers like Fareed Zakaria whose ‘constitutional liberalism’ would see the ideals of classical liberalism and the rule of law upheld contra ‘illiberal democracies’ which rest on majority rule. David Van Reybrouck argued elections should be scrapped in favour of having curated samples of citizens decide policy, and Jason Brennan is ‘against democracy’ and wants to see it replaced by an ‘epistocracy’ where less-informed voters are disenfranchised.

Such approaches ignore the dissolution of the social base of longstanding political arrangements, seeking instead to limit the involvement of the demos in democracy. That dissolution means politics cannot overcome its brittle relationship with civil society, facing increasing detachment, simply by extruding civil society from its operations. Rather, attempts to limit involvement will only bring greater antagonism from voters, and hence greater instability to the political class’s position.

Politics was once the way that class relations were expressed across society. Parties of Right and Left seemed to represent social class forces. Now the parties of Right and Left are the product of a disintegration—of a breakdown of the political order premised on the ever-increasing detachment of classes from their political representatives (and vice-versa).

More than ever historical analysis requires dealing with this empirical reality. It is now disorienting for scholars to read the situation of the classes off the activities of their (former) political representatives, or else one reads the pathology of politics—with its crazed partisan warfare—onto a society where class struggle is present but muted, fragmentary and quieter than it has been for perhaps more than a century.

When we write histories of class it is important not to eternalise transient arrangements from the past, even if they seemed the norm for most of the 20th century. The disconnect between the logics of society and politics need to be understood on their own terms, before their interaction is considered. This means returning to a materialist historical approach that refuses to allow the airy realm of politics—in all its present mess—to distort how we understand history. We are living in a period where too much analysis and historical writing reads society off politics, even though politics is dysfunctional.

Some look at politics and say that its form must say something about society, rather than asking what is wrong with politics itself. Or, alternatively, what is right and sensible and rational in people’s rejection of traditional political parties, politicians and trade unions who have failed them in this particular historical moment.

As a colleague remarked last week, if there was less of an easy resort to pop-psychology then perhaps we could move to a meaningful analysis of the present state of things. In response to this, and in terms of scholars writing the history of the classes now, I would make a plea for a return to materialism.

This post originally appeared on An Integral State

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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