A political view of anti-politicsBy Jose Angel Garcia on 9 May 2017
In the face of the UK elections and political tumult occurring across Europe, Matthew Wood argues political scientists are required to ‘scrutinise’ established political dogmas and conceptualisations. In this context, concepts like populism, he says, acquire ‘a life of their own [and] trip off everyone’s tongue easily’, making it difficult to describe and explain the problems of today. And I entirely agree with him: ‘one important job of political scientists is to subject [political] concepts to a bit more scrutiny, and see whether they actually capture what’s really going on’. Nevertheless, I am afraid I differ with some of Wood’s arguments.
In Why political scientists should study anti-politics? Wood states that ‘populism’ is not the most suitable concept to describe Europe’s current political scenario, and introduces the notion of ‘anti-politics’. Anti-politics, Wood says, points to the current decay of the existing representative democratic system. Wood goes further and argues ‘there simply isn’t a desire for some radical form of new politics where the public are directly involved in deliberation and decision making’.
Whilst Wood is right in that citizens are losing ‘social cohesion and mobility, trust and faith in politicians’; this certainly does not necessarily point to the ‘decline’ of representative democracy. It does evidence, however, the need for a reconfiguration of power, a radical change of political values and a transformation of the type of political representation that ‘the people’ currently has and is not content with. The lost of trust and faith in politicians does not equate to a sentiment of hatred against politics, it embodies the societal expression against those actors and systems that are not currently serving the people, but an elite. Citizens do not call for the end of representative politics, but –in fact– further representation through a new breed of citizens’ representatives: a new generation of politicians. See, for instance, the case of the French elections: the people are not abandoning politics, but moving away from established politicians and their parties.
Contrary to Wood’s opinion, citizens’ movements against presidential candidates in France, isolationism in the U.K. and anti-immigration policies in the U.S.A. do reflect the re-birth of an energised and more politically interested civil society – even if it is a short-term or single-issue condition. In the pure sense of the term [politics], citizens are certainly not fighting politics but policies and established politicians; the public, better said the publics [as pointed out by Flinders] are not ‘finishing’ with politics but making new politics: they debate, engage in protests and attempt to change policy.
Regarding the ‘unexpected political events’ –as Wood calls them– of the rise of ‘political non-politicians’ , Trump, Le Pen and Farage –even Corbyn–, are certainly ‘appealing to the people’. True, this per se does not allow us to frame them under the populist umbrella, in fact, that’s what legitimate politicians should do, to approach and engage their constituents. Nevertheless, this wave of political actors is taking advantage of citizens’ disillusionment with the prevailing political system to offer national placebos of ‘hope’, not even palliatives, to internationally rooted problems. Whilst they do frame themselves as ‘anti-establishment’ figures, paradoxically, they perfectly embody it: they are not part of the public but of –what Flinders calls– the uber-elite. Even Corbyn, initially an alien to the ‘establishment’, has –regrettably– become so fixated with clinging on to Labour’s leadership that –Charlie Beckett argues– he now makes no effort to appeal to anyone except those firmly on his side, he is forgetting about the peopleS. His own staff at Labour’s HQ are threatening to strike and polls show [near] historic lows of Labour support. All this whilst his ‘inner circle is clinging stubbornly to the hope of an upset election win’. Overall, they are not anti-politics, not even against representative democracy; on the contrary, they are using them to their advantage. Their slogans might provide ‘alternative facts’ about their anti-politics intentions, but in reality they are becoming the masters of new politics: the new politicians.
They might not embody the kind of politics we are used to or would like to see. Nevertheless, they, and every ‘event’ that ‘result[s] of populism, anti-establishment sentiment, or the renewal of right wing extremism’ –to which Wood refers to– are the outcome of, could be perpetuated by, but –hopefully– will be stopped through politics, hidden politics if you want, but certainly not anti-politics.
In sum, likening politics to ‘a well functioning representative democratic system’ does encourage conceptual scrutiny from political scientists, as Wood aimed to do. But the ambiguity, even narrowness, of the scholarly contested anti-politics argument does not permit developing comprehensive analyses, with real applications, to explain political events –Wood’s ultimate goal.
Wood is right in that building new concepts might allow us to solve new problems as they arise. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that political science is now in greater need of testing and solving existing questions than posing new unsolved ones. Otherwise, as political scientists we will inadvertently contribute to –what Flinders frames as– the ‘tragedy of political science’: by making it more ‘professional and scientific’, we weaken it in terms of its relevance as a force supportive of democracy, we broaden the already criticised gap between students of politics and policy makers.
Jose Angel Garcia is a PhD researcher at the Department of Politics of the University of Sheffield. His research revolves around governance, co-production of public policy and civil society development in young democracies. He tweets @JangelGarciav.
Image: Sophie Angold CC BY-NC-ND