'Anti-politics in British Political Science'. By Alen ToplišekBy Ross Beveridge on 27 November 2015
Anti-politics in British political science
Alen Toplišek (Queen Mary, London, UK)
There has been much discussion about people’s disenchantment with formal politics, the general anti-political sentiment and what drives depoliticisation in contemporary neoliberal societies (Stoker 2006; Hay 2007, 2009; Flinders 2012). The definition of depoliticisation proposed by Peter Burnham (2001) and the linear concentric model put together by Colin Hay (2007) are widely accepted in the depoliticisation and anti-politics studies as the main conceptual framework for analytical inquiry. While this analytical approach has generated many fruitful illuminations through specific case studies (Wood 2014, 2015b; Flinders and Wood 2015) and sustained efforts in developing the original models further (Flinders and Buller 2006; Flinders 2008; Flinders and Wood 2014; Wood 2015a), there has not been much attempt to critically assess the very premises on which these models are based. What understanding of politics do they rely on and how do its advocates contextualize its crisis/the general anti-political sentiment in society?
Here, I agree with the key observation that Laura Jenkins (2011) makes, namely that the dominant literature on depoliticization studies is not “explicit enough about the relationship between politicising and depoliticising dynamics, or the conception of the political on which it draws” (ibid., 157). In this blog post, I will focus on the latter part of the observation by problematizing the conception of the political which can be found in both Colin Hay (2007) and Gerry Stoker (2006), two works that have had a significant influence on how the growing anti-political sentiment is understood in British political science. I will scrutinise their conceptions of political agency and the conclusions that they come to in their analysis of anti-politics in Britain. In my work, I argue that in taking a moralistic “blame-shifting” approach to diagnosing the problem of people’s disenchantment with established politics they fail to critically interrogate and engage with their own conceptions of the political.
Considering the impact that the financial crisis had for the rethinking of our understanding of politics and economy, I also compared their published work before the start of the crisis (Hay 2007; Stoker 2006) as well as the work written after (Stoker 2010, 2015; Colin Hay 2010) to see if the crisis, and the numerous repoliticizing movements that it helped propel, left any mark on their political analysis. To my regret, the crisis does not seem to have re-evaluated their ontological understanding of politics, as well as their conceptions of political agency, as one might have expected. Hay himself admits that part of the blame for people’s disenchantment with established politics lies with academic political commentators (Hay 2007, 156) and political analysts (ibid., 162), however, strangely enough, he does not seem to think that his work might be part of the problem as well. In the following, I will provide some examples from their conclusions which I think demonstrate the lack of critical reflection on the ontological assumptions that inform their conception of the political and agency:
- Resignation about politics – we need to accept it as it is
“Politics often involves a stumbling search for solutions to particular problems. It is not the most edifying human experience. It is rarely an experience of self-actualization and more often an experience of accepting second-best.” (Stoker 2015, 133)
“/…/ [M]any citizens fail fully to appreciate that politics in the end involves the collective imposition of decisions, demands a complex communication process and generally produces messy compromises” (Stoker 2006, 68)
“That we are not prepared for such messy compromises and do not see them as the essence of decision-making in complex societies is, I would contend, less a product of our political institutions’ failure to accord to a democratic ideal than it is a product of their failure to promote and defend the value of politics itself.” (Hay 2009, 96)
- Underestimating people’s political agency and making assumptions about human nature – people have too high of expectations of politicians
“People often find it difficult to think beyond their own experiences and therefore tend to judge political decisions according to their own interests and circumstances. Naïve aspirations and assumptions about politics often flow from these preconceptions... People generally do not like making a lot of effort for little reward.” (Stoker 2015, 137)
“I do not ‘blame’ potential voters for their invariably cynical, negative and pessimistic assumptions about the motivations and capacities of political actors. Yet I do argue that such assumptions are, almost certainly, unwarranted; that they have had, and continue to have, an alarmingly cumulative and corrosive impact upon democratic political culture and the capacity of political elites to deliver collective/public goods; and that our reasons for holding such assumptions have precious little to do with the ‘reality’ of politics itself.” (Hay 2007, 157)
- Political agency is reserved for professional politicians – nothing wrong with the system, we just need to make it work rather better
“Most of the real politics is done in a space where we are spectators. It is the sphere of professionals where we are the amateurs. The cohesion brought by parties, the advocacy of special interests by the lobby, and the challenge and dissent offered through various forms of protest offer vital links in the democratic chain between governors and governed. But all are failing to engage citizens-at-large in politics. Activists are odd people, very much in a minority in our society. They do a lot of the work of politics for us and we should be grateful to them. But the way their organizations work is in part responsible for people’s sense of alienation from politics.” (Stoker 2015, 134)
“It is all very well, it strikes me, to see what can be done to increase the sense of involvement and participation in the decision-making process of citizens as amateurs – indeed, it would be churlish to challenge any such reform which might credibly reconnect citizens to a democratic political culture. But there is surely a danger that, in the process of putting our efforts into building participatory democratic institutions from the bottom up, we give up too readily and too rapidly on making our existing representative democratic institutions work rather better than they do today.” (Hay 2009, 98)
In summary, Hay (2007) and Stoker (2006) argue that we need to come to terms with the messy character of institutional politics, and if only we had more faith in our political representatives, our politicians would be more encouraged to deliver on their electoral promises. While they do strive to conceptualise politics in a more positive and less cynical fashion, they fail to identify, in my view, the underlying causes for the crisis of politics. They both recognise the need for a more inclusive definition of politics which would be receptive towards what takes place in the public sphere outside the governmental walls as well. Yet, they still privilege the position of elected representatives as the most important and best suited to use their political agency. What happens out in the streets in the form of protest movements is understood as a welcome input into the whole of the political life, but only in so far as it stays within the framework of what the political representatives have set out to achieve. If non-conventional political agents sidestep this framework, they are deemed to be populists who fail "to appreciate the complexities of democratic practice" and "too often collapse[s] into the politics of blame and simplistic solutions" (Stoker 2006, 132).
Both Hay and Stoker recognise that the inherent goal of politics is to serve the public good and to manage society in a way that benefits everyone. In their analysis, they express concern for the negative views of politics and politicians that are present in society and circulated through the media and public discourse. Despite their firm belief in the good that politics can deliver, they assuage themselves with the messiness and disappointment that politics is bound to bring. Hay and Stoker both contend that negativity towards politics is ill-informed and unfounded and that political representatives are not treated fairly by the people according to their merits and with the view of the limits that are imposed upon them by external factors. The moralist critique employed thus redirects a great share of responsibility from the political elites to the electoral base who simply need to give their political representatives the benefit of the doubt. A famous poem by Bertolt Brecht (1959) comes to mind which invites the logical question: "Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?"
In terms of the authors' understanding of political ontology, politics is not something that we should aim to change, but something that we are supposed to come to terms with. This view presupposes a non-contingent conception of the political, or rather, a conservative, restricted one. In Hay's and Stoker's view, our dealing with and doing politics should stay within the bounds of the existing institutional infrastructure. As such, Hay and Stoker’s understanding of politics simply reflects the entrenched representation of politics held more generally in society and by political elites themselves. In their view, people are taken to be passive recipients of decisions already decided upon by established political structures and as a result their political agency is limited to merely approving or rejecting proposed solutions, without any direct input in the decision-making processes. Shifting the blame for the crisis of representative politics onto the disinterested and politically apathetic electorate, rather than on the practices and ideologies that perpetuate it, severely restricts the democratic function of politics.
For this reason, I see the observations Hay and Stoker come to in their work as an example of anti-politics in British political science, for foreclosing the space for politics and political agency both methodologically and ontologically. Methodologically (see Hay 2010, 17–9, 23–4; Stoker 2010, 60–3), the discipline of political science is closed off from other disciplines; contingency, ambiguity and any paradoxes are eliminated or glided over as unnecessary obstacles in their pursuit of systematising everything and to move closer to a more coherent image of political studies as a science of empirics. Ontologically, people as agents of politics are infantilised and their intelligence belittled in favour of professional politicians and complex structures and procedures which are supposedly too difficult for laywomen and laymen to comprehend.
In the conclusion to his contribution to New Directions in Political Science, the edited volume commissioned to mark the 60th anniversary of the PSA, Stoker warns of the danger of political science becoming irrelevant in the future if we, as students of politics, do not produce research that resonates with the pressing challenges of the 21st century. In a time when political movements are revitalising the cumbersome structures of established politics, when these same structures are being revolutionised from within, when the European Union is struggling to keep its face together in light of its macroeconomic imbalances and the refugee crisis, there is ample opportunity for political science to position itself at the forefront of methodologically innovative and ontologically cutting edge insightful analysis. Instead of investing our efforts in developing “a science of politics” (Hay 2010, 19), (un)reflectively importing observations from applied psychology and conceptualising political phenomena through behavioralist empirics, we have much to learn from inter-disciplinarity and fields which are ontologically much closer to students of politics and in some ways years ahead of political science in comprehending the political. A closer look at the work done in the last twenty years in continental philosophy (poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology), human geography (spatiality, temporality), new materialisms (agency, political ontology), Deleuze- (horizontality, (de)territorialisation) and Foucault-inspired (power structures, critique, eventualization, genealogy) theoretical approaches, the work on biopolitics (technological advancements, ICT, surveillance society, political life), resilience studies (crisis, resistance, management) – and the list goes on – reveals the possible new ways forward in conceptualizing and understanding politics in its various forms, ways that will open up the concepts we commonly use in political science and illuminate their internal dynamics in a different light. Only by using this transversal and open approach in our study of politics, can we hope to keep the discipline fresh and relevant in the contemporary world.
About the author
Alen Toplišek is a PhD candidate in political theory at the School of Politics and International Relations (Queen Mary). He recently submitted his thesis on rethinking politics through the notion of power in light of the crisis of liberal democracy.
Burnham, Peter. 2001. New Labour and the politics of depoliticisation. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 3 (2): 127–49.
Flinders, Matthew. 2008. Depoliticisation: Agency, Context and Structure. Government Audit Journal: 24–38.
Flinders, Matthew. 2012. Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Flinders, Matthew and Jim Buller. 2006. Depoliticisation: Principles, Tactics and Tools. British Politics 1 (3), 1–26.
Flinders, Matthew and Matthew Wood. 2015. When Politics Fails: Hyper-Democracy and Hyper-Depoliticisation. New Political Science 37 (3): 363–81.
Hay, Colin. 2007. Why We Hate Politics. Republished, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
Hay, Colin. 2009. Round Table Discussion: Disenchanted with democracy, pissed off with politics. British Politics 4 (1): 92–99. Available at: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/bp/journal/v4/n1/pdf/bp200831a.pdf (October 17, 2012).
Hay, Colin, ed. 2010. New Directions in Political Science: Responding to the Challenges of an Interdependent World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jenkins, Laura. 2011. The Difference Genealogy Makes: Strategies for Politicisation or How to Extend Capacities for Autonomy. Political Studies 59 (1): 156 –74.
Stoker, Gerry. 2006. Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stoker, Gerry. 2010. The Rise of Political Disenchantment. In New Directions in Political Science: Responding to the Challenges of an Interdependent World, ed. Colin Hay, 43–63. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stoker, Gerry. 2015. Antipolitics in Britain: Dimensions, Causes, and Responses. Available at: http://www.idi.org.il/media/1429259/bythepeople_stoker.pdf (30 October 2015).
Wood, Matthew. 2014. Holding Back the Tide: Depoliticisation, Resilience and the Herceptin Post-code Lottery Crisis. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 17 (4): 644–64.
Wood, Matthew. 2014. Rethinking Depoliticisation: Beyond the Governmental. Policy and Politics 42 (2): 151–70.
Wood, Matthew. 2015a. Politicisation, Depoliticisation and Anti-Politics: Towards a Multilevel Research Agenda. Political Studies Review. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1478-9302.12074/full (23 October 2015).
Wood, Matthew. 2015b. Paradoxical Politics: Emergency, Security and the Depoliticisation of Flooding. Political Studies. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9248.12192/full (23 October 2015).