Is anti-politics explained by depoliticisation?By Ross Beveridge on 24 March 2015
Nick Clarke, Gerry Stoker, Will Jennings and Jonathan Moss from the University of Southampton address the inter-relationships between anti-politics and depolticisation in their ESRC project 'Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014'.
Sometimes, ‘depoliticisation’ and ‘anti-politics’ are used to mean roughly the same thing. For Peter Burnham, depoliticisation is a form of statecraft whereby the political character of decision-making is placed at one remove from elected government. For Colin Hay, depoliticisation involves moving an issue from the governmental sphere to the public sphere (depoliticisation 1), or from the public sphere to the private sphere (depoliticisation 2), or from the private sphere to the realm of necessity (depoliticisation 3). There is overlap between these definitions and Andreas Schedler’s description of anti-politics. Here, anti-politics is a governing strategy that seeks to abolish politics by replacing collective problems with self-regulating orders (e.g. the market), or plurality with uniformity (e.g. ‘the people’ of populism), or contingency with necessity (e.g. ‘there is no alternative’ or TINA). It is also a governing strategy that seeks to colonise politics and to replace the communicative rationality of politics with another rationality (e.g. money and the market, or science and technology).
So depoliticisation and anti-politics can both be forms of statecraft. But sometimes, ‘depoliticisation’ and ‘anti-politics’ are used to mean different but related things. Depoliticisation is the cause. Anti-politics is the effect. Here, as for Clare Saunders, anti-politics describes a generalised disaffection in contemporary democracies, expressed in low levels of satisfaction with governments, low levels of trust in politicians, and disengagement from political institutions like parties and elections. We are using the terms in this latter way for our current project: Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014 (see http://blog.soton.ac.uk/antipolitics/). We seek to explain anti-politics in contemporary Britain, defined as negativity towards formal politics and expressed in such things as declining trust in politicians, declining party membership, and declining voter turnout. We consider a range of potential explanations including depoliticisation. The logic of this potential explanation works as follows. The New Right Project of the last few decades – neoliberalism – has attacked the public domain in the name of free markets and market discipline. Public choice theorists have positioned politicians and civil servants as self-interested rent-seekers. Deregulation, privatisation, and audit have removed power and responsibility from public actors. Why should people engage with formal politics when those involved are not to be trusted and no longer powerful?
Two things make our project novel in what is a well-researched field. We have a historical-comparative research design that seeks to compare data from the so-called ‘golden age’ of political engagement in Britain (the period immediately after the Second World War) with data from the so-called period of ‘crisis’ in which we currently find ourselves. And we have a research design that allows citizens to speak in their own terms about how they define politics, how they relate to politics, and what they value in politics. To these ends, the primary data-source for the project is the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, Brighton (see http://www.massobs.org.uk/). Mass Observation asked panellists to write openly about formal politics on five occasions between 1945 and 1950, and four occasions between 1996 and 2014. Altogether, if we sample 60 panellists for each occasion, responses amount to approximately 800 sheets of typed, single-spaced, A4 paper.
The project started in October 2014 and will finish, officially, in March 2016. To date, we have collected and analysed data from the 1945-50 period. What do we learn from this material about anti-politics and its relationship to depoliticisation? First, in this period characterised by what Matt Wood and Matthew Flinders call ‘governmental politicisation’– with nationalisation of the Bank of England, the coal mines, civil aviation, the electricity industry, the railways, the canals, the buses, long-distance road haulage, gas, and iron and steel – we find much evidence of anti-politics. Citizens may have voted, with turnout reaching a post-war high of 90% (adjusted) in the General Election of 1951. But they do not appear to have thought very highly of politicians. One common story at the time was that politicians were self-serving – they were “self-seekers”, “place-seekers”, “climbers”, and “careerists”. Another common story was that politicians were not straight-talking – they were “gas-bags” and “gift-of-the-gabbers”.
Second, if there was a positive relationship in this period, it was not between anti-politics and depoliticisation, but between anti-politics and ‘societal politicisation’ (in the schema of Wood and Flinders). Citizens did not appear to value public debate and political choice. Parties were perceived to be unnecessary and corrosive of government. One common story at the time was that “partymen” were just “dirt-diggers”, “mud-slingers”, “axe-grinders”, “fear-mongers”, and “vote-mongers”. They talked, disagreed, and fought when citizens wanted action along what they perceived to be obvious lines. Another common story was that such action could be taken by a national government of problem-solving “statesmen” – people of “ability” and “character” who were “objective”, “moderate”, “diplomatic”, “tolerant”, “tactful”, “competent”, “capable”, “skilled”, “intelligent”, “clever”, “wise”, “efficient”, “hard-working”, and “conscientious”.
So the 1945-50 material suggests a number of things. There is no straightforward relationship between depoliticisation and anti-politics; and it is helpful, conceptually, to hold these terms apart: as governing strategy in the case of depoliticisation; and citizen negativity towards formal politics in the case of anti-politics – the two being potentially related as cause and effect, but not necessarily so. As we have shown, anti-politics existed in the period immediately after the Second World War without depoliticisation. Furthermore, if anything, it seems to have been related positively not to depoliticisation but to politicisation. High voter turnout may have been influenced by governmental politicisation, in that citizens perceived governments to be responsible and powerful. But negativity towards politicians and parties appears to have been influenced by societal politicisation, in that citizens wanted less talk by ‘partymen’ and more action by ‘statesmen’. This still leaves the question of why voting has declined since 1950 – to a post-war low of 62% (adjusted) in the General Election of 2001 – while negativity has intensified towards mainstream politicians and parties (see https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/10/29/political-disaffection-not-new-it-rising-and-drivi/). The next stage of the project is to collect and analyse data from the later period (1996-2014). Then we should have more to say about the relationship between anti-politics (as effect), de/politicisation (as potential cause), and other factors.
With thanks to the ESRC for funding this research (project no. ES/L007185/1).