You think it was politics. That particular dance, boy, that’s over.
— William Gibson,Virtual Light, p. 101
Is politics something historically specific? Put that way, the answer is obviously “yes.” What isn’t historically specific, after all? But that does carry with it the suggestion that Gibson’s character could be right, that maybe politics would be “over,” and that seems hard to comprehend. There’s a fairly large literature on the post-political condition, but what I’ve read of it seems pretty mediocre. Most of it seems more or less moralistic, responding to the end of politics with strenuous demands that we return to the political. A particularly bad example of this is Chantal Mouffe’s criticism of third way politicians for abandoning politics; the problem with New Labour isn’t that they don’t have a politics, but they do have a very particular politics, a reactionary one. Thinking about it, the ur-moralist here is probably Strauss, who claims that pretty much all of human history is a retreat from politics.
As is often the case with Strauss, he’s so wrong as to be instructive. If we really were in a post-political period, a return to politics would be impossible; indeed, it would probably be unthinkable. Positions that take themselves to be theorizing the post-political are, then, themselves signs that we are not in a post-political age at all. We can see another way of looking at this in China Miéville’s entertaining article on floating libertarian “utopias” (we need a word to go along with utopia and dystopia to describe this kind of mediocre, unimaginative fantasy). What’s great about Miéville’s article is that it makes clear how silly the libertarian attempt to step outside politics is. “It is a lunatic syllogism,” he writes:
“I dislike the state: The state is made of land: Therefore I dislike the land.” Water is a solvent, dissolving “political” (state) power, leaving only “economics” behind.
It would be more interesting to think about what it means for politics that politics is historically specific. This is a concern of at least the early Marx, who saw it as crucial to figuring out a revolutionary politics that we understood the location of politics, the state, as something historical (and thus as something that could be smashed). In a very different way, Sabha Mahmood’s excellent Politics of Piety considers the difficulty of trying to understand non-Western political movements without imposing Western concepts of “politics” on them. Can these two things be combined? Paying attention to the history that has given rise to the idea of the post-political, rather than melancholically ruminating on the absence of politics, seems like a better way of getting us out of this political condition we are in.