In Seeing, the final instalment of his magisterial urban trilogy, José Saramago offers an incisive dissection of our current political predicament. A few years after a strange episode of collective blindness, chronicled in Blindness, city administrators are preparing for a general election. The great day for the democratic festival is a miserably rainy Sunday, and once all the ballots are counted, it turns out that a large percentage of people have spoiled their votes. The city elites of the Party of the Left, the Party of the Middle, and the Party of the Right are disquieted, if not alarmed. Something must have gone wrong, these surmise, probably the bad weather… A week later, the elections are repeated. This time the weather god is more benign, but the electoral outcome is even worse; 83% of the citizens vote blank. What Saramago calls ‘the simple right not to follow any consensually established opinion’ deeply troubles the city government; one minister refers to it as a conspiracy against the democratic system itself. In its desperate attempt to understand what is going on, and to root out what must be an incipient organised subversion against the sacrosanct democratic principle, the government declares ‘a state of emergency’ (later ‘a state of siege’), unleashing all manner of repressive tactics to uncover the masterminding source of the anti-democratic plot. But none can be found. In a final desperate attempt to make the city and its citizens come to their senses, the government decides to decamp to another place, leaving the residents to their own devices and anticipating a decent into anarchic catastrophe. However, nothing of the sort happens. Everyone goes about his or her daily life, and the city continues as normal.
In this allegory, published in 2004, Saramago ruthlessly satires the growing apathy, if not disaffection, of a growing number of people with the instituted rituals of representative democratic governance. Thousands of passive rebels refuse to do what is expected of them. They reject the ballot box, but just go on with life as if nothing has happened. With chilling precision, Saramago diagnoses the deadlock of contemporary ‘democratic’ governance.
We live in times both haunted and paradoxical. Instituted representational democracy is more widespread than ever; identitarian concerns and all manners of issues and problems are made visible and politicised; ‘participatory’ and ‘inclusive’ forms of governance at a range of geographical scales are nurtured and fostered; and lifestyle preferences, the unsustainable re-engineering of our climate, the sexual escapades of the former IMF chairman, the heroic resistances of indigenous peoples, fracking, the repression of gay people in Russia, the garbage left on the sidewalk, the plight of the whale, the governments’ austerity agendas to get the economy out of the doldrums – all these issues and an infinity of others are politicised in certain ways. That is, they are discussed, dissected, evaluated, raised to issues of public concern and debated at length in a variety of public and political arenas. Everything, so it seems, can be aired, made visible, discussed, and rendered contentious.
In short, democracy as the theatre of and for the pluralistic and disputed consideration of matters of public and publicised concern seems to be alive and kicking. Political elites, irrespective of their particular party allegiance, do not tire of pointing out the great strides that democratic civic life has made. We are told that the great battle of the 20th century between totalitarianism and democracy has been finally and decisively concluded in favour of the latter. The history of humanity, marked by heroic-tragic ideological battles between opposing visions of what constitutes a ‘good’ society, has supposedly come to an end, and ‘democracy’ is now firmly and consensually established as the uncontested and rarely examined ideal of institutionalised political life. There are of course still ongoing rearguard archaic ideological battles on the geographical and political margins of the civilised world, waged by those who have not yet understood the lie of the land and the new horizon of history. When the need arises, they are corralled by any means necessary into consensual participation in the new global democratic order, (although not always effectively, as the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters testify). In contrast, we – the West and its allies – will now forever live happily in the complacent security and consensualised knowledge that democracy has been fine-tuned to assure the proper bio-political management of a liberal and pluralist society under the uncontested aegis of an equally triumphant neo-liberalism that combines a politicisation of ‘the economy’ with an economisation of ‘politics’ in a naturalised market-based configuration of the production and distribution of goods and services. Remaining problems and issue will be dealt with properly through consensual pluralist techno-managerial expert negotiation.
This is supposed to be the final realisation of the liberal democratic idyll of an untroubled, undivided, cohesive and common-sense society in which everyone knows his or her place and performs his or her duties in their own – and therefore in everyone’s – interests, through a diversity of institutionalised forms of representative government, aided and supported by stakeholder-based participatory governance arrangements for all sorts of recognised problems, issues and matters of public concern. Yet political apathy for mainstream parties and politics, and for the ritualised choreographies of representative electoral procedures, is at an all-time high. Indeed, as soon as the practices of governance seemed to be reduced to the bio-political public management of the ‘happiness’ of the majority of the population and the fine-tuning of broadly neoliberalising modes of organising the transformation of nature and the appropriation and distribution of its associated wealth, new spectres of the political appeared on the horizon. Insurrectional and incipient democratising movements and mobilisations exploded in 2011, and continue to smoulder and flare: Syntagma Square, Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti Park, Paternoster Square, Taksim Square, Tahrir Square, Sao Paulo, Oakland, Montreal… these are just a few of the more evocative names that have become associated with emergent new forms of politicisation. Assembled under the generic banner ‘Real Democracy Now!’ the gathered insurgents have expressed an extraordinary antagonism to the instituted – often formally democratic – forms of governing, and staged, performed and choreographed new configurations of the democratic. While often articulated around an emblematic quilting point (a threatened park, devastating austerity measures, the public bailout of irresponsible financial institutions, rising tuition fees, a price hike in public transport, and the like), these movements quickly universalised their claims to embrace a desire for a full-fledged transformation of the political structuring of life in light of the plainly exclusive, oligarchic, and consensual forms of governing reproduced by an alliance of professional economic, political and technocratic elites determined to defend the neoliberal order by all means possible.
It is precisely this parallax gap that sets the contours and contents of The Post-Political and its Discontents. From one vantage point – usually nurtured by those who seek to maintain things as they are – democracy is alive and kicking. Issues and problems are raised to matters of concern and managed through inclusive, participatory, or representational, managerial and organisational forms of conflict resolution and techno-scientific troubleshooting of contentious issues. From the other perspective, the democratic functioning of the political terrain has been eroded to such an extent that a radical re-ordering and re-configuration of the practices of ‘governing by the people for the people’ is on the agenda. The latter requires a dramatic transformation of the de-politicising practices that have marked the past few decades, and the nurturing of new incipient forms of politicisation. From that perspective, the spectres of the political are rising again as a suffocating de-politicisation breathes new forms of democratic transformation.
Post-Politicisation and the Return of the Political by Erik Swyngedouw and Japhy Wilson is based on the introduction to their edited volume The Post-Political and Its Discontents, published by Edinburgh University Press.
Erik Swyngedouw is Professor of Geography at Manchester University. His research interests include critical theory, political-ecology, urban governance, democracy and political power, and the politics of globalisation. His was previously professor of geography at Oxford University (until 2006) and held the Vincent Wright Visiting Professorship in Political Science at Science Po, Paris, 2014. He is author of Liquid Power: Contested Hydro-Modernities in Twentieth-Century Spain (MIT Press, 2015).
Japhy Wilson is Research Coordinator at the National Strategic Centre for the Right to Territory (CENEDET) in Quito, Ecuador. His research explores the intertwining of space, power and ideology in the politics of international development. He has published in academic journals in the the fields of political economy, human geography, and development studies. He is the author of Jeffrey Sachs: The Strange Case of Dr. Shock and Mr. Aid (Verso 2014).