Where is politics?

This question might seem odd to some. To seasoned libertarian communists, the answer ‘everyday life’ trips off the tongue without a second thought. But it seems like a productive question to work through in light of recent events, from the parliamentary expenses scandal to the August riots to the #occupy movement. So, where is politics?


#1: The liberal and leftist answer

‘Politics is in the state!’

The conventional answer, one you’ll get from politicians and the BBC, is: Parliament. According to the BBC, ‘Democracy Live’ consists of watching a succession of grey men in grey suits, and helpfully provides a guide to the institutions where politics resides and your representatives who do politics for you within them. This conventional view is of course that of liberalism, that politics is the domain of representative democracy and its institutions. But this view pervades much further than the liberal establishment and into the leftist ‘common sense’ of the workers movement.

Trade unions typically affiliate to a political party to handle the political representation of their members, whether that’s the Labour Party or the ‘new workers party’ called for by Bob Crow and the Socialist Party. Reformists since Kautsky have seen parliament as the place of politics, and even the ‘revolutionary’ Marxists like Lenin and his ilk essentially follow suit. As Amadeo Bordiga saw it:

“Every class struggle is a political struggle. The goal of this struggle, which inevitably turns into a civil war, is the conquest of political power. Political power cannot be seized, organised, and operated except through a political party.”

So the conventional answer, which pervades both liberal and leftist thinking, in both reformist and ‘revolutionary’ guises, is that politics is in the state (and the appropriate organisational form is therefore a political party). To this day, even many self-identified ‘revolutionaries’ accept this logic, pursuing parliamentary influence or alliances, or running and/or endorsing candidates in elections. However, is it right to accept that politics is embodied in the state?

#2: The #occupy and activist answer

‘Politics is in the streets!’

The most visible contemporary rejection of this location of politics with the institutions of the state comes from the #occupy movement. David Graeber argues that #occupy is based on “a rejection of existing political institutions and attempt to create alternative ones”. For sure, the exact content of ‘real democracy’, a slogan that has echoed from Spain to Oakland is somewhat fuzzy and undefined, but #occupy’s rejection of the established political institutions has drawn harsh state repression in Spain, Oakland, New York and many other places. Police in London have evenlabelled them as domestic terrorists for sitting in tents in public space and squatting buildings. It’s hard to understand why the state would react with such violence to such seemingly non-threatening actions, were it not for the significance of redefining extra-parliamentary space as political space. #occupy challenges the liberal statist location of politics in practice if not in ideology and articulation.

Correspondingly, #occupy also contests the idea of politics as something carried out by specialist representatives, juxtaposing it to a participatory ideal based on general assemblies and direct democracy. That is not to say that it does not reproduce political specialism in an activist form, but it is certainly easier to become an occupier than to become a politician. However, while #occupy can be seen to reject representative politics in favour of direct democracy, the relocation of politics is purely institutional, not relational. In other words, it’s all form and no content. So for example, theappalling response to the gang-rape at Occupy Glasgow represents precisely this: the challenge to the dominant political institutions is purely formal (replace ‘corrupt’ democracy with ‘real’ democracy), but social relations are unchallenged, and indeed questioning them is seen as a divisive threat to the #occupy form. A similar point could be made of the hero-worship of Julian Assange. So I’d reject Graeber’s equation of #occupy with anarchism. Yes, it mirrors certain anarchist forms (general assemblies, no representatives etc), but anarchism is not simply an empty formal politics but fundamentally about transforming social relations.1

#3: A libertarian communist answer

‘Politics is everyday life!’

The default ‘libcom’ answer to the question ‘where is politics?’ is ‘everyday life, stupid’. However, this is often misinterpreted. The main misunderstanding comes from approaching it from the perspective of individual citizen-consumers in the market (i.e. liberalism) rather than social subjects immersed in and partly constituted by a web of social relations (i.e. communism). This leads to an interpretation of ‘everyday life’ in terms of consumption choices.Boycott cokeUse alternative medicinesBuy organic or just don’t move to the back of the bus. This is precisely what Marx means by commodity fetishism:

“the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things”

In other words, things, commodities, institutions and so on, are identified with the social relations of which they are both an expression and mediator (albeit a real one with real effects). Consequently, a challenge on the level of things is not enough, since they are not just the producers but also the product of social relations. Thus, to take an example of anarcha-feminist practices, things like alternative medicine or smashing up sex shops2 do not and indeed cannot challenge dominant social relations (even when the associated rhetoric purports to). The former is an attempt to escape them, the latter an impotent expression of their dominance. One can no sooner smash patriarchy by smashing up a sex shop than one can smash capitalism by smashing up a bank.

“an action against capitalism which identifies capitalism as ‘out there’ in the City is fundamentally mistaken – the real power of capital is right here in our everyday lives – we re-create its power every day because capital is not a thing but a social relation between people (and hence classes) mediated by things.”

So in place of this conception as politics as located in things, a libertarian communist perspective is that politics is located in everyday social relations. And these relations are constituted by power struggles and thus by antagonism. As Liberté Locke’s excellent piece draws out, the content of this antagonism bears many similarities whether it takes the form of patriarchal gender relations or capitalist wage relations. Thus continuing the anarcha-feminist thread, RAG write:

“while the site for this [struggle] has often been the work-place in traditional anarchist dialogue, it was noted that from a feminist perspective, the family and the body are additional sites of conflict (our literal “means of production” which we determined to seize!)”

For anarchists (i.e. libertarian communists), this power struggle is not a struggle for the capture of institutional power (the conventional account we saw above), nor simply to change the form of power (as thus far with #occupy). Rather, it’s a question of transforming social relations: abolishing hierarchical power relations and therefore the social forms which reproduce them (the state, private property, commodities, wage labour, binary gender etc). This is the class struggle. So in a sense #occupy is half-right. Politics is in the streets, but insofar as we transform social relations as we take to the streets. Politics for anarchists means replacing hierarchic social relations (state-citizen, boss-worker, masculinity-femininity and so on) with non-commercial, horizontal ones (the market is also a horizontal relationship, but not one opposed to hierarchy and in fact dependent on it). But this is not something that only happens visibly, on big days like November 30th. It means organising and agitating everyday where we are, not simply transposing ourselves to alternative political spaces, be that Parliament or an #occupy tent. This is the sense politics is located in everyday life.

  • 1.The recent development of #occupyhomes casts doubt on my assertion #occupy doesn’t contest social relations, or at least hints at the way in which the #occupy dynamic can’t be reduced to a neat theoretical category and is evolving, potentially in the direction of challenging private property itself, even while this is justified using the language of rights and fairness.
  • 2.This particular action is not claimed as anarcha-feminist, but direct action against pornographic boutiques has been identified as an anarcha-feminist tactic
Originally published on libcom.org by Jospeh Kay