Defining ‘the political’

This project is all about one of those tricky, commonplace words that we use all the time to mean different things: ‘political’. There has obviously been masses written about its different interpretations, but one of the discussions that I have found helpful is in Newman and Clarke’s book Publics, Politics and Power (2009) because it specifically links it to ideas of civil society.

They distinguish between three views of politics. The first sees everything as political, since all aspects of social life involve conflicting perspectives and differences of power. The second treats politics as institutional and focuses on the actions of parties and politicians. And the third sees politics as “fundamentally ‘dirty'”, involving “cynical calculation, instrumental manipulation, spin and corruption” (p.21).

The flipside of this third approach is that there must be some other, better, nonpolitical way of organising social life – and people adopting this position often locate this in civil society. For example, accounts of the former countries of the Soviet bloc in the early 90s often contrasted the ruthlessness of the state with the actions of ‘ordinary people’, peacefully coexisting outside of politics. This way of thinking about civil society has a long history going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings about the US in the 19th century, which he saw as a place of liberty and free association completely separate from the market and the state.

My own starting point for this project, in contrast, broadly fits with the first approach Newman and Clark identify – I see ‘politics’ as an ordinary part of everyday life, as we struggle to live collectively in a context where some people have a lot more power than others. Civil society therefore can’t be seen as a place where politics isn’t happening, but instead becomes another context where ideas and norms about what is socially acceptable and how we should behave towards each other are being worked out. This is a view of civil society that chimes less with Tocqueville than with the Italian Marxist Antonia Gramsci, who saw it as an arena which can either support the status quo or act as a site of resistance to it.

This perspective has implications for how I’m going about my research. Since I understand politics as being everywhere, it also exists in the word itself – I agree with Newman and Clarke that who or what gets labelled as ‘political’ “is itself the result of political struggles” (p.22). For civil society organisations, these struggles will often hinge on the question of whether civil society is a place that can legitimately engage in contestations around power, or whether doing so means being seen as tainted by ‘dirty’ politics.

Since the terms are very slippery, my approach starts by looking at how ‘the political’ is defined and interpreted in a range of contexts, and who is empowered and disempowered as a result. Who benefits when the Advertising Standards Agency determines what is ‘political advertising’, when the Charity Commission decides what ‘political campaigning’ looks like, or when Prevent trainings trying to distinguish between acceptable political positions and ‘extremist ideology’? How do small civil society organisations navigate these competing and often contradictory expectations, and how does this benefit or disadvantage the people they work for?

Sometimes the word used to describe how an idea like ‘civil society’ is conceptually separated from ‘politics’ is ‘depoliticisation’. I tend to avoid it because I think this separation is itself a very political act, and calling it ‘depoliticisation’ just makes this more confusing. However, I do like the definition that Brown uses, that “[d]epoliticisation involves removing a political phenomenon from comprehension of its historical emergence and from a recognition of the powers that produce and contour it” (2006, p.15). This suggests that reattaching terms to their histories can help to reveal how they work, which is another approach I’m taking with my research. For example, the legal structures of charitable trusts clearly have a politics when we understand that they have been tax avoidance schemes for the wealthy since the 1200s!

The idea that ‘politics’ needs to be kept in its own separate box is a deep seated one in a lot of contexts e.g. across the arts. And some people have always been attuned to the hidden politics that often underpins this – Skin from the rock band Skunk Anansie wrote in the 90s that “the main criticism we have had is that you can’t mix politics and music, which seems like quite a fascist idea from music journalists.” Her band’s response was to open their album Stoosh with the following track, which is basically the succinct, sweary version of this blog. The chorus goes:

“Yes it’s f*cking political

Everything’s political!”

References

Brown, W. (2006) Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity. Princeton University Press.

Newman, J. and Clarke, J. (2009) Publics, Politics and Power: Remaking the Public in Public Services. SAGE.

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