After Anti-Politics: The Apeiron
July 29, 2022
Well over a decade has passed since the global financial crisis of 2008, a crisis that set in motion the breakdown of the neoliberal order. More profoundly, the long political consequences of this economic crisis have put an end to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. In our new context, hardly anyone can argue that politics has not returned in some shape or form. The Fukuyaman age of consensus has given way to discord and dissensus. Economic stability driven onwards by ever-expanding globalization has been replaced by low growth, recurring crisis, and inflation. Moreover, the geopolitical order under Pax Americana has been shaken into a new era of turbulence.
If the best testament to something’s presence is its negation, then proof for the return of politics can be found in the stream of lamentations about the new era, expressing a desire to return to quieter times. And this takes various forms, from the po-facedly adult and serious to the satirical. If politics isn’t back, why are so many complaining about it?
What has changed, and what makes some feel so antagonized by the constant crisis and contestation is the way that politics seems to have interceded into all areas of life. Popular film and TV are no longer for audiences to switch off to anymore, but products that must be endlessly debated as to their political meaning, to which last year’s global hit Squid Game bore witness. And that is when cultural products are not excoriated for political incorrectness in the most strident terms. Your new favorite musical artist or cooking show is now a vanguard of actual fascism or cultural Marxism — of which you must be made acutely aware, and which you must consequently denounce and expunge from your life.
Already withered, the family – which, perhaps, may once have been the “haven in a heartless world,” but is no longer – is a site for the playing out of these antagonisms. If you’re still on speaking terms with granny, that is poor praxis. Do you not take politics seriously enough? Meanwhile, taken-for-granted categories of human being, such as gender, are up for grabs. And political identities have hardened and intensified. But these are no longer symbols of allegiance to a set of ideas or a vision of the world, much less are they an index of organizational membership. Political identity today is an outward representation of the authentic self, one whose meaning is ultimately not about left or right, but about good or evil. And everyone necessarily thinks their political identity is about being the good guy.
All this might look like a description of the new culture wars that have engulfed Western societies over the past decade. Unlike the US model cast in the 1980s and 90s, this one concerns itself less with “moral” issues and more with explicitly political ones. But the personalization of politics implied by culture war remains, as does the sorting of citizens on cultural lines and the consequent polarization. Similarly, rhetoric is ever more heated and hysterical, while at the same time issues come and go with greater velocity. The new "current thing" floats freely and then recedes.
But what characterizes the past few years is perhaps something more than a new culture war. This is because politics itself has been politicized: It is the site of new claims and struggles. It seems increasingly boundless and placeless, everywhere and nowhere at once.