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 Economic stability driven onwards by ever-expanding globalization has been replaced by low growth, recurring crisis, and inflation.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.
From Post-Politics to Anti-Politics. . . and Beyond
As I have argued in more depth elsewhere, the period following the end of the Cold War was structured by post-politics, a strategy of depoliticization according to which all major questions were removed from public contestation. In response, citizens retreated from the public arena into subcultural or merely private concerns. What followed in the decade following the global financial crisis was the rise of anti-politics: angry denunciation of the political establishment that, in rejecting elites’ political authority, appeared to reject political authority tout court.
Anti-politics became hegemonic the moment it was adopted by mainstream politicians themselves. Emmanuel Macron pretended to combine left and right in a novel vehicle, his own party emblazoned with his own initials, one not beholden to the old ways. Boris Johnson promised to “get Brexit done,” seeming to channel that anti-political energy toward a significant political realignment; the Conservative party would abandon Thatcherite neoliberalism. Now, of course, Macron’s party is merely the new establishment center-right while Britain has been delivered BRINO (Brexit In Name Only); Johnson is gone with Thatcherite no-marks waiting in the wings.
The 2020s are marked however by a more intense politicization than the previous decade, following the elite’s adoption of anti-politics. Politicians have been unable to deliver on their promises and rule over a public for whom the conditions for a “peaceful” post-political existence no longer exist.
Political claims have proliferated, often exceeding our politicians’ abilities to deliver. But they also vastly exceed the ability of those making claims to gain any traction for their politics. “Just Stop Oil!” exclaims one group; another storms the Capitol in a risible bid to overturn an election and “take back the country.” Politics and policy remain severed, the former has not yet been made subordinate to the latter. But politics has undoubtedly been energized and involves people in ways it hasn’t for decades.
Meanwhile, opponents are toxic; not mere antagonists but enemies. Perhaps they are not even legitimate (though opposed) parts of the body politic: They need to be denormalized, delegitimated, and cast out. It’s total war! . . . yet totally inconsequential.
One explanation for this new toxicity is rooted in the concept of “technopopulism.” According to this understanding, technocracy and populism are no longer two sides facing each other but have fused, becoming the hegemonic form of politics in the West. This bears plenty of similarity to the ideas expressed above, whereby mainstream (post-political) politicians adopt anti-politics.
Under technopopulism, ideas are not the expression of differing worldviews and interests, but rather are simply correct or incorrect. This is in keeping with the technocratic and post-political worldview. But this has now been inscribed with a new populist logic because Blair or Clinton-style technocracy no longer has any purchase. Technopopulist politicians need to gain legitimacy by referring to “the people.” But this is an undifferentiated whole, a stage army, rather than a body composed of different factions and interests.
In this technopopulist vision, the political ideas one advances are technically correct and are backed up by the fact that they are what the people want. This means any dissenters are, firstly, factually wrong, and secondly, deplorables who have no place in our society.
Most notable about this political dispensation is that interests are absent — or, more accurately, they are not voiced. We censor ourselves and thus prevent these interests from being represented. So, for instance, if you don’t think all oil drilling should stop immediately, it is not because you have a well-founded interest in retaining the mobility that your car provides, absent equal or better alternatives. Equally, you don’t have a material interest — shared by nearly everyone in society — in having access to the goods that the petrochemical industry provides, which includes plastics that are used in just about everything including medical inputs. No, it is that you want the planet to burn.
In a world in which determinate interests are delegitimated, politics becomes wild and unmoored. There is a material explanation for this: Politics has returned, but without its traditional engine. No longer is politics practiced by and for masses of people bound together in large organizations pursuing a common purpose. Politics is pursued through pop-up protests; movements coalesce around a hashtag, rather than their headquarters. In real life or on the internet, indignation is directed at everyone and no one; the world at large is the presumed audience.
Imagine a pre-internet world, even a world before 24-hour rolling news. If you wished to protest something, you would have to direct your demands to a specific institution, probably gathering in front of a physical building. The protesters would likely be members and militants within a political organization, or at the least be fellow travelers. Political demands were made by a determinate group and directed at a real, determinate audience. It might be reported on by the paper, but it might not. And rarely was protesting itself the main aim; organizing was.
In contrast, protest today is by anyone (literally any member of the public could and is expected to join in) and for everyone, because you will at least livestream it to the world at large. A global audience is intended and expected; the media strategy antecedes any other concerns.
This boundlessness is inimical to what was the elementary component, the cellular form, of politics in the modern era: the party. It is worth recalling that the term “party” comes from partie, a part of society. Politics used to be contested by mass parties, each representing different segments of society — be it the working class, or Catholics, or professionals. Sure, they mostly believed that their interests were ultimately the interests of society as a whole, but there was no denying their sectional or class bases, and they would generally be forthright in spelling out those interests.
These mass parties and other membership-based civil society organizations have withered away and were nowhere to be seen during the “End of History.” Now politics has returned but without its traditional vehicle that gave claims, demands, and visions real shape and provided mechanisms for the transmission of interests up toward the state. At the same time, society has become hypermediatized. The return of politics in this scenario means that politics has come to take the form not of party competition but of hypermedia.
Hyperspeed to Nowhere
One conceptualization of this state of affairs is “hyperpolitics,” advanced by Anton Jäger. The everywhereness of politics accordingly feels like a “permanent Dreyfuss Affair.” But the sheer intractability of politics today raises questions as to whether “hyper-” is the right prefix. After all, compare today to interwar Europe, for instance, and you would struggle to argue that our moment is more genuinely politicized than then.
Though use of the term has shot up since 2014, at least according to Google’s Ngram, the only other conceptual treatment hyperpolitics has received comes from the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. In his 1995 book Im selben Boot — Versuch über die Hyperpolitik (In the Same Boat: An Essay on Hyperpolitics; it remains untranslated into English), Sloterdijk proposed a periodization encompassing a broad swathe of human civilization from antiquity to today, deeming the latest phase, coincidental with industrial society broadly and more specifically globalization, as “hyperpolitical.”
The everywhereness of politics today is evident in Sloterdijk’s concerns, where he argues that the “good old cosmopolitanism” has been replaced by a “cosmopathic nomadism.” Presciently, Sloterdijk notes already in the mid-1990s that contemporary society is suffering from a crisis of disgust in the face of its politicians who are utterly unprepared to deal with this new world — “intellectually almost never, morally sometimes, pragmatically less rather than more often.” But if politicians are unprepared for the challenges of globalization, this applies even more to non-politicians, leaving Sloterdijk wondering whether our disgust with political figures isn’t a projection of our own malaise. Indeed.
However, Sloterdijk’s discussion of hyperpolitics is at once too transhistorical and overly conjunctural, the latter aspect a seeming product of peak globalization. He may have been correct that we “should prepare ourselves for battles between moderno-globalizers and conservative-resisters” (the globalist vs nativist dichotomy avant la lettre, a “revenge of the local and the individual”), but he did not foresee the specific return of politics we are discussing here. If anti-politics is angry denunciation which serves to repoliticize society, then Sloterdijk was none too optimistic that the “docile, characterless…resilient bores” of posthistory could be overcome.
What is underway today, then, might not be hyperpolitics. Its boundlessness is undoubted, but we should leave space for the idea that politics might also be incipient, despite today’s hysteria, confusion, and atomization.
At the risk of a pretentious and eclectic plumbing of the classics, we can find a term for boundlessness in the Greek apeiron, which gives birth to the universe — at least in the account of Anaximander of Miletus, a pre-Socratic philosopher. The apeiron is undefined and ever-moving. But this infinity was held also to be the beginning of everything, giving birth to contradictory elements. These would eventually be swallowed back up and destroyed.
If History is to restart — and it has not yet, whatever one may say about the return of European land war involving a great power — then this cosmology seems an apposite account of our situation. The constantly shifting, boundlessness of hypermediatized politics today gives rise to a whole sequence of oppositions and culture war polarizations that are reabsorbed soon after appearing.
Birth or Death?
To bring us back to earth, what are the prospects for politics, at last, becoming real again, to offer us the possibility of collective determination of our future? This is what is at stake in raising the question of the return of politics and how to conceive of it — it is not just of scientific interest. What optimism we can have today continues to rest on pessimism: Things will deteriorate further. Regime legitimacy has not been based on economic growth shared out as rising standards of living for a while now. Cheapening commodities and access to credit have filled that gap. Combined with mass resignation and dejection, elites have presided over a period of decline that would have prompted insurrection, if not revolution, in other periods – periods when expectations were higher and civil society was more organized.
But what happens when your passport to the Consumer Republic is revoked, when inflation eats up your ability to participate, and energy crises become very real? The traditional lever for demanding sacrifice — patriotism — has little effect upon Western publics today it seems. Whatever happens in Ukraine, no one is buying it when politicians try to sell the idea that citizens accept high prices for “as long as it takes, so Russia cannot, in fact, defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” as Biden recently declared.
Ultimately, patriotism without the mass mobilization of the twentieth century is just futile ideological exhortation. “Sacrifice” won’t be bought cheaply. Publics tolerated the sacrifice demanded of them in Covid lockdowns, but the incoming crisis is of a different order.
The question facing us now, then, is whether the politics of the apeiron will indeed succeed in bringing the world into being, whether it will bring back History with a capital H. Or does our moment represent a further degeneration in the long unwinding of modern politics, in which the accelerating disorganization of capitalism and of mass politics simply dissolves into boundless chaos?