Above Photo: Anti-vaccine protests in London in the summer of 2021. AP / Getty Images.
In the years before the 2008 crash, technocrats ensured political debate was relegated to the sidelines.
Today, politics is everywhere – but it hasn’t returned in the way many might have hoped.
Halfway through her autobiography The Years, French novelist Annie Ernaux gives her readers a political panorama of the mid-1990s:
The rumour was going around that politics was dead. The advent of a ‘new world order’ was declared. The End of History was nigh … The word ‘struggle’ was discredited as a throwback to Marxism, become an object of ridicule. As for ‘defending rights’, the first that came to mind were those of the consumer.
First published in 2008, Ernaux’s book appeared shortly before Lehmann Brothers went bust. An English translation only came about in 2017, already at the close of the ‘populist’ decade. When it first was published, Ernaux’s work diagnosed a world in which people had retreated into privacy; where politics was relegated to the back burner while technocrats were in charge. Tony Blair simply claimed that opposing globalisation was like opposing the turning of the seasons. ‘We didn’t quite know what was wearing us down the most,’ Ernaux recalls this moment, ‘the media and their opinion polls, who do you trust, their condescending comments, the politicians with their promises to reduce unemployment and plug the hole in the social security budget, or the escalator at the RER station that was always out of order.’
Ten years and a decade of populist turmoil later, Ernaux’s testimony reads both familiar and unfamiliar. The rapid individualisation and decline of collective institutions she diagnosed has not been halted. Barring a few exceptions, political parties have not regained their members. Associations have not seen attendance rise. Churches have not filled their pews, and unions have not grown precipitously. Across the world, civil society is still mired in a deep and protracted crisis.
On the other hand, the mixture of diffidence and apathy so characteristic of Ernaux’s 1990s hardly applies today. Biden was elected on a record turnout; the Brexit referendum was the largest democratic vote in Britain’s history. The Black Lives Matter protests were mass spectacles; many of the world’s biggest corporations took up the mantle of racial justice, adapting their brands to support the cause.
A new form of ‘politics’ is present on the football pitch, in the most popular Netflix shows, in the ways people describe themselves on their social media pages. To many on the right, society now feels overtaken by a permanent Dreyfus Affair, cleaving family dinners, friends’ drinks, and workplace lunches. To many on the centre, it has created a longing for an era before this hyper-politics, ‘a nostalgia for post-history’ in the 1990s and 2000s, when markets and technocrats were exclusively in charge of policy.
An era of ‘post-politics’ has clearly ended. Yet instead of a re-emergence of the politics of the twentieth century — complete with a revival of mass parties, unions, and workplace militancy — it is almost as if a step has been skipped. Those that were politicised by the era marked by the Financial Crash will remember when nothing, not even the austerity policies imposed in its wake, could be described as political. Today, everything is politics. And yet, despite people being intensely politicised in all of these dimensions, very few are involved in the kind of organised conflict of interests that we might once have described as politics in the classical, twentieth-century sense.
The Populist Era
To understand this shift from ‘post-politics’ to ‘hyper-politics,’ it is worth recalling the shape of the interregnum we’re leaving. In the years after 2008, the political Ice Age which had followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall began, steadily, to thaw. Across the West — from Occupy in the United States to 15-M in Spain and the anti-austerity fervour in Britain — movements began to emerge which raised the spectre of competing interests once again. They did not take place within the formal realms of politics, and their ‘neither right nor left’ rhetoric was sometimes described as ‘anti-political’. However they nonetheless marked an end to an era of consensus.
These movements suffered from familiar failings. The fetish for horizontalism present in the alter-globalisation era continued after the Financial Crash and produced few avenues for effective decision-making or providing representatives and programmes. Indeed, at times, it seemed as if the whole milieu harkened back to the 1960s, and the kind of movements critiqued by Jo Freeman’s iconic 1960s pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. The transition from movements to movement-parties was an attempt to overcome these problems, but it often brought many of them along for the ride. Even as these new formations forced the centre-left to adapt and change, they often failed to learn the importance of member democracy which had sustained their social-democratic predecessors.
At another point in her novel, Ernaux mentions the headquarters of the Socialist Party which she voted for in 1981. The French Socialists moved there in 1980 under President François Mitterrand, who had hoped to enact a radical programme of social reform with a coalition of communists and socialists. In 2017, after the Socialists were left stranded in fifth place in the country’s presidential elections, the party’s cadre decided to entrust the building to a notary. That much-heralded bastion of twentieth-century left politics went up for sale.
Strange new forms have since taken its place. So-called digital parties — from La France Insoumise and Podemos on the left to Macron’s La République en Marche in the centre and Italy’s Five Star Movement amorphously on the right — promised less bureaucracy, greater participation, and new forms of horizontal politics. In reality, they mostly delivered concentrated power for the personalities around which the projects had been built.
In Britain, the Brexit Party was at least more honest. It established itself as a corporation ahead of the 2019 election and continued as a serious force only if the party proved propitious to Nigel Farage’s career. All these organisations could claim their roots in the repoliticisation of layers of society, but none brought their supporters into what could be described as classical political engagement.
Electoral opportunism is certainly part of the driving force behind this new ‘movementism’. For most European parties, the recent conversion to the movement model takes place against a double shift: a long-term decline in the number of party members and a continuous shrinkage in their electorate. Belgium offers a poignant example of this trend. The Flemish Christian Democrats still had an impressive 130,000 members in 1990; they now count a meagre 43,000. In the same period, the Socialists plummeted from 90,000 to 10,000 members. The German SPD went from a million members in 1986 to just over 400,000 in 2019, while the Netherlands’ Social Democrats fell from 103,760 to 41,000 in 2021. Almost everywhere, a similar story is playing out: the former mass party lives on as a supplier of policy (what political scientists call democracy’s ‘output factor’), but internally it is eaten up by PR specialists and functionaries.
Britain was to some extent an exception to this rule. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, membership of the Labour Party grew exponentially, from just over 150,000 to close to 600,000 at its height. And these were members, not merely supporters, with a series of constitutional and voting rights: even those who were not regularly involved could show up to constituency meetings at irregular intervals and have meaningful say over questions like who the party’s public representatives should be. Unsurprisingly, the Starmerite counter-revolution inside the Labour Party has focused on targeting members and their powers: if it is to be made into another vehicle for professional politics, members must be disempowered, incentivised to leave, or outright expelled. With over 150,000 already departed, that process is well underway.
The lessons for left populists are bitter enough. While most of the left breakthroughs of recent years (from Syriza to Podemos and France Insoumise) have sought to express themselves in the form of new organisations, Corbynism was probably the last effort to revive the working-class parties of yore, now perceived as too sluggish for politicians and citizens. Yesterday’s party members can now opt out of enlisting in long-term, involuntary associations, while politicians are met with less resistance at their party congresses.
The Belgian socialist leader recently celebrated the party’s new climate by welcoming a fresh ‘start-up atmosphere’ within his party, showing off followers on Instagram. Indeed, parties now regularly put out calls for ‘social media managers’ and spread their messages through influencers (Macron recently hosted two YouTube vloggers in his presidential palace). In the final analysis, these new digital parties and the movements which spawned them were hardly negations of the post-industrial economy; they were expressions of it: highly informal and impermanent, without long contracts, arranged around fleeting start-ups and ventures.
Citizens who roam from temp appointment to temp appointment find it harder to build lasting relationships in their workplaces. Instead, smaller circles of family, friends, and the internet now offer more reliable social environments. Two poles promote either the most concrete or the most abstract types of solidarity: families as insurance funds and the internet as an entirely voluntary association.
This voluntarism also finds clear resonances in the persistent mood of protest so endemic to contemporary politics. On the surface, there would seem to be little that unites the Black Lives Matter protests with QAnon or the 6 January riots in Washington, D.C. Certainly, in moral terms, they are worlds apart — one protesting police brutality and racism, the other fictitious electoral fraud and conspiracy theory. Organisationally, however, the two movements are similar: they do not have membership lists, they have difficulty imposing discipline on their followers, and they do not formalise themselves.
The sociologist Paulo Gerbaudo has described the new protest movements as bodies without organs: clenched and muscular, but without a real internal metabolism. That such a fluid form of authoritarianism chimes harmoniously with today’s service economy is hardly surprising. An age of changing employment contracts and growing self-employment does not stimulate long and lasting bonds within organisations. In its place comes a curious combination of the horizontal and the hierarchical, with leaders who manage a loose group of zealots without ever subscribing to a clear party framework.
Works such as Austrian writer Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, originally published in interwar Vienna in 1938, already recognised this type of leaderism. Canetti’s classic was composed as a reaction to the great worker uprisings of the 1930s. The interwar workers’ movement provoked an aggressive right-wing counter-reaction, and the period ultimately came down to two organised mass movements facing off against one another. Rather than a mobile ‘mass’, today’s QAnon troops and anti-lockdown protests look like ‘swarms’: a group responding to short and powerful stimuli, driven by charismatic influencers and digital demagogues. Anyone can join a Facebook group with QAnon sympathies; as with all online media, the price of membership is very low, the costs of exit even lower.
Leaders can of course try to choreograph these swarms — with tweets, television appearances, or supposed Russian bots. But that choreography does not yet summon durable organisation. This is a decisive but also unstable shift from mass-based party democracy. Whereas post-war parties had a tight team of midfielders and defenders, the new populist parties are mainly built around their star players. As Gerbaudo again emphasises, today’s populist leaders are born media animals.
In many ways it seems that the lesson which has truly been learned from the ‘post-political’ era is that politics must be reintroduced into the public sphere. But without the re-emergence of mass organisation, this can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinised for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms, and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicised, but little is achieved.
In many ways we can describe this period as a transition from ‘post’ to ‘hyper-politics’, or the re-entry of politics into society. Yet our new ‘hyper-politics’ is also distinct in its specific focus on interpersonal and personal mores, its incessant moralism and incapacity to think through collective dimensions to struggle. In this sense, ‘hyper-politics’ is what happens when ‘post-politics’ ends, but not on terms familiar to us from the twentieth century — the form political conflict takes in the absence of mass politics. Questions of what people own and control are increasingly replaced by questions of who or what people are, replacing the clash of classes with the collaging of identities.
‘Post-politics’ is clearly ending — ‘the rumour … that politics was dead’, as Ernaux noted in 2008, has died out. A new mode of ‘hyper-politics’ now seems to offer a feeble alternative to the politics we were used to in the twentieth century. Ernaux acknowledges as much: at the end of her book, she calls on readers to ‘save something from the time that will never be again.’