Some thoughts on anti-politics and populism

(Original post here — I thought it might be interesting to post some of my blogging here on Medium as well, just to see if it reaches a new audience)

A while ago, I wrote a couple of posts on why people saying ‘let’s take the politics out of this’ are invariably actually saying ‘let’s all agree with me’ and how such tactics are often used to benefit those who already hold the power and want to claim that their actions aren’t political.

That was back in 2015 when my major concern about those issues was the way they get misused in local government. Not that it hasn’t stopped happening there — I still see people who’ve been elected to multiple officers as the candidate of a political party claiming not to be politicians, others making pompous speeches complaining that the only reason others don’t agree with him is ‘politics’ and numerous commenters on social media and local news sites claiming that somehow politics is getting in the way of ‘doing what’s best’ — but that was just one small ice cube clinging to the side of a massive iceberg of anti-politics.

At its heart, politics is a process by which we decide who gets what in the allocation of scarce resources. That’s a very simple decision for a very complex field, yet it highlights the two key areas I want to highlight here: politics is about not just the many different decisions we have to choose between, but the way in which we choose to make those decisions. It’s about the process of making decisions as much as it is about the substance of those decisions, but it’s also a recognition that there’s no ideal solution to both of those issues. Just as we have to make decisions about allocations of resources that won’t please everyone, so too do we struggle to find a way of making those decisions in a way that seems fair and right to everyone.

Which brings us to the populist trend we see now across the globe, which I think is best described as a truly anti-politics movement because it rejects both parts of that idea as politics. It proposes that a radical solution to the question of how decisions are made can do away with the need for tough decisions. It often goes as far as to say that the existing political settlement — a system that encourages debate, discussion and compromise between competing ideas and viewpoints — is responsible for the fact that decisions about who gets what needs to be made. The system is corrupt and broken, they argue, and that’s why you can’t get everything you want. Overthrow the old way of doing things in favour of a better way and then we can make everything better. All those old checks and balances are what gets in the way of us all winning, so let me get rid of them and soon everything will be great.

It’s not a new viewpoint, and nor is it one limited to one side of the political spectrum. Indeed, at some levels, the methods of anti-politics are such as to negate any conventional understanding of politics we have, so committed are they to overturning everything about the way things are done. Politics as we conventionally understanding it is a process of dealing with a conundrum that appears to be fundamentally unsolvable and balancing competing ways of answering them within an understanding that we might be wrong and need to change our minds. Anti-politics claims that these issues are not unsolvable because it has the answers. There’s no need for compromise, doubt or the ability to change your mind because there is a true and correct answer, and that negates the need for any of the conventional processes of politics. Indeed, this is where we get the idea of ‘politics’ as a bad thing, for it embodies a process that doubts the true and correct way of doing things.

We can see this in Trump complaining that the established way of doing things is stopping Americans from ‘winning’ and over here, we see it in the claims that ‘the people have spoken’ about Brexit and no one should attempt to ask questions of the process. It’s not about presenting one idea or viewpoint to compete in a marketplace of them, it’s about being the only way and the only solution, the pure unadulterated will of the people that has to be adopted in full without compromise. By rejecting the basic ideas of politics as a process, anti-politics claims it can fundamentally change the outcomes of it too. No longer will we have to debate the allocation of scarce resources, but instead there’ll be everything for everyone. Well, everyone who supports the glorious vision anyway, the rest are doubters who don’t deserve any of the rewards.

(As you might have guessed, I’m still sketching out some ideas on these issues but wanted to put something out there for some debate and discussion in an effort to clarify and develop my thinking. So, comment away…)

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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