At a conference, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo claimed straightforwardly that politics in Italy had come to an end. As he put it, the two major political forces agreed on what was the most important thing to do right now, namely, to make sure that the policies of the technocratic and non-political Mario Monti administration – policies designed to save the economy of Italy – be kept going. Regardless of who wins elections in the future or what was happening in the country, all conscientious forces had better get on the bandwagon and pull in the same direction.
Vattimo hit the nail on the head: we’re looking in vain for any confrontation between distinctive visions for Italy or Europe as a whole, or for any contest between ideas. That’s done and gone. All that’s left is managing the economy, which, as is becoming ever more obvious, is just a palliative, because no single state is able to control the economy anymore, it having long ago turned global. The same goes for the universities, scholarship, national security, and migration, not to mention the logic of the globe’s intellectual life, which no single nation is able to fathom and encompass.
“Catherine Ashton is a likable woman, but who’s heard of her or knew anything about her before she became the EC’s vice-president and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the de facto EU Foreign Minister?” – Vattimo asked and continued: “Who elected her? Whom did she have to persuade? What is her vision for the world? And, while we’re at it, who knew anything about Herman van Rompuy? Where’s the political process here? Where did it vanish to?” Vattimo talked at length about the fact that the concept of social and political class had disappeared and that politics had gone from people’s lives. This set me to thinking about even more questions, which I later raised.
For example, what will political parties be like in the future? That is totally unclear to me as of now. It seems pretty certain that in ten or fifteen years they will be quite different from what they are at present. After the Arab Spring and the indignados protests, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the power to change, to reform, and to renew the world no longer lies in organized structures devoted to preserving the status quo nor in political parties desperately trying to keep up with the latest information technologies; rather, it lies in spontaneously expressed political wills and their instant consolidation in and through social networks.
If political parties do not merge with social, intellectual, and cultural movements, they will wither and die. It is evident even now that politics has become an appendix of technology or, at best, its housekeeper. Technology is developing at a much more rapid pace than are political programs, moral attitudes, communication strategies, and opportunities for strengthening human ties and legitimizing one’s own activities. Is there anyone who still doubts that politics has some time ago moved into the virtual sphere and has already become a sophisticated communication game which national elites are controlling ever less and just ever more helplessly observing from the sidelines?
This technological and informational shock gives rise to two tendencies that are just killing politics. One is the ever increasing centralization of the state; the unlimited spying on persons whom the controlling structure finds suspicious or incomprehensible; and the proliferation of police state elements engaging in constant surveillance and total control over an individual’s privacy. The other is the transformation of politics into agonistic communication games, or an overt circus with an ever greater number of show business personalities participating in it.
Lithuania is a nearly perfect example of the post-mortem incarnation of politics, in which a bureaucratic, centralized, and unitary police state fuses with political grotesquerie and outright buffoonery. The politician entrepreneurs involved in this monkeyshine, though long on bad terms with the law, enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution and arouse no interest from the secret services (their biographies are so bad that, easily susceptible to blackmail, they can be forced to resign or flee the country in a jiffy). On the other hand, prosecutors and secret services are much more interested in public critical comments and anti-structural movements that have little real power but are more difficult to control.
The political battles of future decades will be marked by confrontations between bureaucrats and actors from the protesting masses, with the possibility of occasional role reversals not excluded. There’s nothing really everlasting in this world of permanent change: a political actor or clown quietly dreams of becoming a bureaucrat (for that is the only way he can be absolutely sure of at least a minimum of emotional and financial security), while a bureaucrat, if he suddenly needs legitimization, i.e., elections or their imitation, eagerly and quickly starts to learn the art of entertaining a real or virtual crowd. Thus bureaucrats and clowns become interchangeable.
Political parties will probably be pushed out by social and cultural movements. It’s possible that the latter will come to be dominated by socially engaged professionals: economics, science, industrial/military espionage, high technology, military power and technique won’t disappear anywhere, and managing these things is something that mere bullshit artists from the street or bureaucrats will never be able to do by themselves.
New power alliances will form from groups of elite representatives of the media, business, science, art, and entertainment worlds. These people will need dramatic narratives – compelling stories or alleged conflicts – capable of inflaming voters for at least some time. Nowadays conflicts and scandals can be easily manufactured. The so-called spin doctors are excellent at this. It’s harder to hold people’s attention for very long and to gain at least a minimum of lasting respect and loyalty from them. These things often evaporate as soon as we see the beginnings of them. In a world that has lost clear criteria, respect depends on the circumstances and is very short-lived, as are loyalty and relations between humans in general.
It used to be that politics began with the language of priorities, an understanding that some things are so important that without dialogue and debate they couldn’t lead to action and be made a fact of societal life. This language of priorities meant a vision for the world, a sense of where one finds oneself in the current situation of people’s lives and what directions for the future one proposes and articulates. After that came the institutionalization of these projects, making them a part of state governance and public administration. Politics furnished the directions, points of orientation, the language, ideas, and tools to turn projects into reality. Action was never possible without power that was legitimate, morally responsible, and democratically accountable, a power with the ways and means of realizing visions.
Today, according to Zygmunt Bauman, politics has been divorced from power. Nowadays power runs on its own, and politics tries to survive: it no longer explains anything and offers no visions or programs for renewing the world. It only needs ever new waves of fear and moral panic so that certain groups in society could be mobilized and a gigantic, ever growing state machine devoted to surveillance and colonizing and taking over the last vestiges of individual privacy could be justified, a machine that though incompetent, primitive, and morally provincial is brutal and technically efficient.
Thus we are living at the beginning of the age of politics’ demise. In Lithuania this is more than obvious. It’s a real era of post-politics. No one believes in anything. But they vote. They vote because they don’t want to see a repeat of what has just been. Of course they don’t believe in those they vote for – everything depends on having been well consumed. If you haven’t offended anyone, if you’ve managed to be liked at some point, and – best of all – if you’ve provoked laughter on a TV show, your chances to be elected have increased threefold.
Lithuania has never previously seen the sort of anti-politics and post-politics we are witnessing now. There is no longer anything in Lithuania that could be described as politics. All that’s left are cynical communication games eventually won by those who are holding open microphones the longest. Civilized politics has been discredited in Lithuania so much that it will take years, and perhaps decades, before it can be returned to that level of social agreement and communication that existed between the return of independence in 1990 to about 2003.
Everything can be forecast – but this is no longer just Lithuania’s drama but part and parcel of globalization. Since it is no longer possible to win on the economic rhetoric of the Right, everyone – from the far right to the ultraleft – enters elections armed with the rhetoric of the “miracles” of social solidarity, universal welfare, a secure childhood, and the promise of access to scholarship, higher education, and culture. And then everyone quickly returns, or turns, to the right, since global capitalism cannot in any way be managed from the Left alone. A left-wing verbal abracadabra and a totally insensitive right-wing political practice, both everywhere leaving their mark of fatalism and of the irreplaceability of capitalism – these are the true realities of post-politics.
The real end of Right and Left, as they are totally converging, is our new reality. Purely right-wing rhetoric has been discredited as much as purely left-wing practice has. That’s why they need each other as never before, together with a simulation of their incompatibility. For that simulation masks a simple fact of the logic of government and power: we accept your left-wing rhetoric and moral lexicon (human rights; multiculturalism; gender equality) while our practice will adjust to whatever the global economic system needs. Period. C’est tout.
Will post-politics exhaust itself? Is it possible to return to a politics of drawing distinctions, of engaging in dialogue, of seeing and hearing the other? Perhaps. But only if what might be called minor politics revives – a politics taking shape not in centers of power and in major capitals but first of all in the surrounding communities. If politicians participated in smaller neighborhoods’ gatherings, in student discussions, without the presence of journalists and the media, and not only before elections when they’re just shooting the bull instead of seeking to grasp what local people are truly concerned with, then perhaps a ray of hope will emerge.
Self-governance, local democracy, a refusal by free intellectuals to serve centers of power or powerful politicians and instead joining up with informal endeavors rather than dreaming of being accepted by an incompetent official elite and becoming part of lifeless central procedures after undergoing an initiation into power – this is the only thing that in the future might still keep the possibility of an authentic politics alive.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
© 2012 The Baltic times. All rights reserved.