Keyser Söze famously said (or didn’t say) that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. We are perhaps witnessing something similar to this operation in modern politics today. Throughout the recent European election campaigns – in the UK at least – the political emphasis seemed to be squarely set on depoliticisation. UKIP’s discourse was most prevalent in this respect, with Nigel Farage consistently claiming defection not only from Europe but from ‘the political class’ itself. The Lib Dems were in on the act as well; in their leaflets we saw them condemning UKIP and the Conservatives for ‘want[ing] to put politics before people’s livelihoods and our nation’s future’, as if politics itself were nothing to do with these things. The Tories too criticised the European Union precisely on the point of being ‘a political project that is not right for Britain’, in their manifesto.
In On the Shores of Politics Jacques Rancière claims that ‘depoliticization is the oldest task of politics, the one which achieves its fulfilment at the brink of its end, its perfection on the brink of the abyss.’ As he explains, it is through this operation that politics can appear to exempt itself from everyday life. By presenting politics as an outmoded activity, politics itself can fade into the background, operating shadily behind the scenes in its connections with and in the interests of corporations it is invariably in thrall to and the privateers for whom the cloak of non-transparency is standard apparel.
What the electorate (the people, that is, in their everyday life) get left with is a tokenistic remainder in which prejudices are raised to the dignity of politics, while capitalistic mechanisms of economic expansion take place off the streets in hushed boardrooms, and through the usual avenues of war-mongering, power-collation, cosying up to the rich, careerism, and fundraising: in a word, the 1%ing that should be regulated in the name of politics.
To describe the kind of remainder we get from this (per)version of politics the philosopher Slavoj Žižek borrows a term from Jacques Derrida; that is, the term ‘without’, as it is found in the formula ‘X without X’ (Derrida uses the phrase ‘to see without seeing’, for example, when talking about invisibility). Whereas in Derrida it tends to refer to something which remains operational whilst not going under that name (‘religion without religion’ can mean the seeping-in of religion into other areas, under the radar, for example), in Žižek it refers to something being apparent in name only.
Žižek identifies this in one specific phenomenon: decaffeination. The injunction today is: ‘coffee, yes, but without caffeine; beer, yes, but without alcohol; mayonnaise, yes, but without cholesterol…’ Something, but without that something itself. In a 2004 article called ‘A Cup of Decaf Reality’, Žižek adds to the list ‘virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare,’ and ‘the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics.’ And it is this artful kind of politics that we’re being sold today in these political leaflets and manifestos that put themselves across as being without politics.
This unabashed politics without politics seems to aim to subtract the possibility and potential of politics from the real political class, the people themselves; to subtract politics proper from supposed ‘everyday life’, in the formula: ‘don’t let politics get in the way!’ The remainder of this comes in the form of instances of extreme reactionary (as opposed to radical) views occupying politics’ place and pretending they’re the solution to society’s ills, usually by condensing these ills themselves into such perennial figures as the immigrant. Apathy may often be blamed for poor turnouts at elections, but this is mistaking the effect for the cause. Apathy towards politics is being spread by this very kind of decaffeinated message, but the truth of the message actually appears in its inverted form: ‘you can be apolitical; leave politics to us’. Perhaps instead of heralding a political apocalypse, politicians should recognise their responsibility to bring politics itself back to the fore and try their hardest to get us engaged. Instead of apolitics – in the negatory sense of ‘amoral’, ‘asexual’, etc. – what we need is a politics now.