Politics and Desire

2004 has been a political year par excellence, with elections in the US and Australia. As the turning of the year is always a good time to reflect, it’s interesting to note some thoughtful posts appearing in the blogosphere of late. Don has posted a stimulating piece on the precautionary principle as left-wing conservatism, continuing and elaborating a debate with John Quiggin. There are some further thoughts on the precautionary principle at The View from Benambra.

I don’t particularly want to join the debate on the precautionary principle as such, but I did have a niggling feeling that something might have been overlooked in the discussion. Interestingly, some of this was clarified for me by a couple of mentions of the role of desire in politics. At Open Democracy, the American Sociologist Todd Gitlin (author of one of the best analyses of America’s ‘culture wars’) argues that the American election was a victory for democracy in its politicisation of the citizenry. In an interview on the aftermath and significance of the election Gitlin says:

Triumph is a little too effervescent for my taste. But it was a substantial improvement. Not only in turnout rates but also in intensity of attention going all the way back to the spring. The percentage of people who were paying attention was vastly improved. You could say that the mobilisation and eventual turnout constituted a rejection of the silencing which some commentators have said is the automatic consequence of the terror attacks and the demagogic use of them by the administration. This was not a country that had pulverised politics on behalf of imperial mobilisation. This was in fact a politicised country. Many of the terms in which this conflict would take place were degraded and built on deception, but the polarisation was politics, and the politics was a sign of a collective freedom to choose. The wrong road was taken, and that’s a terrible judgment on our general condition. But it was a triumph of vitality and of politicised desire. (my emphasis)

ELSEWHERE: For the academically inclined reader, I have a conference paper online at the Australian Political Science Association website, which discusses some of the relevance of Schmitt and Derrida to contemporary analyses of politics alluded to in this post. A different version of the paper was given to the Australian Association of Philosophy.

UPDATE: Don draws the threads together, and weaves Andrew Norton in. In my comments in response to Don, I clarify a few things I perhaps should have made clearer in the first place.

I’ll come back to this view of politicisation and polarisation.

But first I want also to mention a piece by Kathryn Schultz, editor of the environmental magazine, Grist. Writing in The Nation, Schulz reflects on a message she received after the election from one of the organisations Gitlin points to as representing a reinvigoration of political participation, MoveOn.org. MoveOn.org emailed its supporters “we’ll admit to being heartbroken by the outcome of yesterday’s election”:

By the time I got MoveOn.org’s message, I’d gotten scores of others, and they generally read like this: “My heart aches,” “This feels like a breakup,” “I’m utterly broken-hearted,” “I don’t remember feeling like this since my wife left me” and (my favorite), “The atmosphere in my office today feels like everyone was dumped on the way into work.” Politics is frequently characterized as a science or an art, or even a game, but seldom as a love affair–so why, in the aftermath of last week’s elections, did so many progressives turn to the metaphor of heartbreak? One possible explanation is that “heartbreaking” and all of its various iterations were just synonyms selected at random from the universe of equally morose adjectives: miserable, wretched, despairing, depressed, abject, inconsolable. I don’t think that’s it, though; I think our use of the language of heartbreak was deliberate, and suggestive. Most of us who are old enough to vote are also old enough to have had our hearts broken, and so we know whereof we speak. We are familiar with the emotional progression: the shock, the disbelief, the deep and disorienting anguish of an anticipated future falling away. We recognize the particular way that heartbreak, for all its immensity, inheres in minutiae–in a T-shirt, a voice mail, a notation on a calendar. We know that it will look in on us while we are brushing our teeth or going for a run or trying to read before sleep (or not sleeping at all, insomniac); that if it seems to abate briefly it will return just as fast, dropping a dark scrim over our day.

I think Schultz is right. For many of us lefties (and this was strikingly in evidence at BackPages), the Australian election felt like a love affair that was over too fast. We got distracted from our everyday lives, we were puzzled that everyone else didn’t share our intensity of feeling, Latho revealed unexpected qualities and dimensions, and then it all came crashing down. A few months later, things are back to normal, we’re getting on with our lives, and a lot of us are moving on from our erstwhile crush on Latho.

Part of the debate over the precautionary principle is an iteration of the debate over what it means to be Left or Right (or “progressive” or “conservative”). This is a debate that is unlikely to either be resolved, or go away given the nature of our society and its political institutions. The Left/Right distinction is perhaps best seen as a marker for a moving series of positions, differently inflected at different times, and as a proxy for polarisation, rather than some sort of essential concept that can rigorously defined.

Carl Schmitt, the German philosopher and jurist, is an interesting example of political desire. Rightly condemned for his complicity with the Nazi Party, his ideas nevertheless continue to prove seductive for political thinkers of both Left and Right stamps. Perhaps this is because of the lucidity of his definition of the political:

A definition of the political can be obtained only by discovering and defining the specifically political categories. In contrast to the various relatively independent endeavours of human thought and action, particularly the moral, aesthetic, and economic, the political has its own criteria which express themselves in a characteristic way. The political must therefore rest on its own ultimate distinctions, to which all action with a political meaning can be traced. Let us assume that in the realm of morality the final distinctions are between good and evil, in aesthetics beautiful and ugly, in economics profitable and unprofitable. The question then is whether there is also a special distinction which can serve as a simple criterion of the political and of what it consists. The nature of such a political distinction is surely different from that of those others. It is independent of them and as such can clearly speak for itself.

For Schmitt, the particular distinction proper to the political is that between friend and enemy:

Every religious, moral, economic, ethical or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy… A religious community which wages wars against members of other religious communities or engages in other wars is already more than a religious community; it is a political entity.

The political, then, is a contentless distinction which acquires substantive content through a decision to create an antagonistic distinction. It is this dimension of antagonism which creates the (relative) autonomy of the political:

The political can derive its energy from the most varied human endeavours, from the religious, economic, moral and other antitheses. It does not describe its own substance, but only the intensity of an association or dissociation of human beings whose motives can be religious, national (in the ethnic or cultural sense), economic or of another kind and can effect at different times different coalitions and separations. The real friend-enemy grouping is existentially so strong and decisive that the nonpolitical antithesis, at precisely the moment at which it becomes political, pushes aside and subordinates its hitherto purely religious, purely economic, purely cultural criteria and motives to the conditions and conclusions of the political situation at hand.

Part of the background to Schmitt’s conceptualisation of the political as the friend/enemy distinction was the idea of the brilliant German sociologist Max Weber that in a liberal society, values could no longer be authoritatively defined and thus politics became a contest between “warring gods”. Schmitt’s decisionism forces us to choose between the warring gods. And this choice is indeed an existential choice.

The link between politics and desire hides somewhere in the interstices of this choice. Normatively, in a liberal democratic society, we tend to think (in liberal terms) of politics and policy as approaches to a truth best divined through a public conversation and rational debate. The German philosopher and social theorist J¼rgen Habermas both celebrates this idea of the rationality of the public sphere, and laments its decline in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

What is elided by the idea of politics as a search for truth through reasoned debate is the impetus for politics, the desire to be political and to politicise. It’s rare, I’d suggest, that people enter the political sphere through a desire to bring scientific rationality to bear on the problems of human society. Rather, people are motivated by passion. As Schmitt suggests, any cluster of issues if invested with sufficient emotional affect can become politicised. It’s this cultural and emotive dimension of politics that is often missing in political analyses. Contrary to the philosophical tradition which continues to inform most of our thinking and has deep roots in our culture, subjectivity and objectivity are less easily distinguished and separated than Cartesian rationalism would imply.

The contestation over values and culture reflects a stronger awareness of the emotional and cultural aspects of politics on the Right than on the Left. While the second wave Feminist slogan “the personal is the political” may have heralded in a politicisation of culture and values from the 1960s, the winners in the culture wars have been on the Right, partly because the Left continues to argue in terms narrowly rationalistic. In his post, Don wrote:

Much of the criticism of ‘the elites’ is a reaction to the desire of social reformers to reconstruct mass morality from the top down. For example, supporters of basic income reforms know that their proposals are morally offensive to the majority of voters. However, this moral opposition to something-for-nothing payments tends to be dismissed as ignorance and prejudice.

This is spot on.

The arguments for a guaranteed basic income are persuasive, or at least rationally framed in a manner calculated to persuade. But they have little emotional resonance stripped of a broader reframing of values. Again, this is the sense in which the debate about “the real interests” of low-income voters misses the mark. Any argument about “real interests” leaves out the mobilisation of values, and the work of persuasion involved in politicising such points of contestation. Bill Clinton has been derided for suggesting that the US Democrats need to engage on the terrain of culture and values. But this very realisation was the foundation of Clinton’s political success. Whatever one thinks of Clinton’s politics, there is no question that the way forward for the political Left involves a cultural politics of values – for instance in the suggestion that the Democrats make economic justice a moral issue.

Gitlin’s optimism at the involvement and the polarisation of political participation in America is well founded. Gitlin says:

The Democrats didn’t just lack a willingness to fight in this campaign; they lacked a willingness to fight on behalf of something that would ring true to someone in the middle of Ohio, and not just on the west side of Manhattan. The ringing calls to opposition on the part of the readers of small left-wing magazines do not impress me, nor do I believe that America is secretly a left-wing country that is simply awaiting the clarion call. That was a Ralph Nader and Howard Dean fantasy, and there’s no evidence for it. That’s why I don’t think the lesson to learn from Kerry’s defeat is that he should have been more left-wing. I agree with Colin Greer about being oppositional, but it has to be oppositional in a way that’s persuasive to Americans. My belief is that getting out of the sealed rooms and gated communities of the left and doing politics with people who are unlike you is to participate in the essence of politics.

Gitlin is also right to observe:

Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian, says the Democratic party hasn’t really existed for decades in most parts of the United States. It’s been basically a fundraising apparatus. Thanks to the Dean campaign and internet fundraising, it can now actually look more like a party of people than a simple social club of the wealthy. Kazin would say, and I would agree, that to sit back as the hard left does and say that the Democratic party is a tool of the corporate establishment is profoundly ignorant because the Democratic party is barely more than a shell. Therefore, in many places, it is available, it can be taken, just as the right took over the Republican Party starting in the early 1960s. Given how retrograde the Democratic party had been, and how out of it the left had been, we made up an amazing amount of lost time. We went from zero to something pretty impressive under the heat of George W Bush dragging the world down. That achievement stands as a precedent. One big question now is whether a new wave of Democrats skilled politicians in the making will move into party politics, make careers there, work in local and state campaigns as a matter of course, so that (for openers) the democrats can at least hold their own in the 2006 mid-term elections and reclaim some lost ground at state level. At the same time, the party has to prove it can mobilize again in the course of holding the line against rightwing judicial nominations and Bush’s attempt to dismantle social security.

Part of the problem in harnessing political desire in Australia is that our democracy is fundamentally elitist, but not in the sense that we often hear about. Our institutions are not open to participation, our parties are no longer mass parties, and the level of disconnect between the parties and the broader society is striking – particularly in the case of the Labor Party. In effect, we live in a democracy characterised by Schumpeterian elitism, where we are offered a choice of two teams drawn from an overlapping societal elite every three years, and politics shuts down for most people in the interim, and not just at Christmas time.

Gitlin also makes this important point:

A party is something that’s in being, that people feel occupies a part of their ordinary life, not just a special occasion for emergencies but part of the work of life. This is the hope. There are going to be some awful times in the next few years, and some of them will be useable by an intelligent opposition.

All those who are concerned with the health of our civic life, and our democracy will agree that a renovation of the Left in Australia is desirable and necessary. But for this to happen, those of us on the Left need to focus not just on rational argument (which is nevertheless crucial), but also on the desire to re-imagine the values of what a social democratic society might look like. And we need to live those values. And we need to fall back in love with politics. Strange as it may seem.


After reading Don’s post I’ve realised I should clarify two things about the friend/enemy distinction Schmitt makes.

First, he himself observes that there’s a difference between public emnity (making the distinction) and private hostility. One can respect and even love one’s political enemy.

Secondly, I read him more as a sociological observer than a normative philosopher (in fact, he’s both and at times neither). Therefore, I’m not endorsing his call (to the degree that he does call for this) for the friend/enemy distinction to entail the negation of the way of life of the enemy, merely noting that hyper-politicisation in its pure state, war, does. Perhaps a little paradoxically, he prefers declared war to what we would now characterise as police actions or “humanitarian interventions” (a la Kosovo) precisely because it respects the humanity of the other. There’s a respectable critique that the masking of the West’s intentions under a humanitarian cover in Kosovo has actually contibuted to a deeply and continually unstable situation which has made things much worse for those “we” intended to “save”. There are some extremely interesting writings on this – from the perspective of Central European thinkers and often drawing on Schmitt’s work – but they have little circulation here in the “West”.

In recent scholarship on Schmitt (and I talk more about this in the paper which I link to) I also adopt the distinction that Chantal Mouffe makes between Smith’s antagonism and an agonism which respects the other’s right to differ within one public sphere.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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2021 years ago

great post, Mark.

Nic White
2021 years ago

Brilliant stuff.

2021 years ago

Much of interest, too busy to respond…

I’m too busy to respond in detail at the moment (thesis…), but there is a great deal of stuff of interest over at Troppo.

I’m frankly unfamiliar with a lot of the po