Self-governance in the era of bankrupt liberalism and the rejection of internationalism

Open Democracy (Jan. 20, 2020)

                                            Self-governance in the era of bankrupt liberalism and the rejection of internationalism

How can the left ever shift from a politics of resistance to one of governance? It needs to start by thinking more deeply about what governance, and self-governance, actually is, and at what level (personal, local, national, supra-national, planetary) it should best take place. Part of the Left governmentality mini-series.

As the second decade in the 21st century comes to an end, popular reactions to the global neoliberal order are proliferating. And they are now truly worldwide – covering a broader geo-cultural range than the assembly movements of 2011 – and mostly driven by youth who see their futures already sold out of reach. These rebellions exemplify the politics of spontaneous organisation – a politics that confirms radical democracy as the only weapon against the consumerist depolitisation of society that follows the bankruptcy of liberal institutions, especially in the Euro-American sphere. And yet, the question remains: how can these spontaneous insurrectionary gestures turn into an affirmative politics of governance?

In the five years since I introduced the notion of ‘left governmentality’, I came to doubt its political efficacy several times. My occasional attempts to elaborate on the nuances and complexities – perhaps even enigmas – of the notion have been motivated by these doubts. After all, what could left governmentality mean outside the real political terrain of our times? The very claim that there can be such a thing, which must exceed the tradition of leftist resistance, makes sense only when it is measured as a reality of governance.

Ongoing governmental politics in the wake of entrenched neoliberalism make left governmentality seem like an impossibility, at best romantic, at worst naïve. It’s given us austerity economics, the dismantling of social welfare institutions, and a media-driven selling out of democracy, all in the name of an encompassing consumer ideal. In turn these have created numerous obstacles to left governmentality: the sovereign debt crisis, racist politics in the wake of labor and refugee migration, and vehement micro-nationalisms within and across borders –

And yet, for precisely this reason, because of what presently seems to be an unprecedented orchestration of politically debilitated societies, left governmentality seems like a necessary, even if daring, aspiration.

What is ‘left governmentality’?

There are four parameters essential to left governmentality. All are predicated on each other with no primacy or sequential order:

1) Left governmentality is more a political attitude than an idea and is only meaningful in the democratic tradition, not the revolutionary one. It is not concerned with the violent overthrow of the state, if nothing else because “governmentality” here exceeds the boundaries of state machinery. It’s not about some technocratic expertise of government or statecraft, merely distinguished by ideological difference. It’s not about management of what already exists, but a transformation of what already exists, and this cannot be reduced to a simple take-over of the state, nor mere inheritance of the state.

2) The operative idea in “left governmentality” is not government but governance – indeed, self-governance. Hence its fundamentally democratic character, for democracy is not about mechanisms of government (parliaments, political parties, elections) – these are necessary symptoms. Democracy is a politics of self-governance above all, and this happens in all facets of society and ideally by all of its members, regardless of their differences. Because social difference remains despite equality being essential to democracy, a politics of self-governance is especially keen to address social and economic disparities pertinent to all without exception.

3) For leftist politics to achieve a governmentality not of management but of social transformation, it cannot remain in the default position of resistance but must develop a capacity to rule. In a democratic situation, this necessarily means to rule in the service of all, not merely an electoral constituency, a particular class, or specific social, economic, or cultural interests. This structural pivot from resistance to rule means that we cannot hold left governmentality to a priori ideological principles, but rather remain alert to those new social and political exigencies that develop as an outcome of left governmentality becoming a political event.

4) At the same time, the primacy of self-governance means that left governmentality cannot be exhausted in governmental practices and institutions. Social change cannot be mandated by law, although it often requires law in order to be sealed. It is always rooted in social movements, and leftist politics in the absence of social movements is an empty shell. So, this shift from a negative politics of resistance to the affirmative politics of governance works only to the degree that social movements retain their full critical and interrogative power. The relation between left government and social movement is one of relative autonomy. In left governmentality, neither the government nor the movement is subservient to each other and yet both the government and the movement are responsible for each other.

The EU battlefield and the dead-end of nationalism

Although part of my overall concern with radical democracy, thinking about left governmentality became urgent for me after the electoral victory of SYRIZA in Greece in 2015. This seminal event of a Left party coming to power in parliamentary elections has lost none of its significance historically, despite the fact that SYRIZA’s subsequent years of rule under the harshest austerity economics ever imposed on a European country were marked by numerous failures and incapacities.

Although radical democratic thinking must be realist thinking, it must also be optimistic thinking; the two are hardly incompatible. Besides, leftist thinking can only be conducted from an internationalist standpoint, so we cannot get bogged down by setbacks or failures in a specific social-historical (national or geographical) situation. For precisely this reason, EU politics remains a provocative terrain for left governmentality.

True, the European Union was never constructed as a political entity. It was instituted and is still governed by economic principles. It was forged from the same imaginary that precipitated the financialisation of capital at a techno-global scale. In retrospect, what was once called the European Economic Community may be financial capitalism’s first large-scale institution.

It’s arguable that the crux of the EU’s institutional incapacities – both its communal dysfunction and its bureaucratic tyranny – are consequences of this chimeric institutional structure where political decisions are made by economic interests or actors. It’s a chimera which is, alas, becoming common in most states around the world. And yet, I look at the EU – this poorly constructed, inadequate, self-defeating historical structure – as an open horizon of democratic potential where left governmentality may indeed emerge and be tested.

For one thing, reverting to the nationalist passions that animate anti-European sentiment is a closed horizon. Not only because reverting is literally regressive in historical terms, but because this regression cannot resuscitate its historical basis; it is an anachronism standing on its own historical void.

As I have often argued, the pillar for the survival of a nation is not its flag or its constitution but its economic self-sufficiency. Since a national economy is, quite literally, no longer possible, the presumption of national independence – indeed, often articulated as economic independence – is a ruse implemented against national populations by certain elite interests (which are fully embedded in international capital) for the sake of maximizing their power and their profits.

There is tremendous irony here. The national-populist rhetoric taking over liberal political institutions, which claims to empower the impoverished masses by reanimating the defensive strength of national borders, is conducted by forces and actors that epitomise global capital. This is one of the greatest deceptions of our time. Its most famous brand names may be Brexit or Trump but its poison runs deep in societies across continents and at the minutest micro level of social organisation nearly everywhere.

This has precipitated absurd behavior. In the last EU parliamentary elections we saw people in several countries voting for MEPs who ran on an anti-EU platform (the Brexit party in the UK being the most visible). The travesty of the EU as a political institution is encapsulated in this desire of both politicians and populations to participate in it while wallowing in their hatred of it! It’s difficult to see the underlying political purpose, apart from the classic recipe of depoliticising societies by pacifying them with delusions of national pride.

And yet, the electorate’s response in some countries, which beat back their own nationalist waves, or the general surge of Green parties that by definition espouse a borderless (planetary) politics, provide a counterpoint that turns the EU political terrain into a democratic battlefield whose potential may even overcome Europe’s residual colonial baggage, deeply entrenched as that is.

Today’s Euro Parliament exhibits an unusual range of political representation, given the broad exodus of voters from the ranks of well-established political parties. Half a year later, the national electoral sphere has been thrown into turmoil in most European countries as a result of centrifugal politics, with the most complicated case being the UK (but this deserves an analysis all its own). EU elections have a long way to go to overcome their secondary status – to do so, the populations of Europe will have to overcome their own political lockdown in national boundaries. Yet, despite the persistent bureaucratic stranglehold from Brussels, the EU remains a battlefield for left governmentality precisely because the political constituencies of its peoples have the historical potential to work across borders.

Politics of self-governance – beyond ‘us and them’

The politics of left governmentality can only be an anti-nationalist politics. It is a politics that understands the artificiality of all borders. Although respectful of the legal safeguards of national sovereignty, left governmentality seeks to expand the inherited boundaries of national citizenship and to create new political subjectivities that respect and care for the locality of their everyday lives but are alert to the transience of the lives of others across porous borders of geography, history, society, and culture.

From this standpoint, citizenship is an ever-renewable pool one has a right to if committed to defending the dignity of one’s life and one’s society. This is fought over and won at the most local level – in the workplace, the home, the school, the neighborhood, the street. Citizenship, in this sense, is not an individual right; it is profoundly public – it pertains to whatever is the commons.

This is why the pedagogical work of left governmentality takes place initially in the ranks of social movements, whose immediate focus is society’s troubles, not the mechanisms of the state. In our globalised era, society’s troubles are never exclusive to one society, and social movements that don’t see beyond the frame of their “own” interests are condemned to calcify in very narrow (national) achievements – a calcification which will eventually incapacitate them.

This extension beyond “one’s own” reaches all levels of political action. One is not acting democratically if one espouses a politics that defends exclusive or exceptional interests. This is why I oppose the sort of leftist politics that divides the political body simply between the few and the many. Although this line reiterates the Roman republican legacy of the plebeians, it is ultimately unhistorical because it operates at a level of profound abstraction. Even a Marxist notion of class struggle, which also formalised social conflict in a specific way, continues to account for the complexities of social difference, especially in this era where the contours of labour have become too diffuse to be contained in a single formulaic relation to capital.

Conflict is, of course, essential to democracy. But not when polarisation becomes a fetish. Especially when constituencies who venerate a politics of difference that is fluid and relational end up celebrating a politics of polarised abstractions that effectively eliminate the complexities of difference.

Such is the “us against them” politics of left populism, which reduces politics to a battle of hardened identities that impedes the inclusive and unexceptional politics essential to democracy. Although the Occupy movement’s slogan of the 1% was incisive and powerful – and historically accurate as to oligarchic power – the subsequent evolution of this figure into “the plebeians”, “the many”, or “the poor” effaced the radical potential of difference that characterises the 99%.

Planetary subjectivities

The nagging question, of course, remains: How in today’s world of global capital do we conceptualise, achieve, and mobilise a collective subject? Simple populist politics won’t do. Its mobilisation of the masses (even in leftist garb) does nothing to upset the entrenchment of the atomised consumer-subject ideal. And capital enjoys the expenditure of mass desire through the micropolitics of identity, which, in its collective abstraction, does nothing to hinder the consumer habits that serve as painless relief for the everyday.

The dismantling of the consumer-subject ideal is an essential presupposition for any politics of left governmentality. Elementary to this has to be the counter-formation of a planetary consciousness, which at this point cannot but be ecological in the most literal sense – in caring not for one’s own but for what is common. And the planet is the undeconstructible figure of the common. Indeed, a basic “care of the self”, starting with Foucault’s reinvention of the Stoic notion but going further, cannot be anything less than care for all that is life on this planet, for without it, very crudely, there is no self of any kind.

The creation of new planetary subjectivities is thus essential to a politics of self-governance and lies at the forefront of combatting the consumer-subject ideal. This hardly means that we abandon the local politics of the workplace, the home, the school, the neighborhood, the street – because the planet is not some abstraction but precisely encountered and experienced in this utter locality of everyday existence.

From this standpoint, locality has no borders, no exclusionary refutation of otherness. Surely, in the world of global capital what happens here also happens in the here of elsewhere, quite literally at the same time. In left governmentality, the difference between localities is neither alleviated nor overcome, but from this planetary standpoint of self-governance it is no longer a difference that divides. Perhaps, the uncanny simultaneity of recent insurrections across continents signifies the first instance of such local-global negation of difference. Turning this into a politics of self-governance is the crucial task of our age.