Review of Eliane Glaser’s Anti-Politics

Anti-Politics: On the Demonization of Ideology, Authority and the State (Repeater Books: 2018)

It’s always nice to be reminded of Brenda from Bristol, subject of a TV vox pop gone viral. Brenda made clear to BBC viewers that she did not care for Theresa May’s 2017 snap election, as she declared, “there’s too much politics going on at the moment!”

This is one of those classic snippets of TV news in which a member of the public goes beyond the usual banalities to utter a grand banality (“too much politics!”) — something that despite its uncouth phrasing deeply resonates. Eliane Glaser makes reference to this moment early in the introduction to her Anti-Politics. For her, this moment is symptomatic of a politics that is not alive and well. Politicians are insecure, constantly looking for reassurance from the populace; it feels as if we’re in a ‘permelection’. The populace – here captured by Brenda – just wants to be left alone. And the philosophers, as Glaser notes, have not been able to explain this state of affairs because “political philosophy has itself been depoliticised, along with the rest of the world” (p.11). Political theory can’t grasp this state of affairs because it’s not in the habit of perceiving politics from the outside, as a category.

It’s a crucial aperçu in a book littered with these insightful half-thoughts. What if politics has become not a struggle between Left and Right but between politics and anti-politics? Unfortunately, these set-ups are frequently not delivered-upon in the subsequent analysis. Glaser never breaks beyond a complacent leftism, despite her heterodox pretensions. Consequently, a critical, historical interpretation of politics and anti-politics never materialised. 

The book sets out, as its subtitle would have it, to chart the demonisation of ideology, authority, and the state — these being the main characteristics or consequences of anti-politics. In practice, it’s more a critique of certain anti-political tendencies that Glaser argues the Left has adopted. In doing so, the Left has been apeing the populist right. Therefore, ridding the Left of this approach would be the aim.

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It’s a noble goal. Glaser rightly frames populism as a type of anti-politics: a declaration of the bankruptcy of political institutions. The consequences of this anti-politics would be to diminish citizen’s ability to actually take control of things through state action. Glaser is right in seeing through populism’s pretensions: “if there appears to be an upsurge in nationalism, this is taken at face value as a contemporary phenomenon, when in fact it is also a response to the breakdown of the nation state as a unit of jurisdiction” (p.5) Populism is a symptom, such that it is “simultaneously an anti-political movement and an expression of desire for the return of politics proper” (p.31). 

When has this emerged? Well, we have lived through an era of post-politics, the managerial approach to power that rules through consensus, treating the answers to problems as foregone conclusions; the right technique is all that is necessary for resolution. After a twenty year period after the end of the Cold War dominated by this approach, anti-politics has risen to challenge it.

Or as Glaser puts it, “post-politics leads to anti-politics, which in turn leads to more post-politics, and so on” (p.31). Unfortunately, these terms never find concrete definition in the book, and the reader is left to infer whether the cases given are constitutive of anti-politics, or indeed whether they are exhaustive of anti-politics. The boundaries of the category are never set nor explored.

Nor does Glaser opt for a historical approach, letting the case build as we move forward in time, exploring the key events of the era. ‘Now’, ‘before’, and the more distant past are just shadows dancing across the page. The best we can gleam is that there was an era of ‘real politics’ (the Cold War?), then there was post-politics (post-Cold War) and now we have anti-politics. But when, precisely, is ‘now’?

My colleagues and I have our own interpretation. What we call the ‘end of the end of history’ emerges over the past decade as the political consequences of the global financial crisis play themselves out. There are distinctive staging posts after 2008. Occupy and the Arab Spring and the Eurozone debt crisis in 2011; the global protest wave of 2013; Trump and Brexit in 2016. This periodisation is up for contestation, but it is at least there. With Glaser we only get a vague sense of there being a golden age, back before things became bad. 

This persistent lack of clarity makes her arguments difficult to contest. Often confusions reign within a sentence or two: “the Right is hegemonic because it has co-opted the ideology of the Left: they claim to be the party of the poor, on the side of ‘ordinary, working-class voters’. It’s the Left that seems to have won the battle of ideas.” (p.33). Or: “The Right is anti-political yet highly politically successful, while the Left appears to find itself fighting the Right in a post-political field” (p.53).

The repetition of terms gives some of the phraseology an alphabet soup feel. Most of it stems from the aforementioned failure to define. ‘Politics’, ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have no anchor, and the appending of prefixes anti- and post- in haphazard fashion only add to the muddle.

But this isn’t a mere methodological critique. It’s a journalistic book; impression here matters more than rigour, after all. The problem, rather, is precisely political.

Firstly, what is politics? If there is anti-politics, and it’s a bad thing, then, consequently, what is good about politics? Glaser does make clear that state action is necessary to improve the world, and so giving up on politics means giving up on amelioration. But is politics reducible to ‘the state’? Elsewhere Glaser indicates politics is a sort of ‘space of contestation’ (p.55), which is rather different to mere state administration. Is politics the state or is it a space?

Or maybe it is contestation itself? This would be the approach of theorists like Jacques Ranciere, for whom politics is dissension — in contrast to consensus. Following the latter understanding — which Glaser at times hints at — anti-politics would be to put things in aspic, to congeal any moving parts, to keep things in their place. It would be almost identical to conservatism. That, clearly, is bad. But if politics equals the state, then standing against that must be good, right? The state holds things in place — or only moves them around in the interests of the powerful. If you stand on the side of the powerless, then you would surely be against the state! What is politics and where does it happen? What does it mean to be ‘anti-‘ that? The contradictions are never fleshed out. They are all and neither at the same time in Glaser’s account.

This becomes apparent in her repeated recourse to Left and Right, without differentiation. They appear as mirror images of one another: the former are the good guys, the latter are the baddies. But these are not the same, not equivalent but opposite actors on the field of politics. They also defined by their differing relationships to politics. Without the Left, without a popular challenge to the powerful, there is no politics. There is only administration. The Left, in constituting itself as such, brings politics into being.

Following this understanding, Left and Right have firmer grounding, and the Right’s anti-politics — a repeated target of Glaser’s attacks — make more sense. Let’s return to Brenda from Bristol. From extremely limited evidence, Brenda seems like your classic middle-class provincial Tory, a keeping-up-appearances type. The lady does not care for politics. Well, indeed. This would be a traditional conservative distaste for dissension. Traditional values should hold society together, conservative thought goes. Divisions between groups or classes should be healed with the balm of religion, ethics, hard work, empire, what have you. If this is not an anti-politics, it is certainly one form of the circumscription of politics.

Understanding Left and Right’s differing relationship to politics itself in this way would also help clarify Glaser’s conundrums. She repeatedly sets up oppositions she claims to be irresolvable. “Is the turn against ideology part of a broader postmodern rejection of grand narratives, or is it the result of a specific neoliberal strategy designed to foreclose the possibility of a left alternative?” This indecision between sociological and political explanations, between attributing causality to structure or agency, is actually not so tricky. It is both! And a more historical approach could elucidate this.

It is the defeat of the Left — not just as one of the options on the political menu, but as a force which pointed beyond capitalism — which put an end to the structuration of politics as we knew it over the 20th Century. It is only with a much diminished and demoralised Left that one can get centrist figures such as Blair and Clinton who pretend all substantial political questions are resolved. And, if you want to retort that the postmodern incredulity towards grand narratives in fact predates the 1990s and the post-Cold War period, then it is worth drawing the historical narrative back a bit further. Postmodernism itself was a response to the defeat of the 1960s global revolt and an intellectual development on the Left that internalised this defeatist attitude towards grand political transformation. The explosion/extinguishing of politics is not an absolute. It ebbs and flows, and determinate forces shape this tide.

Again, a periodisation and sense of the sweep of history is lacking. Glaser, on page 54, cites Daniel Bell’s 1960 essay on the end of ideology. By page 100, she is arguing that it was Third Way politics that was the origin of the turn against ideology. So did ideology end at the end of the 1950s or not?| A long account of the emergence and death of ideology across modernity would be beyond the scope of this book and it would be a churlish criticism to make. But Glaser repeatedly introduces certain notions only to then muddy the waters. As someone trying to introduce a relatively novel concept (anti-politics) a little more conceptual work would have been useful. 

A second fundamental problem is the absence of a more sustained critique of the Left from the Left. And this is despite many excellent critiques of deleterious contemporary left tendencies. To take a selection, Glaser is critical of the culture wars and identity politics for masking class and inequality; of localism for abandoning the terrain of the nation and the state; of tech utopianism for evading formal structures of representation in favour of atomised actors in a network; of cultural anti-elitism for its phoney democratisation and hollowing out of institutions’ purpose. All are well-landed blows. But these are only critiques of bad or mistaken ideas on the Left. There is no historical sense of the Left’s defeat. Consequently there is no explanation for why these bad ideas have been taken up.

Glaser is right that the consequences of these ideas are to demonise ideology, authority and the state, and thereby inhibit any attempt at taking power and transforming society. But it is the Left’s weakness and its disconnection from a mass working-class base (itself quiescent, disorganised and demoralised) that has led to this state of affairs.

The lack of examination of the Left is clear when she alludes to whom the Left consists of. It seems to be made up of centre-left think tanks, anarchistic activists, and some Marxist academics. Really? Was it always thus? Perhaps the tell is when she talks of “left-wing politicians such as Gordon Brown” (p.26).

In any case, the challenge as Glaser sees it seems to be to fight the Right, rather than reconstitute the Left. Glaser complains that “[i]nstead of being anti-right, we are anti-politics” (p.20). If the Left just dropped its bad ideas, it could unite to take on the right on the existing field of battle. But the Left has helped shape the post-political field of battle. It has helped to constitute our world — mainly by becoming appendages of the caring side of the state (the public sector and social services) and of academia. In Glaser’s reading the Left is instead a victim: “If the Left don’t like to use the word ‘left’, it is because they are victims of this process [of depoliticisation]” (p.34). For those suffering under neoliberal austerity, the “it’s not fair” rhetoric from the left-liberal intelligentsia would provide scant solace. There is a world to be won. Fairness doesn’t come into it. 

The new populist right is indeed anti-political, and though some elites may feel attacked, it rather serves their interests, by putting politics as a practice into question. As a purely negative expression, it has little hope of upending the world. Cynicism and even violence may grow out of it. But that’s better than revolution, for them. Something more than a cursory examination of right-wing anti-politics would have been a necessary component to answer the questions Glaser sets. As would leaning less heavily on ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ as compass points. There exist elite anti-politics and popular anti-politics; conservative anti-politics and revolutionary anti-politics. These concepts remain untouched in the book.

Finally, Glaser is correct that the Left ends up targeted as part of the elite by right-wing anti-politics. And it may feel unjust, but it is not without reason. The Left, such as it is, has too often become too closely aligned to cultural liberalism and its professional milieus. Politically, it has too often been too eager to defend institutionality, lest things get out of hand. All this would speak of a Left that is not too anti-political, but too ‘pro-political’, in the sense of defending the status quo, existing institutions and modes of politics. A more careful categorisation of the types of anti-politics would help elucidate these contradictions.

Glaser was early to the punch, many of these writings dating from 2017. For that, and for her instinctive swipes at the ways in which the Left shies from politics, she should be commended. It’s unfortunate then that the muddled thinking makes it all a bit one-step forward, one-step back.

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