So long as we operate on the premise of an abstract and immanentist national unity, political parties and the false economies upon which they operate will thrive.
It is finally election day in the US and soon the drawn out, often intolerable, play of American electoral politics will come to a close. One of the hardest things to watch during the course of this presidential election has been how the genuine sense of disempowerment and desire for change felt by so many people in the US has been exploited for the ends of political parties, which themselves care little for anything but their own ends. Long neglected communities are encouraged to fear, blame and ultimately hate those who are different from them, while those who seek more radical change are told the only way is through liberal compromises.
Simone Weil warned us about the dangers of political parties. Shortly before her death in 1943, she produced a short but vociferous text, On the Abolition of All Political Parties.1Simone Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties (New York: New York Review of Books, 2013). She lamented the incapacity of political parties to serve anything but their own end. In order to pursue the interests that they may represent, the party must attain power and continue to grow without limits. There is no such thing as “too many members, too many votes, too much money.”2Ibid., 15. She concluded that political parties are inherently totalitarian.
While On the Abolition of All Political Parties was written as a polemic, the totalitarianism she describes can also be seen in the historical origins of political parties. Political parties emerged in the English borough corporations after the Civil War. In the newly incorporated boroughs, lingering divisions took the form of parties whose mission it was to preserve and purify the whole by taking it over. As Paul Halliday explains,
… the desire for unity generated in the wake of Civil War promoted purgation. The rhetoric of corporate wholeness conflicted with the reality of a society divided by religious sympathies and personal angers. A traditional insistence on unity pushed seventeenth-century minds to only one conclusion about how to preserve it: purge the body politic.3Paul D Halliday, Dismembering the Body Politic: Partisan Politics in England’s Towns, 1650-1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xii.
Paradoxically, it was the language of unity itself that enabled partisan conflict: “it was the need for unity that compelled people to behave in ways that actually promoted conflict.”4Ibid., xiii. In this historical sense, the raison d’etre of the political party is to take over the whole and purge the opposition, in the name of their own partisan view of the general public interest.
A consequence of the domination of political parties on a national scale, for Simone Weil, is that it is not possible to participate in politics “without joining the party and playing the game.”5Weil, Abolition, 24. Alongside this, political parties also “ensure that not a single mind can attend to the effort of perceiving, in public affairs, what is good, what is just, what is true.”6Ibid. Thus being political is reduced to having an opinion on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, or Donald Trump’s most recent affront, while deeper questions about the causes and potential solutions to the most difficult issues in our communities go largely unexamined. We need only rest assured that America will be Great Again, and we’ll be Better Together.
Politics, in this sense, are depoliticizing. Phillipe Lacoue-Labarth and Jean-Luc Nancy describe this as the closure of the political. They articulated the difference between politics (la politique) and the political (le politique) as one between the socio-technical and the possibility of alterity.7Philippe Lacoue-Labarth and Jean-Luc Nancy, Retreating the Political (London: Routledge, 1997). Politics, or instituted politics, already assumes the terms of engagement, largely reduced to questions of policy on an already determined field of play. The political, by contrast, invites a consideration the very basis of how we relate to one another, it is the opening of indeterminacy. Insofar as politics is reduced to the policy platforms of political parties and already agreed terms, we lose this deeper sense of the political as the question of relation. Much of the current discontent in the US could be traced in some way to this alienation from the political: the terms of our relationships to one another are predetermined by an abstract politics, rather than by those relations themselves. Real participation is supplanted by the superficial participation of the vote. We judge one another based on our opinions about big ticket issues, rather than on how we actually live.
The current election has in many ways pushed the traditional parties in the US to a breaking point, but one from which they will likely recover, so long as we continue to assume that parties are the only way of conducting politics. Parties serve not a fixed and immutable set of interests, but often strategically shift terrain, the end of which is usually the party itself. While this election has no doubt fundamentally shifted the ground beneath these parties’ feet, they will not necessarily rupture. Their history suggests that so long as we operate on the premise of an abstract and immanentist national unity, political parties and the false economies upon which they operate will thrive. This is not to say that political parties are never useful tools, or that no one ever does meaningful work under the banner of a party, but rather to suggest that, if they ever were simply tools, they far have exceeded the confines of that limited function.
Tara Mulqueen is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Warwick