The End of Representative Politics, Revisited
[This conversation with Simon Tormey, filmed at his University of Sydney office, first appears in Democratic Theory. It is based on his book, The End of Representative Politics, published by Polity in 2015.]
Citation guide: Simon Tormey and Jean-Paul Gagnon. 2017. “The End of Representative Politics, Revisited”. Democratic Theory, 4 (2): 82-101.
Abstract: In reinterrogating core concepts from his 2015 book, The End of Representative Politics, Simon Tormey explains the nature of emergent, evanescent, and contrarian forms of political practice. He sheds light on what is driving the political disruption transpiring now through a series of engaging comments from the fi eld on well-known initiatives like Occupy, #15M, and Zapatistas and also lesser-known experiments such as the creation of new political parties like Castelló en Moviment, among others. Post-representative representation, it is argued, is not an oxymoron; it, like the term antipolitical politics, is rather a provocative concept designed to capture the radically new swarming politics underway in countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Iceland. Citizens are tooling up with ICTs, and this has led to resonant political movements like #15M in Spain or Occupy more broadly. Key takeaways from this interview include the double-edged nature of representation and the fact that new forms of political representation are breaking the mould.
Keywords: antipolitics, democracy, political parties, politicians, post-representation, Spain
Jean-Paul Gagnon: How do you define “democracy”?
Simon Tormey: That’s probably the hardest question we’ll tackle in this conversation, as I’m not in the analytic, definitional, business. For me the meaning of democracy is always in contestation. We’re not dealing with
something that has got a stable fixed signifier attached to it. What is of interest to me, therefore, is the evolution of the ways in which people are contesting the definition of democracy rather than me furnishing you with a definition.
However, for the purposes of us getting under way, I thought about this question whilst cycling home the other night and figured the definition of democracy that I like most is one that encapsulates the ambiguity and paradoxes that are of interest to political scientists now and that reflect the topics many democratic theorists have been discussing of late. Both of these dimensions are given in Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy from the ending of his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln says to the effect that democracy is governance of the people, by the people, and for the people. We need to pay attention to the “of” “by,” and “for” here because Lincoln is addressing the central problematic of democracy: it cannot be considered as simply “rule by the people,” which of course is the Athenian definition. Nor can it simply be democracy “for” the people, as is often produced by elites or some special caste of people. Nor can it simply be the embodied expression “of” the people, as sometimes happens in small associations. What Lincoln does is fully encompass the paradoxes and problematics of contemporary democracy.
“Of,” “by,” and “for” the people. I love that definition. As an aside, I don’t think Lincoln was a deconstructionist at heart, as we’re still early in the days in which democracy is problematized as a linguistic game.
What I think Lincoln did was develop a heuristic of democracy as a triangle, if you like. Its points can be pulled further toward “by,” or further toward “for,” or further toward “of” the people by whoever’s invoking the concept. And of course that is the heart of the contestation over democracy that we’re seeing around us. What is the degree to which we are prepared as contemporary citizens to be participants? What are the obstacles to that? To what extent do contemporary processes necessitate a less participatory, more representative style of democracy?
What Lincoln has done is give us those three points of where the rubber can be stretched, and I see that as a very useful starting point for thinking about democracy. There isn’t democracy solely as participation, or solely as representation, or solely as direct rule. It’s all three simultaneously, and people tend to emphasize one point of the triangle over others, sometimes for impressive normative reasons. This mode of thinking about democracy invites discussion on how to optimize within the triangle the kind of society, the kind of governance, the style of politics we wish to enact as citizens.
Gagnon: A stretchy, rubbery, Lincolnesque triangular conception of democracy. Brilliant to the core. Do you think, though, that we’ve overstated the representational aspect, the “for” direction, of democracy in the last 150 years? I think here in particular of the sorties launched against representative democracy by more than forty years of advocates championing direct and participatory iterations of democratic politics. As Nadia Urbinati (2014) might ask, have we disfigured democracy by reducing it to representation, election, and mass political parties?
Tormey: Representation is a concept I got very interested in about 10 years ago. In an earlier paper, when I was writing about representation, I termed it a “pharmakon,” which is a Greek term from which we get the word “pharmacy.” What the Greeks meant by pharmakon—Derrida’s (2014: 67–186) essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” is an excellent introduction to the term—is that it is a medicine that can either cure you or kill you. It was a way in which Greeks straddled the paradox of a dangerous substance that would either do you fantastically good or wipe you out.
This term came to me because of the light and dark shades of representation. Thinking about democratic contestation from the last two hundred years—starting in the late seventeenth century—it’s clear that the real demand there was for greater representation. Look, for example, at what the Levellers (e.g., Foxley 2013) or French Revolutionaries (e.g., Hobsbawm 2001) demanded. It’s something that everybody wants: to be represented. There’s not that many of us who would stand around saying the opposite, that we don’t want political representation. Hanna Pitkin (1967) uses this point in her book The Concept of Representation. Most of us want to be represented. Just as most of us want our governments to be effective at representing us.
But, on the other hand, representation is also a mechanism of closure. One of the key issues that confront us in democratic politics today is that “not in my name” evokes the dark side of representation. The excess of representation becomes a problem. It points to closure—the poisoned side of the pharmakon, if you like, for representation invites other people to speak for you and that other person speaking for you can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on the origins of their particular mandate, the form of accountability at hand, and so on.
This is the interesting thing about representation: it appears in our imaginary as something that we struggle mightily for. Think about the great civil rights movements in the 1960s United States—it was all about representation. “We want the vote. We want our voice heard.” But if you think about many of the social and political movements since that time, they take representation as the problem itself, as some people found themselves captured in a narrative and in a political process that is not their own. We have become hostages of the representational process, which, of course, points to the central paradox of representation. It is, on the one hand, a very powerful engine for social reform and for meeting the needs of different identities. But, on the other, it is a mechanism of closure and a way in which we can silence people and make them less agents of their own democratic sensibility, of their own needs, wishes, and desires.
We’re at that pivot point now, which is why I use the term “post-representative democracy” in my book The End of Representative Politics (2015a). We are still working through the paradox of representation in the way in which we think about the options open to us.
Now, there aren’t that many compelling accounts or portraits of a world in which we can somehow dispense with representation, which brings me to the concept that interests me most in the Spanish case. Spaniards, especially in the wake of the GFC, yelled “democracia real ya,” or “real democracy now,” But what do the Spaniards actually mean by that? Is it still within the paradigm of representation, or are they pointing to some other thing?
I’ve been following Spanish political actors for the last four to five years to try to answer these very questions. I’ve been witness to an unfolding process of contestation, a definitional struggle if you like, within a mass social movement about democracy and about the attachment of representation to democracy. Light and dark, pharmakon, apparatus of capture and closure, to use a Deleuzian phrase (see Patton 2010)—the paradox of representation emerges out of the very first modern political movements that were bottom up and that, naively or innocently if you like, demanded greater representation for ordinary citizens.
Gagnon: This links to what Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki flagged in their Trilateral Report (1975) about the crisis of democracy and the decades of seemingly constant concern from academics and chatterers about the decline of democracy. Because the concern is not about democracy itself but rather about a very particular type of it— namely its representational form.
From my point of view, we appear stuck between two geologic epochs, two eras of democracy: the Holocene, destructive, pollutant, representational, and the Anthropocene, irreversibly human, foreboding in its uncertainty, and too ungainly for representative politics to handle.
I feel that we’re increasingly recognizing the limitations of representative democracy in our transition from the Holocene to Anthropocene: representatives struggle to deal with problems that pay no heed to borders and states, representative institutions like parliaments and political parties have little room and still less patience for the nonhuman, and so-called democratic states continue to enclose policy fields into the domain of the elected politician whilst securitizing powerful people and places to ensure, we’re told with some irony, the stability of government and a higher standard of governance.
Tormey: I think what we are beginning to see is people querying the narrative that has been given to us over the last 150 years about why we should prefer the representative model of democracy. The classic justification for the kinds of mass party politics–style liberal democracies that we’ve got is that this is the best way of aggregating opinions and interests. We’ve got a choice of parties as long as we’ve got parties that roughly map onto the interests and opinions that people have in a society. If both conditions are true, then we invariably see a pendulum between a left
or right, and you’ll get your turn if you’re a rightist and then the leftists will get their turn, and this is how we are to cope with the agonistic and antagonistic forces in our societies.
I think that was the narrative that the great figures of party politics at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century gave as a justification for this model of democracy. The problem with this narrative, though, is that it was a pretty true description of democratic life up until about the 1960s and 1970s. There was, prior to those decades, a genuine social democratic party in most large democracies, just as there was a genuine liberal conservative party alongside other important identities of a religious kind as seen in Germany and France, for example. But basically what’s happened since the 1980s with the sharpening of the economic face of globalization is that political parties have had to—or have seen themselves as needing to conform to—an international imperative. And that international imperative is to formulate policies that will increase their state’s financial competitiveness in the global market. This has basically meant that that sense of a competition between opposing ideologies that once catered for our sense of difference has been pushed together to the extent that now people say, “Well, what really is the difference between left and right?” We don’t seem to have any real coordinates in our politics now; we’ve lost them.
The other thing that I think people have really begun to notice is that this guy over there in the blue suit with the red tie and this guy in the blue suit over here in the blue tie actually do look and sound similar. Are we not describing in a sense what the classic Schumpeterian (2003) description of democracy tells us is happening? That representative democracy is no more than the rotation of elites?
What we’re getting now is a much more minor pendulum movement between class style and ideology as elections cycle. We’re not getting rotation across the vertical axis. In other words, we’re not getting ordinary, working-class people into power. There is little to no sense today of social belonging to the ecology of the political. If you look at Spain, for example, where did Podemos’s great energy come from? Podemos identified both major political parties in Spain—the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) and the People’s Party (PP)—as being “la casta,” the caste. The literal translation is even more powerful: la casta means “the breed.” Both parties are parts of a political caste, a political elite, where their differences are much less important than their similarities, both in class terms and in terms of what they’re ideologically bringing to the table. And this has resonated very strongly in Spain. Not least because it is also reinforced by a sense of many case studies and examples of elite corruption, clientelism, cronyism, and nepotism between both political parties.
Therefore, you have to have a disruption outside of la casta in order to make any further democratic innovation, policy changes, political transitions, and so on. I think Spain is an extreme example. It’s an exaggerated description, but it’s one that resonates with what’s happening politically in other corners of the globe.
The whole Occupy phenomenon, for example—“We are the 99 percent and these guys are the 1 percent”—resonated across the world. Millions of people in the United States were regarded as sympathizing with that position, participating in the protests, or otherwise involving themselves in the movement. In Spain up to 8 million people took part in the city and town occupations of #15M. Some people said it was like the Arab Spring, but that’s not quite right, as the Arab Spring was a trigger point, a catalytic moment for democracy, whereas Occupy is a disbelief in the metanarrative underpinning representative democracy. It’s challenging the narrative that real existing democracies represent and that they’re democratic.
Gagnon: And this is where postrepresentation comes in?
Tormey: The problem that we’ve got is that we can’t just have a leap into the Athenian agora. We can’t have a sovereign assembly of citizens in complex societies such as Spain’s, which has a population of approximately
60 million. What we can have is much greater due process, much greater deliberation, much greater attempts to break down the distance between la casta and ordinary people.
If you look at the political demands of the new parties that I’ve been studying in Spain, much of it is about the form of political life. It’s not a paradigm shift that says we’ve got to get rid of parliament, get rid of certain political institutions, or get rid of political parties altogether. The novel dimension in Spain is that new political parties are buying back into a certain narrative about democracy. This gives us the sense that the contemporary crisis of democracy is not a crisis about our attachment to the institutions of democracy; it is about how we practice it. It is about how we leverage the faith in independent free judiciaries, freedom of the press, democratic institutions, elections, and so on, to bring about a quiet revolution. Not something that is sudden, dramatic, and overturning of institutions. If you look at Iceland, for example, they really have had a revolution. They have overthrown la casta and put them in front of criminal courts. They said, “You guys are responsible for your massive incompetence and corruption in connection with our people’s pension and life funds.” But they’ve done it quietly, collectively, in a crowd way, a swarm way.
Much like Spain, Iceland’s pots and pans revolution is to me interesting because this is not an overturning of representative democracy; it is, rather, an attempt to bring about real change to how the system works and about how people engage with it. It’s about making representation better.
Let’s return, then, to some of the debates that we’ve heard before as regards the Levellers and French Revolutionaries (but also the authors of the Federalist Papers and numerous other historical examples). The actors in these events engaged with a fundamental set of discussions about the role of their political representatives. It’s no different today. We’re going back to these fundamental questions, and that is why I term it postrepresentational.
We’re actually unsettling the certain, solid, nailed-in-place principles democrats have fought over for centuries: that there will be big traditional parties, there will be people in suits, there will be enclosed policy fields and securitized places: those things have become unsettled. Just as postmodernism did with the social sciences, what’s happening today unsettles our sense of certainty in ontological and epistemological terms. Postrepresentation unsettles the sense in which we know how representation works. It overturns what we know about democracy and troubles our faith and trust in our elected rulers and so on. We’re in a phase of unsettling and putting into motion, setting in question, the basic coordinates of our political systems.
That’s the main takeaway from my book.
Gagnon: In The End of Representative Politics you employ the metaphor of a bathtub full of water. The water represents the palpable desire that supposedly billions in the world hold for democracy. It’s still got incredible cachet, and many feel that democracy—whatever that may be—is intrinsically a good thing. So there’s lots of the good in democratic politics, which is why the bathtub’s full in your metaphor. But as you say, the water in the bath is cold. The water has lost its thermal quality. And you say it’s cold not because people are switching off democracy but rather because they’re switching off those types of representative political practices you’ve been outlining.
Could you unpick this metaphor to explain how these two distinctions are possible: that people are in favor of democracy but not its representative practices?
Tormey: Just to round out this story, the other part of the metaphor was the emptying of the bathtub. As I was researching and formulating the basis for my book I took a look at how other democratic theorists were thinking about the crisis of democracy. I got the bathtub metaphor from engaging with works by Colin Hay (2007), John Keane (2009; Alonso et al. 2011), and Zygmunt Bauman (Bauman and Bordoni, 2014). They each say, in their own way, that we the people have evacuated the public realm. “We,” as in individual citizens, we have become narcissistic. We’ve become consumers. We’re more worried about what’s appearing on Facebook, what’s going to be in the shops, and which holidays are coming up, and so on, and less worried about big, public problems.
The problem I have with this individualization of life thesis, which I run with in my book, is that it equates to individualism. That to me seems wrong. That’s why I wanted to play with the bathtub metaphor. It’s not that people have become disillusioned and alienated from the political process. Nor is it that they want to push it away and just get on with the leisurely pursuit of their own individual needs—far from it.
I think politics has taken on a different register.
What’s happened is as follows: if you’re in a conceptual helicopter and are looking down on political life, what you’ll see is a rather hollow set of exchanges between politicians. No one’s reading the paper or listening to the radio. If that’s all you’re looking at, then of course your impression will be of crisis. Those poor politicians. You’ll end up sounding like Matthew Flinders (2012), who says that we should be feeling sorry for politicians because they’re really nice guys and we need to reenchant ourselves with our political class.
Again, in my view, politics has simply taken on a different register. You raised the Anthropocene before—let’s take that up as an example, as it’s one of the areas where young people in particular are most animated with respect to climate change. They don’t hear Malcolm Turnbull, Angela Merkel, or Donald Trump really addressing it in the way in which they’re interested in it. So what do they do? They go about creating a political repertoire for themselves, one that enables them to have some purchase over that topic. (We know from numerous surveys and interviews that the sixteen-to-twenty-six group is very animated about climate change.) So you join a direct action grouping. You make sure that when you’re buying something in a shop you’re ethically sure it has got the right attributes to it. You read Naomi Klein (2014) and listen to relevant podcasts. You interact with the things around you that offer you the possibility of some traction in that regard. All of this is not visible from the helicopter view, which is a problem with mainstream political science because it’s too granular, too nano, if you like, for us to be able to capture.
It seems to me as an educator and an instructor and, therefore, amongst young people all the time that they’re incredibly animated about political things: it just does not express itself in the way it used to in the 1960s and 1970s. Let’s say you’re animated about politics, Jean-Paul. You join a political party, go to those long boring meetings, and eventually, because you’re an outspoken and articulate guy, they say, “Why don’t you be a candidate for the student union election?” So you run and do very well in the student election. Then the party leaders say, “Why don’t you run as a losing candidate in the Balmain constituency?” and on and on. You become funneled into a particular political repertoire. Most young people couldn’t care less about that model anymore. Why? Because in their minds all you’re doing is channeling your energy and desire into something that is just reinforcing injustice, reinforcing a sense of powerlessness over their nation-state. And therefore you need to grasp or invent new tools. And you need to articulate this in very different ways, with others in often unseen, virtual swarms and crowds in order to make your voice heard. That leads to further questions about the efficacy of new forms and new political repertoires. But that to me seems such a signal aspect of contemporary political life that it really shocked me how it didn’t feature in the narratives about the crisis of democracy. And that’s why I came to hot water and cold water.
The thing that used to be the burner, that kept the water of democracy hot, has been swept away and, therefore, the water’s gone cold. The action’s moved on somewhere else, and the new fi res that are being lit, and they are being lit, is because ordinary people do feel that they’ve got new opportunities, new things to get angry about, and new tools to put that anger into action.
An important part of my book is about exploring and explaining in very basic terms why people think there are new tools and what those tools are. I think as researchers we’re in a very early phase of thinking about political efficacy because we know there’s a big debate out there centered on whether spending all your time on Facebook and Twitter is ever going to change anything. Derogatory terms like “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” have come out of this. Evgeny Morozov (2013), Jodi Dean (2009), and Christian Fuchs (2014) are appalled. Both from the right and the left, there is real concern that we spend so much time on ICTs. I don’t share that skepticism. I think this is a way of acting politically that, taken by itself, will not change anything but will lead you to relationships and encounters and initiatives and events that may well have traction in political terms. So it’s not ICT itself that will change things; it is the experience of being able to find the like-minded, similarly troubled or excited people and the desiring other political subject that defines the revolution that we’re in.
We are in a moment of digital disruption. That is the new fire under the bathtub. I saw it with #15M. That’s why I became interested in Spain. By EU estimates, somewhere between 6 and 8 million people organized occupations of 60 cities and towns on one day, all at the same time, which would not have been possible without digital tools. It couldn’t have been done otherwise, as there were no other mechanisms to do this. But the activists and citizens surprised themselves. They found themselves with millions of others in squares, and why? Because they responded to a Tweet or Facebook post, they started talking in cafés, and off they go. We are in a moment of intense change promoted also by the emergence of new digital platforms and, therefore, new ways in which citizens can think about how it is that they’re going to make an impact in the real world. That’s our new politics.
Gagnon: It’s an evanescent, swarming, but ultimately practical response to the malfeasance if not paucity of representative politics today. Swarming, crowding, Internet-facilitated assembling and such connotes a reactionary and short-lived mode of political participation, does it not? When I think about swarming in a different context, with respect to bees and ants, they’re doing it usually because they’ve found a major food source or because they’re wintering and need to rely on each other to keep their homes both warm and clean. But these collectivist animals are not only creatures of the swarm; they live a remarkable amount of their lives as food scouts: individuals, out there, solving problems on their own and communicating back to their society when they’ve found something they think worth sharing. There’s a remarkable degree of resonance between these animals and us, as we can be both individualist and collectivist. But that’s just my take on the scene. How do you see swarming politics in humans?
Tormey: What I and other theorists who use the term are trying to capture by swarm is a sense in which otherwise distinct individuals are able to interact without the traditional apparatus of political mobilization. Why do we have political parties? Why did they emerge in the 1840s and 1850s? It’s because it was incredibly difficult for groups to form, act, and have any efficacy without some durability, without some permanence. The obvious response to this is to create parties so that people can put their names down, gather funds, create a bureaucracy, have standing committees, and so forth. That’s the traditional model, not only in political life but in social and economic life. It’s the asymmetric modern model.
Now the pattern of digital disruption—and it’s not just a politics thing—is our ability to interconnect digitally and dispense with the permanency of bureaucracies and officeholders, treasurers, membership secretaries, and so on. You don’t need all of that paraphernalia. Digital disruption enables bodies of people to think, act, initiate, and create things without a huge amount of what we traditionally call leadership.
There are other kinds of leadership in the virtual sphere. I’ve done a lot of work in this space in the Spanish case because an event like #15M looks at one level like the swarm, the crowd, and spontaneous reactionary group politics. But there was a lot of organization, a lot of thinking among a select group of activists who I met in Spain who were able to explain how they were able to create a particular kind of impetus behind a particular kind of event. But even they were absolutely flabbergasted by the extent to which a mere suggestive set of Tweets and Facebook posts resonated across literally millions of people and the incredible impact that this had. They had no insight at all that this crowd was ready and receptive for a particular kind of political suggestion, a particular kind of message. We’ve gone beyond the traditional pattern of organizational life: that we need to gather a certain amount of money, resources, and so on in order to achieve objectives A, B, and C. That linear style of political strategizing, theorizing, and thinking about organizational capacity has been left behind. We’ve been propelled out of this logic—think ejector seat—and we don’t quite know how much power the crowd has because it is incredibly dependent on what I call resonances in my book.
I looked for all sorts of ways to articulate this phenomenon, but the only thing I could come up with is a “resonance amplification model.” That’s because swarming is so unpredictable in linear ways of thinking. The trick for us now, as political analysts, is to make that leap into thinking in terms of a different kind of paradigm of mobilization and participation.
The really interesting concept, for me at least, is governance because some of these swarm-created, virtual-platformed initiatives are getting elected into power in places like Iceland and in the municipalities in Spain. Manuela Carmena is now mayor of Madrid and Ada Colau is now mayor of Barcelona—the first woman to do so in that city’s history.
The political coordinates that we’re so familiar with are changing before our faces. The borders of the bath are beginning to boil again. We’ve been watching the types of digitally facilitated politics that happened in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and so on over the last few years. These are quite stunning sets of events. There’s a high degree of unpredictability, a high degree of newness. But this is just the tip of the change iceberg, of the kinds of interaction and political contestation that we’re going to see. Why? Because ordinary people have now come tooled up. They’re equipped to make themselves heard in ways that 20 or 30 years ago they wouldn’t have been able to do. If swarm action happened in the 1970s, for example, there would have simply been a military coup in countries like Greece back then. Even militaries today are saying that they don’t know how to control this stuff . It casts us in a situation of complex sovereignty. We live in times of complex territorial makeup. The ground is changing under our feet. It’s so interesting!
Gagnon: Fascinating accounts and, to my mind, evidence of a transnational, digitally empowered democracy that’s waking up. But does it offer contrary evidence to a belief in democratic theory that sees the sophisticated citizen, guardian, and lifeblood of their democracy as mythical?
We could write a satire on this. Why not tell the tongue-in-cheek story, à la J. K. Rowling, of a civil servant instructing politicians on “strange beasts” (i.e., sophisticated citizens) “and where to find them”: the answer
of course being in deep future?
It strikes me that this new politics of the digitally enabled swarm is both new and exciting but also flawed in that it is not a swarming of sophisticated citizens suffused with political nous underpinned by an understanding of the philosophy and practices of democracy but rather a swarm of incompetents—to speak through the likes of James Fishkin (1991: 9), Richard Bellamy (2010), and Benjamin Barber (2014), who have each made this criticism.
Tormey: I’m thinking of Jacque Rancière’s (2009) work here and the traditional justification for representative democracy, which was that democracy is way too precious to be left to the demos. I’m also thinking of
Bernard Manin’s 1997 book, Principles of Representative Government, and the debate this has spurred between his work and Nadia Urbinati’s. It all expresses the problematic of democracy that we’ve inherited from the last
150 or so years of thinking, which is that democracy is a technical topic that people in suits can handle and that the ordinary person in the street is not equipped with the right knowledge or is not sufficiently interested in politics to handle it. This is a narrative that suited Manin’s model very well.
Ordinary people aren’t interested in politics? Good, that means we the wise and besuited can look after the affairs of the state, and every three, four, or five years we want to go back and make sure we’re doing a good job and open the opportunity to rotate elites. Christ!
We’re now confronted with the opposite and fervent problem, which I try to capture with the concept of clamor, resonance, and turbulence. I do this because this too is going to be a new feature of our lives going forward. An excess of democratic life is the new paradigm that we’re heading toward. It’s no longer a sense of warming cold bathwater. The problem will be keeping the bathwater humanly warm so that it’s not boiling off its head, creating steam, and evacuating the bath because it’s become so volatile, so uncontrollably voluble.
If we think back to Greece just two years ago and look at the images from Athens in particular, everyone is up in arms about the austerity situation: left, right, up, down—it was a society in fervent, and Spain is the same. We’re five years down the road from #15M, but this style of political life isn’t abating.
It reminds me of a conversation I once had with Agnes Heller about revolution. She told me that revolution is like young love. It’s that moment of immediate passion and engagement. But young love turns into mature love, and revolutions need to give way to institutions and processes. Her point was that intensity is chronological: it is followed by less intensity, moderation, maturation, and by both so-called boring or slow politics, which is, of course, Mike Saward’s theme of late (see Saward 2011, 2015). The problem, from the slow perspective, is that our politics is getting fast again, and we’re entering into an era when there isn’t enough slowness, deliberation, calm, and reflection. That sounds like a gentleman’s club tucked somewhere at the back of Whitehall. People are in a hurry to get stuff done. Think, simply, about the Anthropocene, climate change, the rise of ISIS, austerity politics, mass unemployment—slow politics? I don’t think so. That’s not the world we live in. We live in a “catastrophized” world now because our narratives, our discourses, and our self-image of the political requires immediacy, directness, passion, and engagement for all the reasons we’ve already talked about. Our perception of the threats to the planet, to our countries, to our standard of living, to our sense of commonality makes people impatient. They don’t, can’t wait for the next election. They need to act now. And we’re beginning to see the tools emerge that allow people to make this interrogation, to have such interventions.
Gagnon: Do you think the new political parties coming out of this revolution will succeed by virtue of their dependence on certain democratic innovations—like crowd-sourcing policies and e-voting?
Tormey: It’s almost like these parties will succeed if they fail. If these nascent parties become sensible, grown-up, besuited figures who are very comfortable with exercising power, you’d have to say that this is not the point of the new political powers. The point of these new political powers is to be “postparties.” This is the Beppe Grillo paradox that people cannot get a handle on. Grillo’s success back in 2013 was to win the election in Italy and become the most popular political party in Italy. Yet his party refused to become a sensible, grown-up part of the governance of the country. The election of the 5 Star movement into power but its unwillingness to conform casts into relief the question of what postpolitical governance looks like? What does governance after suits look like? How do we promote a different style, a different way of governing?
I still have in my mind—and this comes from The Conversation piece I wrote on the topic (Tormey 2015b)—the time I met the new municipal councilors from the Castelló en Moviment (Castellon in Motion) assembly on literally their second day in office. I asked them, “What is it that you want to get done? What are your ambitions?” They stopped me and said, “Simon, you sound like an old political commentator. We are not here to exercise power. We are here to be a reminder within the town hall of the basic sense of exclusion, alienation, and anger that ordinary people express against governments.”
The phase that we’re in at the moment is one in which the outsiders have come in, but they still have that “outsiders” comportment. And they’ve operationalized this. Let me give you a couple of examples. Podemos, at the time, said to their five new MEPs that they wanted them to sign up to the party’s governance charter, which means that these politicians will take the worker’s wage. This means that each politician will earn €1,800 per month instead of the €9,000 wage that comes with their office. The Podemos MEPs must refuse all of that and must put that money back into community projects such as feeding children at school who don’t have a breakfast at the table and so on. They refuse the official cars, they refuse front-row tickets at special events, they refuse the whole repertoire and the whole mechanism of creating differentiation between those who govern and those who are governed. The moment we collapse that distance between those who represent and those who are represented is an important area of focus in Spanish politics today. Coming back to Castelló en Moviment for our second example, it started as a people’s party by having a local assembly that met weekly and formulated policies among themselves. They’ve carried on doing that despite being inside municipal government. Elected members will still be at the assembly on Fridays at 5 p.m. as deputies. Anyone can come. It’s a party without membership. It’s a party without a bureaucracy. It’s on Facebook. Anyone can come and talk to these deputies, they’ll always be available, and they’ve promised that they’ll never go beyond one term in office. They are not going to be professional, grown-up, politicians. They aim to enact an ecology of rotation, change, and evanescence in order to maintain connection with the base.
Gagnon: I’d like to highlight the potential for scholars, activists, and politicians to learn from what’s happening in Madrid and Barcelona but also in other so-called non-Anglo parts of the world. One example of such an instance is an event—which I wrote about in The Conversation with a couple of colleagues (see Gagnon et al. 2014)—when Oxfam International brought the women’s caucus from Zimbabwe to visit several Australian parliaments and speak in a number of the country’s main cities. These brave women, who had to fight and endure much at home to rise to prominence under Mugabe’s regime, were asking Australian parliaments where their women’s caucuses were and where, indeed, were the country’s female parliamentarians? This contingent of Zimbabwean politicians was publicly chastising mainstream Australian political parties, and it was excellent!
Tormey: This is the front line of democratic innovation. And it’s not without historical precedence. The analogy that comes to mind is Karl Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune of 1871, which then found famous formulation in Vladimir Lenin’s (1992) The State and Revolution (the latter is the most underread book in the canon of democratic theory). And this is because Lenin basically takes Marx’s brief descriptions of the commune and operationalizes that into a fully fledged theory of democracy.
There are resonances here too with much anarchist writing. Many of my points of reference in the current age, for example, come back to the writings of Subcomandante Marcos and the idea of good governance within the Chiapas region in Mexico. There’s so much resonance between the Spanish new parties and the Zapatista political outlook. And overtly so. If you talk to some of the political actors in Spain, such as one of the leaders of the CUP (the Catalan Independence Party), she was quoting me Marcos’s work by saying that we need to collapse the gap between the representatives and the represented. What Marcos tells us is that governments must obey. He came up with the term “govern obeying.” The task of governors is to obey the people. It’s an overturning of the traditional hierarchy so that governing becomes a privilege, not an entitlement, and this comes with astonishing ethical responsibility. That is Marcos’s point, and this you see in the Spanish case. It’s resonant. It will likely become a issue in future elections. And Podemos is already under pressure because they’re seen as too at home with power and perhaps too traditional in their methods. They use closed primaries and have a narrow hierarchy and a leadership triad. There’s been somewhat of a backlash against Podemos because of this amongst the more horizontally minded #15M activists.
Gagnon: This leads me to reflect on what it is that we’re doing as intellectuals, as educators and activists in our respective universities because I don’t think that we’re proficient in communicating democratic innovations. I don’t think that Podemos is being intentional in falling into mainstream party behavior; it’s just what the party leaders know. Shouldn’t we be more vocal with both new and old parties about how they can govern differently—govern with or through one or more innovations of democracy?
Tormey: Never underestimate the pressures to conform. You’ve got the pressing media, the expectations of grown-up citizens; you’ve got the whole political class at the European level pressuring you. This is because Podemos is a threat. They’re posing a threat to la casta. It’s a class war. It’s a war from below on the above. It is a Rancièrian democratic moment—where Rancière calls government “the police.” He does that very aggressively, but it’s a signal and salutary reminder for me that the state is the locus of huge power. It has a military, police, surveillance, and other more general disciplinary powers. It is meant to control, discipline, and punish.
Going into formal government is like getting close to a star: it starts to burn your eyebrows and fingernails. State power singes. The state has an immense magnetic pull that draws people like Pablo Iglesias and Ada Colau to it, even when at one level someone like Colau is clearly repelled by state power.
Imagine what it’s like to be a deputy in a small town like Castellón. All of a sudden you’ve been elected a deputy and everyone wants to be your friend. “Sit down, have a cup of coffee, here’s a free lunch, oh, and by the way, I’ve got this problem with migrant workers, do you think you could do something about them?” Power requires a particular kind of comportment just as it does to resist it. To resist the urge, that magnetic pull, of being the privileged, the spokesperson, the starry idol. Can you imagine what it’s like to be Pablo Iglesias? He walks out the front door, and there are thousands of people clicking away with their cameras. It’s the Julia Roberts in Notting Hill syndrome. How do you get away from that? How do you maintain any kind of connection with ordinary life?
You can see the exact same kind of pressure on Ada Colau—brilliantly represented in the movie Alcaldessa, which is a video diary and documentary of her election campaign in 2015. She’s no longer her own person. She’s now the possession of thousands of political news junkies. Every one of her moves is scrutinized. And every single person wants a part of her. Think just of all the corporations in Barcelona: the tourism industry, the big hotels. They’re all saying of course you need to protect our business. You’re being swept around in big cars with frosted windows and so on. Shit. The realities of exercising power are sobering.
In my own modest way I can see it as a head of school. You’re trying to be someone ethical who does the right things. But organizational life has its ways. There’s a great magnetic pull to do the right thing according to your employers and according to those people to whom you’re answerable, and both positions, my own and my organization’s, can at times conflict.
Look at Yanis Varoufakis in Greece. I’ve got great admiration for that guy. After encountering the pressures I’ve just outlined, he got burned by the leadership of his own party who wouldn’t back his line in negotiations with the Troika. He just said, “Fuck that. I’m getting on my motorcycle, and I’m getting out of here.” He got very close to the sun, so to speak, to the star that is the Greek state in the EU and the life-changing pressures of elected office, and he got his eyebrows singed. But he didn’t give in. He didn’t burn. He walked away with the skin still on his body and his integrity intact. Greece might be the worse for it, but Varoufakis was true to his word.
Gagnon: This is a great route to understanding the real pressures that new entrants to politics face. You’re highlighting the social habitus, the practices of everyday life that many politicians face—I can appreciate how difficult it would be to reject the power that comes with being a statesperson.
This is all wrapped up in two rather stunning concepts you use in your book. The first is “antipolitical politics” and the second “postrepresentational representation.” At face value these concepts seem designed to confound: How can there be an antipolitical politics and an antirepresentational representation?
Tormey: Let’s go back to the first answers I gave to questions around concepts of democracy and representation. What interests me about these concepts is their double-edged nature. We talked about how both concepts are paradoxes. Let’s take the term “antipolitics,” for example. It’s supposed to describe all those forces that are antithetical to the ordinary running of political life. So right-wing populism, Podemos, disruptive politics from the margin—this is all what the press calls “antipolitics.” These are disruptive but democratic instantiations. Take Podemos—it’s an antipolitical phenomenon. It’s there to disrupt what we mean by politics. It’s still politics, but it’s antipolitical. Its intent is to produce this sense of rotation and unsettlement and disruption of terms that otherwise have a particular meaning, whether that be in everyday life or media or political science.
I’ve come across this paradox quite often, especially through reviewing duties, as many scholars have understandably been writing about populism as of late. My sense is that many of my colleagues just don’t get what’s happening—they don’t understand the radical changes we’ve gone over in this conversation, ones transpiring now. So I need to reach for confounding terms in order to provide a mental disruption of the kind that you have experienced.
How can antipolitical politics exist? Forcing this mental rotation is, for me, job done. I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do, which is to provoke a different kind of discussion that takes us beyond the empirical description of the facts that are happening in Europe and the United States, for example, to interrogate the deeper consequences, causes, and potentials of the kinds of phenomena coming before us. Because merely to label a phenomenon like Syriza or Podemos or Beppe Grillo or even multiple kinds of paradoxical political events in simple terms loses the significance of the particular historical conjunction of where we’re at.
So when we talk about antipolitical politics or antirepresentative representation it is to signal that we’re in an epoch-shifting moment in time, that we’ve come to an end of a particular way of thinking and doing politics— this is really what my book is about.
Conventional politics has worked for approximately 150 years, but it has begun to unravel. I noticed this unraveling from the fringe, not from the center. I noticed the lack of purchase of representational politics and representational slogans by looking at the antiglobalization movement. But then I began thinking of all the different instances in which representational politics wasn’t gaining purchase either and saw that these separate instances were actually emblematic of a much greater crisis.
We’re at the interstice: representation must change, and in some ways it is changing. New forms of politics are emergent. Where to from here in the ICT-driven digital condition, inside and outside countless evanescent swarms—most miniscule, though some will be gargantuan if the Tweet, post, or share resonates—is anyone’s guess.
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Reference guide: 2017. Tormey, S. and JP Gagnon. “The End of Representative Politics, Revisited”. Democratic Theory, vol 4, issue 2, pp. 82-101.
Further reading: Want to know more about the crisis of democracy? See here how it’s about the crises of democracies.