Against “the political”

Everyone knows that according to Aristotle, there is a sphere called “the political.” It is dependent upon but fully distinct from the economic, which is the realm of necessity and slavery. By contrast, the political represents the realm of freedom and full human dignity; it is the chief end of man. For all its faults, Aristotle’s account is taken as normative by a powerful line of political theory that runs up through Arendt and Wendy Brown, among many others.

Returning to Book 1 of the Politics in my class after engaging with a range of Greek texts (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides) and Nicole Loraux’s The Divided City, I am deeply, deeply skeptical. First of all, I am not sure why the idealized self-image of Athens needs to be normative for all future political thought — especially because Aristotle’s rosy picture of a peaceful, natural hierarchy presided over by free and equal men is obviously a sheer fantasy with almost no relation to the actual highly conflictual history of Athenian institutions.

Second, the teleology of the political serves to justify a whole laundry list of evils. It legitimates elitism, strict patriarchy, and slavery. It serves as a sign of Greek cultural superiority — because weirdly, this “natural” institutional structure has never managed to appear among the barbarians — and justifies imperialism. I understand why early modern political theory would latch onto this structure; it is less clear why a contemporary critical political theory would take it as normative.

Finally, Aristotle’s account empties the political of nearly all content. Division of labor, gender relations, economic exchange, and even some wars (against people who are “naturally slaves”) are not sites of political contestation for Aristotle — they have a “natural” form that serves as a support for the political. Aside from war, the only thing that really results from the profound dignity and freedom of the political is public displays and monuments to glorify the city. So the city is great because it grants 10-15% of the population the freedom to bring glory to the city. I’m unimpressed.

“The political” in Aristotle’s account is a classic empty master-signifier. It’s good because it’s good. It’s the goal of everything because he says so. And this connection becomes clearer when we compare Book 1 of the Politics to Pericles’ funeral oration — which is open propaganda, arguing that Athens is great because it provides us all with such amazing opportunities to contribute to its greatness. Was Athens really so great and unsurpassable, though? Is a slave society that kept its women trapped in the home, dominated over its neighbors, and wrote really cool plays really normative for all subsequent politics?

14 thoughts on “Against “the political”

  1. the deployment of the concept of “the state” is reprehensible. my own work deals with the regulation of disaster recovery: . but the way the realm of the state and political is imagined sits discordantly alongside ‘the political’ as you describe it. one would imagine that the state would be the site for the political (and in all real terms it is). yet, actors distributing resources are required to treat it as ‘neutral.’ It’s no wonder so many projects fail. miserably.

  2. Athens, qua normative measuring rod for political justice, is perhaps comparable to Washington qua universal defender of international HRs. So yes I share your disdain, but not so much your surprise.
    They are what they are precisely insofar as they mediate foundational antagonisms (slavery, wage-labour) in ways more successful than others. But thanks for the post. The cross linkages were delightful.

  3. I’d make a distinction between an idealized version of Aristotle, constructed by those who followed him (and simplified and caricatured his ideas) and what he wrote. And that’s not to say he was right regarding politics, simply that his ideas are complex. For example, politics is not necessarily good in Aristotle, but rather a condition we must face (see for example Bernard Yack, The Problems of a Political Animal). The ideal of “community” is not in Aristotle, but rather in later lectures loaded by Cristian values. Miguel de Beistegui has argued that Aristotle’s bias appears right in his attempt to come up with a “first philosophy”: that is, his “ontology” is already the result of an “ethico-ontological decision” which grants privileges to ousia over everything else. That’s already quite a radical move and, as some have argued, already discriminatory (for example, already gendered). There’s nothing natural in Aristotle’s politics: it’s the result of decisions (or preferences) worth examining and (in places) resisting.

  4. The political is good because it’s good and so it escapes the means-ends instrumentality that dominates the world of particular interests. Political action is useless. It discloses a shared world.

  5. It’s a powerful normative idea because it insists on the line between *can’t* and *won’t*, which a great deal of public discourse collapses into: the U.S. *can’t* afford universal health care, it *can’t* close Guantanamo, and so on. To insist that something is political is to say that the real problem is that we *won’t*. Isn’t this the basic distinction between Right and Left? The inevitable and the necessary vs the free and the contingent.

    Aristotle thought the hierarchical private sphere was necessarily to support the free public sphere. But our time has a much greater abundance of resources; we are much closer to post-scarcity than Aristotle could ever imagine. Hence, the inevitable and the necessary reassert themselves beyond household needs: mass society, biopolitics, and so on. The task is to re-politicize all this, to insist that we can do otherwise, that private concerns do not trump freedom.

    Or to put it another way: the political *qua space of possibilities*, is no longer dependent upon any particular conception of the private. Is there anyone who says otherwise? I guess I’m not sure who you’re criticizing here.

  6. So I teach the Politics in my Business Ethics class — to introduce this exact distinction that becomes so important to Smith and modern commerce in general — and we always circle around to the inherent classism, hereditary/generational violence, and slavery that it rests on. I always refer them to this really interesting line in Book I where he writes that “if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others…then chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.” It sets up an ongoing discussion about how economies require a cheap input of something (slaves, machine labor, appropriated unwaged labor, natural resources, etc.) to reproduce themselves, but that if that cheap input is transformed into social wealth, then the class and slave issue disappears for Aristotle. That is, it seems that Aristotle retrospectively asserts the naturalness of slave labor after recognizing that for citizens to be free, their base needs have to be filled cheaply, but that if there were machines to do the labor (the “statues of Daedelus and tripods of Hephaestus”), then there would be no need for cheap (human) labor. In other words, if automated labor produced social and not private wealth, then we could have our cake (the pursuit of eudaimonia) and eat it too (not have that rely on aristocratic hierarchies or slavery).

  7. I guess I’m wondering why we should continue to think there is a qualitatively different space called “the political” which is incommensurate and incompatible with “the economic.” In part, I’m critiquing Wendy Brown, for whom neoliberalism is the death of politics — but at the same time, the only concrete content of her “political” is contestation of neoliberalism. Why should this space of contestation be “higher” or more dignified or whatever? I understand why it’s necessary to preserve it, but it seems to me like a means to an end (i.e., to get to an economic arrangement we recognize as just and legitimate) rather than an end in itself.

  8. There is a gap between formal equality of individuals and the reality of antagonisms that ripples across the social fabric. We should continue to think of the levity of the political in order to short circuited this gap by the oppressed naively pointing out the inconsistent application of formal equality and taking it at face value? This would also include taking at face value that politics can legislate the economic despite the role allocated for global capitalism in limiting what is politically possible.

  9. Human freedom is rooted in self-rule and shared deliberation, and this freedom, which bestows dignity on human beings, is obliterated by neoliberalism.

  10. Regarding the point that the “political” not be valorized as an end in and of itself, but rather as the means to achieve a just economic arrangement: Does this mean we can discard it if this is achieved? I am wondering if you see any value in the concept which you acknowledge as worth preserving apart from a space of contestation from which to pursue a more just and equitable economy. For what it’s worth, it does seem that cordoning off the political from the economy leaves the role of the political as quite frivolous. Do you see any inherent value in it?

  11. In the hypothetical and unlikely scenario where total and final economic justice and abundance is achieved, then I would imagine we can leave behind the political because we’d have nothing to fight over.

  12. Wendy Brown doesn’t just see the political in negative terms as a space for opposing neoliberalism. It has positive content of its own: collective self-rule, shared deliberation. These things are not merely means to the end of economic justice. They’re not even an end in themselves. They just are the disclosure of what is. The political can only arise once fighting over resources has been surpassed. As you point out, perfect economic justice would only be a relapse to spiritless natural necessity.

  13. For what it is worth, Gillian Rose’s formulation (a reading of Hegel’s Aesthetics) always struck me: “[Greece] stands for a society which contains conflict and injustice, but which is substantially free, and hence conflict and injustice are transparent and intelligible. In Greek society only a few are known to be free, but this freedom is concrete and realized. Those who are not free are known as slaves, and conflict between equally valid socal spheres is recognized by all. In later societies all are re-presented as free, but freedom is not realized for any, and the lack of freedom is not known.”

  14. I’ve recently been reading Preciado’s Pornotopia, which is about how Playboy as an architectural and media project constructed in quite minute detail a particular post-war subjectivity. This reminder of the amount of laborious, patient work that has gone into the construction of neoliberal subjectivity makes me think that the authors you criticise, who present some kind of hypostasised “political” as an opponent to neoliberalism underestimate the power and tenacity of neoliberalism. The assumption that we know what the political is tends to allow us not to think about what we would actually have to do to construct a political subject. I think this is a real weakness in Undoing the Demos: Brown’s interest in the genealogy of neoliberalism’s homo oeconomicis needs to be supplemented with a genealogy of homo politicus, if we are going to be able to see how the political is being undone and could be re-produced or produced differently. Otherwise, “the political” isn’t a substantive method of resisting neoliberalism, it just collapses into Arendtian waffle.

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