Erik Swyngedouw: Why we need political dissent

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Garden Theatre
31st August 2015

Erik Swyngedouw

It is the last day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, an isolated Monday after a long fortnight, and there is an end-of-term, bring-your-own-book atmosphere. The early morning seems less hurried, more relaxed, the crowds sparser until crocodiles of schoolchildren file in for specific events. A writer who draws a slot on this last day to explore an ostensibly adult subject might not get a sell-out audience. Indeed we did not fill the Garden Theatre for Erik Swyngedouw, which is a shame because the issue which he brought to us could, in theory, could have kept a week-long conference going – how could it be covered in the single hour of a Book Festival event? Beforehand, my head was buzzing with a dozen or more questions on the subject of the form, stance, and effectiveness of political dissent, it seemed to me to be such a vital thing to discuss. But perhaps the fact that there were empty seats is part of the problem that Erik Swyngedouw is trying to highlight.

Erik is Professor of Geography at the University of Manchester, but sees himself more as a political philosopher, I guess. He is certainly passionate about his subject, starting the ball rolling with a short lecture, walking up and down the stage, in and out of the spotlight, almost haranguing us, as rather distracting bullet-points flashed up on the screen. But there was self-deprecating irony in what he was saying to us. “I get paid to think,” he said, at the same time as warning of the dangers of looking to ‘master-philosophers’ for a solution to our political problems instead of ourselves acting. “At the moment that we invoke a master… it will inevitably lead to terror and exclusion!” Chairman Tahl Kaminer emphasised this irony by asking for the house lights to be brought up slightly, to bring us into the event as active participants rather than passive, and saying it was probably something we should have demanded ourselves.
Erik Swyngedouw and Tahl KaminerIt is this ‘parallax gap’ that Erik Swyngedouw highlighted as being the situation we are in today, like the silhouette picture which can either be two faces in profile or the outline of a chalice, but never both at the same time. There is a gap between the act of governing and the process of politics. Politics is something we do at the grass-roots level, whilst what the professional politicians do is a techno-managerial function, what they offer is a managerial solution – “Yes,” they say, “the country is in a mess, but trust us, we’ll sort it out for you.” And we cheerfully go back to our sofas and TVs, taking no further part in anything remotely political.

It seems that ‘we’ ‘won’ in 1989, that we reached Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, and that current interest in the political process (except, Erik conceded, perhaps here in Scotland) has dwindled. On the one hand we in the comfortable, prosperous West have allowed this rendering of matters of public concern to techno-managerial government, and have abrogated our democratic autonomy, yet on the other hand there is so much discontent. Erik cited the Arab Spring of 2011, movements like Podemos and Syriza, the Occupy events and other protest movements, many of which, it seems to me, are routinely excluded from media reporting. He also warned that perhaps the best organised dissidence currently comes from the Right and from religious fundamentalism, and that the left is disorganised. But even amongst the ostensibly apathetic there is concern and grumbling; what they lack is some kind of motivation to become actively political.

Erik Swyngedouw bookTahl Kaminer asked him about the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, which Erik rather surprisingly called ‘empty signifiers’. He begged us to think of them differently from the way politicians define them, differently from how they are defined in our constitutions, and to start thinking of them in terms of what people do and how that challenges constitutional definitions and the views of political managers. Rosa Parks, he pointed out, defined ‘freedom’ by ‘putting her black bum on a seat’. Yes, if some of you find that a rather surprising turn of phrase, then this is something Erik does deliberately. He choses to use terms which he calls ‘obscene’. By that he does not mean conventionally ‘dirty’, but rather, because the ‘democracy’ that exists, where we turn everything over to a managerial class, is ‘an obscene perversion of democracy’, Erik suggests that we seize and use hate-words like ‘communism’ and bend them to our purposes. To him ‘communism’ is a signifier to answer his semi-rhetorical question “What is the name of what we want?” because it has meanings that pre-date its undoubtable twentieth-century disaster.

This view didn’t go unchallenged, of course. Tahl Kaminer wondered whether, as the ideas discussed by Erik and his fellow-thinkers seem to have a clear anti-property, anti-statism aspect, ‘anarchism’ would be a better defining term. I myself asked Erik what we could do to reclaim the term ‘democracy’ plain and simple, when the word itself is now so universally used to describe the elective-managerial hegemony, to the extent that systems, both real and theoretical, with more participation and involvement had to be qualified by an adjective. Erik, whilst taking these points, seemed to favour the shock effect of using an ‘obscene’ term, a term with more strength than ‘anarchism’ or ‘democracy’. Nevertheless, the book that Erik was promoting today, and which he co-edited with Japhy Wilson, The Post-Political and its Discontents, contains this interesting and telling quotation from José Saramago:

We live in an era where we can discuss everything. With one exception: Democracy. She is there, an acquired dogma. Don’t touch, like a museum display. Elections have become an absurd comedy, shameful, in which the participation of the citizen is very weak, and governments represent the political commissionaires of economic power. There isn’t democracy, only the appearance of democracy. We live in a simulation. If we want real democracy, we will have to create it ourselves.

This situation that Saramago refers to is what Erik Swyngedouw, Japhy Wilson, and their co-writers mean by ‘Post-Political’. It is a captivating definition and world-view, so much so that I actually went straight to the Festival bookshop and bought a copy of the book. That was a first for me this year – up to then I had only made a note to put something on my Christmas list – and I think I’m going to enjoy reading it. From my point of view there’s no better way to cap Book Festival ‘long fortnight’ than to come out stimulated like this.

Reviewer : Paul Thompson

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