Max Muir speaks to Lois McNay, Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University and Fellow of Somerville College, about her new book, ‘The Misguided Search for the Political’. She argues that radical democratic theorists, in their search for the abstract essence of politics itself, have ushered in a dangerous silence on the lived experience of inequality and oppression. Without addressing the ‘social weightlessness’ of their theories, these radical democrats find their emancipatory credentials seriously undermined.
Max Muir: Hi Lois, thanks for chatting with us. Your new book is called ‘The Misguided Search for the Political’. Why exactly is that search misguided?
Lois McNay: The book is a reaction to something we’ve seen over the last twenty or thirty years in political theory, this preoccupation with constructing general models of democracy, or the dominance of what Agnes Heller terms ‘the sole and all-embracing concept of the political’.
Many of the problems we’re facing seem to demand, by way of effective normative response, unifying and universal democratic procedures and principles. At the same time, this preoccupation with general models of the political is supposed to be the most appropriate response to the depoliticising social tendencies unleashed by globalised neoliberalism. Now, while it’s important to identify the essential and abstract principles that should guide democratic practice, in my view there’s been a certain cost to this abstraction – or what in the book I call ‘social weightlessness’ – it shifts attention away from concrete issues of inequality and oppression.
To be clear, my criticism of social weightlessness isn’t a criticism of abstraction per se, because all kinds of theorising – even those attuned to empirical practice – rely on abstractions to make sense of the complexities of social life. In political theory in particular it’s inescapable: we need to abstract from the flux and thick texture of ordinary life in order to highlight the tendencies and generalities that enable the formulation of democratic principles. But there are several ways of going about it, and some of them are more fruitful than others.
My central claim in the book is that the ‘ontological turn’ taken by a number of thinkers of radical or agonist democracy, in the belief that reflecting on the essential dynamics of political being would engender a revivified understanding of possibilities for democratic action, created a particularly influential strand of socially weightless theorising.
The ontologies that these radical or agonistic democratic theories rely on are diverse, but whether they’re construed in terms of plenitude or of radical negativity, they share a thoroughgoing anti-foundationalism: social and political being is said to be underpinned by a radical indeterminacy or ‘undecidability’. Theoretical acknowledgement of that ‘undecidability’ is supposed to generate new perspectives from which to challenge the supposedly fixed and inevitable features of existing democratic orders (no matter how inclusive they might seem).
This ontological turn has opened up space for new ways of thinking about democracy, but in my view it has some troubling entailments too – it culminates in the effective detachment of political dynamics from social relations of power and results in the unvindicated privileging of the former over the latter.
The upshot is that impersonal dynamics are prioritised over experiential ones and progressive democratic agency is construed through free-floating notions of flux and contestation, rather than as an embodied practice in the world.
In the book I question whether this is really the best way of thinking about progressive change. Especially as essential questions of oppression, powerlessness and inequality – purportedly the main concerns of radical democratic theory – are treated by the ‘ontology first’ theorists as secondary, merely empirical issues, or worse, are allowed to drop out of the picture altogether.
MM: That concern for how the everyday experience of inequality and oppression impinges upon politics (and political theory) at the ‘macro’ level is something of a constant in your work. Would you agree?
LM: You’re right, from even my earliest work on Foucault and gender inequality I’ve been interested in the ways in which inequalities are internalised by individuals so that they become self-limiting, and what implications the lived experience of various inequalities has for ‘high’ theory. I find the theme of agency a particularly fruitful way of addressing this concern with the day-to-day reality of oppression: what are the underlying social conditions that enable or prevent individuals from acting as autonomous political subjects?
To put the point another way, I’m interested not so much in why people act but rather why, in circumstances that are often intolerable, they don’t act – the ‘non-event of quiescence’, as John Gaventa memorably defined it.
The reasons for quiescence are complex but many of them are also quite predictable and identifiable, especially insofar as disempowerment is strongly linked to depoliticisation.
The current preoccupation of political theorists with formulating models of democracy means that they tend to assume the existence of readymade political agents – that individuals are willing and able to participate in political life (once its underlying rules and procedures have been clarified). I question this presumption of agency and explore why this may not always be the case – especially in a social context where deepening inequalities and social vulnerability frequently result in widespread disempowerment and depoliticisation.
MM: Do you think there’s anything worth salvaging from these radical democratic theories of the political?
LM: It’s not really a question of salvaging, since any general political paradigm is valuable insofar as it provides the parameters for thinking about the ends of democracy. Models provide a kind of map for thinking about the overall direction of political change, which is undeniably useful, but these theories require considerable fleshing out in terms of their understanding of social life. At least, they require that fleshing out if they are to have relevance to the disempowered groups on whose part they’re supposed to speak.
Given this, I think that political theorists, especially radical democratic theorists, need to come up with less empty and, in some cases, less ‘exotic’ theories of practice as say, ceaseless contestation. In order to think more carefully about such matters, they might usefully draw on insights from other disciplines such as history and sociological theory.
As Bourdieu once said, if thought is to be politically effective, it should be exercised in the same direction as the main tendencies of the world, rather than at great remove from them.
MM: Why do you think that political theory has so often lost sight of that idea? Why have questions of phenomenological experience (and its ramifications for agency) been neglected?
LM: There’s no simple answer to this. The rise of globalised capital and spread of neoliberal governance throws up problems (for example, ecological depredation) that seem to be best dealt with from within a general, universal framework capable of uniting various actors around shared norms. As well as that there’s the influence of Rawls, Schmitt and Arendt. Their thought has been tremendously fruitful for the various branches of political theory, but it has also intensified a tendency to think about the political in isolation from other areas of social life.
Finally, I think that the move towards abstraction has been catalysed by the need to overcome what people see as the dead end of identity politics and its parochial focus on particular group experiences to the exclusion of wider issues of democratic solidarity. This drive has been strengthened by the perceived recuperative capacities of neoliberal capitalism, which seems to have neutralised the progressive force of many ideas associated with earlier phases of identity politics by transforming them into opportunities for consumerism.
MM: In the book you mention interdisciplinary engagement with sociology as a possible way out of socially weightless thinking. But what are we to make of the fact that contemporary social science is often no less in thrall to abstract modelling?
LM: Of course you’re right, elements of the social sciences are arguably in the grip of what Sheldon Wolin in the late 1960s identified as a limiting ‘methodism’. Moreover, because they can always be addressed from more than one interpretive perspective, the social sciences don’t provide us with a final answer to social questions.
Nonetheless, I think it’s possible for the political theorist to avoid getting sucked into these potentially interminable issues of method while at the same time drawing productively on sociological insights. This kind of interdisciplinary engagement may also have the side benefit of heightening the theorist’s reflective awareness of the underlying sociological assumptions – about power, human nature, the main tendencies of social life and so on – that s/he inevitably makes in constructing a political vision of how the world ought to be.
MM: Do you worry that that your focus on disempowerment and barriers to autonomous political action perhaps over-predicts the powerlessness of oppressed individuals?
LM: That’s the ‘miserablism’ objection – the view that an emphasis on disempowerment and domination itself becomes a kind of denial of agency, or a refusal to acknowledge the capacity of oppressed groups to engage in effective forms of political resistance.
Of course it’s important to affirm the agency of subaltern groups by drawing attention to new forms of collective action and popular protest, but in my view it’s also necessary to keep in mind the plight of the most powerless groups in society.
This task is even more pressing in the context of the depoliticising affects of neoliberal governance – which repackages widening inequalities and social precariousness under the distorting myth of individual choice and self-responsibility. The radical democratic theories that I talk about in my book claim to speak for the most powerless groups in society, but because they’re trapped within socially weightless formulas, they remain distant from that aim.
That’s why negative social critique – what Adorno called ‘the unalleviated consciousness of negativity’ – isn’t on my view a simple miserabilism, it’s actually essential to keeping issues of oppression and disempowerment alive in democratic theory.
MM: That’s great, thanks for talking to us.
LM: My pleasure.