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Post-politics? No, thanks!

A remarkable convergence in political ideals has taken place in privileged segments of the North and the West. Media activists on the left push for expansions in access to communicative networks as the intrusive apparatuses of entertainment and surveillance expand and intensify their reach. Network activists argue for free information, free software, free cultural products, and free labor as the neoliberal economy happily obliges with epic unemployment and wage contraction. Multicultural activists plead for tolerance and diversity as global capital subsumes ever more domains. Somehow it seems we are getting what we ask for—and this is the problem.

A remarkable convergence in political ideals has taken place in privileged segments of the North and the West. Media activists on the left push for expansions in access to communicative networks as the intrusive apparatuses of entertainment and surveillance expand and intensify their reach. Network activists argue for free information, free software, free cultural products, and free labor as the neoliberal economy happily obliges with epic unemployment and wage contraction. Multicultural activists plead for tolerance and diversity as global capital subsumes ever more domains. Somehow it seems we are getting what we ask for—and this is the problem.

When one's opponent takes over one's position, one is confronted with its realization, with its repercussions. This is what many of us don't like; this is what we want to avoid. So we say, "no! that's not it," but insofar as our enemy has taken over our language, our ideals, we lose a capacity to say what we want, to know what we want. We can't even dream something else. Slavoj Žižek writes: "in a radical revolution, people not only have to 'realize their old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams'; rather, they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming."1

Such a reinvention is an enormous, perhaps impossible task. It's not furthered, though, by the diagnosis of "depoliticization." If depoliticization designates anything at all, which is doubtful to say the least, it is the retreat into cowardice, the retroactive determination of victory as defeat as the left fails to undertake the difficult task of reinventing our modes of dreaming. Depoliticization is a fantasy, an excuse, cover, fetish, or symptom whereby the left says "We know collective action is possible theoretically, but we don't believe we exist." The term "depoliticization" thus marks the gap between theoretical commitments to common approaches to systemic problems constitutive of left thought for over two centuries and the isolating individualism of neoliberalism's communicative capitalism.2 The very diagnosis of depoliticization functions fetishistically to prevent the left from confronting the truth of its victory.

This view of depoliticization as an excuse or fetish covering over a failure of responsibility, however, is not widely shared. On the contrary, depoliticization and the correlative notions of post-politics, de-democratization, and post-democracy are currently offered as terms for designating what is specifically new in the political-economic condition. Over the past decade, various political theorists have attempted to analyze the contemporary conjuncture as post-political or post-democratic.3 Reversing the terms of the "end of ideology" thesis offered by neoconservative (Francis Fukuyama) and "third way" (Anthony Giddens) thinkers, these theorists critically redescribe the orientation toward consensus, administration, and technocracy lauded as benefits of the post-cold war age. Several aspects of this redescription stand out, namely, the primacy of the economy, the individual, and the police.

The current conjucture is post-political, the argument goes, because the spread and intensification of neoliberal economic policies has subjected states to the demands of corporations and the seemingly inevitable logic of the market. To the extent that state authority is increasingly less able to constrain corporate power, politics matters less. This inability of democratic politics to produce viable solutions to social and economic problems, moreover, resonates with the celebration of the individual in communicative capitalism. The individualization of politics into commodifiable "lifestyles" and opinions subsumes politics into consumption: that consumer choices may have a politics—fair trade, green, vegan, woman-owned—morphs into the sense that politics is nothing but consumer choices, that is, individuated responses to individuated needs. Zygmunt Bauman makes the point well:

being an individual de jure means having no one to blame for one's own misery, seeking causes of one's own defeats nowhere except in one's own indolence and sloth, and looking for no other remedies other than trying harder and harder still . . . With eyes focused on one's own performance and thus diverted from the social space where the contradictions of individual existence are collectively produced, men and women are naturally tempted to reduce the complexity of their predicament. Not that they find ‘biographic solutions' onerous and cumbersome: there are, simply, no ‘biographic solutions to systemic contradictions,' and so the dearth of solutions at their disposal needs to be compensated for by imaginary ones . . . There is therefore a demand for individual pegs on which frightened individuals can collectively hang their individual fears, if only for a brief moment.4

With politics seemingly reduced to consumer choice, government similarly contracts, now concerning itself with traumatized victims. Its role is less to insure pubic goods and solve collective problems than to address the personal issues of subjects. Accordingly, pollsters assess individual preference and satisfaction, as if the polled were the same as the politicized people. Finally, insofar as the economy alone cannot fulfill all the functions of government, one element of the state rises to the fore—security. Thus, accompanying diminished political influence on economic and social policy is the intensification and extension of the state as an agency of surveillance and control.

Some of the aspects of the current conjuncture the depoliticization diagnosis highlights are well-worth emphasizing, namely, the neoliberal capitalist economy, the fragile, consuming individual, and the surveilling, controlling state. Yet post-politics, depoliticization, and de-democratization are inadequate to the task of theorizing this conjunction. The claim that states are decreasing in significance and impact because of the compulsions of the market ignores the millions of dollars regularly spent in political campaigns. Business and market interests as well as corporate and financial elites expend vast amounts of time and money on elections, candidates, lobbyists, and law-makers in order to produce and direct a political climate that suits their interests. Capitalizing on left critiques of regulation and retreats from the state, neoliberals move right in, deploying state power to further their interests. Similarly, social conservatives in the persistently fight across a broad spectrum of political fronts. In the U.S. these include local school boards, state-wide ballot initiatives, judicial appointments, and mobilizations to amend the Constitution. The left-wing lament regarding post-politics not only overlooks the reality of politics on the ground, but it cedes in advance key terrains of activism and struggle. Not recognizing these politicized sites as politicized sites, it fails to counter conservative initiatives with a coherent alternative.

Claims for post-politics are childlishly petulant. Leftists assume that our lack of good political ideas means the end of politics as such. If the game isn't played on our terms, we aren't going to play at all. We aren't even going to recognize that a game is being played. To this extent, the claim for post-politics erases its own standpoint of enunciation. Why refer to a formation as post-political if one does not have political grounds for doing so? If one already has such grounds, then how exactly is the situation post-political? If one lacks them, then what is the purpose of the claim if not to draw attention to or figure this lack?

Figuring a lack may be the strongest contribution of the rhetoric of depoliticization, one to which we on the left should attend—and one which makes debates among political theorists important for leftists looking to reinvent our modes of dreaming. It makes sense, then, to consider these debates in some detail. Accounts of post-politics tend to slip between two different positions: post-politics as an ideal of consensus, inclusion, and administration that must be rejected and post-politics as a description of the contemporary exclusion or foreclosure of the political. Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Ranciere hold versions of the former view, Žižek takes the latter, and Wendy Brown specifies this latter point in terms of de-democraticization.

Mouffe is the most compelling and precise as she takes aim at third way politics, the liberalism of John Rawls, and the deliberative democracy of Jürgen Habermas. Arguing that these approaches "negate the inherently conflictual nature of modern pluralism," she concludes, "they are unable to recognize that bringing a deliberation to a close always results from a decision which excludes other possibilities and for which one should never refuse to bear responsibility by invoking the commands of general rules or principles."5 Consensus-based ideals, then, fail to acknowledge that politics is necessarily divisive. A decision for one course rather than another excludes some possibilities and positions. Part of the challenge of politics is the ability to take responsibility for such exclusion.

Key to the strength of Mouffe's argument is her careful use of Carl Schmitt's critique of liberal parliamentarianism. Schmitt argues that liberalism seeks to evade the core political opposition between friend and enemy, attempting instead "to tie the political to the ethical and subjugate it to economics."6 Yet the political cannot be avoided and attempts to submerge or efface it as intellectual deliberation or market competition result only in the displacement of the intensity characteristic of the political to another, potentially even more violent, realm. In Schmitt's words, "the political can derive its energy from the most varied human endeavors, from the religious, economic, moral and other antitheses. It does not describe its own substance, but only the intensity of an association or dissociation of human beings whose motives can be religious, national (in the ethnic or cultural sense), economic, or of another kind and can effect at different times different coalitions and separations" (my emphasis).7 The political marks the intensity of a relation, an intensity that characterizes the antagonism constitutive of society (around which society forms).

Mouffe's emphasis on the unavoidability of antagonism and division indicates a weak point in Ranciere's discussion of post-politics (and post-democracy since for him democracy and politics are interchangeable). While attuned to the ways that contemporary practices of counting opinions and managing preferences presume community and disavow political conflict and division, Ranciere tends to write as if the disappearance of politics were possible, as if the evacuation of politics from the social were a characteristic of the current conjuncture.8 For example, he argues that today "the identification between democracy and the legitimate state is used to produce a regime of the community's identity as itself, to make politics evaporate under a concept of law that identifies it with the spirit of the community."9 Ranciere is right to emphasize the convergence between presumptions of democracy and of legitimacy. But he is wrong to imply a string of identifying moves that turn politics into law and law into unified community. Law is the site of open and avowed political conflict that undermines even the fiction of community, a conflict that brings to the fore the relations of power and privilege already (and necessarily) inscribed in law. Ranciere's claim that "the state today legitimizes itself by declaring that politics is impossible" is not convincing in the setting of frequent and multiple contestations in and through law.10

Žižek's account of post-politics grows out of his reading of Ranciere.11 Thus, he too oscillates between post-politics as the risky ideal behind the neoliberal third way, liberal multiculturalism, and the therapeutic administrative state and post-political as a description of today's "liberal-democratic global capitalist regime."12 Although Žižek's position is weakest when he uses the term "post-political" descriptively, his explanation is nonetheless insightful: what makes the contemporary setting post-political is the exclusion of the possibility of politicization. Žižek's point here is that politicization entails raising the particular to the level of the universal. A specific crime, issue, or event, then, comes to stand for something more than itself; it isn't just a singular problem to be resolved. Rather it is an indication of a whole series of problems confronting the system as a whole.13 It is the symptomal point of antagonism in a given constellation. For example, the civil rights movement in the U.S. was not simply about the difficulties facing this or that particular person. It was a movement to change basic social practices, institutions, and regimes of visibility so as to guarantee African Americans basic rights as equal citizens. "What post-politics tends to prevent," Žižek explains, "is precisely this metaphoric universalization of particular demands: post-politics mobilizes the vast apparatus of experts, social workers, and so on, to reduce the overall demand (complaint) of a particular group to just this demand, with its particular content."14 Yet politicization does occur today. The right does it well as it presents liberals, feminists, gays, immigrants, refugees, and retirees as standing in for larger crimes of contemporary selfishness, prurience, weakness, decadence, laziness and a more generally invasive strangeness or foreignness.

Žižek attributes contemporary post-politics to "the depoliticization of economics, to the common acceptance of Capital and market mechanisms as neutral tools/procedures to be exploited."15 Taken as a broad description of contemporary politics, this argument is unconvincing: jobs, deficits, surpluses, taxes, inflation, out-sourcing, trade imbalances, consumer spending, debt, bubbles, and budgets are key terms in the political lexicon. The economy appears as the site of politics, its most fundamental concern. Žižek's point, then, is better read as a critique of the left—the real political problem today is that the left accepts capitalism. The left is caught in a post-political situation because it has conceded to the right on the terrain of the economy: it has surrendered the state to neoliberal interests. Present leftists rarely view capitalism and its effects as evil. Instead, most view the problem as the state.

"Depoliticized" well describes the contemporary left's inability to raise particular claims to the level of the universal, to present issues or problems as standing for something beyond themselves. The academic left prides itself on just this unwillingness, an unwillingness to say "we" out of a reluctance to speak for another as well as an unwillingness to signify or name a problem, to take it out of its immediate context and re-present it as universal. While Žižek's version of post-politics is helpful in identifying the failure of the contemporary left, it is wrong as a general point. The right actively politicizes school curricula, climate science, stem cell research, religion, dress, marriage, adoption, punishment, and the family. Every issue is made to stand for something beyond itself, an indication of weakness or resolve, a sign of support for us or them. Conservatives are not seeking individualized, therapeutic, or administrative answers. They want the intervention of law—they raise their claims to the status of a universal. They appeal to values of chastity, decency, piety, unity, order, and civility as universally valid principles and ideals. Neoliberals similarly argue in terms of universals. Their claim is that the market is the best way to arrange production, distribution, and consumption, not that it is the best way only for the privileged and wealthy. Here again, the notion of depoliticization fails to click on the imbrications of capitalism and democracy, the injunctions and failures to enjoy, and the intertwinings of certainty and skepticism characteristic of the current conjuncture.

To be sure, the contemporary left is not completely without vision. It uniformly asserts the primacy of democracy. This assertion leads me to Wendy Brown's analysis of U.S. politics in terms of de-democratization. In a rich discussion of the convergence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, she highlights de-democratization as its central force and threat. The details of Brown's analysis are evocative, but her overall account is unpersuasive because it presumes a prior democracy, a previous acceptance and practice of democracy that is now unraveling and neglects the hegemony of democratic rhetoric today. Democracy has long been a contested category in U.S. politics, subordinated to individual and states' rights, valued less than elites' property and privilege, and easily pushed aside in times of war, Cold and otherwise. Anxieties over the tyranny of the majority, the great unwashed, immigrants, Catholics, workers, women, blacks, and the young have infused the American system since its inception. The combination of civil rights, students, and new social movements in the 1960s with rapid expansion in communications media enabling people to register their opinions, contact representatives, and organize gatherings and protests has, contra Brown, realized democratic aspirations to a previously unimaginable degree. Even as banal a statistic as voter turnout supports my claim that the current conjuncture is not well-conceptualized with the notion of de-democratization: the turnout of the voting age population in the U.S. in the 2004 election was the highest it has been since 1968.16

Expansions in networked communications media reinforce the hegemony of democratic rhetoric. Far from de-democratized, the contemporary ideological formation of communicative capitalism fetishizes speech, opinion, and participation. Communicative capitalism materializes and repurposes democratic ideals and aspirations in ways that strengthen and support globalized neoliberalism. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity result in a deadlocked democracy incapable of serving as a form for progressive political and economic change. This incapacity is linked to the left's failure to challenge democracy, to its unwillingness to reinvent its modes of dreaming. When democracy appears as both the condition of politics and the solution to the political condition, then neoliberalism can't appear as the violence it is.

Yet under communicative capitalism, this is precisely what has occurred, right and left share the same rhetoric of democracy, a rhetoric the draws together ethics and economics, discussion and competition so that each is a version of the other. Invasive war is fought in the name of spreading democracy even as critics of the same war use the same terms to voice, to imagine, their opposition. The contemporary left, then, find itself in a position of true victory, of victory in defeat: its enemy speaks the same language. Precisely because our enemy has adopted our language, our ideals, we now lack an ability to say what we want. Instead, our present values become horrific realizations of their opposites, entrapping us in psychotic politics.


1. Slavoj Žižek, introduction to Slavoj Žižek presents Mao: On Practice and Contradiction (London: Verso, 2007) 24.

2.  For a discussion of communicative capitalism see my Publicity’s Secret (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002) and Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

3. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000); Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999); Jacques Ranciere, Disagreement, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and, Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democraticization,” Political Theory, 34, 6 (December 2006): 690-714. For a persuasive development of the notion of post-democracy, see Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004).

4. Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001) 106.

5. Mouffe, 105. See also Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (London: Verso, 2005).

6. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translated by George Schwab (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996) 61.

7. Schmitt, 38.

8. Ranciere’s argument is further complicated by his reading of disruption as the essence of politics and of Plato as a seminal step toward de-politicization. If disruption is the essence of politics, then governance is necessarily de-politicizing. This view of governance allows for a kind of permanent contestation without any responsibility for actual decisions and implementation. The resulting left politics is reduced to a politics of resistance. Additionally, if the problems of de-politicization start with Plato, then how does the term contribute to a diagnosis of the contemporary situation? How is it nothing but the inevitable failure of order?

9. Ranciere, 108.

10. Ranciere, 110.

11. Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 198-205.

12. Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 209.

13. For elaboration of this point see my Žižek’s Politics (New York: Routledge, 2006).

14. Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 204.

15. Žižek , Ticklish Subject, 353.

16. 55.3 % of the voting age population of the U.S. turned out in 2004, www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html. The census bureau reports that 64 % of U.S. citizens 18 and over turned out for the 2004 election, www.census.gov/press-release/www/releases/archives/voting/004986.html.


Post-Politik? Nein, danke! (de)
Jodi Dean (November 2011)
Content type
Projects Nach dem Ende der Politik
World-Information Institute
Date 2011
Location Vienna


neoliberalism post-politics communicative capitalism legitimacy de-democratization logic of the market political influence Chantal Mouffe Slavoj Zizek Zygmunt Bauman Anthony Giddens Jürgen Habermas Jacques Ranciere Carl Schmitt Francis Fukuyama
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