Promises of the Political: Insurgent Cities in a Post-Political Environment, Erik Swyngedouw (2018)
Reviewed by Joe Penny, Clive Barnett, Crystal Legacy, Marit Rosol, Mustafa Dikeç & David Featherstone
Introduction to the symposium
In the preface to his latest book Promises of the Political: Insurgent Cities in a Post-Political Environment Erik Swyngedouw informs the reader: “The manuscript of this book was completed during a time of major upheaval” (xiii). In the ten years following the Global Financial Crisis, this upheaval has been manifest as people have taken to the streets and occupied public space with fearless resolve, even in the face of violent authoritarian backlash; voters have exercised their power in elections and referendum to defy the political class’ common sense and polling data; and, hopes for a renewed Leftist turn, rearticulating connections between grassroots mobilization and institutional insurgency, struggle against an emboldened xenophobic, racist, climate-crisis denying Right. Perhaps the only certainty in this otherwise profoundly ambivalent political moment is that the third-way compromise of “center ground” politics no longer holds popular legitimacy. Where the center does endure, notably in Canada with Trudeau and France with Macron, the vital signs are not promising.
Indeed, Macron’s République has been in the spotlight throughout the convening of this review symposium. As the authors read and responded to Promises of the Political, every week since late November 2018 tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Paris or blocked roads and roundabouts across the “peripheries”. In a striking reflection of the themes and tensions animating Swyngedouw’s new book, the leaderless and unaffiliated “Gilet-Jaunes” uprisings began with ordinary people – those whose lives have been made increasingly precarious for decades – refusing to accept a new “eco” fuel tax. Whilst it was presented as an environmental necessity, this tax was deeply regressive; it coincided with a tax cut for the super-rich and, absent a programme of investment in public transportation, augured a green transition at the expense of people’s ability to get to work, drop their children off at school, and do the shopping. Without over romanticizing a revolt that has included xenophobic and homophobic elements, the rage of the Gilet Jaunes is animated by more than “the misery of having to get up to drive to work to get paid to pay bills to pay taxes to scrape into the next month” (Bristow, 2018: np). In refusing to accept an ecological transition designed by technocratic patricians and paid for by the precariat, they have inaugurated what Swyngedouw would recognize as a process of repoliticisation; a process in which “fundamentally political questions [are asked about] who gains from and who pays for, who benefits from and who suffers (and in what ways) from particular processes of metabolic circulatory change” (Swyngedouw, 2018: 89).
Published on the eve of these events, Promises of the Political is a timely intervention that speaks directly to the unfolding political and ecological crises of our time. Yet, for all of its urgent contemporary relevance, this is not a book that has been conceived of and assembled in haste or on a whim. Rather, Promises of the Political represents the culmination of a ten-year project consistently pursued and developed by the author – with and against a growing number of interlocuters, including those convened as part of this review symposium – to excavate the specificity of “the political” in urban politics and urban political ecology. Indeed, the body of the book is comprised of some of Swyngedouw’s most influential pieces published on this subject since 2005, now “updated and thoroughly rewritten” (xiv) to form a substantive original contribution to our understanding of “the post-political city” and its discontents.
The book’s eight core chapters are divided into three sections, each helpfully prefaced with a short introduction. The first section, which is made up of three chapters, introduces the author’s theoretical approach to cutting through “the paradoxical situation the world is in” (1). Swyngedouw begins by locating the contemporary constitution and operationalisation of a post-political condition in new forms of governance-beyond-the-state. Going against the celebratory grain of those lauding these technologies as “empowering, participatory, inclusive, [and] democracy enhancing … ” (3), he suggests they disavow politics by smothering fundamental conflict with a stage-managed institutionalization of consensus. Deepening this analysis, the reader is then introduced to post-foundational theory and the mutually imbricated, yet antagonistic, logics of post-politicization and repoliticisation. Post-politicization is here explored as a process whereby the articulation and understanding of fundamental questions and differences is set within a purposefully narrowed but seemingly “given distribution of what is possible or acceptable … driven by a desire for consent within a context of recognized difference” (27). Against these trends, a theory of repoliticisation is presented based on an understanding of “the political” as the articulation of a grounded disagreement (a disruptive and fundamental refusal of the instituted order and its distribution of “sensible” and “reasonable” policies) and the staging of a universalising axiomatic of equality (a positive and unconditional affirmation of everyone’s capacity to “claim the place of power” (45) and to govern).
If the first section deals in theoretical scaffolding, the second is concerned with more concrete constructions of post-politicization through questions of nature, the environment and urbanization. Across three chapters, Swyngedouw develops the argument that for all of their seeming politicization – for all of the frankly terrifying policy reports and inconvenient truths – debates and actions over nature, the environment and, above all, the climate crisis are nodes through which the post-political present is reflected and reproduced. The work of well-meaning “sustainability” policies and programmes, sophisticated technological fixes and futuristic fever-dreams of smart eco-urbanisms, even the sober wake-up calls of a coming climate catastrophe, is to disavow the combined and uneven nature of the problem and the irreducible conflicts and antagonisms that cut through the lie that we are all victims in this together. They frustrate, as Swyngedouw puts it, the posing and resolving of fundamentally political questions over “for example, the unequal ecologies associated with uneven property relations, the commodification of all manner of natures … and of the perverse exclusions choreographed by the dynamics of uneven eco-geographical development at all scales … ” (89). Radical solutions to this crisis of capitalism must, after all, still be reasonable; they must still be solutions of capital’s own making, set well within the “contours of the existing state of the situation” (99).
As bleak as much of this middle section of the book is, in the final two chapters Swyngedouw turns to his titular concern – the promises of the political – asking “how and where can one discern glimpses of repoliticisation in a time of post-democratic consensual governance?” Taking inspiration from what Enright and Rossi (2018) have called the long-2011, Swyngedouw’s initial answer to this question is to look away from “the party as adequate organizational form, the proletarian as privileged political subject and the state as the arena of struggle … ” (142). Likewise, he dismisses the prospects of (urban) social movements and seems barely to consider the potential of the everyday as a site of meaningful struggle and transformation. Instead, it is in the spontaneous uprisings of the multitude, in the streets and public squares of cities, that Swyngedouw locates his agents and spaces of repoliticisation. Thus, it is in Gezi and Zucotti Park; Syntagma, Taksim, and Paternosta Square; from Sao Paulo to Hong Kong and Seoul; and perhaps in the Gilet Jaunes, that processes of politicization are inaugurated as bodies come together in public space to declare a wrong and stage their equality. It is through this double-movement, against and always in excess of the instituted order, from the particular to the universal, that an inaugural political process emerges, creating its own logic and space distinct from rituals of resistance, ethics of compassion, and “the ultrapolitical domain of unmediated repression, xenophobic nationalism, exclusion, and violence … ” (44). toward the end of the book, the question of what happens the day after the uprising and occupation is posed as a serious strategic question – a question of engaging in “the slow, difficult, and protracted process of inaugurating a new sensibility, a new common sense” (140) and of imagining and building new institutions and forms of organization up to the task (168). But within the space of this 174-page monograph Swyngedouw does not offer a fully articulated answer.
Writing the introduction to this review symposium in early-2019, as the Gilet Jaunes continue to defy Macronism, this last question could scarcely feel more pressing. The scale and urgency of the challenge is such that asking how and where one can witness some form of meaningful insurgent institutionalization, quite possibly through the party form, almost certainly on the terrain of the state, and with its vital energies springing from below in people’s everyday struggles to reproduce their lives in ecologically sane and socially just ways, must now be the central question. If in France we see a clear refusal of business-as-usual greenwashing, perhaps it is across the Atlantic in the emergent fight for a Green New Deal, placing inequality and racial justice at the heart of any ecological transition, and bringing together popular grassroots mobilisations and radical new congresswomen of color with growing platforms, that we might find the seeds of a truly politicized climate struggle.
Joe Penny Queen Mary University of London
The melancholy search for the political
“All politics is quarrel, and power is the ordering such quarrel sorts out: that much is general. What is not general is the nature of the quarrel or the shape of the ordering.”1
The rare essence of political life
In Promises of the Political2, Erik Swyngedouw synthesizes a series of arguments that have helped to stabilize a veritable paradigm for the critical analysis of de-politicization, post-politicization and post-democracy in urban, regional and environmental fields of inquiry.3 Accounts of the post-political and post-democracy can be described as “supply-side theories” of political life.4 They suggest that governance arrangements that include market mechanisms, private sector actors, and technocratic expertize are designed to insulate decision making from participation and contestation by citizens. From such a perspective, all sorts of phenomenon – the rise of populism, or Brexit, or Trump’s election, or Corbynism, or the latest episode of public protest – are attributed to popular disaffection with the diminished supply of opportunities to engage in agonistic democratic contention.
At the core of Promises of the Political is a somewhat generic account of the concept of “the political”, presented as the idea that there is a fundamental dimension of irreducible antagonism and contestation that is both constitutive of yet also repressed by mere “politics”. This way of conceptualizing the political – with the strong emphasis on the definite article – informs the fascistic conservatism of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, the retro-Stalinist chic of Alain Badiou, the Lacanian know-it-all-ism of Slavoj Žižek, various forms of revivified liberalism (e.g. the work of Claude Lefort) or civic republicanism (e.g. Hannah Arendt’s work), and best known in and around GeographyLand, various post-Marxist theories of radical democracy (e.g. the work of Chantal Mouffe or Jacques Rancière). Different variations on the concept of the political often share a scholastic disdain for everyday life, the empirical, the methodological, for science (and especially social science). Which raises interesting questions about the validity of the styles of analysis that this form of theory supports in self-consciously empirical fields such as human geography, urban and regional studies, or political ecology.
In Promises of the Political, there are three logical steps in the elaboration of the concept of the political, laid out most clearly in Chapter 2 and 3 of the book.
First, political life is conceptually split into two parts, separating “politics” off from “the political”. This splitting is mapped onto a specific interpretation of Heidegger’s account of ontological difference, which refers to the distinction between what there is and the fundamental being of what there is, or between the “ontic” and the “ontological”. In the theories of the political of the sort favored in Promises of the Political, it is assumed that the ontological is a kind of layer that in some sense has priority over the merely ontic; by extension, the political is presented as a more fundamental layer than politics. The same hierarchical, derivative interpretation of two layers is also sourced from Lacan’s vocabulary of the Symbolic and the Real.
Second, once the conceptual priority of the political over politics has been established, the essence of the political is then defined in terms of conflict, contestation, hostility, and struggle. In this paradigm, properly political action takes the constitutive framing of politics as its target: “The political arises when the given order of things is questioned” (p. 52). It is supposed that the action of questioning constitutive orders is a discrete moment set-off against more mundane forms of political action that apparently take the ordering of things for granted.
And finally, democracy is then defined as the form of action in which the very essence of the political is itself given expression, if only fleetingly. If the essence of democratic politics is to express the political in its proper sense, it is therefore best expressed in the constant contestation of the boundaries of political life itself.
If genuine democracy is meant to be all about contestation and disagreement over the very meaning of political life, then any example of a politician or an institution or an organization making a rhetorical appeal to the common good, to consensus, to shared national interests, or to humanity automatically serves as evidence of post-political trends. Likewise, any example of decision-making that involves managerial structures, technocratic expertize, bureaucracy, or market mechanisms will always already be found to be de-politicizing in its tendencies. Governance-beyond-the-state (Ch. 1), or techno-managerial practices (Ch. 2), or climate change (Ch. 5), or urban and regional policy initiatives (Ch. 6) can all easily be made to confirm the basic theoretical propositions of this paradigm because, by definition, any and all forms of action that are oriented to binding decisions, to mobilizing scientific knowledge to inform action, or to building legitimacy across social cleavages will always contravene the constricted definition of what counts as proper politics and real democracy.
Catching sight of the political
The strands of thought to which Promises of the Political appeals are certainly not, it should be stressed, concerned with just re-affirming the “relative autonomy” of the political (p. 24). Their shared concern is to identify a non-reductive principle of undetermined autonomy that can define the object of political thought. A theoretical commitment to avoid the reduction of political action to a mere representation or refraction of other realms – such as the economy or the social – leads to a stark conceptual spatialization of the political, and to the celebration of the rare forms of seemingly spontaneous action through which it is contested and re-instituted. Both of these features are evident in Promises of the Political.
Throughout the book, various recent examples of urban-based protest – Turkish protesters in Taksim Square and Gezi Park in 2013, the “umbrella movement” in Hong Kong in 2014, the Occupy movement, rioters in the Parisian banlieue – are invoked as proof of the emblematic status of urban insurgency as the medium in which the stultifying consensus of our otherwise post-political age is interrupted and democracy is enacted, however temporarily. The presentation of exemplary spatial manifestations of political insurrection as the very purest expression of democracy reflects a mode of theorizing in which the political is simultaneously disclosed and foreclosed by a spatial movement: an excluded or marginalized figure is the point around which systems of power are closed and secured; in turn, these same figures are understood as the pivots around which those same systems might be pried open and re-made.
There is no good reason to hold to such a melodramatic, bivalent picture of the relationship between instituted orderings of power and their political contestation. The best lesson to be taken from ruminations on the concept of the political is straightforward enough – it is simply that the content and form of political life is historically and geographically variable. In short, the concept of the political is best approached genealogically, rather than ontologically.5 Far from thinking of fields of governance, policy implementation, or decision-making as examples of post-democratic “police” administration, we would be better advised to think of myriad practices of administration, government, management – of rule – as always involving claims and counter-claims and therefore perfectly capable of generating a dynamic of democratization.6 Perhaps we should follow Michel Foucault in affirming that it is in arenas focussed upon the ways in which society is actually governed that one finds “political problems in the strictest sense.”7
The vocabulary of ghosts and specters with which Promises of the Political concludes inadvertently reveals the degree to which ontologies of the political remain backward-looking: diagnoses of our post-political present rely on images of what politics used to be like – in certain places at least – and it can only ever seem to recognize new forms of political action when they take on familiar guises (street protest, basically). This is a paradigm that is shaped above all by a recurring failure to work through the loss of faith in models of politics that reigned over critical thought for much of the twentieth-century. The ontological interpretation of the political is, after all, always articulated in a melancholic register. It provides a theory of political life that remains stubbornly attached to something that has been lost – to a concept of totalitarianism that is hardly adequate to contemporary forms of illiberal democratization; or to an image of total social change that can only now be affirmed as a fleeting intimation of the sublime amongst the mundane orderings of the everyday. To properly appreciate the political dynamics of the world as it is now requires us to work harder to live unburdened by the weight of expectations that have not just been misplaced or repressed but which are lost, for good.
Clive Barnett University of Exeter
‘The failure of such obsessive activism is now clearly visible’
Erik Swyngedouw in this book presents a challenge for “progressive and emancipatory politics” (p. xx) lamenting, as shown in the opening quote above, that the left has failed. The failure does not stem from an apathetic engagement with the challenges faced including, but not limited to, climate change and the social and ecological injustices presented within cities. For Swyngedouw, there is an inability to call to account the post-political times and the inequalities being produced by the uneven production of cities, and in the de-politicization of the eventual inequality this creates. Swyngedouw shows how signifiers, like sustainability and even climate change, are mobilized in a way that evacuates the political by presenting at a symbolic level “”apocalyptic imaginaries” that are “extraordinarily powerful in disavowing or displacing social conflict and antagonisms … [and] are decidedly populist and foreclose a proper political framing” (p. 99). This has implications for participation. These signifiers inspire activism-based participation, but without a political subject to call into being this activism can become futile. To this end, Swyngedouw invites his readers on a journey to rethink the political environment through a reversal of utopian framings. To his readers, he presents the challenge of embarking upon a more politically democratic trajectory that can, in Swyngedouw’s words, “inaugurate a new world within the world’’ (p. 135).
The focus is not one of challenging the hegemony but asserting and cultivating new politics through processes of re-politicization. To be clear, for Swyngedouw these are not one-off events but sustained efforts that amount to “a democratizing political sequence” generating practices of struggles “for the positive realization of equality” (p. 151). The project Swyngedouw is inviting engagement with is that where political subjectivation is grounded by “”emancipatory struggles” that are “”invariably located in concrete places but aspire to universalization and spatialization’’ (p. 152).
This presents an interesting intellectual challenge for scholars writing in urban studies about the emancipatory potential of participation. One of the main debates by scholars engaging with the post-political condition is in reconceptualising the role of the state, and by extension, state-based planning and the role of citizens in these processes. Evoking Swyngedouw’s re-politicization demands scholars step away from thinking about how formal participation can be done better or different, instead to re-imagine how citizens can engage politically through insurgent and other grassroots practices in politically purposeful and prefigurative ways.
Providing a foundation to think through the politics upon which post-politics gains expression, post-foundational writers themselves do not agree on the path forward. Chantel Mouffe in her 2013 book defended the continued role for the state and the importance of representation. She posits that political participation must remain counter-hegemonic to challenge and ultimately transform the politics of the state with the “construction of more democratic, more egalitarian institutions” (Mouffe, 2013, p. xiv), but this is not to remove the state from existence. It would seem in the last two chapters in Promises of the political that Swyngedouw channels a markedly more alternative imaginary whereby re-politicization is advanced by co-productive participatory experiments presenting as a form of being-in-common “that permits the self-development of each and all” (p. 149). This provides the basis for thinking through the transformative and radical potential of citizen-led planning as a form of political participation that assembles new spaces, new coalitions, new ways of performing politics through which a new world might be inaugurated and created.
I read Promise of the political after having observed four years of sustained citizen-led campaigning against large multibillion-dollar inner-city motorways in three Australian Cities (Perth, Melbourne and Sydney). My reading of this book also followed the removal of another democratically elected Australian Prime Minister.8 Swyngedouw’s book provided me with a timely and evocative reminder that to change the course we are on, we need to change strategies: to embrace a politics of possibility through a “reassertion of the political” (p. xxii) and by calling for a “new constituent politics” (p. xx) through re-politicization. Australian cities have secured a politics that is committed to motorway infrastructure construction by inviting unsolicited transport infrastructure proposals by market-actors seeking to extend their rent-seeking practices. fueled by a politics of urgency to create jobs and to meet the demands of Australia’s growing cities, this boom in motorway construction is happening in the absence of coherent climate change policy, and transparent, inclusive and deliberative infrastructure planning.
A pro-climate policy voice continues to mount in Australia, led by business elite concerned about an unstable policy environment. At the same time, anti-motorway citizen activists concerned by the ongoing commitment to car-based travel and motorway construction fail to capture the imaginations of the otherwise climate concerned business community. Returning to Swyngedouw, he argues that “much of the climate change argument has evacuated the politics of the possible, the radical contestation of alternative future socio-environmental possibilities” (p.108). However, one dominant alternative future appears on the horizon with the introduction of electric vehicles and shared mobility upon which the primary beneficiary will be these innovative market sector actors. In the context of a somewhat shared battle for climate policy drawing the business and environmental communities together, there remains no alternative politics of mobility beyond the idea that transport technologies must be greener and more sustainable.
Mimi Sheller (2018, p87-8) recently lamented that “Even when informed by principles of inclusion, deliberation and procedural extensions of decision-making … people simply are not able to change entrenched patterns or do not recognise what changes can and should be made”. It would seem, at least in Australia if not elsewhere, that the politics of transport and its future potentialities are captured by business elite that have found market-value in joining the climate change crusade. In responding to this evacuation of politics, Sheller joins Swyngedouw’s sentiment in the need to rediscover the commons and practices of being-in-common “as a powerful organizing principle” and a possible pathway toward building a new constituent politics. To conclude this short comment and in returning to the opening quote, Swyngedouw’s latest book is an effort to move the scholarly debate beyond showcasing examples of insurgency events that are reacting to the post-political times we are in. Rather, in moving beyond post-politics, Swyngedouw challenges his readers to shift attention toward new forms of sustained and sequenced political participation (see also Legacy et al, in press) through which a new politics and political constituency might be realized.
Crystal Legacy The University of Melbourne
Legacy, C., Metzger, J., Steele, W., Gualini, E. (In Press). Beyond the post-political: Exploring the relational and situated dynamics of consensus and conflict in planning. Planning Theory.
Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics: Thinking the world politically. London: Verso.
Sheller, M. (2018). Mobility justice: The politics of movements in an age of extremes. London: Verso.
Swyngedouw, E. (2018). Promises of the political: Insurgent cities in a post-political environment. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Rethinking politics: possible next steps
Erik Swyngedouw’s passionate engagement with the politically debilitating effects of consensus politics continues in his latest book Promises of the Political. Building on a sharp critique of existing modes of governing that package parliamentary-capitalist orders and present them as democracy, Swyngedouw attempts to envision other possibilities for politics and democracy. These possibilities eschew the consensual and numerical premises and practices of existing orders. They open the horizon for imagining politics and democracy by taking seriously even – or, better yet, especially – such unruly practices as revolts and uprisings, to the extent that they are based on the ideals of equality, freedom and solidarity.
The theoretical first part of the book clears a space for thinking such possibilities. The suppression of politics – politics understood in a different way than what the established orders of governance privilege – through a process of depoliticization is in focus in this part, as its dialectical counterpart repoliticization. Swyngedouw explores the dialectical relationship between the processes of depoliticization and repoliticization through examples around nature, environment, city and urbanization.
The book’s arguments around nature and environment would probably be familiar to those who have followed the development of the urban political ecology debates in geography, to which Swyngedouw himself has been a key contributor. This book provides more conceptual tools and resources for these debates, which is one of its many achievements. A singular Nature does not exist, and terms like “nature” and “environment” are empty signifiers; what they denote or evoke is not universally shared. There are natures and environments, and the political and democratic challenge is to allow for the opening up of spaces where discontent and disagreements can be staged, heard, and, perhaps, addressed. This argument for plurality and the staging of disagreement runs through the book as a key premise for rethinking politics and democracy.
This argument is the link between the second and third parts of the book. In the third part, Swyngedouw focuses on urban insurrections and protests that have become an important marker of early twenty-first century urbanization across the world. The question for him, however, is not merely, or even mainly, what these insurrections and protests signify, or what brings them about. The initial chapters of the book already make clear why cities erupt into violent protest and what this means from a political perspective; a certain “agreement” is established with the reader from the outset as the reasons and significance of such events are explained theoretically rather than with empirical evidence. The latter is not the book’s main focus, but I suspect readers not convinced with the book’s theoretical premises will be hard to convince of the political promise of such eruptions. I wonder, then, how enabling the book’s theoretical framework is for those who might harbor reservations about the strand of political thinking that underlies the book’s arguments. There is much to be learned theoretically and gained politically by paying attention to the book’s theoretical framework and arguments, but there are also times when these seem less enabling and more constraining, forcing the reader to decide between two paths, rather than allowing them to trace different paths with the tools provided in the book.
This, I think, is not a major problem, and certainly not a problem unique to this book. There is a time to take a clear stance rather than trying to accommodate everything and to please everyone. The challenge, it seems to me, is to articulate an enabling understandings of politics and democracy in accordance with the ideals Swyngedouw indorses – equality, freedom and solidarity. This book goes a long way to do this, but, as I noted, there are also parts where it feels like the new theoretical spaces being opened up to rethink politics and democracy cannot reach their full potential, especially when these new spaces are then themselves filled with prescriptive statements.
I felt the questions raised toward the end about what is to be done would be a way out of these hardened spaces. What to do and what to think next, as Swyngedouw puts it in the third part of the book, when the eruptions of anger in the form of revolts or protests have petered out? I thought this part of the book would be the place where political thinkers could learn something from the rich reservoir of human geography and urban studies, and I must admit I was a bit disheartened to be faced with the prescriptive tone of Badiou again. What to do and what to think next, without Badiou and his prescriptions? Swyngedouw has much more to offer with his call for “an urgent reconsideration of both urban theory and urban praxis” (page 134), and I, for one, would have liked to see him go deeper in that direction to conclude the book.
But Promises of the Political may just be the first step in that direction. With its passionate critique and radical propositions, this book will no doubt pave the way for many works to come on the path to rethinking natures, cities and politics in more egalitarian and emancipatory ways.
Mustafa Dikeç Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris and LATTS
On crisis, protest, and hope. Commentary on Erik Swyngedouw’s ‘Promises of the political’
Erik Swyngedouw’s work has been influential for my thinking for a long time. His work on scale, on state transformation, on the political and post-political, and particularly on governance-beyond-the-state and urban political ecology have inspired and guided me. I am honored to be invited to this symposium and welcome having a collection of his main works on the political, the environment, and the urban in just one book. To my own surprise, however, rereading the articles turned into book chapters, or their marginally updated versions, left me with more questions than answers this time. They are connected to our current political climate and my own trajectory.
In the summer of 2016 I moved to Calgary, Alberta. Calgary is the financial capital of the fossil fuel industry in Canada. Alberta is a conservative province highly dependant on oil and gas extraction, and responsible for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. It has also been in recession since the collapse of oil prices in 2015, and the subsequent job loss has been massive. In this situation, the current Alberta center-left provincial government9, attempts to “micro- and macro-engineer socio-ecological conditions in ways that permit (…) sustaining economic growth indefinitely into the future” (p. 123). Like the federal government, it simultaneously promotes environmental protection, economic growth and international competitiveness. It literally fights for oil pipelines as part of their climate leadership plan, and claims that saving the climate will recquire revenues created by extractive industries (for an analysis see MacLean, 2018; Blue, Rajewicz, Daub, & Yunker, 2018). All this seems fully in line with Swyngedouw’s (see chapter 4 and 5) analysis of sustainability as an empty signifier and climate politics as post-politics (arguments I have also made, see Rosol, Béal, & Mössner, 2017, drawing heavily on his work; see also Rosol, 2013). Contrary to Swyngedouw’s – obviously correct – statement, that “tar sand exploitation and fracking cannot coincide with a climate policy worthy of its name” (p. 124), the Alberta government is suggesting exactly this.
However, despite these attempts to reconcile climate and growth policies in the name of sustainability, there is something about the notion of sustainability in Alberta that still evokes opposition, protest, fear and anger. In other countries, protesters take to the streets to demand government action to fight climate change, currently most notably with the “Fridays for Future” school strikes for climate action. In Alberta, people rally for more pipelines, a proxy for expanded oil sands production, and against the newly introduced carbon tax. Cars bear stickers proclaiming “I love Canadian Oil & Gas”, so does my grocery cashier. Gaining significant media attention, the day I started writing this commentary (in February 2019), a convoy of over 150 heavy trucks left for Ottawa to demand more government action to support the oil and gas sector.10 Surely, not the whole of Alberta thinks this way, but a majority does, not least because the social question of an energy transition of that scale is scarcely addressed and yet alone resolved. In any case, in Alberta, climate politics are certainly not “relegated to a terrain beyond dispute, to ones that do not permit dissensus or disagreement” (p. 95). Nor, it seems, is “scientific expertise (…) the foundation and guarantee for properly constituted politics/policies” (p. 95), but rather the uncontested striving for economic growth and competitiveness that subordinates all other concerns, including climate change and the environment. In this situation, Erik’s dismissal of resistance and activism (p. 57), and perhaps even expertize, urgency and the term “crisis” (p. 96–97) offers little help and appears somewhat cynical. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, citing the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova: “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism” (Solnit, 2016, p. xiv).11
Previously, I had read Erik’s writings on the return of the political thinking of the Gezi protest in Turkey, the 15-M movement in Spain, or other progressive urban rebellions. Reading his book now with those “other” movements in mind was disconcerting, as his theory does not seem to account sufficiently for the difference. Swyngedouw mentions anti-establishment, populist, xenophobic forces in the book, but does not tell us how exactly they fit into his theory developed previously. Do they show the failure of post-politicization, as certainly not all forms of discontent have been eliminated? Are they in fact a reaction to the post-political ways that try to hedge dissent and hide strong normative commitment behind expertize and consensus politics? Or is the turn to consensus politics and the call onto experts itself a reaction to those movements? Either way, isn’t the most important question then, how to transform the outburst of frustration, agitation and anger into something progressive? Can we really assume that as “the ‘repressed’ returns in a range of processes of repolitization that [this] open[s] up potential new trajectories for emancipatory change” (p. 127) – and not equally also for much more reactionary and sinister changes? How apt are his theories for making sense of and for countering the current rise of climate change denial and right-wing populism, of post-truth and hate speech, that play out in our streets and the digital realm of social media, and that seem to contradict his analytical focus on expertize, consensus, and technocratic governance? Do we need to reconsider parts of the theory in the world of today?
To find answers to those questions, perhaps we need to pay much more attention to geographical difference than the book currently does. Swyngedouw certainly refers to examples of urban uprisings in the book, but does not go into detail. Also concerning how to achieve a more egalitarian and democratic socio-ecological configuration, we learn very little. It may have been useful if the rather abstract thoughts laid out in the book had been substantiated by referring to cases in very specific historical-geographical settings, simultaneously developing the case analysis and the theory. This would not only have been a great addition to already published work, but would also make his highly complex theoretical thinking more accessible and more convincing to people who are new to these ideas.
Overall, the book comprises a fine collection of Swyngedouw’s thought-provoking writings. It forces us to re-think certain assumptions concerning urban and environmental politics, asking “the politically sensitive, but vital, question as to what kind of socio-ecological arrangements and assemblages we wish to produce, how this can be achieved, and what sort of environments we wish to inhabit” (p. 84). The book also serves as an important reminder that for many people the socio-ecological catastrophe is already a reality. In the final chapter that explores the communist hypothesis, Erik thus demands that instead of focusing on technological fixes we work collectively for the “egalitarian and democratic production of socio-ecological commons” (p. 164), connecting the environmental question with those of democracy, of the social, and the economy. His critique of universalization, of populist tactics and managerial-technological “solutions” that go against this task, and his call for politicizing both the environment and the urban, is certainly as relevant as ever. Radical critique and critical questions alone, however, will not suffice. We also need hope that our actions actually may influence the outcomes. For Solnit, such hope is not some unfounded optimism, in itself an excuse not to act, but “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spacious of uncertainty is room to act” (Solnit, 2016, p. xiv).
Marit Rosol University of Calgary
Blue, Gwendolyn, Rajewicz, Lise, Daub, Shannon, & Yunker, Zoë. (2018). In the corporate interest: Fossil fuel industry input into Alberta and British Columbia’s climate leadership plans. Canadian Journal of Communication, 43(1), 93–110. doi:10.22230/cjc.2018v43n1a3309
CASIS Vancouver. (2019). Yellow vests, right-wing extremism and the threat to Canadian democracy. The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare, 1(3).
MacLean, Jason. (2018). Paris and pipelines? Canada’s Climate Policy Puzzle. Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, 32(1), 47–74.
Rosol, Marit. (2013). Vancouver’s “EcoDensity” planning initiative: A struggle over hegemony? Urban Studies, 50(11), 2238–2255. doi:10.1177/0042098013478233
Rosol, Marit, Béal, Vincent, & Mössner, Samuel. (2017). Greenest cities? The (post-)politics of new urban environmental regimes. Environment and Planning A, 49(8), 1710–1718. doi:10.1177/0308518X17714843.
Solnit, Rebecca. (2016). Hope in the dark. Untold histories, wild possibilities (Third edition with a new foreword and afterword ed). Chicago: Haymarket Books.
On the significance of left political trajectories
In the final chapter of Promises of the Political Erik Swyngedouw concedes that the “idea of communism” is tainted by the “failure of its twentieth-century manifestation” which “left the Left, in a state of utter paralysis, politically and intellectually” toward the “end of that century” (167). For Swyngedouw coming to terms with what he refers to, after Badiou, as the “obscure disaster” of “twentieth-century communism” crystallizes what is at stake in seeking to re-orient political horizons and possibilities in the present. He contends that some reckoning with these contested legacies is necessary for reinvigorating political possibilities in “post-political times”. Swyngedouw’s reflections are worth considering in some depth, as they are the closest that he comes to sketching out a prognosis for the left in the book.
The conditions of the future he sketches are, of course, circumscribed within the pressures exerted by the “post-political” conjuncture that Swyngedouw has done so much to chart and distill. His interventions on these themes, both in print and in his impassioned presentations, have made a set of key claims about the ways in which “elites” have evacuated antagonism from political life and relationships. This is an important argument and certainly not without some foundation. Swyngedouw’s account of the political, however, tends to reproduce a rather top-down imaginary of the political, re-inscribing the already powerful as those who possess agency and as a starting point for thinking about how to respond to some of the issues raised by the post-political conjuncture it comes with real risks and tensions. In this contribution I consider how these tensions become particularly acute in relation to the way Swyngedouw characterizes the history of the post-1968 left.
Swyngedouw argues that ‘1968ʹ was animated by “all manner of affective liberations” and he positions himself alongside work that has characterized the post-1968 left as part of a trend toward de-politicization and neoliberalism. He notes, however, that “The Left’s critique of everyday life in the stale suburbanized living of the diffuse spectacle of western capitalism, as well as in the Stalinist bunker spaces of living in the concentrated spectacle” became “exquisitely incorporated- and depoliticized” (156). His account follows Botlanski and Chiapello’s influential argument that the events of 1968 were central to the ways in which capitalism sought to recuperate the languages, practices and demands of resistance. As a result, the political claims and demands for different worlds and labor that shaped the insurgencies and movements of 1968 are recast ultimately not as antagonistic, but as contained within new forms of capitalist organization. Boltanski and Chiapello contend, for example, that “In a political reversal, autonomy was, as it were, exchanged for security” (Botlanski and Chiapello, 2005: 190, emphasis in original).
I found it disconcerting that Swyngedouw was prepared to closely follow their terms of engagement with 1968 and its “afterlives” (cf Ross, 2002). Their account is structured by a rather dismissive account of left organization which ignores the generative solidarities, exchanges and trajectories shaped through some of the movements in ’68. This results in a curiously depoliticized and monochrome reading of the multiple political antagonisms that shaped this pivotal year (for alternative views see Mohandesi et al, 2018, Ross, 2002). They collapse the many geographies of 1968 into a singular depoliticized narrative, a move which has important consequences for the alternative political imaginaries that emerge in Swyngedouw’s account. To engage with the diverse political antagonisms that came to be so prominent in 1968 it is important to engage with diverse forms of left politics and trajectories which exceed easy attempts to recuperate and confine them in neoliberal projects.
Indeed, such struggles were directly constitutive of significant lineages of resistance to diverse forms of neoliberalism. As Diarmaid Kelliher has noted, cross-cutting solidarities which pre-figured some of the diverse solidarities forged during the 1984–5 strike were forged in the 1970s through struggles such as the Grunwick dispute between 1976 and 1978 (Kelliher, 2017). Struggles for gay rights, gender equality and anti-racism became articulated, albeit in uneven and contest ways, together with some of the major labor struggles of the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s. Engagement with some of these political trajectories and forms of organizing can help to challenge some of the limited ways in which Swyngedouw understands and engages with the dynamics of political events in his work.
Swyngedouw’s account is structured by an entrenched and problematic binary between ordinary forms of politics and the forms of political antagonism and eruption that Swyngedouw seeks to affirm and celebrate. He constructs the latter as symbolic events, removed from what he refers to as “obsessive but impotent acting out”, by abstracting from broader organizing cultures and activity. This is to do a significant dis-service to understandings of the ways in which left political struggles are shaped and constructed. To take an example from the aforementioned struggles in the 1970s, the mass-pickets at the Grunwick print processing plant in the 1970s were iconic events shaped by major occupations of the streets around the factory in Brent (see Kelliher, 2017). These mass pickets were enabled by arduous organizing practices often under harsh conditions during the dispute, notably by Jayaben Desai and her comrades on the strike committee (Anitha et al, 2012). Also crucial here was the many organizations who offered practical support. Cardiff Trades Council, for example, sent two bus-loads of pickets to Grunwick for a mass picket on November 7th, 1977. The organization’s file on Grunwick records the diverse forms of labor such as booking coaches and collecting dues that such solidarities depended on, alongside a gruesome catalog of the police violence that was to be the cost of the Cardiff picketers’ solidarity (Cardiff Trades Council, 1977).
That such struggles were formed across differences of gender and race, and in the face of sustained police violence, should caution against a straightforward logic of recuperation in post-1968 left politics. The role of different left organizations here is also significant. The involvement of activists from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) arguably casts a different lens on the legacy of Communisms. This indicates the ways in which some CP activists, if not the party in a broader sense, were important in shaping plural left imaginaries at the intersection of anti-racist, feminist and labor struggles (see Smith, 2018: 169–175). To truly evaluate the significance of Communism in relation to contemporary political horizons, however, it is also necessary, to engage with those many millions for whom the disaster of “twentieth century communism” was far from “obscure”.
Communism as a set of diverse and contested actually existing political movements, needs to be taken far more seriously and not reduced to Cold-War caricature. To invoke Communism as a proper noun in the way Swyngedouw’s closing essay does is I think to evade some of the terrible aspects of these legacies and remains unhelpful for thinking about emergent forms of left politics. It also highlights the significance of engaging with the dissident left formations that contested official Communisms. As Hilary Wainwright has recently argued attending to such dynamic political trajectories has significant implications for left political strategies in the present- gives a vivid sense of some of the generative exchanges, solidarities and mutations of left political cultures over this period as well as ongoing antagonisms. To position the entire history of the post-1968 left as a remorseless march toward de-politicization is disabling in terms of political engagement. Foregrounding such dynamic left political trajectories can also help to engage in more nuanced ways with the different dynamics of politicization and de-politicization, which can also be much more attentive to the spatially articulated, constructed and negotiated dynamics than Swyngedouw’s sweeping characterizations often allow (Hadjimichalis, 2018).
This might also help to open up a more generative engagement with left politics which offers a different resolution to some of the key issues raised by Swyngedouw’s analysis of the post-political conjuncture. This is important. For if I have misgivings about some of the ways in which Swyngedouw characterizes left politics, the force of the challenge in the way that he has characterized and engaged with processes of post-politics is one that cannot be ignored.
David Featherstone University of Glasgow
Anitha, S., McDowell, L. and Pearson, R. (2012). Striking lives: Multiple narratives of South Asian women’s employment, identity and protest in the UK. Ethnicities, 12(6), 754–775.
Boltanksi, L. and Chiapello, E. (2005). The new spirit of capitalism. London: Verso, trans Gregory Elliott.
Cardiff Trades Council. (1977). Evidence of police violence against grunwick pickets on 7 November 1977: File on Grunwick Cardiff Trades Council Papers, Cardiff University Special Collections, 16/22.
Mohandesi, S., Risager, B.S. and Cox, L. (2018). Voices of 1968: Documents from the Global North. London: Pluto Press.
Hadjimichalis, C. (2018) Crisis spaces: Structures, struggles and solidarity in Southern Europe. London: Routledge.
Kelliher, D (2017). Constructing a culture of solidarity: London and the British coalfields in the long 1970s. Antipode, 49(1), 106–124.
Ross, K. (2002). May ’68 and its afterlives. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Smith, E. (2018). British Communism and the politics of race. Chicago: Haymarket.
Wainwright, H. (2018). A new politics from the left. Cambridge: Polity.
Author’s response: Melancholy or fidelity? Making a new world in the world
I am deeply grateful to Joe Penny and colleagues for the close reading, depth of engagement, and critical acumen displayed in this review symposium of Promises of the Political. Such frank and constructive engagement is what every author wishes for. In this rejoinder, I shall briefly explore some of the issues raised by the reviewers but also touch upon a few other themes that have risen since the book’s publication.
The reviewers’ most persistent comment is that parts of the book appear to nurture a sort of conceptual priority of the political over “mere” politics. This is certainly not intended. Indeed, in post foundational political thought, upon which this book draws, politics and the political refer to radically different and non-symmetrical instances of political life. Whilst foundational political thought sees the foundation (or grounding) of political society in a state of nature, a primordial hierarchy, an imagined ethno-national community, an economic base, or a tribal arrangement, post-foundational political thought insists on the absence of any such foundation. This, according to post foundational thought, makes it necessary to distinguish between politics and the political. Politics refers to the contingent and incomplete attempt to ground a particular set of power relations (a particular form of social organization) on an ultimately absent foundation. The political, in contrast, is nothing else but the name for this absence, void or gap. This ineradicable presence of absence, of non-ground, continually undermines politics and the social orders constructed upon it, and holds open the possibility of radical change (albeit it not always in progressive manners). In Olivier Marchart’s phrase, “Not ‘everything is political’, but the absent ground/abyss of everything is the political” (Marchart 2007: 169). To put it simply, the political is the signifier of an indelible emptiness at the core of any instituted order. While politics stands for the fullness of society with everyone and everything accounted for, the political stands for the utterly contingent basis upon which this (ac)counting is done. That is also why the political has no a-priori content, cannot be symbolized. In a Lacanian register, the political is only discernible in a slant way; it can be glimpsed through a symptom that discloses that a world in which everyone is fully accounted for does not exist, that there is always a constitutive excess, a remainder, an outcast (what Jacques Rancière calls “the part of no-part”). This excess becomes symptomatically discernible in ruptures, insurgencies, protests, etc … where the supernumerary “part of no part” demonstrates, gives a certain body, to the lack or gap at the heart of politics. This can be exemplified through the history of both proletarian and feminist struggles; they each made visible and demanded inclusion in a social ordering from which they were largely excluded. Their subsequent more or less successful inclusion in politics demanded a reframing of the instituted order on the one hand, and sustained by a new imaginary of “equitable” inclusion. Something similar, I claim, is at work in many other historical and contemporary uprisings.
This understanding of the political does not prioritize or render it more important than politics – they are both integral parts of a situation, but they refer to different registers of social reality. The point that the book attempts to make is that post-politicization implies a particular set of processes that disavow, foreclose or repress the political, e.g. the inconsistency at the heart of the democratic social and political order. The book points at the great dangers that lie in such a denial, pointing at right wing populism sustained by anti-elite illiberalism (and often supported by “the part of no-part”.
Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic reading is very illuminating in this context. For him, everyday reality is structured as a Borromean knot, a dense and dynamic layering of three interrelated registers: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. The Imaginary, in this context, can be identified with the widely held view that pluralist liberal democracy cum capitalism is the only workable, inclusive, and naturalized social order. The Symbolic stands for the assemblage of institutions, laws, rules regulations, and actors that constitute politics as fully closed configuration. And the Real is, to put it simply, the remainder/gap/site of what is both unaccounted for in the symbolic order and excluded from the imaginary register. The Real is precisely symptomatically discernible when what is disavowed manifests itself. For example, when undocumented migrants stand up and state “we are here, therefore we are from here”, they demonstrate that the predominant imaginary and symbolic framing excludes them from egalitarian democratic inclusion. Or when Rosa Parks sat down on a whites-only seat in the bus, she demonstrated the in-egalitarian and racist configuration of a constitutional order that nonetheless proclaimed the principled equality of everyone. However, the Real (or “the political”) is not more or less important than the Symbolic or the Imaginary. All three “registers” are entwined in everyday reality. Every instituted order (whether fascist, post-democratic. liberal pluralist, ethno-nationalist, or whatever) makes a rhetorical appeal to the common good, to the People, Humanity, etc. But by doing so, it always leaves out the “part of no part”, a supernumerary element that escapes the count, an element that is left out, excluded. For example, in the present context, the spectral presences of the class relation that underpins financialized and global capitalism is customarily disavowed or repressed (and often displaced into less politicizing signifiers such “the elite” or “neoliberalism” or “the poor”).
The demand for inclusion of this part-of-no-part would require a transformation of the imaginary on which politics is contingently grounded and the parallel formation of a new symbolisation and a new common sense. Let us take the example of climate change policies. Recent climate activism by young (and not so young) people across the world is laudable and worthy of unconditional support. While the movement symptomatically demonstrates the truth of the climate condition, their call “to listen to the scientists” and inaugurate an energy-transition worthy of its name, disavows the fundamental truth upon which the climate catastrophe is built, namely the pervasive class-based system that nurtures accumulation for accumulation sake, and that simultaneously produces eco-sustainable e-pods for the affluent and zones of radical exclusion and socio-ecological catastrophe for the others. The excess or the remainder of the climate change consensus is precisely that we do know that the string of techno-managerial measures and interventions taken hardly make a dent in the global greenhouse gas economy or, in other word, “Despite the fact that we know full well that capitalist class relations shape the climate condition, we act as if we do not know this” and keep putting our trust in adaptation tactics. Readily acknowledging this Real of the situation and the conflicts it opens would of necessity point to the need for system change (rather than climate change). The focus on carbon is precisely what sustains the fetishistic disavowal of the socio-ecological antagonisms that shapes the form carbon actually takes in the world (CO2 rather than fossilized matter).
To conclude, the point of the book is not to prioritize the political over politics, but 1) to assert its co-constitutive part in shaping reality and the everyday, 2) to explore the process by which the spectral presences of the political are disavowed through particular forms of post-politicization, and 3) to demonstrate that this disavowal deepens the present deadlock of the democratic order, manifested in the rush to illiberalism, xenophobic populism, exclusive nationalisms, etc …
I expect the book to be read mainly by academics, higher education students, and intellectuals. This is its target audience. Because as I argued elsewhere the intellectual and academic nurturing of critical liberal pluralism left us symptomatically silent about the spectral presence of class antagonism and vulnerable to the lure of cosmopolitan left melancholy (Swyngedouw 2019). It is precisely cosmopolitan left thought that is the discursive co-architect of the depoliticizing tendencies that dominate the contemporary political sphere. This is why I suggest substituting melancholic attachment to the given situation by a fidelity to the real possibilities of making different common worlds in the world. Melancholy is always an affect of loss, a lost object of desire. However, I claim that there never was anything to lose anyway. A common and egalitarian-inclusive (if not communist) humanity has never truly existed. Perhaps it never will, but one should not give up on the fidelity to the truth of its possibility. The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement recently demonstrated the truth of the situation. While Emmanuel Macron increased taxes on gasoline in the name of saving the climate, he deepened an already pervasive austerity regime that hurts the poor most, plunging them deeper into a socio-economic abyss, while we all know that taxes on gasoline will not get the SUVs off our streets or keep the oil in the soil. It is ultimately not entirely up to us, the “enlightened” intellectuals to chart an alternative trajectory of the future. But “the part of no-part”, the Yellow Vests of the world, would surely welcome allies, including academics and intellectuals, in the efforts to divert the infernal trajectory we are on. This requires sustaining a fidelity to the desire of constructing humanity to come, a new world within the world, out of the contemporary debris called humankind.
Erik Swyngedouw University of Manchester
Marchart O. (2007). Post-foundational political thought. Edinburgh: University Press.
Swyngedouw, E. (2019). The perverse lure of autocratic post-democracy. South Atlantic Quarterly, 118(2), 267–286.
- Clifford Geertz, 1995, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Harvard University Press, p. 39.
- Erik Swyngedouw, Promises of the Political: Insurgent Cities in a Post-Political Environment. MIT Press, 2018 (pages references in brackets refer to this text).
- See also Dikeç, M. 2005. Space, politics and the political. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23, 171-188; Purcell, M. 2013. The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy. Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell.
- See Clarke, N., Jennings, W., Moss, J., and Stoker, G. 2018. The Good Politician: Folk Theories, Political Interaction, and the Rise of Anti-Politics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- See Barnett, C. 2017. The Priority of Injustice: Locating Democracy in Critical Theory. University of Georgia Press.
- See Chatterjee, P. 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. New York, Columbia University Press.
- Foucault, M. 2010. The Government of Self and Others. Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983. London, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 159.
- Since the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007 Australia has seen six Prime Ministers in eleven years.
- Update July 2019: Following elections in March, the province is now governed by a conservative government.
- Incidentally, some of the pro oil and anti-carbon tax street protests tried to mirror the protests in France (see introduction) under the name Yellow Vest, although both movements differ significantly. The convoy was initially named yellow-vest-convoy. Because of the publicly debated infiltration and co-option by extremist right-wing groups (CASIS Vancouver, 2019), the convoy organizers later tried to distance themselves from that name. Nonetheless, nationalist, anti-immigrant, and racist sentiments were still apparent.
- The full quote continues “but hope without critical thinking is naïvete”.