Friday 22 May 2020

Some Rules for a Militant Political Science

Political science is a weird term. When you think about politics with its shifting alliances, shock results, splitting and merging parties, the rise and fall of careers, and the interests that work through and find voice among this mess, making head or tail of it is a laborious process indeed. And even having the right analysis doesn't mean the guarantee of success. It's for this reason Lenin considered politics more an art than a science. But when you look at actually-existing political science, the stuff filling up the journals bearing that moniker and that takes home the academic prizes, it couldn't be further away from politics. Open any introduction to political science or work self-consciously identifying itself as such and what you get are acres of tables, an obsession with quantification and the occasional mathematical modelling, a preoccupation with conceptual clarity, and a set of unthought presuppositions informed (some might say damned) by empiricism, functionalism, and rational choice. If that wasn't bad enough, the focus - the theoretical object if you want to be a bit Althusserian - is entirely the trappings of official politics: parties, voting behaviour, electoral systems and how they behave, the character of party systems, and what have you. On occasion political science has drawn attention to wider processes that might be driving political change, such as the cleavage structures underpinning political conflict, or cultural change as the driver of transformation. Given the empiricism underpinning political science, it's not surprising these forays into political sociology hardly piqued the attention of sociologists and other social science disciplines.

What's prompted this return to political science. Hadn't this blog settled accounts with it a long time ago? Well, yes. But there was a question Tom Gann of the New Socialist posed earlier. Imagining a huge cash money advance, he fantasised about writing a book in which a militant political science could be worked out. But what might it look like? Well, nothing like established political science except in the most superficial of senses.

The difference between the academic and militant kinds is that between description and explanation. For instance, in the book I'm writing about the Tories there are elements you would find in any traditional work of political science, such as descriptions of the party's performance, the character of its institutions and rules, membership demographics, the alliances formed with other parties, and so on. However, it goes beyond political science by explaining strategy in terms other than parliamentary/vote catching concerns. In other words, the first thing a militant political science must do is abandon the naivete of the autonomy of the political and put it in its proper place. Politicians make decisions, parties discharge strategies, but they're conditioned not just by their own ideas and prejudices acquired through a career of political socialisation but by the assumptions and pressures conditioning politics. And these pressures come in two flavours - from above or from below.

Consider the pickle Boris Johnson finds himself in presently, by way of a quick case study. He is being pressured by business, his backbenchers, his chums, and the Tory press to ease the lockdown and restore a semblance of normality. Why? Partly because British business is losing money hand over fist because workers aren't working - an acute demonstration of who the real wealth creators are. But also because of a relaxation of the disciplining effects of work. There is a concern it will be more difficult for managers to exert their authority after all this is over. And consider the pressures on Johnson not to liberalise the lockdown. He's going to have a tough time forcing more teachers back to work in the absence of proper checks when the public are broadly supportive, and local councils and the devolved administrations are not on the same mad Tory page. Walking this tightrope means he's prone to the gusts from side issues, hence his U-turn on health care fees for NHS staff and care workers from abroad.

The job of a political science worthy of the name is to understand and get a grip on the cohesion of these relationships and interests, and understand they proceed at a number of levels encompassing surveillance and discipline, population management, cultural politics, lawmaking, the street, the point of production. This is where we encounter the ever-vexatious issue of the state. In this picture, it's not good enough to blandly assert capitalist states automatically serve the (collective) capitalist interest. The state itself is a field of forces, a system of more or less extensive, more or less autonomous institutions that exist in tension to one another and are always subject to struggle, be it the petty empire building of ambitious bureaucrats to employer/employee confrontations, to being the site of contestation over wider issues. Likewise the government's relationship with different parts of the state is not one of straightforward domination, though the further the social distance from the environs of Number 10 the greater the autonomy and, possibly, propensity to resist diktat. Therefore the state as guarantor or private property and class relations does not, itself, have a final guarantee. It is maintained by the messy inertia of its operation, the networks of its personnel, and the coalition of forces condensed in the governing party. To all intents and purposes then political parties, or to be more precise the parties of government, are part of the state.

The state then is neither a simple expression of capital, as per crude Marxism, nor a neutral party as fancied by social democracy and Labourism - it is much more complex. And at any given juncture, analysis is about unravelling these relations to get a picture of the balance of forces arrayed against us. Therefore, referring to our above/below shorthand to get a handle on bourgeois politics we have to pay attention to their alliances and relationships, their networks, friendships, and back-scratching arrangements, how they come together inside and outside of parliament as movements to meet their objectives, and how these are replicated and reproduced across parties and institutions. These are dynamic and shifting processes, but are entirely observable because they come into public view primarily in the machinations of the Tory party - but also occasionally in the Labour Party. Under Blair, the New Labour project did represent an attempt to cohere the party as the primary axis of ruling class politics, and it worked for a time. Recall the many money scandals that plagued New Labour - the cash for honours, the dodgy loans, the relaxation of tobacco sponsorship for F1. More recently the final collapse of the Blairist contingent of right wing Labour, the Change UK split, and the funnelling of huge quantities of money and personnel (and rivalries) into the remain movement offered a glimpse into the doings of what our non-Tory sections of the bourgeois class were up to now Labour was (temporarily, as it turned out) no longer amenable to them.

Militant political science is sensitive to the machinations of our rulers and how they come together episodically and over the long-term around communities of interest. Yet it must also be open to the idea of ruling class failure. One of the reasons why crude Marxism reads like conspiracy theory is because it always assumes the representatives and agents of capital always know their interests. They have perfect information, and so whatever happens in politics, domestic or international, reflects the interests of capital/imperialism. This is wrong, and not just because their power always abuts and begets resistance. Contrary to what we might call rational choice Marxism (not to be confused with the old edited collection of the same name), capital does get it wrong. Businesses fail. They invest in the wrong product or expand into the wrong market. They introduce policies that hamper the productivity of their workers, or launch attacks on them that backfire spectacularly. And they can support parties and politics inimical to their interests. During the 1980s, there were plenty of manufacturing concerns that lined up behind Thatcher. And now, you have big business like JCB and Dyson happily lining up behind Brexit - even though, you would think, their commercial interests are best served by having unfettered access to the world's largest market. Bourgeois politicians make mistakes too. They take chances and gamble, just as Boris Johnson did with pushing his hard Brexit against all comers. And how a certain unlamented Tory leader bet his career on the EU referendum, and lost.

Naturally, militant political science pays attention to resistance. Or, to be more accurate, the problematic of movement (and party) building. Taking its cue from Deleuze and Guattari, and the approach to social movements pioneered by Alberto Melucci, a militant political science does not reify the working class, or women, or minority sexualities and people of colour as a category with a structural imperative to overthrow capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy but as a multitudinous complex of billions always in the process of formation. By virtue of wage labour and its development over five centuries, including how it is foisted upon the great mass of humanity and has in turn been reconfigured and continually subverted by resistance, in this regard militant political science is no different from Marxism, feminism, anti-racism and LGBTQ liberation politics. It looks where resistance is, analyses the dynamics and power relations in play, the organisation of resistance in its formal and informal aspects and draws out the necessary lessons. But unlike establishment political science, with its formalism and divorce from political practice militant political science is fundamentally open. It seeks audiences at the coal face of struggle, wherever it is, bringing insights, histories, and concepts synthesised from other struggles and presents itself as tools to be used, wherever appropriate, to make sense of the event as it happens and the opportunities and dangers unfolding from it. Militant political science is an informed imaginary, the collective product of millions that itself is in a process of becoming - a diffuse and collective enterprise that acts as a great organiser, attempting to pull politicised order out of the multitudinous chaos. A radical commonwealth or, to use another favourite Althusser phrase, the class struggle in theory.

Is any of this new? Absolutely not. A militant political science exists in a peculiar process of becoming. It is always developing, always learning, always shifting in nuance and focus with every struggle enriching it and every mind coming into contact with it. And yet, unlike other processes of becoming, it does have an end point: its own abolition. It is no different to existing revolutionary politics and theory because it is the struggle to end struggle. It wants to become so it can finish. Its heart desire is to be nothing more than the narrative of humanity's pre-history, of being a tale of what was that would horrify but inspire future generations fortunate enough to live in a society in which the old crap of class and capital, of oppression and hatred is done with. For us though, militant political science opens the way to the freedoms of the future by struggling for them in the present. It is open and inclusive vs the closed and exclusionary social system limiting us, exploiting us, oppressing us, and murdering us. It shows the world as it so we can make what it might be. Therefore, unlike the dessicated tundra of bourgeois political science, with its frozen categories and assumptions mired in permafrost, militant political science is warm, living, and exciting.

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The Philistine in me said...

Political science is simply a reflection of careerism, those children of the Middle class can hardly be expected to pick fruit, deliver groceries or generally do anything approaching useful.

They don’t go to university to end up living like mere mortals, the world owes them a great favour and a super lifestyle, better than anyone else. Hence we have to make up bullshit jobs for them to do, out of which they grab their share of the surplus.

I was reading that the vast majority of sales of the broadsheet newspapers comes not from individuals but from organisations. So for example and here is the scandal, a local council will, out of my taxpayer’s money, buy the Telegraph, the Financial times and the Guardian. So journalists are subsidised out of the surplus, even though there is little demand for these stenographers of the ruling class.

And political science comes under the same category, it is a made up science that provides the middle classes with a way of avoiding useful work. No one demands political science but in the capitalist purchase and sale, demand and supply economy we have to suffer them anyway!

Boffy said...

"Likewise the government's relationship with different parts of the state is not one of straightforward domination, though the further the social distance from the environs of Number 10 the greater the autonomy and, possibly, propensity to resist diktat."

What are you talking about? The relationship of government to state is never, and never has been one of domination. Governments are always subordinate to the state, it is only ever a question of how the state exercises its domination, in cloaked or open forms. The state always exercises its domination via its day to day control over the agenda, and the machinery of the state, and governments where there agenda conflicts with the class nature of the state, always have to confront that reality, with more or less degrees of success.

But, the government, however, successful it might be int trying to exert its autonomy from the state never can achieve that, where its agenda is inimical to the interests of capital, which means the dominant section of capital, i.e. large scale socialised, industrial capital (productive and commercial). You seem to have retained the miseducation of the Militant Tendency whose reformist politics also led them to confuse the government with the state, also put forward by others in slogans such as "Labour Take the Power", when, in fact, all that Labour could take was governmental office.

Its what led Militant to put forward the ridiculous policy wrong on so many levels of "nationalise the 200 top monopolies", which if a Labour government had attempted would have almost certainly led to a powerful backlash from the state, probably in alliance with paramilitary forces. It is the same kind of nonsense that led to the calamity of the coup in Chile, where the Stalinist reformists of Popular Unity also thought that the government dominated the state rather than vice versa, and found out the truth at the end of the barrel of a gun.

If you want power it can only come from holding state power, and as Marx and Lenin set out state power is only won when you have already previously become the dominant social power in society itself.