Arts of the Political is the new release penned by cultural geographers Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, and which explores various manifestations of left wing politics and political movements in order to consider why movements based around equity and community have seemingly achieved so little over the past thirty odd years in the face of neoliberalism. Indeed, this question is particularly pertinent given the financial crisis of 2008, and the inability of the left in places such as the UK (where both Thrift and Amin teach at Warwick and Cambridge respectively) to form a movement seemingly capable of enacting widespread positive changes, or even mounting a serious campaign to challenge the Conservative narrative of enforced austerity as a means for enacting further cuts to public services – a policy David Cameron has recently felt sufficiently emboldened to openly state is a reflection of ideology rather than a situation enforced by economic circumstances.
One might argue that the sweeping cuts made by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition are a prime exemplar of what Naomi Klein has termed the shock doctrine – the neoconservative leveraging of moments of critical instability to enact sweeping changes which increase inequality and benefit elites through privatisations which would likely be too unpopular to pass outside of these specific moments. The question then, is why has the right been so successful at exploiting these opportunities whilst the left has not.
For Thrift and Amin, the answer is primarily that the left has historically been successful when it has been able to articulate new visions, new desires and new organisations which expand the terrain of what is understood to be politics itself, and by doing so energises mass movements through articulating the possibility for a better collective future.
Movements campaigning for the rights ofwomen, the working class, and other neglected and downtrodden subjects managed to turn engrained orthodoxies on their head in the quarter-century before the First World War by building mass support and accompanying socio-political reform. Although these movements applied particular principles and practices, the record shows that their acts of redefinition went far beyond what was originally intended. These movements freed up new imaginations, invented new political tools, pointed to elements of existence that had been neglected or concealed, and created a constituency that, once constructed, longed for another world. In other words, these movements produced a new sense of the political and of political potential. 1he emerging Left both opened the doors of perception and provided the tools with which to do something about these new perceptions. This is what was common, in our view, in the disparate examples we consider, from the American Progressive Movement and British feminism to German Marxism and Swedish social democracy. In their own way, each of these movements disclosed new desires.
The thesis that drives this book is that progressive movements should pay more attention to such world-making capacity, understood as the ability not just to produce a program in the future but also to open up new notions of what the future might consist of. The most important political movements, in our estimation, are those that are able to invent a world of possibility and hope that then results in multiple intertventions in the economic, social, and cultural, as well as the political sphere. They free thought and practice and make it clear what values are being adhered to, often in quite unexpected ways. p9
Thrift and Amin contend that three areas (or arts) of the political which it is crucial for the left to pay close attention towards are invention, the process of bringing forth tangible futures which hold the promise of a better life; organisation, the practices which are used to bind and articulate these movements; and the mobilisation of affect, considering the ways that political decision making goes beyond rational information processing:
In particular, we consider the whole phenomenon of what Walter Lippmann (1961) called the manufacture of consent: how it is being bent to the needs of the Right and how it could be mobilized more effectively by the Left. At the same time, we attend to how the consideration of affect brings space into the frame. A whole array of spatial technologies has become available that operate on, and with, feeling to produce new forms of activism, which literally map out politics and give actors the resources to kick up more and across more places.3 In other words, the practical mechanics of space must be part of the politics of the Left. p15
Thrift and Amin begin by exploring a range of historical examples whereby left wing politics was able to achieve the kind of redefinition of the political they seek, considering the German Socialism of the SPD before world war 1, Swedish Social Democracy, the British Suffragette movement, and progressive capitalists in the US circa 1900. Thrift and Amin contend that:
In all cases, progress depended on prizing open newpolitical ground and filling it with real hope and desire. Appeal and effectiveness-at a time heavily laden with the weight of tradition, vested power, restricted social force, and new capitalist imperative-had to come from an ability to imagine and build community around the yet to come or the yet to be revealed. This meant inventing new historical subjects, new technologies oforganization and resistance, newvisions of the good life and social possibility, new definitions ofhuman subjectivity and fulfillment, and new spaces of the political (such as “direct action,” “voting,” “public involvement,” “class struggle,” “welfare reform,” “government for the people,” “women’s rights”). A possible world had to be fashioned to render the old unacceptable and the new more desirable and possible. The Left today seems to have less desire or ability to stand outside the given to disclose and make way for a new world.
In seeking to formulate areas where there is the potential for opening up analogous new political spaces, Thrift and Amin incorporate theoretical material from Bruno Latour regarding the status of democracy and agency with regards to nonhumans, arguing that the traditional binaries between sovereign human subjects and inert and passive nonhuman objects is an area which can productively challenged by a revitalised left wing politics.
bow. We want to take up Bruno Latour’s (1999) call for a new parliament and constitution that can accommodate the myriad beings that populate the world, a call that entails acts of definition and redefinition of “actor” so that many humans and nonhumans can jostle for position, gradually expanding the scope and meaning of”collective”
This leads T&A to consider the human as a distributed being, whose processes of cognition stretch far beyond the boundaries of the skin, coming close to Deleuze and Guattari’s positions around ecological machinic flows of matter. Arguing from a position which begins to sound fairly close to some of Bernard Stiegler’s work, they contend that:
Human being is fundamentally prosthetic, what is often called “tool-being.” We are surrounded by a cloud ofall manner of objects that provide us with the wherewithal to think. Much ofwhat we regard as cognition is actually the result ofthe tools we have evolved that allow us to describe, record, and store experience. Take just the example of the craft of memory. 1his has extended its domain mightily since the time paintings were made on the walls of caves, and as a result, a whole new means of thought has come into being…
Memory is a compositional art depending on the cultivation of images for the mind to work with. This state of affairs has continued but has been boosted by modern media technology and its ability to produce communal rhetorics that would have been impossible before and that are inevitably heavily political, especially in their ability to keep inventing new variants of themselves that can be adapted to new situations. p50/51
This sense of distributed being and agency is used to reinforce the Latourian argument surrounding the agency of objects, and thus their importance in a new an enlarged sense of politics and democracy. Using Gilbert Simondon’s notion of transduction T&A explore:
The way in which tools and other symbiotes can produce environments that are lively in their own right, that prompt new actants to come into existence. To illustrate this point, we need to look no further than the types of digital technology that have become a perpetual overlay to so many practices and the way in which they are changing political practices. Here we find a domain that has gained a grip only over the past ten years but is now being used as part of an attempt to mass-produce “ontological strangeness” (Rodowick 2007) based on semiautomatic responses designed into everyday life through a combination of information technology based tools and the practices associated with them (from implants and molecular interventions to software-based perception and action). In particular, these automatisms are concerned with the design and prototyping of new kinds of space that can produce different affective vibrations. p64
T&A bring this discussion back in to realm of the more conventionally political by using distributed agency and co-evolutionary strategies as a way of opening up though surrounding ecological crises and how a coherent left political response to climate change requires precisely the type of expanded politics which they characterise as world making:
What is needed instead is a leftist politics that stresses interconnection as opposed to the “local,” however that is understood. What is needed is “not so much a sense of place as a sense ofplanet” (Heise 2008, ss) that is often (and sometimes rather suspectly) called “eco-cosmopolitanism.” Thus, to begin with, the experience of place needs to be re-engineered so that its interlocking ecological dimensions again become clear. This work of reconnection is already being done on many levels and forms a vital element in the contemporary repertoire of leftist politics: slow food, fair trade, consumer boycotts, and so on. Each of these activities connects different places, and it is this work of connection that is probably their most important outcome. Environmental justice then needs to be brought into the equation. The privileges of encounters with certain ecologies, as well as the risks associated with some branches of industry and agribusiness, are clearly unevenly distributed, and it may well be that certain environmentally unsound practices have been perpetuated because their effects go unnoticed by the middle class. Again, environmental justice movements have to refigure spaces, both practically and symbolically, so that interconnection becomes translucent. Finally, we need new ways to sense and envisage global crowds that are dynamic. The attempts to produce people’s mapping and geographic information systems, to engage in various forms of mash-up, and to initiate new forms of search are all part and parcel of a growing tendency to produce new lands of concerned and concernful “Where are we?” Politics starts from this question. p75
This is followed by a a chapter which claims to look at contemporary leftist politics, surveying the landscape through the apertures of anti-capitalism, reformist capitalism, post-capitalism and human recognition. What is striking about the majority of these contemporary left wing political movements is that they aren’t actually political movements. Anti-Capitalism is not approached through Occupy or Climate Camp, it is Zizek, and Badiou alongside Hardt and Negri – which conflates two very different theoretical perspectives on anti-capitalism – and is summarily dismissed as hopelessly over-optimistic and unable to visualise a future. Reformism is not Syriza/The Five Star Movment/Bolvarian Socialism, it is Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens’s reflexive modernity and third way. By post-capitalism T&A mean ‘A third leftist stance on the contemporary world can be described as “poststructuralist,” in that it draws on feminist, postcolonial, antiracist,and ecological thinking, much of which heavily influenced by poststructuralist ideas’ p91. Conceptually that would seem to fit Hardt and Negri quite well, but here T&A refer instead to GIbson-Graham’s work on small scale, local, co-operative ethical and sustainable, which could have been productively mapped onto the actions of groups and initiatives such as transition towns, permaculture groups, feminist networks, Greenpeace and other NGOs and the broad range of groups and movements who actually practice some of these ideas, but instead is again explored as a mere theoretical argument rather than political praxis. Human recognition is used to refer to a liberal left based around ethics derived from Wendy Brown’s writings – again rather than exploring groups who actually employ this mode of left politics, probably best embodied by online liberal campaign groups such as Avaaz or 38 Degrees. Finally T&A return to Latour and the notion of Dingpolitik and the role of bringing objects into democracy, a position which has been criticised within academia for being politically conservative as Latour’s works tend to entirely ignore issues surrounding inequalities and exploitation, content instead to simply map actor networks, in contrast with more politically engaged posthuman scholarship from the likes of Felix Guattari or Manuel DeLanda. Perhaps there could have been an interesting dialogue here between T&A’s Latourian positions and the actions and ideologies of animal rights groups or deep ecologists, but again for T&A the left today does not consist of movements of people actually campaigning, occupying, protesting and organising, it simply appears to be a disparate collection of academics.
Put simply, this was what was most frustrating about Arts of the Political, rather than engaging with the broad and varied range of social and ecological activisms which currently exist, the left is reduced to academic thought, whilst the authours proclaim themselves to be engaged in materialist analysis. Perhaps it is simply indicative of the fact that the book’s authors are ageing men living and working in universities who are so totally detached from the actual practices of the left wing groups they claim to represent that they are barely able to acknowledge their existence. Indeed, Thrift has seen protests and occupations from students at Warwick surrounding his astronomical pay increases as Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick over the past couple of years (from 2011 to 2013 Thrift’s salary has increased from £238,000 to £316,000 at a time when tuition fees have tripled for his institution’s students). That as a background perhaps helps explain why the actually existing left is almost entirely absent from T&A’s exploration of left wing politics.
In the following chapters where T&A discuss organisation, there is a mixture of some interesting thoughts surrounding ecology, using Stengers, Deleuze and Guattari, to consider the notion of ‘addressing the political as an ecology of spatial practices’ p133 alongside a consideration of the organisation of the EU as a potentially fruitful model for the left, as it involves multiple parties across different scales having to cooperate. Such a politics of pragmatic cooperation could of course be understood as a mainstay of anticapitalist politics since the 1990s – the alter-globalisation movement and its manifestations within the world social forum, the peoples global assembly and Indymedia all sought to embody a politics of the multiple, as theorised by Hardt and Negri, and similar claims could be made regarding the anti-war movement, climate change activism and Occupy. But in keeping with their refusal to actually engage with left wing movements, we instead get a lionisation of the EU at a time where elements of the actually existing left are campaigning against the EU’s proposed free trade deal with the US which would effectively allow corporations to sue governments using secret panels to bypass parliaments.
This is a shame, as some of theoretical material around affect, space and that relating to the need to build positive visions of a left wing future articulated by T&A are in places very strong. The central argument that the left needs to find a way to escape what Mark Fisher has called Capitalist Realism, the notion that neoliberalism is the only possible game in town (with the alternative being an eco-apocalypse), is undoubtedly correct, and the politicisation of affect and the reorientation of politics towards an ecology of ethical practices are both concepts worth pursuing. However, they require consideration in relation to the actual practices of political movements, rather than simply as abstract theoretical constructs.