Wednesday 30 October 2013

Politics has sharp edges; The good life is culture

I really hate definitions of 'politics' or 'political' that remove all its sharp edges, that make it smooth, rounded, honorific and wonderful.  Take this from a paper titled The Thing Called Environment:
[...] we use the adjective ‘political’ to indicate all aspects of human existence that are related to the question of the good life, which we thus regard as the ultimate political question. With the noun ‘politics’, we refer to the different processes through which the political is dealt with and it follows that ‘political agency’ and ‘responsibility’ are, correspondingly, understood in terms of shaping the good life.
Awful.  Just awful.  Politics is not a nice, cosy, cuddly sweater of a thing – or, rather, it rarely is.  Any politics of any consequence is going to make someone somewhere at the very least somewhat unhappy.  More often than not it is a fierce, fearsome battleground of vicious tongues and severed heads.  That is not what politics is but what it is most often.

That's why I recoil in horror every time someone says 'everything is political' – what a dystopian nightmare!!  Every affair of every heart, every soul, every crumb of everything a matter for the polis?  Thank goodness that's not even remotely true.  Every moment of every day of everyone and everything broadcast live to the hive mind of the omnipolis?!  It is a horror beyond imagining.

Those who would make the whole world from politics alone – or who would wish away everything that is not 'political' – leave me aghast.  Kafka, Huxley and Orwell all being worked to death in a Stalinist gulag couldn't come up with a more obscenely dystopian scenario.  And those who to attempt to dull politics' every edge, to sweetly scent its every malodour and to present it to us as something to be taken into our heart of hearts – these people may be well intentioned but that is the best that we can say of them.

No, what Goeminne and Fran├žois are referring to isn't 'politics.'  I'd rather call it culture.
culture (n.) mid-15c., "the tilling of land," from Middle French culture and directly from Latin cultura "a cultivating, agriculture," figuratively "care, culture, an honoring," from past participle stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till". The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested c.1500. Meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867.
Not culture in the childish, reductive sense of 'art and music and food and clothes and songs and poems and books and ...' but culture as cultivation.  Agriculture, horticulture, anthroculture.

The classic British sitcom The Good Life had a better idea of the good life than Goeminne and Fran├žois' 'politics.'  A husband and wife who grow tired of life in the capitalist economy and attempt to live off of the land in their own back garden – growing vegetables, raising livestock, making clothes, bartering, making do.  Did their attempt to cultivate both their means of subsistence and their love for one another outside of the conventions of their society make them transcend politics?  Not at all.  But their most noble of endeavours – eking a living out of the very skin of the earth in a way that is consistent with care for all around them – is not 'politics' however you look at it.  In the end the outside world irrupts into theirs and dashes their tragically fragile lacework to nothing.  That is what you get for going it alone.  That is what you get for growing against the grain.  That is what you get for your counterculture – for your cultivations that run contrary to the political.

Yes, the good life is all about cultivation, nurturing, the production of the conditions for flourishing (or simply for getting by) – it's about culture.  Culture must pass by way of politics since it is too fragile to persist on its own but politics it is not.  Culture is the good life is ethics; politics is something else.  Politics has no moral compass of its own, no direction of its own – it must be directed.  Perhaps when politics takes culture as its compass – when politics is encompassed by culture and not the other way around – the outcomes are the best for everyone but to speak of politics as though it were culture misses the whole horrid underbelly – the underbelly that is shamelessly exposed more often than not.  Worse, it deprives politics of all the powers that could splint, ballast and mineralise culture – that could make it enduring, that could put bones beneath its aching, beautiful flesh.

"Politics have no relation to morals," wrote Machiavelli.  He should have written 'no necessary relation' – but aside from that he was right.  "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun" – when culture is encompassed by politics this is the result.