‘Why do people have to make it political?’ comes the despondent, desperate cry. Why can’t art just be art? A movie just be a movie? The accumulation of massive pools of wealth via the exploitation of labour into the hands of a handful of people just be the accumulation of massive pools of wealth via the exploitation of labour into the hands of a handful of people? Why does someone have to come along and make it political?
I come across this a fair bit on social media and in the real world - this disparaging view on politics and those engaged in it, this desperate desire for something to just be, without it being up for debate or challenge. There are, I’m sure, a limited number of topics where this might be an appropriate response, but what’s been all the more bizarre and disturbing is that the latest two incidences where I saw this line of argument (or anti-argument, I suppose) were about films inherently, unavoidably and incontrovertibly political (Black Panther and Darkest Hour).
This is deeply problematic. To shut something off from the realms of political debate is an act of intense privilege and ignorance. Politics is about power, and suggesting something should simply not be discussed in those terms is allowing power to go unchecked, unchanged and unchallenged. But where does this come from? Some of the following will be more true for some than others, but I think they are trends that have left few of us completely untouched.
Our deeply entrenched pessimism and frustration with formal political institutions and those that inhabit them undoubtedly plays a role. Politics is far, far bigger than these institutions, but they are the things people perhaps immediately and most vividly associate with the word, automatically tainting politics in a wider sense by association. Politics is seen as a game of personal gain and petty squabbles, conducted by self-interested saboteurs or aloof agents that achieves little practical good for ordinary people. ‘Arguments’, ‘schisms’ ‘rows’- politics is reported by the press through these words and prisms, suggesting to question or disagree is a negative, some sort of divergence from a mythical, natural, peaceful order.
Neoliberalism has reduced our sense of being competent enough to act within that world too, through a deification of primarily technical, economic solutions, as well as shipping out policy to unelected ‘experts’, it has reduced our sense of being competent enough or knowledgeable enough to act in the political realm.
Neoliberalism’s crimes go further than this though. It desires as much human activity as possible to take place through market systems- commodify, consume and be content. Centralised or collective decision making, through fears of it being inefficient or oppressive, is severely distrusted, and so ‘politics’ must be reduced, eroded and belittled. The cumulative effect of neoliberal policy, from privatisation to trade union repression to spiralling inequality to the advancement of more individualistic values has been to erode faith in traditional political institutions and partly atomise citizens. To some of us, expression through what we consume comes more naturally now than explicitly airing a political view, or contesting one.
The impact of this goes deeper still - a fear of freedom being encroached by politics, fed by narratives of individualism. Speak with our wallets, but leave everyone else to their own devices. Letting something ‘just be a movie’ calls with a howl for our words and our deeds to just be seen in isolation, coming solely from us and affecting only us, refusing to accept that they betray influences beyond ourselves and impact and impress upon others too. It is the ultimate friction between the lie of extreme individualism and the reality of human existence.
How do we overcome it? There is a tendency when certain words become unpopular for us to simply stop using them, to find a synonym and make do with that. The problem is words matter, and few more than the designation of ‘political’. We need to start by being unashamedly unafraid to be political, not just in a narrow Westminster sense, but in a broader, wider sense of contestation, challenge and change, to embrace difference and disagreement and highlight how debate, disagreement and ‘politics’ is the only way to improve society. We’ve seen some of this already with the recent ‘youthquake’, with mainstream politics seeping into youth culture and art, with young people in turn challenging the political system - we’ve realised power and privilege are inescapable, and that engaging in politics is merely to speak the unsaid and challenge the unchallenged.
Political education, both on a state-level (i.e in schools) and within our own movements or daily lives will be needed. Equipping ourselves and those around us and raising the level of awareness and confidence of citizens to be able to engage in political debates and feel comfortable doing so will be important. But this will be limited if we don’t also match it with a political culture shift that stops deifying expert opinion and reducing political issues to one’s essentially about technical, economic considerations.
Reforming formal political institutions will be necessary too. We need to craft a system that gives people faith in politicians and political institutions once more. This needs to happen on multiple levels: more responsive and democratic political parties, particularly in the ways they set policy and choose candidates, a more proportional system for electing representatives, the rooting out of big money from politics by reforming party financing and reforming sites of distant or non-existent democracy, such as the House of Lords, the monarchy and some independent and privatised bodies.
Challenging neoliberal mentality will be perhaps the most fundamental reordering needed to reignite political enthusiasm (not the same as political engagement). This means all the familiar bread and butter stuff such as renationalisation, taxing the rich more and putting the proceeds into health, welfare, education and infrastructure and rolling back anti-union legislation. But it also means a deeper, more cultural project of challenging individualistic analysis and tendencies, ensuring we appreciate more systemic and collectivist understandings of issues, resist the creep of commodification into our daily lives and are sensitive to and work to unsettle power relations between individuals and groups in society.
You might think this article is a load of old tosh... good! Disagree with me. Politicise it. I look forward to reading and debating it, because that’s how we move forward.