Issue 2/2001 - Du bist die Welt

Irrigating the Zuyder Zee

Political resistance as a cultural achievement

Boris Buden

The events in Austria gave ample proof: people calling loudly for political resistance in the face of the swing to right-wing conservatism will tomorrow be urging the rebellion of civil society, before going home the next day proud of their cultural achievement. This hard and fast rule of political engagement deserves closer examination.

Is cultural reformism the only political strategy of the Left today? Unfortunately, nothing would seem to contradict this. Even where the crisis of truly existent democracy is seen as an incontrovertible fact, the way out is sought in the long haul through cultural issues, as if this were a matter of course.

When it recently became clear that President Bush is pursuing policies that are much more radical in the conservative sense and much more dangerous for a liberal America than was first believed possible - policies that are now undoing the most valuable achievements of American liberalism - a few left-wing activists hit upon the idea of suing him for not keeping his election promises. This action was motivated by a clear insight into one of the main weaknesses of representative democracy: the fact that for the next four years there is no hope of effectively influencing political developments - as long as the parliamentary system remains the only political horizon. The main aim of an action like this would thus seem to be to consolidate political culture, »this taste for counter-power on the left.«1

It isn't hard to guess what political strategy is behind this idea. The concept concerned is one linking the fate of modern democracy to the decisive role of the civil society.2 This concept makes a clear differentiation between modern civil society and the spheres of both the economy and the state: that is, what is called political society. The political aim of civil society thus seen is not to control power directly or to take it over. It is, rather, to influence political, administrative, and economic processes by way of democratic organizations and associations, as well as by informal discussion within the public cultural domain. Under the conditions provided by a liberal democracy, a civil society like this does not necessarily stand in opposition to the state and the economy. Antagonism arises only when economic and political institutions try to evade the civil society's influence.

The discourse of civil society seems to be the only political strategy of the Left today that can be taken seriously. Its most essential feature is its post-revolutionary character: it claims to have learnt from history, and thus distances itself from any form of »fundamentalist, revolutionary rhetoric.«

Thus, it does not counter the political »misery« of the present bourgeois society with any kind of revolutionary demands for change. This doesn't mean that it has no utopian dream. It even sees itself explicitly as a sort of »self-limiting« utopia; the discourse of civil society is guided by the utopian ideals of modernity, fundamental rights, freedom, equality, solidarity, and justice.

This political concept also does not completely give up on the idea of collective action, but it does not see it as its task to set such an action into motion politically. Civil society, as seen in this way, can merely provide symbolic points of orientation for a political collective action. Others engage in the real political fight, while civil society shows them the way, gives meaning, and provides comfort in case of defeat. Whether symbolic, normative or regulative, the final political decision is made by culture and in culture. The whole political significance of civil society can thus be sublimated in the concept of culture. Culture is simultaneously the subject and the medium of its political mission. Without its »ultimatively cultural substratum,«3 the concept of civil society cannot produce any political achievement.4

Whether as a political culture always in the process of »working on itself,« as a place for symbolic struggles for hegemony, or simply as an all-pervading authority providing meaning: culture became the Left's political answer to the crisis in modern democracy. A social change is now only imaginable as its cumulative effect on the spheres of the political society and the economy. If democracy is an unfinished process, then it is culture that is meant to bring it to perfection.

It is no coincidence that this political project is redolent of the way in which Freud explained the point of analysis: as a cultural task, »somewhat like draining the Zuyder Zee.«5 The famous phrase »Where id was, there ego shall be« was in question here. Habermas,6 whose theory of communicative action was taken by Cohen and Arato as a basis for their political concepts of civil society,7 sees this phrase in the sense of the Hegelian relationship of subject and substance. Analysis as an act of self-reflection reconciles the ego with its alienated, objectified part (the id). Its real goal is to »re-symbolize« that which has been repressed, i.e. that which Habermas and Lorenzer call the »repressively de-symbolized.« The free space of public communication is the social counterpart of this emancipatory practice of re-symbolization.

In Cohen and Arato's concept, the civil society is construed as the political ego of the social totality, whose alienated part is formed by the spheres of the state and the economy. Correspondingly, the political role of the civil society thus seen consists in restoring discursive control of these two spheres, and in this way symbolically repossessing the social totality. For this reason, the political role of the civil society can, in the final analysis, be seen as a cultural task. When employed politically, culture is elevated to become a sort of meta-discourse that is alone in being able to reproduce the totality of social conditions.

A general culturalization of social life in its entirety8 is not symptomatic for left-wing political theories alone. The most recent criticism of British cultural studies, which today probably make up part of the most important area of left-wing thought still active today, is also directed at the same phenomenon.9 Here, too, culture became the authoritative subject of the discourse on the social situation, thanks to a peculiarity of cultural studies that sets it apart from other theories and sociological concepts of culture: the fact that it creates its analytical object, culture, as a subject.10 Francis Mulhern calls this self-referentiality of culture - the way it talks about itself - »metaculture«: the discourse in which culture, however it is defined, makes itself, both in general and in reference to the conditions of its existence, the object of its own reflection.

In its ability to generate a metacultural discourse, cultural studies is similar to the old cultural criticism11 whose traditions it fought against. Both of them see culture as an unheeded truth of a society that has become enslaved by politics. The main thing the old cultural criticism and the new cultural studies have in common, however, is their utopian impulse to resolve the tension in the relationship between politics and culture. This attempt ended with a cultural dissolution of politics itself. Culturalisation is perforce depoliticization. The historical background against which cultural studies sees the social status of politics and culture can be summed up in the concept of what is called post-Fordism. The old world of capitalistic mass production characterized by homogenization and standardization no longer exists. The shape of present-day capitalism was determined by variety, differentiation and fragmentation. Under these economic and social conditions, the status of culture also changed. It has stopped being a decorative appendix of the hard world of material production. »The word is now as 'material' as the world«, writes Stuart Hall.12 He says he can no longer distinguish between the cultural and the economic changes in post-Fordism.

This »revolution of our time,« as Stuart Hall describes it, has also fundamentally changed the status of politics. It no longer has the all-powerful state as its real preserve, but the civil society instead. Accordingly, no uniform »power game« works any more. The political field is instead circumscribed by a network of power articulations and various strategies. The points of conflict are everywhere: in the family, in sexual life, in food, in the body, and so forth. The most important change, however, is that politics is no longer orientated towards economy, but towards culture.

In our post-Fordian times, therefore, cultural studies is to be seen as a sort of ideological complement to those political strategies that have invested their emancipatory demands in the historical role of civil society. What basically unites the two is the theory that improving the world, if this is not meant ironically, should take place as a reform of culture, and that the economic sphere would have nothing to do with it. The performative power of the slogan »everything is political«, with which the new social movements in the post-revolutionary phase of the political struggle on the left wanted to change the world, was finally vented in a general expansion of the cultural. It is today's politics, in which everything has become culture, and nothing recalls the economy anymore.

T. Gitlin, in his criticism of what he calls the anti-political populism of cultural studies, says that cultural studies has built itself up to be a redeeming substitute for the blocked and beaten left-wing movements.13 Whether or not this is the case, the political expectations that the intellectual Left had of the cultural studies project have been to a great degree disappointed. The vitality and rebellious, recalcitrant spirit of popular culture, which was so loudly invoked by this new intellectual discipline, has not been put into political action to any emancipatory end. Popular culture thus remained a »promise of happiness« in precise accordance with the affirmative character of culture once defined by Marcuse as ambiguous.

The - now notorious - political conformism of cultural studies does not indicate any form of pragmatic adaptation to the overwhelming reality. As in the concept of the civil society as a »self-limited« utopia, it is merely the result of a »deflated utopianism« for which it is itself responsible.14

If the ultimate political truth of civil society is culture, then the political truth of culture is obviously a lie. Freud's »Zuyder Zee« is already long dried out from having been drained so often, and seems more like a desert than a field. Culture is certainly not the thing that could make it fertile again. The lifesaving water will obviously have to come from somewhere else.


Translated by Tim Jones


1 Brian Holmes, Alan's query - counter-powers, 4.4.2001. Holmes sees this political culture as a form of Subpolitik (Ulrich Beck) taking place beyond the electoral forms of parliamentary democracy. That, for Holmes, is the place »where politics really happens now: as the play of counter-powers in constant tension with the offically democratic ones.«

2 Ibid., p.XVII

3 This concept of civil society, inspired by Habermas, does not differ in any great measure from the theory of radical democracy put forward by Laclau/Mouffe as far as the question of the political meaning of culture is concerned.

4 In the 31st lecture of »A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.«

5 In »Knowledge and Human Interests.«

6 »...our reconstruction of civil society should be seen as a political 'translation? of Habermasian critical theory...«, ibid., p. XVII.

7 A phenomenon that Fredric Jameson declared to be of the main characteristics of postmodernism.

8 Francis Mulhern: Culture/Metaculture. London, New York 2000.

9 Ibid., p. 156.

10 Ibid., p. XIV.

11 Mulhern sees cultural criticism as a discourse begun by Herder in the 18th century that comments critically or negatively on the rising symbolic universe of capitalism, democracy, and Enlightenment: that is, on what the French called civilisation.

12 See Mulhern, p. 116.

13 Ibid., p.158.

14 Ibid., p. 169.