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The Politics of “No”

Opting to do something can lead to various forms of activism and that in turn can lead to the difficult area of politics. Saying 'no' to what we oppose is one approach.

How many of us are in some way dissatisfied with the way things are in the world? Perhaps you've witnessed some grave injustice or you're even the victim of a social ill? Maybe you've spent years in academic settings trying to understand what's wrong with the world, but isn't the point to change it? Maybe you just know, things aren't meant to be like this.

Chances are you can relate to most if not all of the above and if so you might have been drawn to do something about it. Making the choice to do something about situations we don't like can lead us to various forms of activism and that in turn can lead to the difficult area of politics, in one form or another.

Politics is something of a touchy subject. For some it's a passion, or a necessary evil to make change. For others it's pointless, boring and is best represented by a bunch of middle aged old men who sit around in parliament spouting hot air at each other, pretending to disagree whilst making polices that no one outside parliament wants. This latter view of politics brings to mind budget cuts, MP's allowance scandals, fracking in the “desolate” countryside and failed deals on Climate Change, not to mention illegal wars or drone strikes in far away places.

The political context in Britain at this point is rather bleak, when you think of it in these terms. More recently there has been a shift in government policy towards “permanent austerity”, showing that the budget cuts weren't about “solving” the financial crisis but were an ideological attack to the working class. Hardly a surprising move for a Tory government. Even more shocking, perhaps, are the revelations about the extent of corporate power that George Monbiot has written about recently, including allowing for “corporate courts” to protect multinational companies in international trade policies and the idea of having “ministerial buddies” available for meetings at companies' every request. These and other troubling insights have led Monbiot to suggest that politics has failed in bringing about positive social change and will continue to do so until corporate power is challenged.

For Monbiot and most on the traditional “Left” of the political spectrum, they mistakenly identify politics as formal politics, or what politicians do. With this viewpoint it's not hard to see politics as a failure. This also leads most on the Left to see the state as a means for making progressive social change. In order to make radical changes (those which tackle the roots of the problem), of course corporate power needs to be challenged but so too does capitalism itself, as inequality and exploitation and ecological degradation are inherent to the economic system. Autonomist Marxist John Holloway argues that in order to challenge capitalism we need to look outside the state because history shows this tactic has been tried and failed many times before. The reason that the state cannot be used to replace capitalism is that it emerged as a capitalist organisation. As Holloway writes “Capital is above all a process of separation...[and] the state is a part of this process of separation. It is the separation of public from private, of the common affairs from the community itself”. The result is an organisation that is external to society but aims to speak and act on the people's behalf. The state, therefore, relates to people abstractly in terms of citizens, rather than as individuals. Beyond this the state is also necessary for the survival of capitalism. Due to the inequalities produced by the economic system, the state's role is to maintain social cohesion through appearing to redistribute wealth, whilst also protecting private property, which is fundamental for capitalism to operate.

With a different viewpoint on what politics is, we can further see that the state really isn't the best or only way to make change happen in the world. Some political theorists, such as radical pluralists, would say that politics is everywhere. For them, not only is politics all the interactions that we know impact our lives, which is a reasonably broad definition, but it can be found in every single interaction. This is because through interactions our identities and positions change, and are in fact constructed in relation to the Other party. It is only through having some other position to contrast against that your position can make sense. This can be in relation to people, nature and even objects. This means that in every aspect of our lives we can decide to accept or challenge the political situation. There is politics in every interaction. There is a politics of food, for example, when we are subjected to GMOs in our staple products or free market policies mean the cheapest food is the one that comes from an industrial farmer and the small-scale peasant is unable to compete. However, food is also a potential site of the political action, in that we can say “No!” to these forces and choose another way, embracing local produce, a more ethical approach to meat or taking so-called “waste” food out of a dumpster and liberating it. As with food, so the potential for political action can be found in any other area of life.

Many of the mass protests that have emerged around the globe in recent years can be viewed in this broader definition of politics that doesn't necessarily seek to take state power or seek changes through it. In taking to the streets people are using their physical bodies, as well as voices, to scream “No!” to the current way of doing things. In occupying major squares these protests could be seen less in terms of moving towards a progressive vision, which is reminiscent of ideas of universal progress and growth, but more about “reaching for the emergency brake” on a runaway train and saying “stop!”. Again, taking Holloway as inspiration, saying “No” can be as simple (and as complex) as refusing to do what capitalism requires of us, and instead doing what we feel is needed or what we want. In the recent mass protests around the world other ways of doing have been experimented with. By occupying a public space, people have been forced to talk to each other, relate to one another, connect in more authentic and enjoyable ways than through the market and commodities. These aren't easy things to do, when we've been brought up in a system that tells us we are alone and must work to buy the things we need, from food to connection and friendship. These “No”s and beyond, however don't have to only take place in an occupation or a protest. As politics is everywhere, so to can be the political. The alternatives, the “no”s and beyond, can be about disrupting people's stories of separation, by acting out of kindness and love, they can be about challenging competition, by giving gifts freely, they can be choosing to live for pleasure instead of pain.

In looking for radical changes to how life is organised, formal politics and aiming to take state power has and always will, ultimately, fail. Political changes, however, are possible everywhere. The big “No!”s that arise out of mass street protests will no doubt continue as a set of inter-related crises unfolds, where and when these occur, no one can say. In the mean time, we can all be political in our daily lives, by simply saying “no” and choosing another, more beautiful and fun way to be instead.

Ali's blog is available here.

Topics: Activism