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Erik Swyngedouw, Interrogating post-democratization: Reclaiming egalitarian political spaces, 30(7) Political Geography 370 (2011).

Erik Swyngedouw’s exploration of the spacing of politics is embedded within a trajectory of work in political theory (and political philosophy) that asserts the specificity and distinctiveness of the political in the face of left politics’ conventional emphasis on the economy and domination. At the heart of this body of work is post-foundationalism – a philosophical project that recognizes the significance and necessity of ongoing moves to ground political and social order, while simultaneously refusing the notion of a pre-existing, non-contingent base or essence, whether derived from human nature, democracy, rights, justice, or the people.

Working within this framework, Swyngedouw’s article opens with a challenge: how to understand the coexistence and relationship between insurrectional political activism and violent discontent, on the one hand; and post-democratic, technocratic, consensus-based politics, on the other. Swyngedouw seeks to explore this tension through three moves: through the character of the post-political; the politics/political distinction in post-foundational thought; and the question of egalitarian political space.

The post-political suggests privatization, marketization, the power of business lobbies, and the erosion of democratic rights. It suggests a form of doing politics based on the public management of consensus, where democracy is split from equality, and instead of being embedded in an agonistic encounter is aligned with consumer choice in public market conditions. Post-democratic consensus and technocratic administrative logics, however, do not fully efface the political; as tendencies they remain incomplete. To explore the continuing presence of “the political,” Swyngedouw considers its relationship to politics – a distinction and relationship extensively debated within continental political thought. While the political signifies the absent foundation (as an open, dislocating force), politics identifies the actions, strategies, and assemblages of public sphere governing; in other words, it identifies everyday practical kinds of politics, or what Rancière describes as “police.” Through these institutionalized routines and modes of representation, people, things, and activities get placed and allocated. Always precarious, contingent, and unable to completely suture the social field, the everyday of post-democratic politics (and its imagined community) colonizes the space of the political. Yet, all is not lost. For, as Swyngedouw and others argue, there will always be an outside – a radically different way of rendering life intelligible that challenges the prevailing institutionalized common sense. Here, the political returns as “a retro-actively revealed moment of eruption.”

Adopting Rancière’s conceptual framework, an emancipatory politics can be understood as the refusal to be restricted to places allocated within the “police” order. Staging equality in order to make visible the wrong of a given situation, as in Rosa Parks’s decision to sit in the “wrong” seat, the non-egalitarian practices of a racialized order are disclosed.  In the process, classifications and institutionalized distinctions are disrupted.

Swyngedouw suggests democratic political spaces are active moments in constructing new egalitarian spatialities inside and through existing geographies of the police order. These active moments go beyond demands for inclusion that work to sustain a post-political consensus; they go beyond rituals of resistance which leave the police order intact; and they go beyond acts of violence that generate and legitimate, in turn, the reciprocating violence of the state. “Proper politics,” Swyngedouw suggests, involves practices that challenge the symbolic order of the police; it involves designing space as an egalitarian and libertarian field of disagreement, opening up room for other speech acts; and it involves radically re-organizing what can be heard, seen and known. At the same time, politics may take shape as refusal: “I’d prefer not to” — a strategy Swyngedouw argues that is also an invitation to think again, and to form new egalitarian imaginaries. Fundamentally, Swyngedouw argues we need to rethink equality politically – not as a sociological concept which demands policy responses to inequality but as a presupposed condition of democracy.

In this intellectually packed article, Swyngedouw engages with a vast array of different post-foundational political scholars. While some would quibble with his readings, and while, at times, the encyclopedic coverage detracts from Swyngedouw’s own account, the strength of this article is the way it brings together and works different currents within this field.  For readers far more familiar with feminist, social democratic or traditional Marxist political analysis, what is striking about Swyngedouw’s analysis (and of the literatures he works with) is its drive to give politics, or more accurately, “the political” autonomy and distinction from “the choreography of the social.” This also is its challenge, and when substantive political issues are tackled, it is not always clear what this framework adds. Speaking in the name of a new universal, feminist, gay, and other non-class based left agendas often become reduced to interest-based identity politics in ways that ignore the substantial challenge they pose to common-sense thinking. As a consequence, post-foundational political thought risks significantly under-estimating how political movements, such as feminism, have for decades (and longer) ruptured existing consensuses around intelligible speech — identifying previously unrecognized harms, and re-imagining and re-valuing new forms of social organization and ways of living – a process far more resonant with Rancière’s dissensus than with his police.

Post-foundational political theory’s intellectual insularity and limited engagement with a more multi-dimensional left politics can be frustrating. Frequently, it leaves many contemporary political challenges unaddressed (for instance, the problem of equality’s indeterminacy, when deployed by conservative as well as more progressive forces). However, what this body of work does productively contribute is a challenge to how we think about political form – of how, where, and what politics involves – in the face of tendencies to reduce politics to administration and government on the one hand, or to social antagonisms on the other.  Insistence on the unpredictable, contingent, supplementary character of political engagement, and on the interrelationship between organizing and disorganizing raises important questions for a left politics that seeks to develop new forms of institutionalization (or hegemony) while accepting and working with its contestation – from the right as well as from the left. Both parts of the ordering-rupturing tension are important. However, the emphasis on challenge and the unexpected, within post-foundational theory, can sometimes too quickly dismiss or bypass political contradictions within the state, in other words, the dissensus operating at the very heart of governmental and regulatory practice. For, public institutions and political activity are not worlds apart; and while the state may work to “tame” more radical politics, the potential for their irruption remains ever-present.

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Cite as: Davina Cooper, Political Splits, JOTWELL (February 12, 2013) (reviewing Erik Swyngedouw, Interrogating post-democratization: Reclaiming egalitarian political spaces, 30(7) Political Geography 370 (2011)),