This is a bad time to indulge in futurology. The presence of ‘shock’ political events encourages all kinds of hyperbolae. The historiography of predictive political analysis is an embarrassment of errors. Looking at a recent set of changes and announcing a ‘new’ something or other distracts from deeper continuities or similarities with times passed.
Nevertheless. It seems to me that there is a bundle of political practices that – whilst I make no claim to their novelty – have become increasingly prominent and can be understood collectively as a repertoire, that is, a mutually-reinforcing set of political practices. They also reflect some of the broader changes taking place. So, this futurology is less prediction punditry than sense seeking with a view to understanding possible futures. It is also, in part, a warning.
In any case, in writing this very stylised but, I think, suggestive, futurology I found that it did write out fairly easily; it made a kind of sense. Perhaps that tells us something.
The repertoire of political practices I am bundling together I will call endgame politics. It is characterised by a reconciliation with the incomplete, unstable, and incoherent. It is a politics that is not aimed at constructing robust norms, laws, and programmes through difficult processes of participation, compromise, institutionalisation, and policy cycles in which lessons are learnt. It is, rather, based in a prospective vision in which things unravel or are at least unlikely to become much better or more stable. Having a sense of cautious optimism forged in the balance between realism and idealism – politics as the art of the possible – is negated and replaced by something more nihilistic.
Endgame politics contains most if not all of the following: the use of unexceptional violence; an energised political aesthetic; a focus on specific issues and identities with a concern for political affect rather than coherence or durability; a reliance on opaque and closed networks of individuals to generate power; routine dishonesty and partiality; and the normalisation of chaos. Quite a list.
Endgame politics sees violence as an honestly and intimately intertwined aspect of politics. Assassination, street fighting, militias which blend in with police activities, routinized torture, political connections to criminal firms, and the rhetorical reliance on violent metaphors or explicit evocation to violence by political leaders are signatures of endgame politics. The building of walls, the use of paramilitary police forces, increase and privatisation of coercion within everyday life through security companies ghoulishly accompany the thuggishness of those who see politics as street-fighting.
This violence is in part about winning battles but also about generating fluid political situations. It is not about winning battles to create new orders: that would imply that it was a version of the old story of state sovereignty in which today’s criminal violence is tomorrow’s rule of law. This is endgame violence and it simply creates situations in which ruler and opposition contest endlessly, in which factionalism proliferates, in which alliances are transitory. In extremis, political power is deinstitutionalised into networks of civilian-military-criminal alliances, none of which might last for long because the conflict situation is entirely unmanageable and unpredictable.
Endgame politics is based in an invigorated political aesthetic. This is not aesthetic in terms of branding, PR, and slick advertising. Rather, it is less controlled or even appealing. Its purpose is fundamentally to generate affect within the spectator on the grounds that any strong resonance within societies shores up power. In political leaders this manifests in visions of absurd and hubristic machismo. Imagine a Chinese communist cult of personality in which images of the Great Leader were produced in their hundreds of thousands in massive factories. Now consider the fact that a 2,000 square metre factory in Shenzen is exporting over 200,000 Trump masks to Western markets.
This kind of political aesthetic is not ideological: it does not aim to legitimise a certain set of symbols. It simply creates emotional and discursive energy within peoples with the effect of asserting power in the present through emotional relays of awe, outrage, or perhaps a sense of being overwhelmed. A great many political powers have seen aesthetics as a tool simply to broadcast power. Not necessarily legitimise it, and this is present in endgame politics.
Political aesthetics in endgame politics aims to render evidence and the transparent deliberation over it weakened. The imagery of leadership does not need to be tested by focus groups, based in likeability. It simply needs to be powerful, even cult-like. The strength of imagery and rhetoric matter most. The corollary of this is that endgame politics is difficult to embarrass. It can only be weakened. The notion that something a political leader said turned out to be a lie or deceptive or hypocritical is far less of a concern than the power to remain a powerful engine of imagery, symbol and rhetoric that evokes and provokes. Volume matters, content less.
The aesthetic and violent turns in politics not only degrade the notions of truth and deliberation within politics (such as they were). They also give less attention to the construction of stable and well-defined constituencies. Mobilisation matters but its institutionalisation less so. And the commitment of some people to a form of endgame politics does not mean that those who follow share a great deal; they might disagree or see things differently in quite important ways. All of this is fine for as long as endgame politics is driven by identity and issue politics framed within norms of injustice in some fashion. Much of the time, a florid railing against ‘the establishment’, ‘elites’, and ‘institutions’ is enough to generate a kind of loosely shared affect that might motivate people to vote, perhaps to protest, and then even to act violently. Relatively autonomous groups of supporters or action groups might emerge, some with an opaque (and plausibly deniable) connection to the core of a political movement, based in the aesthetic and affect of power.
As with mobilisation, so with rule. In spite of its clear populist strain, endgame politics is dominated by a tight network of elites. These elites seem in some cases to be above any law. They might have supported different political organisations, sometimes simultaneously. They might have shaken hands and then waved fists at each other. They might have been through various revolving doors between political offices and private companies. They might have served as advisors, a category of work that at the high end is both shadowy and powerful. They might broker deals on behalf of others or belong to social organisations who have within their constitution aspects of secrecy.
The term ‘oligarchy’ is not entirely stylistic. There are a group of families and social organisations that do overlap across institutions and seem to reproduce power within networks of family and close association. Endgame politics is a strategy of political domination based in strategic movement through these channels.
Endgame politics does not care for posterity and reputation. Political leaders and their movements do not have at their heart the design to achieve a specific goal. Leaders will not write the kinds of autobiographies that Westminster politicians used to write in the Twentieth Century. They have no design to make a better world. They aim to flourish within a chaos that they can barely manage and have no convincing exit plan. There is an expectation that they might fall on their feet if they are sufficiently lucky, powerful, and nimble. Victory is not success but the ability to bury one’s gravediggers. Endgame politics is based in a mode of combat, not a way to win.
Endgame politics and naked capitalism
None of the stylisations set out above is entirely novel. But, seen together and served under the suggestion that this political repertoire is intensifying it does produce a scenario which, although not inevitable nor is it outlandish. It does fit with the times. My suggestion is that these practices – currently present but hardly dominant – suggest a possible and insurgent political future. Is that it, though?
The world’s largest oil conglomerate, Exxon, accepts that climate change. But, it continues aggressively to pursue new oil exploitation opportunities because it considers the chances of existing political institutions to deal with climate change extremely low. It calls this an ‘endgame’ strategy. Precisely so. Exxon is not alone.
Perhaps the sketch of endgame politics above is easily critiqued and perilously ignored. If neoliberalism was based in Thatcher’s mantra ‘there is no alternative’, endgame politics’ mantra is ‘there is no solution’. The political economy of capitalism is coming to resemble something like a system which has fewer frontiers to exploit and finds only the briefest solutions to its problems by exaggerating the former. Levels of private financial debt are already above those in 2007. Illicit, criminalised, and trafficking economies flourish. These ‘grey’ economies often rely on spaces no longer controlled by stable nation-states bound by international norms and laws: spaces which can no longer be understood as small undisciplined niches but rather as regions in the Middle East and the Horn and North of Africa as well as thousands of towns in the world’s broderlands. More people works for wages but also more people work harder for less and in more precarious circumstances.
Perhaps one reason to consider endgame politics as possibly more than an assemblage of some political practices amongst others is that they do offer a coherent response to the direction of flow of capitalism. Endgame politics is a disenchanted response to a system which generates intensifying multi-scalar inequalities, exploitations, exhaustions of resources, militarisations, and instabilities. If you disagree with this then I would suggest you have not been paying full attention. In the mid 1800s, a journalist wrote:
The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, moving from its home, where it assumes respectable form, to the colonies, where it goes naked.
Perhaps endgame politics is nothing more than a reconciliation with the fact that Marx’s distinction between home and colony is the only thing wrong with this quotation.