Worse I May Be Yet: Projecting Politics

By Clemens, Justin | Arena Journal, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Worse I May Be Yet: Projecting Politics


Clemens, Justin, Arena Journal


A few years ago I was speaking with the philosopher Oliver Feltham about the question of truth in politics. 'You always know when truth is involved in a political organization', Oliver remarked to me, 'because that organization will be in constant danger of violent splitting over a principle or idea. Take the history of the Left, or of the psychoanalytic movement. All they do is split, often in the most vituperative and vicious fashion. In politics, this isn't invariably a sign of failure but a sign of life. In contrast, big corporations never split: they grow or merge or fail. When the only concerns are profit or power, organizations are fundamentally unified, but when an idea is also at stake, then we must expect and affirm the necessity of division and divisiveness'.

Whatever you make of this remark, it clearly speaks to the regime of modern politics, at least as it stems from the practical and theoretical inheritances of the European Enlightenment. From at least the eighteenth century, true politics has not only been considered principled and practical - indeed, active 'politics' is a struggle that constantly reworks the juncture of the two - but in being so it must also be at least in part negationist. Whereas conservative political thought, such as that of Thomas Hobbes, wishes to establish sovereign security as the very raison d'etre of governance, modern political philosophy is full of theories about the need for negation. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it's a matter of the general will; for G. W. F. Hegel, the activity of contradiction; for liberalism generally, the liberty of individuation. And certain reactionaries, such as Carl Schmitt, will even join the radical chorus in identifying the 'friend/enemy distinction' as the essence of the political. The truth is in the division, and not on either side of it.

When Arena split itself into two in 1992, it was acting both in continuity and in contrast with this august-if-ambivalent lineage. Founded as a single quarterly publication bringing together both practical and theoretical concerns, it divided into two different kinds of publication with different foci and temporalities: Arena Magazine, bimonthly, more practically oriented and responsive to ongoing events, and Arena Journal, more theoretically and technically oriented, appearing every six months. One can easily see the continuity with modernity: a radical internal asymmetrical splitting. One can just as easily see the contrast: a splitting that is not paranoid-schizoid (to speak like Melanie Klein), irrevocably expelling its intimate other to the dark abyss, but rather a hopeful and reparative form of mourning (Klein, again), attempting to sustain its own unbalanced self-difference without reduction or reconciliation.

I take this continuity and contrast as a reaction to and a symptom of the recent transformations of the social and political worlds that Arena has dedicated itself to both analyzing and transforming for the better. For the last two decades or so have been witness to extraordinarily rapid, severe and significant mutations in every register of human - and inhuman - endeavour. As Guy Rundle established in Arena Magazine's very first editorial, suggestively entitled 'New Ways of Being Human', tracking and contesting such mutations was precisely to be the publication's task.1 The 'fundamental underlying social conditions have changed', Rundle announced, designating the development of the information society as perhaps the key agent of this change.2

A simple list of events, both domestic and planetary, can give some sense of the epoch's flavour: the Mabo decision in 1992; the rise of Pauline Hanson in the mid-1990s; the privatization of the Commonwealth Bank in 1996, and the sequential privatization of Telstra in three stages from 1997; September 11, 2001, and the subsequent ongoing 'War on Terror', with its rendition sites, concentration camps and media barrage; the Tampa crisis of 2001, and the implementation of the Pacific Solution; the Australian mining boom, from the early 2000s to its waning in the present; the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention; the 2008 global financial crisis; Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. …

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