The Point Podcast

Why everything is hyperpolitical now (with Anton Jäger)

April 24, 2023 Season 1 Episode 4
Why everything is hyperpolitical now (with Anton Jäger)
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Why everything is hyperpolitical now (with Anton Jäger)
Apr 24, 2023 Season 1 Episode 4

On this episode of The Point Podcast, Jonny Thakkar talks to our resident anatomist of the global political zeitgeist: Anton Jäger, a historian of political thought at the Catholic University of Leuven. Anton joins us to discuss his essay for issue 29, “Everything Is Hyperpolitical,” an ambitious attempt at historicizing our hyperpolitical present, which he diagnoses as the culmination of a trajectory from mass politics to post-politics.

  • Hyperpolitics beyond the intuitive definition (3:20)
  • The relation between post-politics and technocracy (13:28)
  • “I think I stumbled onto it, and not in a particularly elegant way”: inventing hyperpolitics and why we need it (17:20)
  • The challenges of generalization, and how the U.S. ended up in a hyperpolitical predicament without a history of European-style mass politics (23:13)
  • Is the phenomenology of hyperpolitics just the phenomenology of social media? (38:47)
  • The division between politics and policy, and the difference between political will and political demands (47:11)
  • International relations and alternative hyperpolitical paradigms (51:22)
  • Culture as political unconscious: the benefits of the Adam Curtis approach (59:48)
Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of The Point Podcast, Jonny Thakkar talks to our resident anatomist of the global political zeitgeist: Anton Jäger, a historian of political thought at the Catholic University of Leuven. Anton joins us to discuss his essay for issue 29, “Everything Is Hyperpolitical,” an ambitious attempt at historicizing our hyperpolitical present, which he diagnoses as the culmination of a trajectory from mass politics to post-politics.

  • Hyperpolitics beyond the intuitive definition (3:20)
  • The relation between post-politics and technocracy (13:28)
  • “I think I stumbled onto it, and not in a particularly elegant way”: inventing hyperpolitics and why we need it (17:20)
  • The challenges of generalization, and how the U.S. ended up in a hyperpolitical predicament without a history of European-style mass politics (23:13)
  • Is the phenomenology of hyperpolitics just the phenomenology of social media? (38:47)
  • The division between politics and policy, and the difference between political will and political demands (47:11)
  • International relations and alternative hyperpolitical paradigms (51:22)
  • Culture as political unconscious: the benefits of the Adam Curtis approach (59:48)

Anton Jäger  00:00

What what's very strange about hyperpolitics is that it has the syllogism, which is the personal is political, and then it flips it into something like the political is only the personal. And that is a turnaround which you don't quite get with populism. And I think you could basically describe the rise of something like hyperpolitics as the eventual result of the trauma and of the splintering, which that so called populist moment inflicted on the western world.


Rachel Wiseman  00:27

That was Anton Jäger on our hyperpolitical moment. You're listening to The Point Podcast.

Instant analysis is always perilous, Anton Jäger notes in his essay for the new issue of The Point, “Everything Is Hyperpolitical.” But that doesn’t stop him from attempting the difficult task of historicizing our present. Jäger describes a deep shift in our political reality that’s been happening in recent years. It’s something that a lot of us might have felt but couldn’t quite name. And something strange did start happening in politics in the mid-2010s. It was as though the world had jolted awake after a long apathetic nap during the Nineties and the early 2000s, when the technocratic liberal order was at its height. Suddenly waves of intense, heated political activity began to emerge on the left and the right, seemingly out of nowhere. In the U.S., there was Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, Trump… in the U.K, Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance in the Labour Party, the National Front and the Yellow Vest movement in France, climate marches all over the world. What was going on? Had the end of history ended? Was fascism ascendant once again? Or maybe there was a better, more precise explanation for these new political formations and behaviors. In his Point essay Anton charts in detail this transition from what he calls post-politics to hyperpolitics, focusing especially on how it’s appeared in the literature and culture of the past thirty years. He writes about the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who started out documenting the club scenes of Berlin and London after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and has since created several pro-EU works in response to the Brexit campaign, as well as the French writers Annie Ernaux, Didier Eribon, and Michel Houellebecq, who each in their own way have captured how mass politics lost out to post-politics and anti-politics in Europe. Recently, Anton met up with the Point founding editor Jonny Thakkar to discuss what hyperpolitics is, its relation to other forms of politics, and why all the normies are so political now.  

Jonny Thakkar  02:27

Hi, I'm Johnny Thakkar, one of the founding editors of The Point and I'm here today with Anton Jager, a historian of political thought who writes about the relation of capitalism and democracy. Anton has a book coming out on universal basic income in the next month or so with, written—cowritten with Daniel Zamora and published by the University of Chicago Press. And he's also working on a number of other projects, including a project on the notion of hyperpolitics, a book that's going to come out with Suhrkamp in Germany, and then somewhere else in English before too long. Anton recently wrote a fascinating article for issue 29 point on just that subject called "Everything Is Hyperpolitical: A genealogy of the present." So we're here today to discuss that article together. And on my first question for you is just what is hyperpolitics?


Anton Jäger  03:23

Yes. I think intuitively, everyone has a sense of what it might mean, or at least taps into a very plausible and powerful mood, which is quite endemic to a lot of debates we're used to. But unfortunately, on that intuitive level, once you move to a more conceptual level, it proves quite difficult to define. So I think I have two ways of defining it. The first is just in contrast, if you look at hyperpolitics as part of a broader morphology, or I'd typology of political forms, that run across the twentieth and 21st century, then we can define hyper politics as a mode of political engagement that I think belongs very characteristically to the 2010s, that is very distinct from both the mass politics we knew from the middle of the twentieth century, and also the later twentieth century, but also different from the post-politics we knew from the 1990s and the 2000s, in which politics was basically evacuated from the public sphere, there was a very rigid separation between private and public. But it's also different from what some people have called the anti-politics of the 2010s, which is sometimes more lazily called populism, in that hyperpolitics is different from all of these political forms, in that, unlike post-politics, it doesn't accept the distinction between private and public. So it has a very strong sense that politics needs to reenter the public sphere, that the public sphere needs to be re-enchanted and that private questions are actually public questions and that public questions are also private questions. But the repoliticization of the public sphere we've witnessed in the last ten years, is also very distinct from the mass politics we once knew from the twentieth century. I think there what specific write hyperpolitics is that it's a kind of mixture of a very lonely and atomized society, but also very excited, and I'd say, heated, society. So you could call it a sort of revolt of a lonely crowd. And I think once you have a graph in which loneliness and excitation cross, then you have a very specific political mode that corresponds with that. And that's hyperpolitics. So I define hyperpolitics programmatically as a type of political engagement, which is very characteristic of a 21st century world in which the public sphere has been repoliticized, and in which that sphere also reimposes itself on other spheres such as the private or the cultural or the economic sphere. But it does so in terms which are much cheaper, much more accessible, far less collective, and also, more importantly, far more short term than anything like the politics we knew from the twentieth century. So another useful way I've found to define it is that it's a very low form of politics. It's low cost, low entry, low duration, and unfortunately, it often is also quite low value. And then there's the ultimate metaphorical way of defining it. When Max Weber once defined politics as "the hard and slow boring of hard boards," I think that's in the "Lecture on Politics as a Vocation." But if you look at hyperpolitics, then you kind of see it as cutting through Styrofoam with a laser pointer or a new board every day, which you're drilling through really frantically. And that kind of nicely conveys both the short-termism and the low-cost aspect I was trying to get at.


Jonny Thakkar  06:45

And you mentioned that it's different from anti-politics or or populism as well? How is—how is that bit?


Anton Jäger  06:52

I'm still trying to work out the exact difference. What's specific about populism is that it has similarities with the post-politics we were used to from the Nineties and 2000s, as well, just like hyperpolitics does. But it also makes very strong claims to representation. So popularisms are quite hostile to parties. They don't quite like intermediary bodies or certain forms of institutional mediation, but they are very taken or oriented towards something like the state or towards something like the public sphere. And the kind of collapsing of public and private you get in hyperpolitics is much less clear in that case. So populism is something that is more strictly political, I'd say, in a classical sense, while what's very strange about hyperpolitics is that it has the syllogism, which is: the personal is political, and then it flips it into something like the political is only the personal. And that is a turnaround, which you don't quite get with populism. And I think you could basically describe the rise of something like hyperpolitics as the eventual result, both of the trauma and of the splintering, which that so-called populist moment inflicted on the Western world. And I think something like 2016, in which you have the success of Brexit and Trump votes are a very clear example in which you have a big populist explosion, while at the same time, then you have the start a type of hyperpolitics on the other side. And now, that form is just generalizing itself across the spectrum.


Jonny Thakkar  08:27

Okay, so temporally, the the populist moment, or the anti-politics moment, precedes the hyperpolitics moment.


Anton Jäger  08:37

I would say so yeah. So the way I'm trying to periodize it is that you still have mass politics until the Eighties. Then you have post-politics in the Nineties and 2000s. Then you have 2008, and a sort of splintering of that post-political consensus, which was set up in the Nineties. You have a moment of anti-politics, which is visible both in Europe in the U.S. and also across the world. And I think in the middle of the 2000s, 2010s, you have a convergence or an overlap between two distinct forms. You still have post-politics, of course, you still have technocracy, but you also have anti-politics as it's represented in these new populist contenders. But you also have a third new form, which is entering the mix, and that is that hyperpolitical form, and I think it really comes into its own at the end of the 2010s. But it's already born in the middle of the 2010s.


Jonny Thakkar  09:26

Okay, let's take a step back and just make clear what you mean by mass politics first, and then post-politics. You just mentioned technocracy as being part of post-politics. So can you just say a little bit about what you mean by mass politics and what paradigmatic instances of that would be and how that gateway then to post-politics?


Anton Jäger  09:52

Yes, in the essay, I have a middle section in which I look for concrete, I'd say, empirical examples of what mass politics looks like in practice. There's a sort of ethnography I'm trying to do to give people a sense of what it actually meant to live in a mass political society or a mass society. And one example is the French writer Didier Eribon, who figures very heavily in the essay, who grew up as a gay man in a communist family in postwar France. And one of the things that comes through, again, in contrast, is just how diffuse the distinction is between public and private when it came to party membership in the Fifties and Sixties. So in a French context, he talks about how his parents entire lives, and they were both workers from a very poor northern French town—their entire lives, both private, it even sexual, economic, cultural, emotional, were structured by their party membership. So the way you fit into a lifeworld was never purely individual, but was heavily conditioned by what political party you belonged to. Political party wasn't just a political institution, it was also a social institution, or it was a kind of counter society, that most importantly, in contrast to hyperpolitics, was able to bind people to it on a nonindividual, long-term, and very strenuous and, I'd say, expensive basis. So party membership, although it could fluctuate, was something you usually took on for life. And the way politics functions is that you basically have this clashing of massive blocs, which are themselves quite immobile. So that is the French communist example I look at for Eribon. But if you look at it from a Belgian perspective, and I think you could even find certain American examples of this are even British examples. If you were born in the Christian Democratic or a socialist family in Belgium in the Fifties and Sixties, it was actually very difficult for you to consider coming out as belonging to a different pillar, as they say. So the idea that you could decide not to vote for the Christians on a Sunday or you'd vote for a nonsocialist party was a very risky endeavor. And the exit and entry costs of these communities were actually very high. So mass politics, I think, is typical in that it only only has a very diffuse border between public and private, but it's also able to bind people to it on a long term, nonindividual, and very durable basis. And that means that the time horizon of mass politics is inevitably not measured in one media cycle, or an electoral cycle. Or sort of short, I'd say, internet spats, but it's really something that people measure in decades. People have a very patient, and in that Weberian sense, very boring approach to how politics functions. And I mean, in my family, and you see this with loads of people, in previous generations in Belgium, party cards were literally handed out from mother to daughter or from father to son. And you think you can see similar cases with the Tory Party, which was once a really big mass party in Britain as well the same held for Labour. And it's really with the disappearance of that civil society or that social grounding, that you get a sense of what mass politics actually was. It's only when you see the light of a distant dying star, that you have a sense of what it was like to live in that period.


Jonny Thakkar  13:15

Great. So can you say a little bit about post-politics, then? You've talked about the split between the private and the public, maybe you could say a little bit more about that. And also the relation between that and technocracy. On the face of it those two aren't exactly the same idea, but clearly for you they hang together in this kind of constellation.


Anton Jäger  13:42

Yes, they've definitely come about in a very similar timeline. And I think they are mutually reinforcing in many ways. So the rise of technocracy, or a purportedly neutral form of politics, which is actually post-politics, which reduces politics not to deliberation on ends, or how society is supposed to mobilize its resources, but which just sees it as a technical question that can almost be solved in a mathematical way, goes hand in hand with an evacuation of politics from the public sphere and the retreat into the private. And one example I given the essay is Eribon's family itself, which is actually one of the main stakes in the book. Namely, he asked himself the question, How come these people voted for the Communist Party in the Sixties and Seventies. And suddenly, they became far-right voters in the Nineties and 2000s. And one striking behavioral trend he notes in his family is that the way his father and his mother start to vote for the Front National, at the time, is that it's an eminently private vote. So the communist vote in the Sixties and Seventies can be publicly declared people used to join a party chapter and go to the polls together. It was an open and collective affirmation of a certain party identity. And what happens in the Nineties and 2000s, as the political sphere itself becomes much more constrained and actual political questions are not a topic of discussion anymore, they move into an anti-political mood, you say, already, but the way it expresses itself is eminently private, and no one talks about who they vote for on Sunday, they don't have a party card of the Front National, and they don't actually relate to it in the same way. So it's a very secretive, I'd almost say a closed form of politics, in which you can see that the claims of technocrats to, say, party government is over, all this warring between different factions, all this ideology—that we don't have any need for this. All we can do is just adjust some knobs on the machine and then everything will be solved. That also goes hand in hand with a retreat into the private on behalf of several people. And we're very familiar with, I'd say, the euphoric or the more triumphalist story of this. So I talked about Wolfgang Tillmanns, who is a German photographer who really experiences that party scene of the Nineties as a liberation, and certain types of ideological churches and certain normative labels that they found very constraining. I think if you just listen to the music, or you watch the movies from the Nineties, you get a sense of just how liberating many people felt by the fact that now history and politics were no longer imposing themselves on them in such a severe way. But it also goes hand in hand with, yeah, I'd say, a privatization of politics. And one really explicit symptom of this, which people have talked about is that people find it more and more uncomfortable to talk about who they vote for. So in the 2000s, in the Nineties, it's not that common anymore, because people's political identities are something they only express in the ballot box, while everyone's parents were communists 24 hours a day, just like Catholics were Catholics 24 hours a day, as I say in the essay. But then suddenly in the Nineties and 2000s, voting becomes something people only want to talk about once. And one other writer I mentioned Annie Ernaux, whose novel The Years, I think, offers a beautiful chronicle of the transition years at the time, also makes this point, where she says, like, you really needed to have a sense of moral duty to still turn out to vote on a Sunday, during holidays. People didn't really get why you'd vote, partly because most of activity happened on a private level anyway, and partly because they didn't have a sense that there were any choices or options at that time. And I think that is a very good description of what we mean by post-politics.


Jonny Thakkar  17:26

So if—let's move forward again, then to hyperpolitics. What would be lacking if we didn't have this concept? Why do we need the concept?


Anton Jäger  17:37

Yes, so I wouldn't say it's a compulsive concept, because the case with compulsive concepts is they're usually very bad, and a useless concept, which we somehow get addicted to. And that wouldn't be making a very good commercial case for the topic I'm currently writing on. I think there is one abiding sense or an impression, which a lot of people have shared with me, and which I've also seen in the reception of the essay, is that they feel something profound has changed in the 2000s, or since the 2000s and the Nineties. So obviously, there are still some similarities with the 2010s. But definitely, the Nineties and the 2000s are over. Some people like Adam Tooze are the people at the Aufhebunga podcast have called it the end of the end of history. I am discussing it in slightly different terms, but the mood of contemporary debates just feel so different and so much more—I don't want to sound like a liberal but—so much more polarized and excited than anything that came before that you need a new concept to describe a new state. Because it's not the twentieth century, either. People who think we're returning to the Thirties, or that we're experiencing some kind of fascist relapse, I think there have been a lot of arguments by this is very implausible. And that means that we're generally facing a very new beast. That doesn't mean we can't rely on the past for conceptual tools. But we do have to think very seriously about this new political form. And there I think the case for hyperpolitics is very clear. And Wolfgang Tillmanns himself expresses it very well. So here is the paradigmatic example of someone who incarnated and captured the post-political mood of the Nineties and experienced it, sorry, with elation, and a sense of liberation as well. And he himself in the 2000s to 2020s is making very different photographs is over has evolved in a very symptomatic and interesting way. Not only that he joins Black Lives Matter protests, that he feels very involved with all kinds of political matters, he's openly propagandizing for the EU, he's now doing all kinds of campaigns for the European Commission, if I understand correctly, and that itself shows just how the coordinates have shifted. And you can't call someone like Tillmanns, a mass politician, or someone who's doing mass politics. But he's no longer doing the post-politics of the Nineties and 2000s anymore. He's very involved in politics, but in a way that's very different from the way his ancestors might have engaged in it. And that's why I think we need something like this concept. There are other alternatives. I think people can continue to talk about populism, or people can talk about wokeness, or cancel culture, or any of these shibboleths, but I'm looking for something more strictly technical. And I think hyperpolitics, unfortunately, is the best we have.


Jonny Thakkar  20:26

Can you say a little bit about, sort of, from an autobiographical point of view, intellectual autobiography, like, how did you come to this topic and this term?


Anton Jäger  20:39

I think I stumbled onto it, and not in a particularly elegant way. So there were a variety of conversations I had with Belgian friends, because I was in the U.K. for quite a while. And when I came back to Belgium, they suddenly started noticing all kinds of patterns in their own private conversations, where they said, "So many people I knew from the 2000s, and I was at school with, who I knew were fiercely apolitical, or anti-political, didn't have the slightest interest in politics, who didn't have an opinion about anything, or who felt actively offended something sometimes if you try to impose some political conversation, suddenly find themselves making all kinds of strong statements and choosing camps in very polarizing debates." So this was a purely anecdotal observation they made. And I said, "Well, that also taps into a lot of other examples I heard where yes, suddenly all these apolitical people somehow have become politically engaged." And then I remember being on Twitter and Twitter, I think, is the prime environment in which—it's both a driver and a result of this hyperpolitical mood in that the short-termism, the low entry and exit costs, the intrinsic individualism of hyperpolitics, just finds his perfect expression online and certainly in the form of Twitter. And I just posted a tweet where I said, "I'm starting to notice a real nostalgia to post-politics with some people," not just with Belgian friends, but also with other people, it was like, why are all these normies suddenly into something like a politics or something that poses as politics? Everything feels so hyperpolitical, I said, and they just want to return to this status quo ante. And that's the moment actually when the editor of Tribune, where the original hyperpolitics essay appeared, in a more abbreviated version said, "Yes, this is exactly what I've been talking about with so many of my British friends as well, this taps into something very profound. Would you mind just putting this down on paper and ordering your thoughts a little," and then I delayed it and delayed it because I didn't think there was anything to it. And then I just threw a bunch of stuff into the mixer and came out with something that I wasn't particularly pleased with, which clearly resonated on some level. And then, as I pondered it over, and then Jon, Jon Baskin from The Point, reached out and said, like, "Why don't you try and think about this even a bit harder for us?" That's the moment I realized, okay, maybe there is something to it, and maybe there is something worth visiting here.


Jonny Thakkar  23:13

That's fascinating. So one question I would have is just how generalizable this is. I mean, this phenomenon of hyperpolitics. You know, you claim—not your claim—you say, I think quite rightly, that instant analysis is always perilous. That's one of the lines, I liked in the essay. But of course, you are doing instant analysis. And it's quite global, the kinds of claims that you're making, you know, about probably advanced politics, politics or political engagement in, in sort of advanced industrial democracies, or post-industrial democracies or whatever you might call it, across the world. And, therefore, you're going to be open, intrinsically, to various objections, like, "Well, what about this? What about that?" And something that occurred to me from an American point of view, is you're talking about mass politics in what you said earlier, and the way in which people were sort of part of these parties that structured their lives and aware where your membership was very public and that that's no longer the case, or certainly no longer as prevalent. And I think in the United States, you know, a lot of the discourse is about polarization, and about the ways in which all manner of individual decisions, consumer decisions among them, are actually now correlated with your party belonging, which seems to be very hard to shift. So that, you know, for example, Democrats are more likely to go to Starbucks and Republicans are more likely to go to Dunkin Donuts. Republicans and Democrats drive different cars, they watch different sports. They dress differently. You can even predict apparently, whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat based on whether they have clocks in their house. There are all these kind of correlations with, like, personal style that really actually go to party membership. And of course, here you also see an enormous number of placards outside people's houses. I just saw one yesterday saying, "This is Trump country, fuck Biden." You know, that's very public—right?—in terms of party, belonging. And, you know, with Trump's arrival in 2016, in the space of, or maybe 2015, in the space of about a year across those Republican primaries, Republican voters, at least many of them, seemed to seem to just ditch a lot of their beliefs, or avowed beliefs, because their candidate had different beliefs. You know, suddenly they had different positions on trade, they had different positions on foreign policy. They weren't as worried about Russia as they had been before, for example. So you know, you think of the the "democracy for realists" kind of hypothesis, that actually these are like deep forms of belonging, in the United States anyway, being Republican and a Democrat. And it's just sort of a bit like when your football team changes coach, you know. Suddenly, you're a fan of defensive football and that's totally fine and you no longer you no longer believe that winning is only valuable if it's done through tiki-taka or whatever. You know, you change your ideology based on who's currently representing your team. And there's something like that that seems to have gone on in American politics. So broadly speaking, what I'm thinking of is just that maybe, maybe there is some kind of mass politics going on, at least in the United States, you know, in terms of genuine, deep allegiance to to party that goes into the social and the personal.


Anton Jäger  27:22

Yeah, these are very important questions, and there's a lot to discuss. I'll try not to make it too long of a rant. The first point on the phasing and the generalizability, on a global scale—I think, as a case study, I'm looking at what's called the Western world, certainly after 2008. I think that's where my chronology works best. But there's two things to say about the chronology. The first is there are no neat cutoff points between these different political forms. So there is always overlap. And there's always going to be coexistence. And we're always going to be looking at hybrids. So for example, there are countries in which you still have a very strong mass party, certainly also on the left. In Belgium, you still have a very strong Socialist Party in the French-speaking part that is larger than its French counterpart. In Portugal,  you have the same. Under Corbin, for example, a lot of people suddenly joined this party and made the Labour Party the biggest party in the Western world. And in that sense, there's always going to be outliers, and it's never going to be a neat story. So it's very much a tendential or a, I wouldn't say catchall, but it's a tendential analysis, in that it indicates certain trends, which I think have a very powerful pull. But it doesn't mean they ever achieve complete hegemony, or that they become the dominant political form in a given epoch. And that means that certain political forms like anti-politics, post-politics, hyperpolitics, mass politics can coexist, and also can interact in very unexpected ways. So I'm just zooming in on one of those specific forms, which I think has manifested itself, particularly dramatically, but that doesn't mean it is a suddenly lonely ruler in the contemporary political sphere. It mainly holds in the Western world because I think the process of party decomposition, certainly in Europe—I mean, that's why I talk about other European writers—was experienced quite dramatically, because Europe had a very particular form of mass politics, which had to do with suffrage struggles as well, which never really happened in the U.S. And on a global scale, of course, there are a lot of exceptions to this as well. Still, I think when I speak to scholars of Ukraine, scholars of India, scholars of—people who work on Southeast Asia or even on certain types of Russian politics, there are a lot of resonances, they're suddenly able to point to. So I don't want to say we live in this neatly global condition in which everyone's somehow on the same timeline and is experiencing the same historical phases. But there are definitely tendencies, which is not surprising, because we live on a globe, which is a fully capitalist on a global scale. And because the crisis of civil society also has economic roots, which are shared by all nations, across the world—so 2008 was a global event, so it's very unsurprising that the political repercussions of it would also look very similar. Then on the specificity of the U.S., there's one first thing to note about the U.S., in which my story doesn't work, is the U.S. never had mass parties in that European sense. The Democrats and Republicans never had any notion of membership, that only existed in the 1830s and 1840s, really, under the Jacksonian age, then you have the Populist Party and the Socialist Party. But after that, starting at the beginning of the twentieth century, you basically have political parties, which are state parties. So they fuse with the state, they don't actually have a notion of mass membership. And that means there is no mass politics to actually get rid of, because they were never there in the first place. But I think there's two, I'd say, comments you can make that, or two nuances you need to introduce. The first is that even something like the Democratic Party or the Republican Party used to be tied to a much tighter civic landscape of all types of association. So the crisis of associational life in a civil society is not just a story of a declining party democracy, but it's a story of a crisis of sociability or a crisis of civil society that's much broader. So an American political scientist like Theda Skocpol, who's written a very good book about this shows just how deep this decline has been in civic associations, whether it's gunowner clubs, Bowling Alone is another really good example of this trend. So parties were never just standalone institutions. They also had this hinterland of other institutions they were connected to, and I think something like the Democratic Party on the Roosevelt lever in the Sixties had to answer to unions. It had to answer to African American organizations and that meant that it was a mass party by proxy. So even if it never had membership, it still had to function and move through politics in this typical mass way. So that actually pushes the U.S. and Europe much closer to each other. The other thing is, I think that the U.S. is still a distant mirror, follower of the trends we're seeing in Europe, in that the evisceration, or the decomposition, of mass politics also happened much faster and sooner there. I think it's really a product of the Seventie and the Eighties, there, that that civic landscape was wiped away, and it took slightly longer in Europe to arrive there. And what you indeed have today is this phenomenon which political scientists call "voter calcification," where people are ever more intensely polarized, their partisan allegiances are ever more strong. And that means that public and private, as you say, have melded once again. So your consumption choices, your sexual preferences, or the music you listen to, the cars you drive, all have a correlate on a political level. But it's very different from even the mass politics that American youth in the twentieth century, in that it's not accompanied by a revival of in associational activity. So in that sense, it's the perfect form of hyperpolitics I'm talking about, where intense melding of public and private, very heavy excitation about what partisan choices you make, but the sociological—and sorry, the sociological markers of party membership are actually very diffuse. So it's about consumption choices, it's about music you listen to, but those are all, like, private economic decisions, they don't actually entail a really long-term engagement. I think the two biggest upsurges of protest politics, both on the right and the left in last two years in the U.S. testify to this, where the BLM, George Floyd, protests of the summer of 2022, and the Capitol riot of January 6th, both give us this intensely frenetic form of political activity that immediately dissipates after. So they mobilize enormous amounts of people. In the case of the George Floyd protests, it was the largest protest in American history in numerical terms, but then one year later, nothing of it is left. And I think this is also a very good argument on why the hyperpolitical predicament, despite polarization, has also arrived in the United States.


Jonny Thakkar  34:20

Yeah, that's very interesting. So there's something about the lack of association and lack of long-term association. But at the same time, the notion of calcification clearly is also a kind of long-term notion as a kind of duration there, and there are these, you talked about family, so handing down the voting card from generation to generation. And, you know, that does seem to be the case, in the American case with, you know, party membership, at least to a large degree. People—or even there are these questions about whether you'd be happy for your child to marry a Democrat or this type of thing, it has become this kind of thing that is at least got the some of the kind of intergenerational components. So there just seems to be some kind of distinction anyway, between the purely one-issue, kind of, the sort of excitement around one given issue that kind of has an effervescence and bursts out and then sort of blows away and some kind of party belonging. And of course, you're right, that American parties are nothing like European parties in terms of their mode of being, fundamentally. But one interesting fact about America that never ceases to amuse me is that you actually have to, you don't have to, but you can choose, and many people do choose to register as one of these things officially. Like to, you know, to be a registered Republican or to be a registered Democrat. And this is one of the kind of key elements of politics here, once you've registered as this thing, you're not going to, you're not going to leave, you know, or it seems unlikely that you're going to vote for the other party regardless. So there are these, there are these phenomena that seem to be long term, and kind of persistent, rather than just sort of diffuse and kind of emerging and then disappearing, even though there's something in common between the two, in terms of, yeah, certainly evanescent ideology. But this feeling of belonging that that seems a little deeper than just kind of an issue-based feeling of the moment.


Anton Jäger  36:46

And I think there again, there are two contrasts even if there's a long term element to it, where: What does the party actually demand of you? What are the exit and entry costs, to put it in that game theory language? And there just registering is once again an extremely cheap and undemanding form of political affiliation, which really differs from being part of a mass association that then affiliates itself with a party or becoming a member of the Communist Party. If you became a member of the Communist Party, you were vetted, you had to engage in certain amounts of political work, there was a form of political schooling that was also imposed on you, while registering an affiliation and therefore being able to vote in primaries, I think, I should probably look at the numbers and what the likelihood is between registering and then voting for the party. That is a statistical question. But it's a very, I'd say low cost and undermining form politics, even compared to that mass component. The other point is that calcification goes hand in hand with another phenomenon that's much discussed in the last ten years, which is dealignment. So even though you have a hardening of partisan blocks, on both sides with ever more stronger partisan allegiance, there is a growing group of floating voters in the middle, or voters who historically were used to, for example, voting Democrat, who certainly in the last five years or, I'd say, since Trump in 2016, have now become far more fickle and volatile. So calcification and dealignment seem to be at odds. But if you see them through this hyperpolitical lens, sorry, then they suddenly make sense in that partisan allegiance grows, because the costs it imposes are not that enormous, while at the same time dealignment is also happening, and there's a growing group of voters who are much more capricious about the party they're going to vote for. And of course, also a growing group, for example, of working-class voters in certain flyover states, who have now comfortably switched from Democrats to Republicans.


Jonny Thakkar  38:50

Yeah, that's very interesting. So I'm also wondering, you know, there's a general worry you might have that intellectuals overestimate the importance of Twitter, and social media, because it's sort of their—the ocean in which they swim, but not the ocean in which most people swim. You know, it's, it's sort of made for people who feel that they're capable of articulating themselves fairly clearly and kind of enjoy fighting over words. You said this, I said that, and so on. And since I have not been on Twitter very much in the last couple of years, I feel that the world is less hyperpolitical than I think I did a couple of years ago. So I wonder to what extent, the phenomenology of this is the phenomenology of social media, really.


Anton Jäger  39:51

It's definitely a very big part of it. And I think you can refuse the move in which you collapse public debate into digital debate as such, and you see the digitalization of the public sphere as somehow irreversible. And so total that you can basically have a scroll on your timeline and have a perfect sense of what's happening in the world, where you have to be very clear that it's still a massive hall of mirrors, which requires a certain form of professional dedication, and a certain mental deformation, to commit yourself to it long term. That it is a mirror, but it's a distorting mirror. So the distorting mirror, of course, also has a feedback loop with reality in that even if Twitter I think only mobilizes one percent of the population, or the active users are a very minute set compared to the general population. There's two things to note about it. It is symptomatic, insofar as the fact that society produces this does tell us something about how politics is organized in that society. And certainly, given that a lot of post-politics hasn't ended yet, so it's not as if the distinction between public and private has been completely suspended. But an increasingly digitalized public sphere certainly populated by journalists does have privileged access to politics as such. So even if politicians are not connected to the real world on Twitter, they do think they're connected to something and they respond to it very heavily. So in that sense, it does have this simulation aspect to it, where even if it is not real, it has very real effects. And there, I think you need to take seriously that the public sphere is digitalizing to a moderate, but to a very important extent, just look at like Trump and how policy was conducted on this openly in Twitter-land. So even if not everyone's on Twitter, the President is on Twitter. And he's making announcements and making all kinds of claims about what he's going to be doing. And that does show that the digital, no matter how it's statistically small it is, has very concrete outsize effects, in that sense. And that is a very different claim from saying that it provides a perfect mirror, it's just to say that it is now a social forum that is asking an ever more, I'd say, having an ever more magnetic effect on the rest of society, even if it's small. It's a kind of black hole that sucks in all these other social phenomena. And you need to reckon with the political effects of that.


Jonny Thakkar  42:26

That seems absolutely right to me. One thing you mentioned just then was that the post-political isn't dead. And it occurs to me that we are, of course, no longer in the era of Trump as president. Right. We're in the era of Biden as president, and it's entirely possible that he has never used Twitter himself, I don't know. He probably calls it "the Twitter," or something, you know. And, you know, there is a sense in which, when I think, like I said—about hyperpolitics, I think of it as being a couple of years ago, like the George Floyd example, kind of, was the peak of it or something. And I think maybe because of my own autobiography in terms of the fact that I've sort of taken a bit of a step away from Twitter. But I wonder if it's also more of a collective phenomenon. I mean, we're in the, you know, we're in the Biden era, we're in the Sunak era, these these are, this is kind of—there's kind of return to the to the calm technocrat, you know, the era of competence and the era of politicians saying, "Actually, we don't want to be in your life every day, or even every week, you know, we don't want that. We don't want that sense that a decade is happening in a week. We want things to go slower, and actually to, to reach some kinds of stable solutions to certain problems, and just for politics to have a different role in the culture." So I don't think you're denying that, you know, you just said that post-politics hasn't gone away. I'm just wondering, do you think we might see a kind of—do you think that the description of the present would actually be something more like an oscillation between post-politics and hyperpolitics? Is that what it is to be in an era of hyperpolitics, to have a kind of stable resting state of post-politics? And then, but then to have these moments of hyperpolitics? Or is it more the case that hyperpolitics will gradually kind of supersede post-politics?


Anton Jäger  44:46

I don't think the latter option is likely anyway, partly because it's such an evanscent and impermanent form, it can hardly consolidate or render itself durable enough to actually remain. So it's always going to be hybrid, or it's going to be competing with these other forms in that all kinds of governance, as they call it, just simply can't happen on that basis. You can't have the political memory of a goldfish and actually run a society, in that sense. Sort of like, a public sphere that has no sense of itself, of remembering any of the previous battles it's fought is not going to reproduce itself. I'd say once again, it's a tendential analysis, so it's looking at one tendency amidst many others—I think what you saw with the twilight of mass politics in the Eighties and Seventies, is that there clearly was a moment in which post-politics and mass politics actually faced each other. And there was an open attempt—you certainly see this at the end of the Seventies. And the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet, has this very nice phrase about Thatcher and Reagan, where he says like, "it's a politics that ends politics." So it's a very active way of saying, like, "Let's delegate these decisions to technocrats. Let's get power out of the hands of the unions and these irresponsible spending politicians." And their you can see a sphere in which two forms are competing and one form actually wins. I don't think you'll see the same kind of contest between hyperpolitics and post-politics. I think they're also mutually constitutive in many ways. So hyperpolitics shares a lot of similarities with post-politics, in that it has real difficulty with talking about debates in terms of interests, rather than identities. It has a very weird relationship to the truth. The truth claims it makes are quite inflexible, and it has a different relationship to mobilization. But post-politics is not interested in mobilization; demobilization is its main project. And hyperpolitics is interested in mobilization, but it's not actually interested in rendering it more durable and that of course, suits post-politics fine, in many ways. And in that sense, of course, I think it's always very perilous once again, when social scientists try to predict the future is just… extrapolating from these tendencies, I just see coexistence rather than supersession as the most plausible scenario.


Jonny Thakkar  47:05

Yeah, that's interesting, because I was thinking about your narrative that I don't think you've said, so far in our conversation, but you, I mean, you've hinted at it, but you say it in the essay itself, which is that in post-politics, you have a kind of a division between political will formation and policy, which was always there, but the division now becomes the policy—sorry, will formation is done through kind of mediatization, PR companies, focus groups, this type of thing. And policy is done through a technocracy. So there's a kind of diremption between politics understood as will formation, collective will formation, and politics understood as policy, where more of the actual work of politics, in terms of shaping society is kind of out of the hands of the political public sphere, as normally understood, so depoliticized in a way, and I think you suggest that hyperpolitics is the kind of continuation of that, or it comes from an exacerbation of this, a kind of further diremption, if you like. Is that right?


Anton Jäger  48:28

Yeah. And I mentioned in the essay that I really tried to secure a continuity with the post-political age. So I don't want to present hyperpolitics as a return to something older, it's very much a child of its predecessor in that it owes so much to post-politics. And one of the main, I'd say, dilemmas or binaries in which it is stuck is that distinction between politics and policy. So what's very specific about mass politics is that it has a very clear, although sometimes authoritarian model, of how you move from politics to policy. So you have these institutions that aggregate individual needs and preferences, turn them into collective wills, and then you have a bureaucracy that executes the determined will, which is the task of a party basically. So the party aggregates all these individual wills, turns them into a collective will, almost in this Rousseauvian sense. And then you have a bureaucracy that just carries out the will. So you have the brain that wants something and then you have the hands that just act and are almost mechanical. What post-politics does is that it completely splits these two, and will formation is actually something that's delegated to the market. So there's no collective will formation anymore. The individual preferences remain purely individual and are never mediated into something more social. And they just restrict themselves to policy. So it's a form of policy without politics, where they say like, "Okay, all we have to do is make sure that the market runs smoothly. And that's just a technical question." Hyperpolitics is strange in that it seems to rebel against this separation, where it has an anti-technocratic bent or make certain claims in the redistribution of power. But it doesn't actually have a clear model on how you collectively aggregate individual wills into a collective will, and then translate into policy. So what often happens, and you very clearly see this in the terms of climate strikes, is that there's almost a paternalistic relationship to power where they march on a certain institution and say, like, "Do something, we're helpless, and we need this, please do something." And in the case of the climate marches you had in Belgium, there were even politicians marching in some of these climate marches. And then you had of course, a politician of climate action, then you have to ask yourself the question like, What the hell are you doing at this march? You're in charge. So why are you marching on your own institution? And this I think, exemplifies what we're talking about, is that the demand is not to rejoin politics and policy, but it's basically to do the hyperpolitics that never consolidates itself into one lasting, collective bundle of wills, then sort of sporadically and infrequently makes very strong claims on the policymaker,s who you presume to be in charge forever anyway. And in that sense, it's a radicalization of the split between politics and policy, that we saw in post-politics, rather than it is a closing or rejoining of those two components.


Jonny Thakkar  51:19

Yeah, so one thing that becomes crucial, obviously, in your account of the emergence of hyperpolitics, is 2008 and the financial crisis, but I was thinking that an instance of hyperpolitics in your sense might be what happened in 2003, in terms of the protests against the Iraq War, where, again, a huge number of people mobilized—"not in my name, we're gonna go and march and say this is this is not something that we agree with or endorse." It's a very clear moral cause, and a huge amount of solidarity that then kind of just dissipates. And it's not as if people take a massive interest in the fate of Fallujah, after 2003 to 2004, like many of the people who, in some ways, had acquired quite a lot of expertise about conditions in Iraq, through this sort of movement, just probably didn't think about Iraq much at all afterwards. And I was thinking about that. You know, what's the difference between that and Ukraine, and what's happened in the last year or so. They seem pretty similar to me in terms of a kind of efflorescence of passionate opposition to something that's happening, in the wider world, and therefore, I wonder whether you could view hyperpolitics differently if you take your paradigm cases as being the ones where international relations are at issue, precisely because we have so little control over international relations. So I remember when—this is a fairly minor instance, now in that in the history of things. But when Putin went into Georgia, quite briefly, there was a big kind of campaign against him doing that. And I remember being asked to sign a petition about this. And I remember thinking, "Well, I don't think Vladimir Putin is going to care about the results of this petition." You know, it just seemed to be like, so mismatched the means and the ends that it that it was comical. And, you know, people ought to have been able to see the comedy of doing it. In fact, you know, comedy would have been a better mechanism for expressing our sense of hopelessness here. And maybe that's particularly clear in these international cases. And it's just becoming clearer now. In the case, in the domestic case, where, for example, the chances that suddenly we can kind of overcome racism by having, you know, some protests for a summer, or the chances that we can reform policing, so, you know, and rebuild communities just by kind of protesting about it. That also looks like we're kind of realizing—or, you know, these movements peter out when we realized that we, there's no mechanism here for collective action, there's nothing that we can actually coherently do. And, you know, you might say the same is true with respect to capitalism more generally. That it just, it feels to people like there's no viable alternative on the horizon, or at least there's no way of working within the oligarchic system, such as it is, to kind of change things dramatically. And that makes me think of the Moishe Postone essay "History and Helplessness," and kind of an account of of agency as being massively constrained by by these kinds of structural forces like capital, and obviously, lots of other things. So I wonder if, if you account could be embedded in a broader account like Postone's, for example, and I know you wrote an obituary for him. So he's someone that you're interested in, as we have been, at The Point very much.


Anton Jäger  55:43

Yeah, I think that's still one of the greatest essays he wrote, I mean, really takeaway is that he's talking about a crisis of agency, mainly in a sort of economic or social sense. I'm looking at it in a more strictly political sense. But that's obviously not detached from economics as well. And I think, in other work I've tried to talk about this, how you understand the environment in which hyperpolitics grows as itself the product of a certain controlled demolition of the public sphere in the Eighties and Nineties, which was very much a result of the constraints that something like capital imposes on society. So the helplessness which I think hyperpolitics itself is an expression of because it's a desire for agency expressed in an inability to have agency, I think that's very clear. So you want collective will formation, you want a countervailing power to these impersonal forces that seem to steer your social world and your life, but it's very difficult and you don't seem to have the institutional tools at your disposal to actually construct it in the same way. In the Eighties and Nineties, there was a concerted effort to actually break the hold, certainly of a left-wing civil society but even have a right-wing civil society, if you look at how Thatcher treated her own race, because capital and labor had run into the stalemate in the Seventies. And if the pie was shrinking, there was a question who was going to shoulder the costs of that transition. And capital went on the offensive. But what it had to do for that is that it had to do this controlled demolition outside of the public sphere as such. So it's not just that, I mean, as you can see, there's a politics of crisis. And that turns into a crisis of politics. And that's what I'm trying to do in the book is not just given contemporary account of what hyperpolitics look like, but almost ask the causal question: What are the conditions of possibility for this to become plausible in the first place? And that is a story about partly the Volker shock, partly the neoliberal story we're quite familiar with, but making it much more broader and say, like, "Okay, here are these economic developments, what kind of political correlates do they actually have? What type of politics is possible in a world in which agency becomes so constrained after capital's offensive in the Seventies and Eighties?" And I think that also ties into the international relations questions you asked. I think 2003 is an interesting precedent. So as I said, it's a tendential analysis, so you're going to see early prefigurations of this, then there are just detonations or moments at which everything is catalyzed in such a perfect way. I think 2016 or 2020, after the George Floyd murder, are very good examples of this. But the crisis of agency, as you say, is particularly acute in something like foreign policy, because also in the U.S., it's the area of decision-making that's most shielded from popular pressure. So even unlike welfare or questions of economic policy, international relations, I think, as always been the most ademocratic or antidemocratic, antidemocratically managed part of the American state. So it invites expressions of helplessness, which can become hyperpolitical. I think what's different between 2003 and Ukraine, though, is the digital element. So the way solidarity can be signaled now, and it's a very cheap, and extremely accessible way, by just putting a flag in your Twitter handle by the suffusion of petitions and signaling of support. So I was in the U.S. during the winter, and you drive through rural parts of Maine, and suddenly you have Ukrainian flags hanging everywhere, it's a very curious way to signal, once again, a partisan identity. But it's quite different from 2003, in the sense that there are people actually having to take to the streets. And in the British case, you have things like the SWP and old Trotskyist parties that actually shouldered some of the organizational efforts, even if they left behind very little. But now the exit and entry costs of that type of solidarity have lowered even more. And I think that what makes it such a distinctly hyperpolitical war is that it—yes, it happens in a public sphere, which is quite different from the one we were used to at the time.


Jonny Thakkar  59:53

Yes, so you've mentioned economics there. And politics. Obviously, in the essay itself, you spent a lot of time on culture. It's one of the most noticeable things about the essay and I'm sure people who have read the essay and have been listening to this, will be thinking, "Well, when are we going to get to culture?" Because the essay is really structured around a series of photographs, novels, that depict these these shifts. And also philosophers. You know, so really, the structure of the narrative is wound around these different kinds of accounts of what it's like to live in these periods, what political subjectivity is viewed through typically, you do artists and novelists, but also philosophers, you mentioned, you called it an ethnography earlier. Can you say a little bit more about why you take that approach and what you think the advantages of that approach are?


Anton Jäger  1:01:03

I think part of the appeal or part of the reason to go towards culture when you talk about the Nineties, and this is why Adam Curtis's method has been so particularly appealing and effective, is that it's a very generous period for anecdotal summaries, it has all these extremely spicy nuggets, you can immediately latch on to which are almost prisms for an entire age. So what's very interesting with cultural products from the Nineties and 2000s is that they have this refractive quality where, suddenly, as singular entities, they still have this universal representative quality that's quite distinct. So in a few paragraphs, and with a few snapshots, you can actually evoke the spirit of an entire age in a very powerful way. The other demand is just that I—there are a lot of concepts in there, there is a lot of abstract theorizing or theorizing that might be seen as abstract. And I wanted to make it concrete from the beginning. I want to give people a sense of, experientially, what it was like to live through the period. And why this experiential shift we've been talking about requires conceptual explanation. Because I think a particularly bad academic habit is to just drop the concepts and then maybe get some of the empirical data involved. But I just wanted to say, "Well, let's actually take these hard contrasts between two photographs or two novels or two types of philosophies and see how they've changed." And if you actually treat them as expressions of what Fredric Jameson calls the political conscious—or unconscious, sorry—of a society, then you can see the shift in the art. Tillmanns can't make the same photographs he made in the Nineties. Houellebecq can't write the same novels, even Ernaux doesn't feel comfortable discussing her novels, or work, in the same terms. And in that sense, yes, because once again, the parameters of the art are always so intimately tied to the coordinates of a specific age, you have much easier access to what's actually happening than if you look at some of the more dry academic literature, or if you go for the purely anecdotal. These are also artists, which I think were also quite distinctly popular at the time. So I think in the book, I might talk a bit about David Foster Wallace, I might have to do some Bret Easton Ellis as well. Because they have a powerful plausibility to people who live in that age. I think there's, there are commercial reasons for their success. But there's also a historical reason why these works of art were seen as particularly expressive and representative at that time, and that means you just inevitably have to talk about them. And I think Jon Baskin put it very nicely, where he's like, it's not a question of politicizing the novels themselves or imposing a moral framework on them, but just reading them and asking yourself the question: What do they tell us about the age in which they were written?


Jonny Thakkar  1:04:08

So you might be accused by some people of, you know, leaving behind a kind of materialist approach that would be necessary to really grasp these phenomena. It doesn't seem to me like that's quite an accurate description of your position, I think. You know, you do have a materialist account in the background, and certainly in your other work on populism and so on, you've made that clear. It seems to me more like the way of putting what you're saying is actually that, even if you do have a kind of materialist account of the kind of large scale social and economic structures that are shaping political consciousness, and even if you recognize that those are doing the driving work, you think, I believe anyway—you seem to think that there's a kind of responsibility for an intellectual to think about culture as well, and to take seriously art and novels as a way of thinking through what it is to be alive today, or at any other period. And therefore grasping what these changes actually mean, at some level, would would that be right?


Anton Jäger  1:05:23

Yes, I think it's like building a house. So you need the foundation, but you can't live in a house that only has a foundation. So in the book, I'm going to have a chapter, hopefully, that has a far stronger, what you call a materialist etiology of the post-politics and hyperpolitics that we're talking about, which really talks about the political economy of the Seventies and Eighties. And how this concerted attack on civil society creates this "void," as the Irish political scientist Peter Mair called it, in which hyperpolitics then comes to flourish. But that is just one admittedly abstract and necessary level of analysis. But—and once you actually want to build a house in which a reader can live, so to speak, you actually eat a lot else, you need furnishing, you also need walls, you need all kinds of other constructions. And the nice thing about novels and certainly about photographs is that they operate on a level of concreteness, that is rhetorically very grateful. So it immediately conveys a certain sensibility that I think abstract concepts are not capable of, but at the same time, it also substantiates some of the more abstract points you make. So for example, when you say, like, "Oh, there's a separation between politics and policy." Well, that sounds interesting, but what does it actually look like in practice? Well, here are these examples of how politics and policy used to interact. "Oh, public and private have melded again." You say, "Okay, well, that's a big claim to make." And then you look at Eribon, you look at how he talks about his father in this memoir and see you have a direct quotidian example of what it meant to live in a heavily politicized private sphere. And that gives you the whole house rather than just the foundation in which you can feel slightly disarticulated.


Jonny Thakkar  1:07:06

Yeah. And that's why I think the essay works so well for The Point really, because that's something that we have very much tried to do to think about the way in which philosophical or literary or political ideas show up in the lived experience of us as individuals, and how they combine, really, to shape our experience. So I'd like to recommend everyone to who's listened to this to read the article, and to of course, read Anton's book when it comes out, as well as his forthcoming book on universal basic income, of course. And with that, we'll say goodbye.


Anton Jäger  1:07:53

Thank you so much.


Rachel Wiseman  1:07:55

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