July 15th, 2006


Get political? We already are!

Click Opera -- although it does frequently mention issues like sustainability, inequality, and urbanism -- could be reproached for passing without comment over the major "political" developments of our time, as newspapers might define that word. No discussion of the recent Mumbai bombings, no mention of Israel's incursion into Lebanon or the effect of that conflict on the price of oil, no G8 talk, no speculation on when Tony Blair will step down. In newspaper terms, this blog is deep in the culture pages; as far from page one news as from the sports section. Today I want to mount a double-pronged defense of that -- hey, oxymoron! -- non-political policy. I want to argue two things: that it's okay to avoid politics, but also that avoiding politics is simply politics of another kind.

The first thing I'll say is that, as an ex-satirist, I know the danger of satire. Satire ties you in to your enemies, puts you on the same page as them. If I tied my intellectual agenda to the latest bomb explosion or military incursion, even to decry them and call for restraint (as if terrorists and generals would be listening, anyway!), I'd basically let hate and aggression come to dominate my worldview. And it's likely that, subconsciously, whatever my "high moral ground" position on these events would be, a little part of me would be secretly thrilled to be where the action is, and secretly delighted every time some spectacularly violent escalation took place, just as a satirist is when the people he attacks do something which shows them at their most ludicrous, hateful and stereotypical.

Secondly, I think that the object of (the best) politics is the disappearance of (the worst) politics. In classic Marxist theory, for instance, the state is eventually supposed to wither away. Engels wrote: "As soon as there is no longer any class of society to be held in subjection; as soon as, along with class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the former anarchy of production, the collisions and excesses arising from these have also been abolished, there is nothing more to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary." (Lenin, of course, disagreed somewhat.)

But thirdly, I think that the things I talk about are a form of politics. I would never abandon, for instance, communicating the joy I feel visiting a sound installations exhibition, because that would be abandoning a certain vision of an experimental, creative world, a utopian vision. I had a thought the other day: that the "future" has turned out rather disappointing, compared with how I imagined it was going to be, mainly because of the conservatism of people, their refusal to embrace new forms of living. But that the excitement I got from imagining what the future would be like corresponds much better with the excitement I now get from art and culture, where a much more progressive, playful and experimental mindset prevails. And I really do consider what goes on in this zone to be a kind of brainstorming on behalf of the whole world, a "what if?" exercise that's immensely important.

Fourthly, there is a politics of texture, colour and shape. I would, for instance, consider the way I choose to dress or decorate my house much more important than the fact that I get to vote every four or five years in a national election, and get "represented" by one of two politicians with pathetically unimaginative ways of seeing life. The "stateless" way I live is already post-national. I say "already" as if we're all one day going to be post-national. I'm not sure if that's the case, but I know that it's the way I live now, and I'd consider it a good aspiration for the world. (Of course, Al Qaeda could also be said to be "post-national".)

Lastly, I want to talk about Japan. Commentators on Japan often complain about the political apathy of Japanese youth, and it's true that the feel of the country is "post-political" (no wonder it was a Japanese who coined the phrase "the end of history" -- before history, in the form of 9/11, made a mockery of the whole idea). I must say I've been very seduced by the non-contentious nature of life in Japan, but I don't think it's non-political at all. The Japan I know (and I freely admit I don't know any yakuza or politicians or corporate bigwigs) is committed to peace, environmentalism, equality, animal welfare. It's also committed to quality of life issues, textural issues and technological innovation. If politics is more about doing than voting, more about virtuous habitus than hatred and debate, then Japan is politically exemplary.

The photos in this entry are of cafes linked by Tokyo Cafe Mania. The link comes, naturally, via Jean Snow's blog. Now, people who read both Jean Snow and Marxy, asked which is the more politically progressive, might be tempted to say "Marxy, of course! Jean never writes anything about politics! Marxy's always talking about rising nationalism in Japan, analysing the limitations of Japan's likely next prime minister, or tracing the influence of the yakuza." But I'm not so sure it's that clear-cut. Jean Snow not only blogs about Japan in a much more Japanese style than Marxy does (in itself a political gesture), he's even a bit of an organiser and agitator: he's started a series of regular discussions at Cafe Pause. Like keeping a curbside garden, setting up a friendly LOHAS cafe, or caring for an injured cat, this is a political act. Jean's site is also filled to the brim with information about the doings of Japan's most progressive artists, architects and designers -- in other words, he's paying attention to the best elements of Japanese society, not the worst ones. This "textural intelligentsia" -- rather than the fusty political class -- is the likeliest source of progress in Japanese society. Hell, in any society.

Takashi Murakami declared, when he launched his Little Boy exhibition at the Japan Society in New York last year, that Japan had been infantilized by American domination since World War II, stripped of a political role. Whether you agree with that depends, of course, on what you feel about childhood. It's either a form of castrated adulthood -- or it's way ahead, a time when we're at our most free and creative. To act like a child is not to act non-politically.

Tony Blair told his colleagues recently: "If you want to own the next generation of politics, you've got to own the next generation of ideas." I wonder if it's occurred to Blair that the next generation of ideas might not have much use for the definition of politics -- and the political class -- he represents?