About this book

Why doing?

There seems to be, in the case of political studies, no less than with other social sciences, a reluctance to develop the notion of politics as what we experience it directly to be, as a mode of doing.

Tom Burns, ‘Micropolitics’, 1961

The development of the social scientific disciplines in the course of the twentieth century found little room for the study of politics as a human, social activity. This was in part because political science left it to sociology, and sociology left it to politics. It was perhaps in part, too, because people sought explanations for what goes on in other, bigger things, such as class and the structure of the state, or party and electoral systems. And it may have been because they thought there was nothing to see, and so nothing to explain: people on the streets, in town halls, in parliaments and international organizations were there to do politics, but they weren’t politics itself. Politics was not the talking, but what we talk about; politics was not the meeting, but the reason for meeting and what happened as a result.

When we teach politics, we talk about political institutions, international relations, public policy and political theory. But when we see politics – whether in the media or in the world around us – we see people doing all sorts of things: marching and shouting, chanting, occupying, organizing and campaigning, meeting and talking, debating and speech-making, reading and writing. And all this activity seems only heightened by austerity, as a new engagement in politics is expressed in public demonstrations of new and radical kinds, in referenda and associated discussion, in the formation of new parties, in an urge to ‘do politics differently’.

I want to see politics differently. I have an idea that much of the significance of politics is in all this doing, in its process as much as or as well as its outcome. I don’t want to say that we should do anything less than we’ve always done, let alone suggest that class and policy and federalism are any less important than we thought. I do want to say there’s something else we’ve always known but somehow always contrived to miss, which is that politics is a specific mode or domain of human activity and that its terms and conditions, the vocabulary and grammar of its doings and sayings, are worthy of attention in their own right.

Doing what?

Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He puts his fur coat on afterwards and sits hunched there in white kid gloves. Two cups of black coffee he has, with chunks of sugar. Yet in his talk there is no affectation. He asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the Committees work? I say, ‘Well, we generally meet at 10.0, there are secretaries behind…’ ‘No, no, you’re going too fast. Start again. You take the Delegation car. You get out at the Quai d’Orsay. You go up the stairs. You enter the room. And then? The detail, sir, give me the detail’. So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time. ‘The detail, good sir, don’t go too fast.’

Harold Nicolson, Peacemaking, 1919 (1933)

So who does what, where, how? Where’s the action? People doing politics begins to explore the political worlds of the activist, the public official and the elected representative in turn, and does so by means of ethnographic case studies, examples, vignettes and day-in-the-life reports. These figures and their worlds recur throughout the book: none is a type, but a set of singular expressions. They are ultimately if loosely derived from Easton’s model of the political system, allowing us access to politics outside the state, inside the state and in translating between the two. Their various doings and sayings give cause to think not just about what politics is, but about what doing politics entails.

Thinking writing doing stops to ask why politics should be embedded in human action, and why that action should be political. It begins with Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the origins of politics in human plurality, interaction and speech, and turns then to Erving Goffman for a corollary empirical sociology of the encounter, the ‘definition of the situation’ and the idea of performance. It notes the sense of uncertainty intrinsic to action and interaction as well as its fragmentary, episodic phenomenology. It follows from this that writing about doing might work other than in linear, continuous prose, several thousand words at a time. Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Arcades Project serve as prototypes of writing as collecting and putting together materials of different kinds, and doing so in such a way that they might collectively reflect and illuminate the topic at hand, as well as enrol the reader in that work.

Meeting takes up the ideas of plurality and interaction which make gatherings and meetings central to politics. The gathering refers to greater numbers of people coming together, and this being together is essential to their identity and purpose; the group, the mass and the crowd are politically significant by virtue of their very existence. The meeting, by contrast, is purposively constructed as an occasion for politics and policy making, its time and place predefined, its ostensible purpose and its modus operandi known in advance to its prospective participants. A third kind of interaction, meanwhile, the encounter, refers to the occasional, ephemeral exchange which takes place between individuals. Three themes resonate across all three forms: the construction and recognition of the collective entity, the function of communicative exchange, and the validation and legitimation of the form in which it takes place.

To the extent that gathering and meeting are central to – constitutive of – politics, then it is talking which is central to both. Politics has a standard repertoire of ‘forms of talk’: we think perhaps first of the speech, of the more recent importance of the media interview, and of widely varying kinds of group discussion. These suggest a basic distinction between monologic, dialogic and polyvocal modes of interaction. Forms of ‘enhanced speech’ include the PowerPoint presentation and the collective experience of song. There remains its counterpoint, which is silence.

We really do not know what politics is, where it begins and ends, or how its micro-events should be called.

Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 2018

Where there is talk, there is also invariably also a text of some kind. Gatherings and meetings are realised in writing as words and numbers, images and ideas are written down, marked up and put into motion in order to be interrogated and interpreted. Documents are the prompts, results and substance of interactions in meetings, which is to say they are the artefacts around which much politics is done. They make collective action – collaboration and coordination – possible: the document does politics in establishing, stabilising and mobilising the social relations of the meeting, and the situation it both comprises and confronts.

Human action, meanwhile, is also always and necessarily grounded in human bodies, single and multiple, able and vulnerable. The body is the vehicle of expression in posture and gesture, as well as of experience in its physiology and its senses; embodied emotion is a core constituent of political motivation.

The spaces in which politics is done are both centred and bounded, as well as symbolically significant, and the ways in which they are each of these things have political effects. Gathering and meeting take place in specific locations, organised in specific ways and conducive or otherwise to specific forms of embodied doing and saying. These spaces may be open or closed, and creating and crossing boundaries between them are basic forms of political action.

The physical, worldly in-between along with its interests is overlaid and, as it were, overgrown with an altogether different in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origins exclusively to men’s acting and speaking directly to one another.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958

The faqs reflect on the implications of thinking (and writing) about politics in this way. The first is to recognise that it is grounded in human action: embodied by men and women, enacted in gathering and meeting, talking and writing, and situated in specific times and places. The second is to ask whether this should make us think differently, or perhaps just think again, about the nature and definition of politics. It goes on to address the standard challenge to a conception of politics based in human action, namely that politics is determined by constellations of forces – typically ideas, interests and institutions – far above and beyond the doings and sayings of individuals. It accepts that may be right, but argues that meeting remains where the action is: it is in thinking about gathering and meeting and the terms and conditions under which it takes place that we might understand and assess the operations of structure and power. For action may be shaped by structure and power, but it is never wholly determined by them. Politics bounces and ripples from one gathering and one meeting to the next, from one document or report to another. The account of the world each produces can be no more than provisional, subject to confirmation, contestation and reinterpretation by others, in successive meetings and subsequent reports. Politics, in this view, has a wave form, which is, in part, why it is always unfinished, and why those who do politics find themselves eternally in-between, putting things together.

The text

I’ve wanted to write about what it is people do when they do politics, and I take it as axiomatic that such doing is disparate, diverse and widely distributed. Politics consists in many different people doing different things, in different places and at different times, sometimes but not always in relation to each other. More, I think this is the principal and essential experience of those who themselves do politics: they know and feel that their action is no more than a punctual intervention in the social fabric, just one among uncountably many others; any one action is complemented or contradicted, made possible, meaningful or redundant by others past, future and concurrent of which its protagonists may or may not be aware. Action is always unfinished, happens both here and now and elsewhere, in some other time and place.

How might we write about politics in a way that is true to this way of knowing? Doing so probably means writing differently: about the real, the actual and physical, the empirical, concrete and often mundane; in fragments and episodes, in variety; in some sort of order, in sections and sequences, but not in straight lines.

What I really wish to work out is a science of singularity; that is to say, a science of the relationship that links everyday pursuits to particular circumstances…. [this analysis] will only be assisted in leading readers to uncover for themselves, in their own situation, their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984

Some of the material used and presented here is ‘primary’, snatched directly from interviews, excerpted from documents. Most of it is ethnographic, written or said by someone who was ‘there ‘and who wants to take us there, who wants us to know what it was like in all its telling detail, who wants to capture its mood and what it meant. These are accounts of actions, not actions themselves, which remain inaccessible; the account is a version, an understanding and an attempt to communicate that understanding. My accounts are versions of these initial accounts: like Benjamin’s, derivative, mediated and necessarily so. The effect of putting them together is to create a ‘patchwork ethnography’, or perhaps ‘meta-ethnography’.

Part of my argument is that this is how we know and do politics, in sequences and series of actions, episodically, on the basis of accounts and reports, in attempts to make sense of what’s going on. We may use digital media but we are still in Plato’s cave, watching shadows of figures, including ourselves, thrown by a fire onto a wall.

Another part of it has to do with something like ‘metapolitics’. In literary theory, ‘metafiction’ refers to those elements of a novel or other work which reveal or acknowledge its status as a work of art, which remind the reader of its unreality. Metapolitics, then, might mean a different but equally essential element of the politics of politics, that is the politics of (the production of) accounts of politics: their objects and assumptions, and the forms they take. If there is something we call historiography, the study of ways of writing about history, should there not also be a ‘politography’, a concern with how we write about politics, and how we should? Do we not need a ‘politographical imagination’, as interested in the representation of politics as in the politics of representation? For aesthetics is also politics, as Benjamin knew.

Above all, do not attempt to be exhaustive.

Roland Barthes

This is a book about doing, but it is neither manual nor manifesto: it explains neither ‘how to do it’, nor (in Lenin’s words) ‘what is to be done’. It’s about what is being done when politics is done, about what people do in acting politically. It is based in a different set of assumptions about knowledge and communication, learning and action, that is in a different pedagogy to those of the manual or the manifesto. It is meant as a resource, to give the reader – whether or not he or she ‘does politics’ – something to think with. It does so by way of showing (and sometimes telling) what William James might have called the varieties of political experience, and inviting the reader to do the rest – which is whatever is useful, or interesting, or meaningful, to him or her. And it does this in the form of an open and unfinished text, like Benjamin’s, one which requires completion, like other kinds of action or doing.

So my book is also ‘doing politics’. It’s perhaps a ‘writing project’ as much as a book. This is my demonstration; a multigraph rather than a monograph; threads rather than a line; a framework, which is frame as well as or as much as structure, a delineation and definition of a space at which to look.

Eyewitness accounts of the ‘lived experience’ of politics look like this…

The text itself is made of four elements: (i) case material, taken mostly from ethnographic or practitioner accounts, meaning that it was written by ‘those who were there’, who saw or took part in whatever it is they’re trying to describe. It has a raw validity, expressed in a font which mimics a manual typewriter. It is interspersed with (ii) sociological and other generic and sometimes theoretical statements, often but not always taken from seminal works, chosen to offer a way of thinking about the topic at hand, and set in a classic font.

and theoretical and sociological statements look like this.

An abbreviated source (author, title and date) is given for each element in the text as it appears; full references appear in notes at the bottom of each page. Dates given in the text are those of original publication. There are also (iii) a number of photographs and other images, themselves accounts of the actions they depict and asking to be actively read and explained: they are intended to serve as resources for the discussion rather than simple illustrations of it. And then there is a further element of (iv) authorial direction and commentary, set in a standard wordprocessing font on the left of the page, just like this. No single element should take precedence over any of the others; they are juxtaposed in order to work with and sometimes against each other: they interact, and achieve their effect in doing so.

These various elements are grouped together and placed in some kind of order, but that’s not to pretend that politics could ever generate anything like a Periodic Table. Different chapters and sections within them may just as well be read out of sequence, from back to front and inside out, like a magazine. I’ve written this book the way I wanted to, and you should read it the way you want to.

Richard Freeman
December 2020