The Activist's Argument (Everything is Political)
May 25, 2010
We quite frequently hear the argument that everything is political. Director Mike Leigh summed up this viewpoint neatly when he stated: “You can't not be political. It's like asking if I consider myself a human being.” I call this claim the Activist's Argument, because it is so often advanced to encourage people to be politically active. But in this role, it seems counter-productive – for if everything is political, why take political action? I argue here that the Activist Argument confuses political topics with politics and political action, and is fundamentally mistaken.
The idea that everything is political stems from the assumption that no matter what we do – or, for that matter, do not do – we make a political statement, and thus take political action of some kind. One aspect of this claim is certainly correct: anything at all can be a political topic, that is, a subject for political discussion. But qualifying as a topic for politics under this rubric, which is thoroughly all-inclusive and thus excludes nothing, cannot usefully lead to the conclusion that 'everything is political', for this would reduce the word 'political' to an empty tautology.
It's easy to show where this argument unravels. By the claim that everything is political, if I rummage around in the dustbins in my street I am taking a political action i.e. searching the trash is political. But foxes in my neighbourhood search through the rubbish for food quite often – so are foxes political? No-one advances this claim, but it follows logically from the Activist's Argument. We can therefore see, as Mike Leigh intimates in the quote above, that there is another tacit assumption in the argument, and that in full the Activist's Argument would have to be everything a human does is political.
But this surely gets us no further: what can a comatose woman in a persistent vegetative state, a man in the advanced stages of dementia or a sixth-month old foetus do that can plausibly be considered political? All of these we might reasonably consider human, but nothing they do is likely to qualify as political. Any one of these could be a political topic – in terms of living wills, euthanasia and abortion, all are certainly political topics. But anything at all can be a political topic – even flagrantly absurd things, like a Flat Earth or a circular triangle. If we conflate political topics and politics we shall be in a very confused space.
Hannah Arendt wrote that “politics is based on the fact of human plurality,” and saw politics as something that occurred in the public space between people living together. Politics in her eyes afforded, by its very nature, the possibility of action – and action, which includes speech, was to Arendt the incredible power of politics. The meaning of politics, she asserted, was freedom, and observed that (as a result of various distorting influences) it was hard to be sure in the modern world that politics had any meaning left at all. She noted with some despair that “the meaninglessness in which politics finds itself is evident from the fact that all individual political questions now end in an impasse.”
Speaking of the Greek polis as a political realm, she wrote that in this unique (albeit flawed) first attempt at politics as freedom:
...one gained the ability to truly see topics from various sides – that is, politically – with the result that people understood how to assume the many possible perspectives provided by the real world, from which one and the same topic can be regarded and in which each topic, despite its oneness, appears in a great diversity of views.
Seen in this way, the fact that anything could be a political topic no longer seems enough to render everything as political. Rather, only when the capacity to see those topics from a diversity of perspectives has been engaged can we reasonably consider politics to be competently in play. It is not enough for you to think or act in private for you to be considered political, you must share your views (or support other people's) in the public spaces, as it is only within these which politics as such can take place.
As for political action, Arendt held the mere possibility of action (that is, collective action) as something quite miraculous:
If, then, we expect miracles as a consequence of the impasse in which our world finds itself, such an expectation in no way banishes us from the political realm in its original sense. If the meaning of politics is freedom, that means that in this realm – and in no other – we do indeed have the right to expect miracles. Not because we superstitiously believe in miracles, but because human beings, whether or not they know it, as long as they can act, are capable of achieving, and constantly do achieve, the improbable and unpredictable.
What the activist hoping to spur people into politics might consider offering is not the empty circularity that “everything is political”, but rather the hopeful proposal that “everything political is achievable if we can agree to act together”. Let this be the new Activist's Argument. I for one hope for the miracle that I might actually hear this idea seriously advanced, rather than facing endless squabbles in the conspicuous absence of the open-minded discussion in public spaces that should be absolutely necessary for any political topic to meaningfully qualify as politics.
STRAW MAN ARGUMENT!
You are not a fox, neither is any other human being. You might as well have said that Mike Leigh's argument is false because ocean fish aren't interested the quality of our manicures. You are mixing up logical levels. Politics is about *human* relations. Foxes or other non-human opportunists are not relevant. (Ecology... now that's a real system theorist's game, but you are skipping that too)
The 'activist's argument' holds well enough because it demonstrates that if you do nothing (or do 'the usual thing', you are supporting the 'status quo', which is an entirely political (or rather ideological) act. This is quite true, and I challenge you to find an example (from Ms. Arhendt, perhaps) where doing nothing can be seen to be apolitical. The train driver who routinely ferried his human cargo to Auschwitz may well say that he acted apolitically, but we all know that this is not true. To not drive the train would have been politically significant, therefore it is significant that he drives the train 'as usual'.
This is what is meant by 'ideological consciousness'. Yes, Marx is out of fashion, but Zizek has demonstrated rather well that his concept of ideology (or R.A. Wilson's "Reality Tunnel" or Bateson's concept of 'Epistemology' - the relationship of world-view with sensorial reality) are entirely useful and absolutely political.
Posted by: Brennan Young | May 28, 2010 at 07:13 PM
Brennan: thanks for your challenge here, albeit melodramatically enjoined in all caps! :)
"Politics is about *human* relations. Foxes or other non-human opportunists are not relevant."
But *why* aren't they relevant? There is a tacit assumption here which I am attempting to challenge in this piece, and you buy into it straight away in your challenge. You assume that "political" and "human" go hand in hand... but then you must explain what the boundaries of "human" are to be, and why these boundaries are meaningful to assert in finding what is or is not political. If the fox is to be excluded, it cannot simply be because it is not human; there must be something humans do that foxes do not that creates the boundary of relevance here.
My argument looks like a straw man to you because you don't think the fox is relevant to the issue - but via the fox, and the other examples cited, I seek to show that there are assumptions at work in the Activist's Argument that need to be exposed before we can understand how we are using the term "political". I am assuming this term is a meaningful notion; if it just means something akin to "human", it is not independently meaningful, being merely a synonym for the activities of one species. But I don't think this is really how political gets its sense in our language. Do you?
The comatose woman is "human" - is she political? How? You challenge me for an example of apolitical nonaction, well, the woman in a coma is exactly that. Can you really advance an argument that she is political? And if not, and assuming you accept that she is a human, then something is wrong with the plumbing underneath the floorboards of the classic Activist's Argument.
I can suggest another perspective here. *When* did "everything become political for humans"? If we go back to, say, 200,000 years ago we have anatomical homo sapiens, and we can presume they are living in family units. Families very similar to those that other social mammals live in, such as meerkats and chimpanzees. So is "everything political" for these early humans? Because if it is, and assuming you accept my claim that these early humans are not in any fundamental way different from other communal mammals, then the justification criteria for "political" seems somehow to be *genetic* which would be very, very strange indeed, and would quickly unravel under scrutiny.
We have a choice, here, in whether to accept politics in a weaker sense as applying to other social mammals, or to insist upon politics in a stronger sense, in which it requires the discussion in public spaces (as suggested by Arendt) or some similar criteria. But if we take the strong sense (along Arendt's lines, at least), it still doesn't make all action into politics - all actions may be related in some way to political topics, and be in this sense political actions, but the strong sense of politics requires the public space for discussion first and foremost - it is this which gives us politics.
On this reading, a dictatorship in which the people simply went blindly along with what their tyrant ordered wouldn't be political either, at least not inherently. The people under a dictator would become political only when they began to talk together and work together towards certain ends (whether in support of, or in opposition of, the tyrant). Even if this activity is guaranteed to take place (and this is probably so!), this doesn't warrant using "politics" to describe absolutely *anything* that happens. This understanding of what we mean by "politics" seems to me to be more defensible than the view that "everything humans do is political because they are human", a view I do not find convincing. If you do, the onus is on you to mount a serious defence.
Your train driver argument doesn't cut the mustard, here; he is clearly acting politically - he is executing a political programme. It would equally be a political act to not drive the train in this instance. But either way, that doesn't make driving a train political. That train driving can be done as part of political action in some circumstances doesn't make train driving political, per se; it is precisely this connection that I am challenging here - the separation of what we mean by "political" from political actions. If a person has a private train in the grounds of their home that they run from electricity garnered from a windmill, is driving this train political? Why?
My claim (following Arendt) is that "political" must involve discussion in public spaces. Where there is not this possibility, nothing can be political. It is precisely because we as humans conduct this activity at all that it looks like "everything is political" for us; politics has become part of our background of understanding. But "Political" is not an adjective describing everything humans do (equivalent to, say, a term like "homanidine" or "humanish") and if it were the term would be next to useless. "Political" refers to politics - which goes on between humans via discussion of topics. Anything can be one of those topics, but that doesn't make just anything political by default.
What I am claiming is that the term "political" has meaning only with respect to a particular group living together. So if the early humans were political, it would be internal to their group - and if so, then the chimpanzees and meerkats are also political relative to their groups (these species both having social power relations, language use, personal relationships etc). The foxes in my example above are perhaps not considered to be a proper instance of politics *because they are not involved in any political process with us*. They can still potentially be political with each other in the weak sense, and if one claims otherwise then we have to identify what it is about politics that renders it so uniquely human. This process will not be as trivial as you seem to want to assume, although I have taken some steps towards it in this comment.
The "everything is political" argument makes a lot of presuppositions which I am not convinced by. A remote hill tribe living in balance with its local environment does not politically engage with me and my world of Western politics, even though it may engage politically on an internal level within the tribe. To simply say that everything a hill tribe member does "is political" doesn't really specify anything meaningful. If one wants to expand the domain of connection between humans to include, for instance, our sharing a common atmosphere, then we have to face the issue that non-human species which are political among themselves in the weak sense are also affected by and contribute to these same issues and in substantially the same way.
Put briefly, my general claim could be stated as "No communication, no politics."
I am tempted to say that politics as we understand it began with the city - which is, after all, the origin of the word "politics". Only when people began to live together in large numbers (a change facilitated in part by certain advances in language) did anything we can meaningfully call politics in the strong sense emerge. It emerged in Athenian democracy, but it also emerged in the Court of the Emperor of China and everywhere else civilisations occurred. When people live together, politics becomes necessary between them. But it does not happen automatically, and the boundary of the political is not, I claim, something to be defended at the level of a species but by identifying an activity we engage in which can be meaningfully called 'political'. I believe the most likely candidate is the communication we engage in whereby we exchange perspectives, but I welcome alternative viewpoints on this matter.
Posted by: Chris | June 03, 2010 at 09:12 AM
"What the activist hoping to spur people into politics might consider offering is not the empty circularity that “everything is political”, but rather the hopeful proposal that “everything political is achievable if we can agree to act together”."
Your proposal doesn't work on a t-shirt. The beauty of "Everything is Political" is it's empty circularity. It acts like a koan, setting thought in motion.
"Put briefly, my general claim could be stated as "No communication, no politics.""
To this I respond with a koan-like proposition from communication theory.
One cannot not communicate.
(Everything is political.)
Posted by: Rodger Levesque | June 03, 2010 at 06:19 PM
Rodger: thanks for your comment!
"One cannot not communicate."
Perhaps not, but one can communicate badly and communicate to few or many. So even if one cannot avoid communicating, one does have choices as to the degree of communication. Perhaps I should have said that politics requires more, not less communication. ;)
I particularly enjoyed your remark:
"Your proposal doesn't work on a t-shirt. The beauty of 'Everything is Political' is it's empty circularity. It acts like a koan, setting thought in motion."
What a beautiful way of looking at sound-bites, as modern koan!
Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!
Posted by: Chris | June 25, 2010 at 12:12 PM
I am lost on a desert island alone. I get really hungry and eat a pineapple that I find on a tree. Is this political?
Posted by: olivia | January 18, 2017 at 07:37 PM
It seems to me that someone would have a way of defending that as political, if such was their bent. :) But I fear your appeal to desert islands would go down about as well as my appeal to foxes.
Many thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | January 18, 2017 at 07:57 PM
I have been trying to come up with a succinct way to rebut the idea that "Everything is political" but I have had great difficulty in doing so. I confess that in endless discussions with people that declare it to be true, I feel rather frustrated as to me it feels like it is so incorrect almost to the point of offense.
Might there be some worth in describing what a world it would be like if that was the case? For example if all of my actions, even basic biological ones such as breathing are political, then every time I carry out such an action I would be performing political advocacy. Political advocacy usually justifies a political response. Such a world would have innumerable justifiable political responses to actions voluntary and involuntary - and would then become an insufferable world of pain.
I don't have a way to express that succinctly. Would love to hear your opinion.
Posted by: Stuart | November 17, 2018 at 02:09 AM
As you can see in the way I had to construct my argument here, it is difficult to rebut the "Everything is political" position because it is a tautology i.e. it is automatically true but entirely vacuous. But I do think the analysis in this piece broadly holds up.
I don't have a more elegant way of putting this together, but your idea to show that it leads to an absurd situation is a sound strategy. I like the way you develop this approach here, although I feel neither of us have a slam-dunk way of shutting down this kind of entrenched position - in those who espouse it, it is practically a dogma and therefore difficult to shake!
Thanks for raising this comment here! The woman who I wrote this for, Sheila, has sadly passed away in the years since, but it warms my heart to see something of her survive in the thrust of this piece.
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | December 05, 2018 at 07:58 PM
I've been thinking about this recently, and one observation I would make is that I think there's a (usually) unintentional sleight of hand going on. People who say "everything is political" usually think they are saying something profound despite the fact that, as you note, making that statement true requires defining terms in a way that make it pedestrian or outright tautological.
The thing is, nobody, including people who say "everything is political", use the term "political" in such a way *except when they are defending that statement*. It is generally a more ad hoc way to refer to issues in the contemporary public sphere (ish, since politics is also typically drawn to include matters of statecraft, even if they are entirely technocratic and scarcely register with the public), and in that context "everything is political" is quite radical. It's just also nonsense. But that doesn't stop you from saying it with respect to the implicit common-usage understanding, then retreating to the explicit but boring and obvious definition when they get pushback.
Posted by: Richard | July 30, 2019 at 02:53 AM
Your analysis here is sound: "everything is political" is wielded as rhetoric to incite action. I have some sympathy for that, in that political apathy is the norm, but as you say here (and I trace in different terms in this piece) the logic is questionable, and the whole thing rests upon using a special context of the term 'political' that nobody uses in practice. But this is one of the joyous things about language: we can find these tangential meanings and wield them as tools for our own ends.
Thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | August 01, 2019 at 07:48 AM
Hi Chris, I've been trying to come up with an extremely succinct way to show proponents of the everything is political argument my point of view. The best retort I've thought of is
"If you look at everything through a red lens, everything looks red."
I think it's a fitting enough pithy response. Because indeed some things in the world are just red when viewed with or without a lens, but almost everything isn't until you put the lens on. Hope that helps as a rhetorical device :)
Posted by: Stuart | January 14, 2020 at 07:39 PM
Pithy retorts are always challenging! I like your 'red lens' approach: it gets to the point rapidly, although whether it has impact on those who are locked into 'everything is political' is harder to say! I think for myself, I like Abraham Maslow's somewhat similar line: "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | January 19, 2020 at 06:32 AM
Everything is not political and being political is not part of being human. These statements are always asserted without evidence, and thus will always be dismissed without argument.
Posted by: God | December 04, 2021 at 03:11 AM
Hey God (guessing that's a pseudonym... :D),
If you'd like to expand your argument, I'd be glad to engage with you on it. It's not clear to me, however, that you actively desire any discussion here.
Either way, thanks for stopping by!
Posted by: Chris | January 05, 2022 at 12:10 PM
It's always been such a strange phrase to me, because even if you buy into it, there are some things we do as individuals that aren't inherently political. Is using the toilet a political action? If so, how? How about sleeping or dreaming? Eating, likewise, seems fairly apolitical. Sure, you could argue other things connected to these actions are political (the price of food, where said food comes from, plumbing, etc), but the actions in and of themselves aren't.
There are countless things we do because we're driven by baser desires and urges rather than for political reasons. A painting could have a political message, but it could just as equally have been created out of a desire to create and nothing more.
Trying to be apolitical could be political, but what if there was never a political motivation behind an action in the first place? Are we to believe that we do not know our own reasons for doing things, and must defer to the opinions of random strangers on just what the political message is behind our actions?
It seems to me that those that so often say that everything is political tend to be more authoritarian and manipulative in nature. I've rarely heard anyone who doesn't have an agenda, some ulterior motive, say such a thing.
Posted by: Cain | May 01, 2022 at 09:16 AM
It seems 'Nothing is political' is the tragic consequence of insisting that 'everything is political'. Those of us who are open to the concept of free citizens are increasingly becoming an endangered species.
Many thanks for your thoughtful comment here! This piece, now 12 years old, has been a hardy perennial, and I am always interested in new perspectives on it.
The examples you give are interesting cases because every single one of them has been made into a political topic, and thus while I would concur with your claim that we do not necessarily do them for political reasons, it strikes me as relevant that they can be made political easily. Environmentalists and trans activists make toilets into political issues; environmentalists (again) and vegans make food into political issues... there are many other examples. In saying this, I don't want to suggest these aren't legitimate political topics. They are. But it still strikes me that the thrust of this piece remains accurate: that the infinite scope of political topics isn't enough to bankroll the claim 'everything is political'.
Rereading this piece, I am struck by its insistence that for something to truly become political it must rise to the level of debate in the public spaces. After the last two years, we see that debate in the public spaces is being curtailed, with plans to institute further restrictions being layered on top. Rather than 'everything is political', we now face the worrying situation where soon 'nothing is political' because we are denied the freedom to discuss it in public. There is a real danger here: factional politics risks ending the political realm as it has been understood for at least the last century.
Aye, and this is why I call it 'the activist's argument'... and over the time since this piece was written, activism has become increasingly authoritarian in its methods and justifications. The irony being, as these authoritarian-leaning activists take over the means of public discourse, or curtail them through influence of the legacy media and controlling propagation of ideas in the social media, they are ending the realm of the political, understood in Arendt's terms as the space of political discourse.
As I said at the outset, it seems 'Nothing is political' now flows from the insistence that 'everything is political', and those of us who are open to the concept of free citizens who debate how to share power through democracy are becoming an endangered species.
Many, many thanks for your thoughtful comment! Please note that I am starting my Spring Social Media Break this week, so if you reply further it will be at least a month before I can get back to you.
With unlimited love and respect,
Posted by: Chris | May 03, 2022 at 07:42 AM
I appreciated this article and it set me on a nice journey thinking about Ancient Greece. It kind of seems like the expression "Everything is Political" is making the mistake of asserting that there is only the polis and as such its antonym is stasis. But that meant civil war.
So, I think your “everything political is achievable if we can agree to act together” is apt, as it does embody an opposition to the "stasis" as a conflict. I think the examination of the fox is particularly enlightening here as well, given that people who lived outside the polis were not seen as "fully human", as one could only reach their "full humanity" within the walls of the city. Aristotle taught that any man who lived outside a polis "must be either a beast or a god". It seems to me that, propped up on some classical notions, the Activist's Argument is actually a very narrow lens through which to view humanity. It is almost dehumanizing. It would certainly turn the woman in a coma into a political object.
And it also seems to gather quite a bit of Marxist steam, the idiocy of the country life- "dem Idiotismus des Landlebens entrissen" (which must apparently be a form of stasis, because I guess if you're not with the polis you're against it), the absolute rejection of anything spiritual (which would also I guess be stasis). But this is all very silly. If we take a moment to think about idiocy-- "Idiot is a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs ("person lacking professional skill", "a private citizen", "individual"), from ἴδιος, idios ("private", "one's own")" we actually get something quite interesting. I like Marx, don't get me wrong, but it seems like what's happening with the Activist Argument-- the weird plumbing-- is that it takes anything that was private and personal and makes it property of the public; you do not have anything which is yours alone.
I don't know if I am going anywhere with this, but I thought I'd share my thoughts and thank you for yours.
Posted by: Matt | March 02, 2023 at 01:02 AM
For a piece that is more than a decade old, this essay has had a remarkable afterlife, and attracts thoughtful interjections from time to time - yours is especially welcome.
"It kind of seems like the expression 'Everything is Political' is making the mistake of asserting that there is only the polis and as such its antonym is stasis. But that meant civil war."
A brilliant observation! Of course, the reason the ancient Greeks were able to segregate the polis from other aspects of life was that there was a domestic world that was kept largely private from everyone else. Hannah Arendt writes about this point, as I recall. I wonder if one of the costs of recontextualising life around the individual was that this domestic world ceased to have force, because it was no longer a group of people with their own shared way of life and without that community it became essentially invisible.
"I like Marx, don't get me wrong, but it seems like what's happening with the Activist Argument-- the weird plumbing-- is that it takes anything that was private and personal and makes it property of the public; you do not have anything which is yours alone."
I am neutral on Marx. He is a brilliant economist, but he is still ultimately an economist, and I am a sceptic that economics is a science rather than, say, hermeneutics. But I agree with your remark here - the attempt to make everything political is the attempt to destroy the private realm. Indeed, the collapse of our human rights agreements in recent years shows that this is precisely what has already happened.
"I don't know if I am going anywhere with this, but I thought I'd share my thoughts and thank you for yours."
And it is truly appreciated! A good ramble is always welcome. If you ever happen to read this comment, I would also welcome you joining the journey at Stranger Worlds. Although only 'paid' subscribers can comment there, I am willing to set any rate for the cost of subscriptions, and am open to barter for them as well.
Either way, I truly thank you for this thoughtful reflection.
Posted by: Chris | April 01, 2023 at 10:01 AM