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.