Poststructuralism and radical politics
Author: Saul Newman

How do we think about radical politics today, in the wake of the collapse of Marxist-Leninism and the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism? How should radical political theory respond to new challenges posed by globalisation, postmodernity, the ‘war on terror’ and the rise of religious fundamentalism? How are we to take account of the new social movements and political struggles appearing on the global horizon? In addressing these questions, this book explores the theme of universality and its place in radical political theory. It argues that both Marxist politics of class struggle and the postmodern politics of difference have reached their historical and political limits, and that what is needed is a new approach to universality, a new way of thinking about collective politics. By exploring various themes and ideas within poststructuralist and post-Marxist theory, the book develops a new approach to universality — one that has implications for politics today, particularly on questions of power, subjectivity, ethics and democracy. In so doing, it engages in debates with thinkers such as Laclau, Žižek, Badiou and Rancière over the future of radical politics. The book also applies theoretical insights to contemporary events such as the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement, the ‘war on terrorism’, the rise of anti-immigrant racism and the nihilistic violence that lurks at the margins of the political.

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Saul Newman

What is the future for radical politics in an age that proclaims itself to be not only post-ideological but post-political as well? There are three fundamental and, in some ways, contradictory conditions that radical political theory must contend with today: the so-called ‘war on terror’, the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, and the stifling atmosphere of consensus and centrism that so dominates modern democratic politics. This book examines and critically appraises the ideas of a number of key thinkers, including Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who have all had a strong impact on radical political theory and represent a broad range of theoretical perspectives such as poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, post-Marxism, and autonomism. It discusses the points of intersection and divergence amongst these various thinkers on questions that are central to radical political theory today: power and ideology, subjectivity, ethics, democracy and collective action. Forming a background to these debates and issues will be the question of universality, and the extent to which these various interventions allow for some sort of universal, emancipative dimension to be realised.

in Unstable universalities
Saul Newman

This chapter outlines some of the characteristics of the ‘postmodern condition’ as defined by Jean-François Lyotard. The cultural condition of postmodernity, which emerges with late capitalism, has led to a dislocation of our accepted political reality. Instead of the universal discourses and ‘metanarratives’ of the past, which were founded on the rational certainties of the Enlightenment, there is a severing of the social bond and a general sense of fragmentation in the fields of knowledge, culture, and social relations. This chapter examines the two main responses to the decline of the metanarrative: the ‘foundationalist’ approach, exemplified by Jürgen Habermas, and the anti-foundationalist or broadly termed ‘poststructuralist’ strategy, which seeks to question these foundations. It also examines nihilism, poststructuralism, universality and the role it plays in radical politics.

in Unstable universalities
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Saul Newman

Postmodernity, as a logic of differentiation, heterogeneity, and flux not only gives impetus to new struggles of emancipation, but, perversely, also defines a new field of power and domination which these struggles must contend with. The question of power has always been central to radical politics. This chapter examines the concept of power, arguing that an understanding of modern power relationships and the new forms of ‘postmodern’ social control and surveillance that are emerging today — particularly in the ‘war on terror’ — is vital to the development of new radical political strategies. It takes as its point of departure Michel Foucault's notion of power, whose general focus on ‘micro-political’ relations tends to imply a kind of localised politics of resistance and, moreover, neglects to some extent the ‘broader picture’ of political domination, including the problem of state sovereignty itself. Finally, the chapter considers the ‘micro-physics’ of power, war and biopolitics, the sovereign state of exception, and the global ‘security’ state.

in Unstable universalities
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Saul Newman

This chapter takes as its point of departure the condition of the subject under power, exploring the problem of self-domination or self-subjection: the way that the subject, rather than simply being coerced or repressed, often willingly conforms to the very identities and subject ‘positions’ that have been constructed for him. This creates certain problems for radical politics, however: there is no longer a universal human subject to be emancipated or a completely autonomous conception of human agency. The chapter explores a number of different responses to this crisis of the ‘death of Man’: Michel Foucault's strategies of self-mastery and autonomy through the ethic of ‘care’; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's attack on Oedipal subjectivity, and their Nietzschean dispersal of the very category of subject into a multitude of forces, potentialities and moments of flux. Using Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the chapter tries to develop a new understanding of political subjectification — one that involves at the same time a rupturing of existing identities and subject positions.

in Unstable universalities
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Saul Newman

In examining the conditions for radical political subjectification, one inevitably encounters the question of ethics: to what extent should radical politics be guided by a notion of ethics? This chapter examines the place of ethics in radical politics today, suggesting that the postmodern condition is characterised, on the one hand, by the breakdown of the Kantian notions of ethics, and on the other, by the uncanny return of conservative ‘values’ and moral fundamentalism. Moreover, ethics today increasingly takes the form of an ideology which is perpetuated by different institutions, and often serves as a guise for political domination and Western imperialism. It is therefore necessary to chart a course here between these simulacra, and develop a new radical politico-ethics. The chapter considers various contemporary approaches to the question of ethics: Jürgen Habermas' notion of ‘discourse ethics’; Jean-François Lyotard's ethics of incommensurability; Richard Rorty's liberal ethics of ‘postmodern irony’; Jacques Lacan's ethics of psychoanalysis; and Jacques Derrida's ethics of deconstruction.

in Unstable universalities
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Saul Newman

This chapter explores the crisis of democracy today — the way that, in the conditions of the ‘war on terror’ and with the ideological consensus that has emerged around the ‘free market’ and ‘security’, the term ‘democracy’ has become largely meaningless. However, rather than simply abandoning democracy, it suggests that democracy contains a radical and emancipative potential that can be reactivated today. It considers a number of different attempts to revive democracy: William Connolly's democratic ethos of pluralism; Jürgen Habermas' and Seyla Benhabib's notions of ‘deliberative democracy’; Claude Lefort's concept of the democratic revolution; and Chantal Mouffe's pluralistic approach to radical democracy. In pointing out the benefits and limitations of these different approaches, the chapter concludes that for democracy to be taken seriously today — for its principle of liberty and equality to be realised — then it must be detached from the concept of state sovereignty. It also discusses postmodernity, the desirability of the democratic consensus, democracy without foundations, and the link between democracy and globalisation.

in Unstable universalities
Saul Newman

This chapter examines the conditions for radical politics today against the background of a rapacious globalising capitalism and an increasingly aggressive and authoritarian state sovereignty. Taking postmodernity as its theoretical background, and globalisation as its political background, it explores the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. It argues that the movement highlights new forms of political practice and articulation, as well as a new relationship to political identity. Moreover, in taking global anti-capitalism as its political and ethical horizon, it shows how this movement can be seen as an expression of a new form of political universality, one that can be understood through a poststructuralist ‘paradigm’. The chapter contends that poststructuralism, rather than Marxism and liberal pluralism, would be the most appropriate ‘prism’ through which to view the movement. The chapter also explores the link between the new radical politics and anarchism.

in Unstable universalities