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Krips: For me, the political is giving a voice to the part that has no part; it’s making visible the parts that go unseen. If I have a problem with [Senator] Barack Obama, it’s that his campaign is not political in this sense. He’s only playing to those who are already fully visible on the political scene – to those who already have a vote, a say in what’s happening.

If one thinks of a society as the people who work for and reproduce the means of production within that society, then the US extends to the sweatshops in Malaysia and China, the reservoir of Mexican workers across/crossing our borders, and so on. These constitute parts of American society that are invisible, but parts nonetheless in the sense that they are essential to the US economy. If I look at Obama’s – or for that matter [Senator] John McCain’s – platform then, except for occasional negative rhetoric about ‘strengthening our borders,’ I see little constructive recognition of these new global realities that extend US society beyond its shores. In particular I see no recognition that the traditional nation-state with fixed geographical borders no longer constitutes the central political entity. The only sign of such recognition is in connection with ecology issues, which all the candidates, whether on the left or right, have hooked onto in interesting ways.
"The traditional nation-state with fixed geographical borders no longer constitutes the central political entity." –KRIPS
In short, what gives me reservations about seeing Obama’s campaign as a bona fide political campaign is a feeling that in the end, if somebody pushes him on issues like sweatshops in Malaysia, he’s going to say we need to bring American jobs home. Indeed, to be realistic, can any candidate for public office say anything else in the current state of American public opinion? But I’d like to get your reaction to these arguments.

Merolla: You know, conceptually I’m having a hard time understanding what you mean by political. Is that what politics should be? Because I tend to study, empirically, the incentives of politicians.

Political leaders may have incentives to appeal to citizens in certain ways: one reason voters do focus on these CEO-like things is because citizens like to use those types of information shortcuts in the voting booth. It’s a very complicated process otherwise. And so in that sense you’re dead right, there’s no way that they’re going to have the incentives to talk about those important issues.

Krips: I think the humanities perspective is interestingly different. You define politics as what people call politics, and that’s an empirical matter. You look at what was called politics in the nineteenth century, and what was called politics in the twentieth century, and then look at what passes under the label of politics here and now. I take those sorts of empirical matters to be about how language is used, in particular how the term politics is used. It’s a valid thing to study, but not my interest. What a humanities perspective is going to bring – and I feel very vulnerable in saying this because I’m the only humanities person here (laughter) – is a critical, prescriptive edge to the question of politics. A humanities person is going to say that the definition of the term politics is itself a political matter, essentially contested, and prescriptive. This, in turn, raises the possibility that, although we keep on using the same term politics, perhaps politics as such has disappeared. People keep on using the same word, but the thrust behind the political has vanished, and we should therefore ask the political question: ought we to be doing something different under the label of politics?

To be specific, I take a political stand that the political is/should be about looking at the invisible – the people who have no part – and then giving them a part. I’m not making the utopian claim that you can have a society where there are no exclusions. On the contrary, I agree that in every society there are exclusions at some point. But let’s return to that point later.

Schroedel: Other societies have way more exclusions than we have.

Krips: I agree. But that’s not the point. My claim is that the question of the political can, indeed should, be raised whenever one comes across some localized exclusion – a segregated work force in a factory, an all-male board of directors, etc. – and that politics is about the local activity of eliminating that exclusion, albeit – and this is an important qualification – without necessarily trying to make a difference globally. Saul Alinsky has a wonderful phrase –

Uhlmann: [Senator] Hillary Clinton’s tutor you mean.

Krips: I didn’t know that.

Uhlmann: She did her senior thesis at Wellesley on him. Yes, in fact, if you look between the lines of her rhetoric you will see all sorts of Alinsky-isms. It’s all over the place.
"Politics, certainly as we've understood it from time immemorial, has to do with particularization and a kind of us-and-them distinction, like with Athens and Sparta." –UHLMANN

I think Alinsky makes a wonderful point when he says that Marxists who insist that the only way we’re going to make any political difference is if we overthrow global capitalism are effectively conservatives. They are raising the bar so high on what counts as political action that nobody can do anything political, and so we are all reduced to being conservatives. In the light of this argument, I refuse the utopian condition that political action must get rid of all exclusions. Instead, I suggest that the political is a matter of working locally to eliminate exclusions whenever they hit you in the face.

Schroedel: But it’s sort of interesting, in political science there’s a scholar named Richard Rose, he’s actually British. And he had the concept of the postmodern president. You remember that? And the idea was that the president’s no longer the president of the United States, but the president of the world, and that he had to take all of these things into account.

What I would say to you in response, your criticism of Obama, he’s doing the gauzy thing internationally, the feel-good around the world, just like he’s doing in the United States. The one with a vision, if you will, about the way the world should be in an international sense, is McCain, who would like to, in a sense, follow [President] George W. Bush in terms of remaking a chunk of the world. You want to jump in on this?

Uhlmann: Well, goodness, I’m still trying to react to this, combination of Hegel and Walter Rauschenbusch (laughter).

I want to come down that abstraction ladder a few – yeah, I take your point, Jean. Look, I’ve kicked around politics a lot and it’s a healthy dose of reality theory. The world is a very ugly and mean place out here, and we’ll see what the American public wants to do. They want change and gauze, they’ll get it and then some. And part of McCain’s hope here is that he can articulate, in an intelligent but not mean-spirited way, a sense of international reality. And we’ll let president Obama go and enunciate with [President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and see what they have in common. Somehow I don’t think that’s gonna wash when McCain gets nominated. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’ll stumble all over himself. But I love that earthbound quality to the voter who wouldn’t know how to spell Hegel, who, for all their desire for a certain kind of mystic leadership, if their bias is in favor of CEOs then give me a CEO, at least they’ll make the trains run.

Krips: So did Hitler.

Uhlmann: I have greater faith in the American voter than that. But perhaps I’m wrong. I’ve been known to be wrong before, once or twice.

Merolla: When have we had a truly political leader in the American context, I wonder? I mean, I’m trying to wrap my head around your –
"One reason voters do focus on these CEO-like things is because citizens like to use those types of information shortcuts in the voting booth. It's a very complicated process otherwise." –MEROLLA

I don’t have any sort of a detailed background of American politics. Australia is the place I came from, and I know a little bit about England because I taught there for a while. In the English context the nearest thing to a political action that I can think of is [Prime Minister] Harold Wilson’s Labor government coming to power. Wilson created a new people: parts of English society that had no parts suddenly became part of the political process. This was a reaction against the English class system, which had excluded the working class in a vicious way that Wilson managed in some way to ameliorate. In the Australian context, a similar phenomenon occurred when [Prime Minister] Gough Whitlam’s Labor government came to power: certain excluded groups found a voice. But I think this sort of revolution is very rare. As Hannah Arendt argues, in recent times the political has become displaced by exercises in public administration. There’s been a historical dying back of the political.

Merolla: If you’re thinking it was lofty on the part of those governments to engage in that behavior, we found in the American context it usually happens when a party’s been out of power for a while. They can’t seem to win, so then your strategy is often to appeal to new segments of the electorate and get them involved in the process.

Schroedel: Like with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Merolla: Exactly.

Krips: And actually, [Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher . As much as I’d like to say populism’s restricted to the left, it’s clear that it’s been an extraordinarily successful right-wing strategy: for Margaret Thatcher in England, and of course [President] Ronald Reagan in the US.

Uhlmann: Well, I was going to say before, when you first talked about populism, you used it in a unique way. There are different species of populism; there’s Thatcher’s populism; in a sense Reagan’s populism is more what you might call Bourgeois populist, which is almost an oxymoron, but it isn’t when you think about it more deeply. Populism isn’t exclusively associated with the lumpenproletariat.

Schroedel: Usually not the lumpen. I know my Marx ! (laughter)

Uhlmann: Look, you may be right for all I know, that history in some Hegelian sense is in fact devolving into some sort of world state, that’s well beyond my pay scale. My instinctive hunch, it will come as no surprise to you to learn, is that the traditional sense of politics for all the tug will remain Aristotelian, in its sense of localism. Politics, certainly as we’ve understood it from time immemorial, has to do with particularization and a kind of us-and-them distinction, like with Athens and Sparta. And if Aristotle is right, there’s something inherent in human nature that self-disposes people to think that way. And maybe there’s this transvaluation of all values and so forth that make the nation-state in a particular way that sense of a particular enough so that it will dissipate. I have no idea about those things. But for the foreseeable future, for all the talk of globalization, I rather think politics is going to remain –

Krips: I think there are two theses now. I’m not advocating a global village in Marshall McLuhan terms. I am not prescribing it, nor do I think we’re living in it. If anything, I think we’ve got a more vicious sort of localism now, which is embedded within a global context. The question for me is where politics can find a place in that new global order.

And the answer, I claim, is that in recent times politics has decreasingly been able to find a place to do its work. That’s in part because of globalization and its effects: the complex way in which the local is both becoming more embedded but also becoming more etiolated. On the one hand, it’s becoming weaker in the sense that it’s fitting within a global economy. On the other hand, it’s also strengthening in the sense that, because of its role in a global economy, the local has become necessary: the exotic has become a commodity. So you have to retain localism, but at the same time it’s embedded in a more global context. That complicates the question of the possibility for politics today. And for me the challenge is to rethink the political in this new context.

Schroedel: But if you think about the context, you have people in the, whatever loaded term one wishes to use, advanced societies, advanced countries, and postindustrial industrial blah, blah, blah, you know the countries I’m thinking of, who are making choices to buy trade, fair-trade coffee, paying a premium to do that, who are putting funds into socially responsible companies who don’t do X, Y, and Z. To the extent that you have a populace who has discretionary income – because poor people don’t do that – they are choosing to engage in a kind of political statement in terms of what they do with their resources.

Now, yes, they are surplus resources and all that, but you don’t have to, and that is a new phenomenon. You did not have that 30 years ago. People go to stores; they say, ‘Should I go to Walmart? No, I won’t go to Walmart.’ Looking where their clothes are made, where their food comes from – you have to have a real level of affluence to do that. There’s an understanding that these people in other places are in much worse conditions, that we can make a difference there. I think that may be unprecedented in history.
"To the extent that you have a populace who has discretionary income...they are choosing to engage in a kind of political statement in terms of what they do with their resources." –SCHROEDEL

It’s a new phenomenon, and it’s interesting precisely because it’s politically ambiguous. I mean, if one refuses to buy Walmart – and I’m not defending Walmart – you’re putting people in third world countries out of jobs. The sweatshop in Malaysia may be the only thing that is keeping families alive.

Schroedel: There’s an entire campaign, though, against these companies to ensure that those producers are doing so in a socially responsible way. And you know, they don’t just stop shopping at Walmart, they engage in other activities, and that is unprecedented. It’s quite sophisticated.

Krips: Exactly. I agree. To me that’s an example of the political in a sense I can understand. And what I’m asking is what Obama or Clinton or McCain are doing in that connection, and the answer I come up with is nothing. That’s what makes me feel the political is now totally divorced from the scene of what passes officially for politics.

Merolla: You may not find it at the level of candidates, you know, for the reasons we’ve been talking about, but I do think there are certainly nonprofit groups who have a voice from the system and those groups will always be out there, and making that case.

Krips: A lot of the cultural studies students end up doing exactly that: working for NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. And they’re attracted to this because it offers them a way of doing politics. When I was in Pittsburgh, I was in a communication department. Students would go and work for senators as interns or PAs. My students here in cultural studies would say that’s not politics. There’s a certain truth in what they are saying, and it’s that truth I want to try and capture.

Uhlmann: In my more sober moments I really am drawn back to traditional understandings of nations and empires, and if I had a bet I would argue that world politics of the next century are going to be driven by topography, in Europe and Asia and South Asia.
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