Andy Blunden December 2003

Ethical Politics and Alliance Politics


This article appeared in   Arena Magazine   No. 68, December 2003.


The dominant form of radical subjectivity today is alliance politics. The author believes that internal contradictions within alliance politics point to the emergence of a new form of radical subjectivity, ethical politics.

Whether or not this prognosis is confirmed, the question of ethical politics creates a space in which a wide range of oppositional currents may find both new common ground and new insights into their mutual differences.

To say that radical politics today is alliance politics is not to deny that ‘secret societies’, mutual aid associations, parties, fronts, social movements and identity politics do not continue to be active in radical politics; rather that it is only in and through alliances that these other forms of radical subjectivity, characteristic of earlier times, can become effective.

Identity politics arose from the process of particularisation of social movements, as the claims of successive strata of those excluded from the post-World War Two compromise each put forward their own claim to recognition. This process gradually turned the social movements into their opposite, from vast cross-class popular movements with sweeping agendas for social change to relatively narrow expressions of (legitimate) sectional interest.

Social movements formed themselves around a shared ideal. A shared ideal is not just a widely shared common aim; the ideal provides forms of organisation and the necessary basis for conflict resolution within the movement, its ethos. Social movements secured their objectives through a process of incorporating measures realising the shared ideal in legislation, language, political policies and practices, and so on. Likewise with identity politics, but the basis of unity became narrower and narrower through the process of particularisation of the great unifying principles which lay at the birth of the social movements.

The Left has generally taken the period of identity politics as a downturn rather than a change in the political terrain, and the rise of alliance politics as an upturn, mistaking alliance politics as the return of the social movements. This is a big mistake.

Alliance politics arose as a negation of identity politics, out of the practical requirements for mobilisation and mustering political pressure. No-one can achieve anything today other than by allying themselves with others who do not share the same ideal: “I'm against globalisation because I'm a farmer,” “I'm against globalisation because I'm a woman,” “I'm against globalisation because I'm a textile worker,” and so on. Mobilisation takes place, not around shared ideals, but around finite, transitory objectives which maximise the numbers and the political impact with the least possible real measure of agreement.

Thus alliance politics is characterised by the fact that no-one really agrees on anything beyond the question of being at a certain place at a certain time on a certain day.

The question must be asked, and is asked daily, what kind of Reason operates within alliance politics, without any shared ideal, and what manner of decision-making procedure is appropriate for alliance politics?

The answering of these questions is not only an urgent practical question for those involved in alliances; they are the essential questions of reason and ethical life in modern, global, multicultural society, in which it likewise cannot be assumed that anyone shares with any other agent (person, government, community) any ideal, any theory of history or “comprehensive doctrine” (to use John Rawls’ terminology), and yet, we all have to live together, questions of justice, questions of public policy have to be decided.

Thus, in confronting this urgent practical task, the participants in alliance politics are not only confronting the great geopolitical questions of the day (“What should the WTO do?”) but also, at the microcosmic level, the deepest and most essential and everyday ethical problems of our times (“How can I collaborate with this stranger?”).

Although there are always multiple poles of conflict within an alliance, perhaps the most difficult is the tension between traditions of the “workers’ movement” (the socialists groupings and the trade unions especially) and those of the “new social movements.” The first spring from the socialist tradition, aiming to redress economic inequalities, under the banner of equality and liberty; the second represent the “struggle for recognition,” under the signs of recognition and difference).

Broadly corresponding to these two radical historical currents are two opposite procedures for decision-making: the formal meeting procedure (Majority) practised by working class organisations which has its origins deep in the late feudal era, and Consensus Decision Making (Consensus), which has been developed by the post-war social movements and had its origins in neighbourhood organising in the US before the War. Not only do the participants in an alliance lack a shared ideal which can facilitate communicative reason (rational discussion in which each party understands what the other party is saying), they lack even an agreement about how a valid collective decision can be made at the end of it.

Each of these forms of decision-making has a real social basis: Majority assumes that there are fundamental differences among those making the decision, and time will not allow for the resolution of those differences, but also that there is a shared asset which will ensure that the minority will submit itself to majority rule rather than leave. Consensus, on the other hand, assumes from the outset that everyone is “on the same side,” and that the greatest single asset the organisation has is the shared commitment of those present.

The fundamental values of Majority are liberty and equality, expressing the rule of the majority (the masses, the workers, etc.) over the elite, the minority. The fundamental values of Consensus are autonomy and recognition.

What actually takes place with the radical alliances of today?

Generally speaking consensus decision making predominates and protocols are strictly enforced. Discussions are for the purpose of achieving the basic practical goals of the protest, who will be where when, or for providing relevant information; egotism and pedantry are not tolerated. The events are generally triumphs of organisation. The whole is always considerably greater than the parts ... at least until there is a change of plans.

For example, at a recent blockade of a refugee detention centre, a number of detainees took the opportunity to make their escape and took cover amongst the ranks of the protestors. This generated a huge crisis, as no-one had anticipated this eventuality, far less had the alliance made a decision about how to respond. The protestors met right through the night and when dawn came they were no closer to arriving at a consensus about whether to hand the detainees back to the authorities or facilitate their escape. In the meantime a small group of old hands had resolved the problem informally and the escapees had slipped away.

Because there is no shared ideal, issues which arise from an unexpected, or at least, unplanned turn of events, can never be resolved by consensus. At the same time, they cannot by their nature be resolved by majority decision either; firstly because most of the protestors see the imposition of majority decisions as unethical, but secondly because the transitory nature of the event does not justify sacrificing one’s principles to a majority decision with which you may be in fundamental disagreement.

There is no discussion of the ideals which motivate the different participants in an alliance, because such discussion is deemed hopeless. Some alliances have endeavoured to identify shared ideals; “democracy” is sometimes identified as a candidate, but as Naomi Klein demonstrated, if people cannot agree at any level on how to practice democracy, what does it mean that everyone values democracy?

Because the Left usually misrecognises alliance politics as a social movement, their aim is to transform alliances into fronts and ultimately a party. This is not only mistaken and offensive or threatening to other components of the alliance, it completely misunderstands the strength and historic significance of alliance politics.

Yet the paths of objectification by any of the means by which parties, fronts, social movements and identity politics have objectified themselves (i.e., made their ideal into something which objectively exists) is blocked for alliances. What on earth would an alliance do if it were to seize power? If an alliance cannot even decide when to wind up their blockade of the World Economic Forum (WEF), how exactly could they take over the World Trade Organisation (WTO), or create a subjectivity capable of telling the WTO what it ought to do?

The factors which block the path of alliance politics are not its fatal weakness however, which need to be fixed by finally getting a consensus on the meaning of life; these problems are the problems of the modern world, problems which currently leave neoliberalism as the dominant force on the world stage. In tackling the problems of decision-making within radical alliance politics, the young protestors are tackling the essential crisis of modernity: how can free and equal human beings who are strangers, collaborate?

Although discussion of ideals is verboten, alliances are very amenable to discussion of ethics, mainly because such an ethical discussion is inescapable if people are going to collaborate.

The basic ethical principle of modern society was first formulated in the Bible as the Golden Rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Luke 6:31.

Kant incorporated the demand of the Enlightenment that ethical principles could not rest on faith but had rather to rest on Reason and formulated his version of the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative:

“Always treat another person as an end and never as a mere means.” [Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, Kant 1780]

from which he was led to the Principle of Universalisability:

“Act according to a maxim which can be adopted at the same time as a universal law” [Metaphysics of Morals, Kant 1785]

By the 1980s, the illegitimacy of the presumption that one person has the right to determine what is universalisable for the rest of humanity had become widely recognised, and in 1984, Jürgen Habermas corrected the Golden Rule in these terms:

“only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse” [Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Habermas].

Finding this formulation too vague, Agnes Heller expressed it this way:

“I do unto you what I expect you to do unto me. What I do unto you and what you do unto me should be decided by you and me” [Beyond Justice, Heller 1986]

This maxim accurately expresses what is ethical in liberal individualism but is inadequate for the critique of neoliberalism because it misses the possibility of collaboration which is in fact the essential moment of human action — not just what I do to you and you do to me, but what we do together. Consequently, I formulate the Golden Rule as follows:

What we do, is decided by us.”

the converse of which is “What you do is decided by you.”

There has to be an ease about acting separately in alliances, and different components in an alliances need to find ways of positively expressing their support for the self-determination of others. If an asylum-seeker wants to escape, then it’s none of our business. But if the escape is wrong and unacceptable to you, then you have a right to try to prevent it, and other people will have deal with that.

The relation of the “anti-globalisation” protests to the Bretton Woods institutions is also essentially an ethical one as well, and problematic at that. The protestors may include textile workers wanting protection against Indonesian exports and Indonesians objecting to unfair terms of trade. The WTO in fact oversees an almost infinite mass of conflicting interests even while it furthers only the interests of capital. The protestors are in no position to resolve these conflicts, and far less proffer alternative “economic models” of the world market.

It is this in sense that ethical politics arises in contrast to instrumental politics.

Instrumental politics is the normal mode of public political discourse. The political agents take as given the array of values and therefore interests underlying political life; political action is aimed at “tapping into” these values and interests and convincing people that this or that policy best serves a given value, and/or that this or that person or party is best able to further the given policy. Ethical politics, on the other hand, addresses itself to the really hard questions of changing these underlying values. Such change cannot be achieved by “rational” (logical, instrumental, theoretical) argument alone, by what has been called “consequentialism.” For example, if Bush and Howard argue that the greatest good for the greatest number is achieved by a regime change in Iraq, it is not enough to accept the underlying utilitarian presumption, and argue for example in terms of civilian casualties that the greatest sum of happiness is achieved by peace. One has to go to some notion of the right to self-determination.

Ethical politics is in fact the field constituted by the tension between redistributive justice and the struggle for recognition. For example, if a trade union addresses itself to the rights of minorities, not just as the special needs of its members or in response to pressure brought to bear on them from outside, but in its own right, as a question of principle, then inevitably, tensions arise between the legitimate economic aspirations of the union’s members, and the right of excluded groups to recognition. Ethical politics arises in the struggle to resolve the tensions that are then brought into play.

Ethical politics is also a response to the challenge of populism. Capital is the hegemonic power in modern society. Consequently, it is the easiest thing in the world to “tap into” the deepest prejudices against the “chattering classes,” activate irrational fears and uncertainties in the service of reaction. On the other hand, any attempt on the part of the Left in this period to resort to populism inevitably slides into right-wing forms. That is the very meaning of hegemony. “Populism” rides the tiger of “instrumental common sense”; ethical politics must ride the tiger of the “moral common sense” which is gestating in the interstices of the universal commodification instituted by the world market.

Commodification is the person-to-person relation in which traditional, bureaucratic and hierarchical collaboration is cancelled in favour of fair exchange. That is to say, the rupture of the first person plural, we, into you and me, aptly encapsulated by Agnes Heller in her dictum cited above. In the terms of the advocates of “social capital” (that most despicable of sociological oxymorons), commodification destroys the vertical relation which generates a “we” over and above the “you and me,” leaving both parties in external, formally equal and symmetrical relation to one another. But the “level playing field” created by the commodity relation is the very terrain on which inequality arises; for there is no genuine contract between those whose social power is unequal. The relation of external symmetry becomes the ultimate and ideal relation of domination. That is the essence of neoliberalism.

On the other hand, the world market creates the prejudice in favour of the equal value of all human labour; bringing all human beings into symmetrical relation to one another, the ground on which a universal moral common sense arises. That moral common sense which goes only so far as the notion of “fair exchange” is not however sufficient.

When we do something together, such as when I use your product, in fact we collaborate, and what we do should be decided by us. This dictum was, after all, given the status of a universal moral imperative at Nuremburg. It is a fundamental requirement for civil disobedience in ordinary everyday life. Unions therefore, are not service organisations offering bargaining services to subscribers for a fee, but essentially collective organs of civil disobedience.

The methods of ethical politics must be radically different from those of instrumental politics and also radically different from those of populism. Satire, comedy, literature, art are its proper methods, not rhetoric and social/economic argument. But there is a very important challenge here. While a well aimed attack on a leader may be the vehicle for attacking the value with which they are identified, in general ethical politics means attacking the very source of their fame and virtue, not their dark side.

There is no use in portraying John Howard as a manipulative, conservative fool or a crook, since such an attack leaves untouched the values he supports. Satire should not be used to make the Left feel better, but to undermine the values and fears which support conservative politics. Public intellectuals have a responsibility to subject the policies and speeches of our politicians to semiotic analysis, to determine the underlying values they rely upon, and it is these values that have to be the subject of satire.

Values are not easily changed, but even harder is the hope of challenging the neoliberal and right-wing populist dominance of the political field without attacking the underlying values. As remarked above, values cannot be changed by the positing of one value against another. This moral common sense we have referred to, which is incipient in the relations of the world market, and the compelling need to collaborate with strangers, create the possibility of practical activity which can open up the field defined as the tension between redistributive justice and the struggle for recognition, for ethical politics.

In such political practice, corporations, the basic organisations of the ruling class, can be attacked not from outside, but subverted from within. The moral common sense founded in everyday life in modern society provides the basis for challenging the functional ethos dominant within corporations, bureaucracies, arms of government and representation, etc.

Ethical politics however, is not a campaign to clean up the political landscape, for insofar as political life is based on the currency of public political debate, cleaning it up can only serve the interests of the powers that be; rather the political landscape has to be subverted.

Nor is ethical politics about setting up ethical committees to review the actions of institutions of various kinds; such institutions have to be transformed not ham-strung. Ethical politics is certainly not about subordinating the action of government to “public values,” since it is these very public values which have to be tackled. Nor can populism be answered with moralism. Moralism is the very opposite of ethical politics, since the mark of moralism is precisely to obscure the problematic character of moral principles, to be ignorant of the ideological content of moral belief, immune to relativism of any sort and blind to the social conditions underlying moral behaviour.

There are however, a plethora of such arenas of struggle for ethical politics.

The hope behind raising the question of ethical politics is that ethical politics might be the focal point for the convergence of a broad spectrum of political tendencies breaking with the hegemonic neo-liberal political agenda, all of which have highly articulate criticisms of mainstream politics and definite agendas for their respective political alternatives. The only thing lacking is a common public perception of how such alternatives could be approached.

What is ethical in the opposition to the dominant agenda is the focus on respect for the moral worth of all persons, whether this takes the form of the legitimacy of group identities, respect for cultural diversity and equality of opportunity, or the defence of human dignity through wage justice, social welfare and democratic rights.

Could not a discussion around ethical politics provide a real opportunity for these diverse oppositional current to come together?

Andy Blunden
June 2003