What is Folk-Politics?

by SamJK

Leftist movements suffer from a dangerous short-sightedness. They concentrate only on what is in front of them. The radical left has lost sight of its great ambitions. This is how Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams describe our current situation. They also have a name for the phenomenon: they speak of Folk Politics.

Each and every one of us has already had something to do with Folk Politics, or has even participated without knowing it. Folk Politics is a set of more or less implicit assumptions that guide our political actions and thinking. It is not a consciously pursued strategy. Nevertheless, Folk Politics is one of the central reasons for the repeated failure of the left.

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams define folk politics as a politics of immediacy: a way of political action and thinking that privileges the immediate over the mediated.

Admittedly, all politics must begin in the immediate; with individual actors who work on social change in their immediate environment. But Folk Politics refuses to leave this sphere of the immediate behind it. It is reluctant to become indirect. In concrete terms, this means that Folk Politics avoids the abstract, the long-term and the spatially distant. As Srnicek and Williams write, she prefers conceptual, temporal and spatial immediacy, that is, what lies directly before our eyes.

Folk Politics and Conceptual Immediacy

Folk politics places the everyday above the structural, the appeal to feelings above the labour to develop a conceptual analysis and critique of our present state.

It is easier to accuse greedy bankers of moral failure than to cold-headedly analyze the details of the capitalist economic system. It is easier to donate against world hunger than to think about where this world hunger comes from in the first place.

We are constantly confronted with injustice and misery. We are constantly asked to help, to donate or to consume more ethically. At first glance, it seems emotionally cold and irresponsible to pause and sort out the complexity of things. But is that really the case?

To fight famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid raised an impressive $100 million in donations in 1985. What initially looked like an enormous success turned out to be a catastrophe: instead of overcoming the famine, the donations ultimately prolonged the civil war that had triggered it in the first place.

This example shows in a very drastic way what can happen when emotional appeals and ethical urgency become a substitute for political analysis.

Folk Politics and Temporal Immediacy

Folk Politics remains reactive. Its political mode is resistance: the initiative always comes from the political opponent. We see this clearly with the example of the surge of right-wing parties: they gradually shift the Overton Window, i.e. the framework of what can be thought and said, to the right, while the remaining “progressive” parties remain in defensive mode, unable to set their own issues.

Folk Politics does not develop long-term goals and strategies. It has no real hope that the future could be substantially different. Folk Politics reproduces the political visions of the past instead of developing new visions. In this respect, the young stalinist, who wants the Soviet Union back, and the old social democrat, who still believes in the possibility of a return to Keynesianism, are similar.

Folk politics puts energy into the construction of fleeting spaces, pre-figurative politics and short-lived autonomous centres. Folk politics places its hope in the spontaneity of the masses by dreaming of the sudden and explosive power of insurrection instead of building long-term and permanent structures and organizational networks.

Folk-Politics and Spacial Immediacy

For Folk politics, the local is good and authentic. It is suspicious of large corporations and hopes that small businesses and firms are less harmful to people and the environment. The evil of capitalism, according to Folk Politics, lies in its scale and not in its market logic imperatives. However, this overlooks the fact that small companies violate government regulations particularly often and are more difficult to control. They are also often unable to invest in environmentally friendly and labour-reducing technologies.

Folk policy fetishes organisational practices that are difficult to scale. It relies exclusively on direct democracy and avoids any detour via representation. Instead of appointing representatives, it insists on the direct participation of all participants. But what initially appears to be empowering and a welcome change from the empty rituals of representative democracy quickly encounters problems. For even direct, participatory democracy cannot do without exclusions, albeit in a more subtle way: It is time-consuming, and time is a resource that many people in capitalism lack: A single mother who keeps herself and her family afloat with two jobs cannot participate in decision-making processes to the same extent as a young student from a bourgeois home.

Fearing Complexity

As we can see, folk politics cannot be blamed on a particular leftist tendency or ideology. Folk-political thinking can be found almost everywhere, from social democrats to anarchists. How did this happen?

There are certainly countless reasons for this, especially the experiences with the failed projects of Soviet communism and European social democracy. But one reason is particularly striking: the fear of complexity.

The world has become increasingly complex in recent decades. It is becoming increasingly difficult to control our present. Simple solutions are no longer valid and the belief in the so-called grand narratives has been lost under postmodernity. There is a lack of narratives that make it possible to find our place in the world and to act in it. We no longer feel in a position to understand the world in all its complexity and to act within it.

Folk-political thinking is a reaction to this powerlessness. Folk politics reacts to the increasing complexity of the world by declaring this complexity to be its opponent. She says: “We must break down the complexity of the world to a level that allows us to understand it again and act effectively within it.

Beyond Folk Politics

We must vehemently oppose the Folk-Political mindset — the challenges of our time demand that we act globally and in a coordinated manner. Take climate change, for example. Or our need for a reasonable and fair economic system. We can not solve those issues without a high degree of technical, scientific and, above all, social development.

To accept a folk-political way of thinking therefore also means to concede defeat. And in our present situation defeat means to be content with a global climate catastrophe. This implication is immediately recognised by most people who have not been socialised in a left-wing environment. For outsiders folk politics is therefore hardly convincing: Who likes to be on the side of the losers?

However, we do not believe that the left-wing project is doomed to failure. We are firmly convinced that another future is possible. And that is precisely why we have to change our tactics and strategies.

Our task must be to modernise left-wing politics. This requires confrontation with complexity. So we need to find new ways to navigate our complex world. Our project must not be a project of retreat. Instead, we have to fight to do justice to the situation in which we find ourselves. To break with Folk Politics, we need a Promethean Politics of the Future.


coming soon

Further Reading

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