Further notes on parliamentary sleaze and the meanings of politics

Following on from last week’s article for Voice.Wales on the uses of corruption in expressing the power of the state, and as one Westminster ‘scandal’ mutates into another, it’s worth underlining that the key consequence of such affairs is the attempted reconstitution of what politics means, and how this process is framed by the popular reception of politicians’ behaviour.

For beneath the theatrics and archaic pageantries of parliamentary process (and breaches thereof), the Real of politics’ function in dictating ‘reality’ is what Jacques Ranciere calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’: broadly, the means through which power asserts what is and isn’t popularly perceptible, or the ‘common sense’ of political possibility that is disseminated throughout a culture[1].

The activities of Parliament and its members, rather than being the sphere in which this distribution is contested and defined, is instead the very place whose performances enacts its own erasure. ‘Politics’, then, is the process by which the origins and machinations of power are rendered invisible so that its consequences can be lived out unchallenged.

The only mode of disruption evident within Parliament – to the extent that it is disruptive at all – is the differentiation between those who perform these functions well, and those who perform them poorly, or fairly and unfairly. Within these boundaries, corruption is the exception that proves the rule of the capitalist state: demonstrating the limits of political possibility through banal breaches of its internal decorum.

Or, as Phil Burton-Cartledge has said with the regards to the latest episode to exemplify this phenomenon, ‘Politics is an expression of the machination of elites, and nothing happens by accident.’ This ‘expression’ is the essential component here: politics is merely the expression of power, it is not power itself, whose origins lie far beyond Parliament. In relation to the wider political system – and to the Real, that which ‘politics’ actually is – Westminster is little more than capital’s parlour game.

Beyond these trivialities – whether asserted by the born-to-rule complacency of the Tories or the pathetically naïve proceduralism of Labour and others – lie the real consequences of such machinations. As I wrote in the initial article, the assertion of ruling class power:

‘doesn’t begin at ballot boxes, but in corporate boardrooms, public schools and private members’ bars. Its consequences don’t end in the House of Commons, but in the stomachs of starving childrenthe pockets of destitute workers, the desperation of drowned and displaced peoples.’

In contrast to the mediation of these so-called crises, class struggle remains the ultimate ‘distribution of the sensible’, the only form of ‘politics’ that matters. This ‘sleaze’ scandal is defined by the suppression and denial of this unshakeable truth.

[1] cf Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, p.13: ‘‘Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.’