Nigel Thrift – The Left and “forward panic”
Instead of concurring with the stance of the overall rejection of formal institutions, Nigel Thrift poses the question of “how one can rework institutions and their work ethic in order for them to be appropriate to our times”. As a general principle, he outlines the view that “rather than a cipher, the organisation should be a ‘body’ people can interact with”. The growth of a large number of informal institutions in the past years, “all the way from citizens’ juries to NGOs”, embodies, along these lines, a form of politics that has positive effects. It allows for the dispersal of diverse forms of activism, promotes a degree of transparency, and allows for the closer monitoring of larger formal organisations.
An interview to Gia Galati and Konstantin Kastrissianakis
Gia Galati: In your text Political Sensations, you have written: “The current international political situation shows the power of passions all too well. The different passions that sweep the political scene are a part of how we reason politically. Thus, to ignore the affective, passionate element of reason is to delete much of what reason consists of.” Could we infer from this that political reasoning today is a matter of management of sensation and the cycles of passions?
Nigel Thrift: It is partly a matter of management and that’s because there are many political forces around the world that we have become much better at managing in terms of sensation/passion than used to be the case. Now, going back in time of course, the management of emotions, affects, and sensation has always been part of politics. You only need to read Cicero or his contemporaries and it is quite clear that people knew, and in some ways knew better than we do now, some of these things. One only has to think of the tradition of rhetoric and part of that tradition was precisely about how you can exert these kinds of forces in particular directions to persuade people and so achieve political gains.
Going on from that though, there are two things that have changed. One is that governments, corporations, and other large social actors have become much more aware of these aspects and much more astute. The example I tend to use is election campaigns. There, you can see how aware people are of the transmission of affect and sensation, especially through the media. Going the other way, I think it is also about how the Left is trying to use the currents of emotion. In this kind of work, one of the dangers that you can face is that what it may seem as if you are doing is simply adding some excitement into the brew when the truth of the matter is that what you are really trying to do is to make people reason better about what it is they are doing. The issue is that when we reason, we do not just reason cognitively, we also reason pre-cognitively in all sorts of ways. A lot of the time people will have feelings that are a kind of thought, which are as important as the ability to analyse. Sometimes people may feel discontent, they may feel frustration, sometimes they are not even quite sure why. But that does not mean that these inchoate feelings do not have any political force.
One of the things I have been involved with is to try and think about ways in which we can use affects for positive good, because they can be completely disruptive. For example, it is very easy to be angry, and one of the big problems with Western societies is that people think that because you are angry, you must be right. And that is not true in the slightest. From a different point of view, the question arises as to why one is trying to achieve this. It is in order to increase people’s ability to be rational, which also means that you have to expand what you mean by rationality. But then, if you look at how people think, you see that if there is no emotion, people find it very difficult to think at all. It is part of the way we actually think.
Konstantin Kastrissianakis: It seems also that, in many ways, the affect or the sentiment may be one thing while the political measure to deal with it may be responding to something else, to a very different need. For example, when people feel anger, it could be due to matters that cannot necessarily be dealt with by the state or through policy measures.
Nigel Thrift: It can be that anger is expressing a kind of block and the only way that people can articulate something is through anger. But, I am not that interested in anger. It is not something I think you can ignore, but I do not think that it is a very positive emotion: sometimes it is, but most times it is not. I am more interested in trying to foster a form of optimism, of hope about things. Often people are in very difficult conditions but they still manage to manifest, in all sorts of ways, a level of will. That would seem to me to be a lot more interesting because it lasts longer. One of the problems with anger is that you usually cannot keep it up. Whereas with things like hope, for instance, done right, people can and do stay optimistic for long periods of time. I believe that optimism is terribly important in terms of politics. In the end, you have to believe that at the other end there is something better. Even though you might be in the depths of difficulty and hardship and it seems terrible, you can actually get to something better. And therefore, I am keen to amplify those kinds of sentiments.
GG: There is also a wide-ranging critique about liberal politics and the tendency to cultivate a level of apathy or a sense of frustration because citizens feel that the building of consensus through liberal politics does not allow for their opinions to be expressed, increasing, in turn their feeling of alienation. So I was wondering what your opinion about this would be.
Nigel Thrift: Well, let me come to the other point I would make which is why I am more interested in what one might call slow-burn emotions. It is that, for me at least, a lot of the work in this area forgets the absolutely crucial part of politics: organising. It forgets that politics, most of the time, is about work, and actually really quite boring work. Whether it is stuffing envelopes or setting up a petition or stopping someone in the street. And unless you have these kinds of emotions, you will not keep going at it. So for me it is terribly important to put emotion and organization together. I think there are examples of points where you can get a kind of flash-burn, but I think that they are pretty rare, on the whole. Most politics is unrelenting hard work.
There are elements of Left thinking, so far as I am concerned, which would like to believe that you can have something which is almost instantaneous, and I do not believe that is possible. Even if you do, it often is not long-lasting. So you do not make any real step forward. This is something, I and my colleague Ash Amin are writing a book about, and a lot of the book looks at organisation and bureaucracy. The reasoning behind it is that political groups that do not have these apparatuses are often marginal, epiphenomenal to what is going on. If you look throughout history, the movements that have been successful have been the ones which displayed real organisational capacity. Look at the Obama campaign, which managed to show both emotion and real organisational capacity. If you look at the books written on the presidential campaign, you see the way they made up new strategies and approaches to the campaign that had not been seen before. So what I am interested in showing is that if you cannot produce an effective organisation, you can feel as much as you like and nothing will happen.
GG: So would you suggest that something like this should happen for the Left in order for it to regenerate, if not its ideology, then some form of impetus?
Nigel Thrift: There are many answers to that but I would like to make three points .The first thing to do is to keep the gains you have got. The American writer Tony Judt has shown this in a pertinent way recently when he says that one of the main problems the Left is facing is that it has often neglected to keep the gains it has got and that social democracy, in part, is struggling because the Left has gotten a bit bored with defending it. Now, that point does not apply to all countries and states but it is crucial for many.
The second thing to note is that though it is a wonderful thought to suggest that you can reach a point where no form of organisation governs our lives, that you can have a proto-anarchist state of affairs the whole time, the fact of the matter is that if you cannot capture or create something ‘a bit like a state’, then it is very difficult to see how you can produce the kind of advances that most people might want to produce.
The third thing is that what you particularly need to do in political terms is to create what the sociologist Randall Collins calls a “forward panic”. And what he means by that is that on battlefields, one of the phenomena is that when fighters run away, first in a trickle, then in large numbers, in a contagious manner, it is without necessarily knowing why this movement started in the first place. You can only see it once it spreads. But actually this works the other way as well. There are plenty of examples on the battlefield of people charging to the front. What you need to create is, what he calls, this “forward panic”.
The problem is keeping it going! It is easy for it to get blocked or boring. You have to keep momentum. The most important move is to consolidate this forward movement.
KK: From your work, one could infer that there is a tremendous amount of affective intensity in our cities, which is canalised through flows and fields of movement, ordered by the materiality of our urban environments. In this understanding, is there a role for the notion of excess?
Nigel Thrift: I am sure that there are plenty of aspects of affect that we do not understand at all. These things happen to us. You can often feel yourself sometimes transported emotionally and it feels like it is coming from somewhere else. And it probably is. I mean affect is nearly always about a dyadic relationship. It is never in you, it is between you and lot of other people and things.
But going on from that, it means that emotions or affect are always going to be, to some extent, excessive. It is difficult to see how you can entirely keep them under control. That is not to say that there are no ways in which you can do it. Just think about what armies do, for example. A lot of disciplining in armies is exactly about emotion management, in one form or another. But having said that, and if we come onto cities, I think what is interesting there is that cities have different intensities, or, to use a word from Peter Sloterdijk, cities have different “atmospheres”. They feel different. The issue, I think has become that increasingly this has been treated as a kind of science. It has always been there in one way or another; one just needs to look at architecture and urban design. But I think that people have become more attuned to the way that they produce spaces, spaces that actually have a relatively predictable outcome. This is the other part of modern life I am interested in. We have seen it happening in the media. Film is a good example of how people have learned to canalise and make scenarios out of emotions. Nowadays, the Holy Grail, if one could put it that way, is to produce “film for real”. In other words, each space you go into would have an output from it which would be predictable. And if you could reliably produce output, then you could sell into it. Over time, this art has become quite a powerful science, to which you obviously need a counter-science; otherwise it can become too powerful.
The Left needs to think about precisely the ways in which it has become possible to produce these spatial effects and what we can do about them. But if you think about it, a lot of the time, the Left’s concerns have been about performance, about different means of display and of getting a point across and indeed, in many cases, about designing effective affective spaces. Therefore, I do not think that this is something extraordinary. I think it just needs to be systematised. And if the Left does not do it, everyone else is going to.
KK: You seem to have a particular interest in activism and I remember reading in one of your texts that there seems to be an archetype of the activist. A brave, heroic activist.
Nigel Thrift: You are talking about the paper “Halos: new apprehensions of political time and space“. One of the problems I think that one could argue exists in some parts of the world is the idea of the “hero” activist. Ethnographic studies show that the idea puts a lot of people off politics. So, while the activists may feel great about themselves they are not making other people feel great. And one of the reasons for that is that most people do not feel they can act to that stereotype – and I am not sure that even activists can, a lot of the time. The fact of the matter is that, the “Storm the barricades!”, “We’re all going to be heroes!”, quasi-military activism is something that may be of use sometimes but a lot of the time it proves extremely problematic. Now, there have been all kinds of attempts to try not so much to overturn but to supplement this idea of an activist. Feminism, for example, has shown that there are all kinds of other means through which one might get political results. Then, there are all kinds of debates going on about how we could get modern day political movements that incorporate a lot more people by being less exclusive, movements that do not require you to turn your whole soul over to a cause for the whole of time. Of course there are people who will do that but they are always a minority. So it is about moving some of this politics into the mainstream and to do that I think you have to have a different idea of what a political actor is.
GG: Does that go back to what you were saying earlier about traditional forms of organisation, about bureaucracies. Do you think that this is what activists should strive to do?
Nigel Thrift: Interestingly, in some left wing movements it has been, traditionally, the women who did this. That has been paralysing because of the gender division of labour. It may well be that if you could pass on a lot of the knowledge that a lot of women had of the politics they were doing, you would make politics a lot better. It is certainly something that needs thinking about because, in the end, a lot of the time, politics is about persistence.
KK: At this stage, it may be interesting to bring the question of institutions, and particularly city institutions. Henri Lefebvre, in The Urban Revolution, says that: “the incompatibility between the state and the urban is radical in nature. The state can only prevent the urban from taking shape.” (p. 180) Is there something in the logic of state-building that prevents the city from taking shape? Is it a matter of the city creating its own institutions?
Nigel Thrift: I do not think so, because empirically, one could easily disprove that. It may be that what Lefebvre was saying is that, basically, the grid that is laid down by the state is inimitable to some of the city’s features, that cities are a lot of the time free-form improvisations, in which people are, to some degree, self-organising and that the state interferes with that process. But coming the other way, you could think of ways to humanise the state. Not all bureaucracies are bad! I do not believe that the British Health Service (NHS) is bad or that it is necessarily a tool of state oppression. It is still an important positive advance for most people. It is also true that when it works well it works very well, and does so in part because it is actually affectively tuned: people actually do care about what they are doing and they invest a lot into doing that properly. Now, that seems important in its own right and one of the problems the Left has had is that it tends to equate the state with bureaucracy and it does not think of bureaucracy in a positive way at all. But, in fact, while some bureaucracies may be bad, some are not. One of the things that is interesting me at the moment is the work of people like Paul du Gay and others, which is about having a proper ethics of bureaucracy, if I can put it that way. One of the good things about the state – sometimes – is its caring nature and I think that this aspect can be amplified. I do not think that you can just abolish it.
KK: We could also raise the question as to whether we are able to create institutions that are more appropriate to the city rather than ones that are first and foremost integral to a state logic.
Nigel Thrift: Well that is a good question and I do not think that it can be answered theoretically. It can only be answered practically. You can have the ambition but you then have to show how you do it. The trouble is that one is looking at different kinds of dimensions simultaneously. You can think of some urban movements that have been able to produce quite small scale but very effective interventions in the city and have indeed been able to shape cities one way or the other. But you can equally think of large state interventions that have done the same thing. There is no one answer to this question. There is a very diverse set of measures that can work. One needs to have a diverse set of solutions at any time. We often cannot know what will and what will not work in any situation.
However, you could start by making those institutions more emotionally literate. One of the problems a lot of the time is that institutions do not feel right. We know a lot of bureaucracies where you queue up and no one cares at all about what you think. But not all bureaucracies are like that. There just is not a single neat answer to this issue and that, in a sense, is what the city teaches us: to stop being neat.
KK: Could we say that institutions do get produced by the ever day life and interactions that living in the city involves?
Nigel Thrift: Human societies are a complete mess in many ways. And you cannot predict, most of the time, what is going to appear out of them. Even in the most totalitarian societies all kinds of strange and odd things keep going on; little moments of resistance and activism, often suicidal, but people still do them. So the first thing to say is that there is a form of babble, which, to some degree, is linked to the urban condition. In cities you can get more people, with more interactions, with more different kinds of encounter than you can get anywhere else. But not exclusively so. You can overdo the case by saying that cities are full of people mixing, when a lot of the time that is not the case. Still, there is more chance of that happening in cities than elsewhere.
One also needs to be careful not to overestimate what one is trying to get out of cities. For me, I would be quite happy to settle for a bit more kindness. A very interesting book has just come out by Adam Phillips which deals precisely with this subject. Of course, for some on the left, talking about kindness sounds soppy, but it is actually very important. There are no absolute solutions. In fact, history suggests that a lot of the time these kinds of solutions are dangerous because they tend to become authoritarian. People assume they know what is right for people when instead one should be looking for a kind of stance that allows diversity under any circumstance. I think that this is what I would describe as kindness. It is tolerance mixed with the sense that the people you are communicating with have something to say.
GG: Do you think that state institutions, in the city, can actually mediate between the urban and the state? Can public administration mobilise affect in the positive ways you suggest?
Nigel Thrift: In many places, state and city institutions are mixed with each other. Going back to Paul du Gay’s work, one of the issues we face is that we need to reinvent at this point in time the public service ethic. We have had a period in which a number of public services are being privatised, run on quasi-market models and sometimes people start to forget what exactly they are there for. It is not the case that as a civil servant, you do not have to act to any standards at all. It is about the kind of standards you should be acting to. But a lot of institutions have forgotten that aspect. How one can rework institutions and their work ethic in order for them to be appropriate to our times? It seems to me that this is the way to pose the question, which is also a very important one. Large organisations are going to be with us for a long time and the issue is how you can make them feel small, when they are not. Rather than a cipher, the organisation should be a ‘body’ people can interact with.
KK: When one thinks of some of the large international institutions that grew out of ideals and infused with a pioneering spirit, it looks as though today, rather, the work ethic has changed to become the management of the gains they have got. In the meantime, we find them having lost the initial impetus and thrust that set them in motion.
Nigel Thrift: With the kinds of organisations you are talking about you need to think about how to keep them renewed in order for the kind of affect that started them off to keep driving them so that people do not only not forget intellectually but also in their actual spirit. How one can etch that continuing sense of purpose into people’s bodies and into the kinds of environments they are actually trying to administer?
KK: It seems institutions are under so much scrutiny that they now spend most of their time showing they are transparent and checked every step of the way.
Nigel Thrift: The message of hope here could come from John Keane’s book on the future of democracy, in which he talks about the advent of ‘monitory democracy’, whereby all manner of organisations and institutions have appeared over the last 30 or 40 years that are about checking up on state institutions. A vast number of informal institutions have appeared, all the way from citizens’ juries to NGOs, which are actual checks on power. The advent of large organisations has also seen the advent of a great number of smaller organisations which are checking up on them. That seems to me an extremely viable form of politics that is clearly working. It does promote a degree of transparency. It allows for people to express themselves outside the ballot box, everyday rather than every four years. It never rests.
 “The term ‘politically’ is a source of confusion because generalized self-management implies the withering away of the state and the end of politics as such. In this sense, the incompatibility between the state and the urban is radical in nature. The state can only prevent the urban from taking shape. The state has to control the urban phenomenon, not to bring it to fruition but to retard its development, to push it in the direction of institutions that extend to society as a whole, through exchange and the market, the types of organization and management found in the enterprise, institutions developed during periods of growth, where the emphasis is given to quantitative (quantifiable) objectives.” (Lefebvre H, 2003 The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press)
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