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Relational Politics

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

The idea of relational politics uses philosophical ideas about relationality to emphasise the socio-cultural and affective aspects of governance and everyday institutional practices. This idea is my way of thinking about politics, policy ideas, policy practices and policy materialities which allows considerations of human relationship as difference and power to be brought into the forefront of an analysis of governance and institutional spaces.

This idea helps me to see politics as lived by people at the intersections of emotion, culture and materiality. It offers a different point of view to mainstream rationalist ideas about politics which see emotions, and cultures as add ons to the day to day practical business of making our political institutions work. It sees liberal politics as an emotional human endeavour rather than a rational activity ruled by the head and enacted largely through the actions of lofty men (and sometimes women) who create universal rules to frame our institutions.

Liberal politics is a matter of how we feel and how we act on feeling in everyday practices and through our ideas. This is not just in relation to social or so called ‘identity politics’ issues, like protests for and against #MeToo or Black Lives Matter, the Red Dress Movement or Brexit All mainstream political issues of organisational planning, financial resource allocation and management for example in the National Health Service (NHS)or in Higher Education are relationally driven.

Understanding the state as it is lived

This point of view on relationships lying at the heart of how the state and its institutions works means that I think about the state as something that is made up of many people and practices rather than something that exists outside of the actions of people. It comes to be as a space of material and cultural power through the distribution of emotion. On this view emotion is not something owned by people internal to their dispositions, it is the driving force for culture and power.

This excerpt from chapter two of Power Politics and the Emotions gives more detail about my point of view as well as some sense of how I come to this analysis. It can also be accessed in a slightly different form in my essay Ordering differentiation: reconfiguring governance as relational politics.

[T]he distribution of power and emotion are intimately connected in governance. Indeed, emotions are productive of power in the sense that they constitute part of the means by which the state comes to be, they are integral to its gendered and raced orderings and are in turn part of the means by which the state enacts gendered and raced power. They operate as connecting devices, bringing together multiple actors and objects into the reasonably temporarily coherent form we think of as the state. In the chapter I outline how the ideas of intersectionality, relationality and feeling work can, when taken together and connected to understandings of experience and subjectivity, enable an analysis of the everyday practices of policy making and governance which enact this state. I call these everyday practices the ‘relational politics’ of governance. I argue that it is because they enable us to keep ideas of emotion, experience and subjectivity in play that the idea of relational politics facilitates an understanding of these everyday practices as situated through, but not determined by the social relations of power. This refusal to collapse experience and power and to think instead in terms of ‘relational politics’ between the individual and the social order is also crucial to understanding governance as an ethical practice, in the sense that it is always about the ongoing negotiations between ethics and politics. Thus, rather than mutually exclusive, politics and ethics are interdependent in governance.

[In Power Politics and the Emotions] offer a feminist psychosocial analysis of governance as a development of anti-rationalist approaches to understanding the modern state. The rise in such approaches drawing on a Foucauldian governmental frame has been an important influence on the shift to seeing the state as a process, fractured and dispersed across a range of sites such as economy, community and family, rather than singular and monolithic (Burchell, Gordon & Miller, 1991; Dean, 1999, 2010; Ferguson & Gupta, 2005; Miller & Rose, 2008; Rose, 1999). A related shift to discourse has not been without tensions. One danger is that the messier, more contradictory human dimensions to an analysis can get lost in an analytic focus on discursive strategies, mechanisms and techniques of power and, more ironically, in a focus on discursively constructed identities. This is because of the way in which Foucauldians’ explicit resistance to the a priori existence of the thought, mind or subject which engendered it (Foucault, 1991) appears at the very least to downplay (if not reject entirely) the relevance of subjective experience and human relationships to an analysis of the state. This evacuation of the subject and subjectivity from view has tended to create top heavy programmatic analysis where the social can resemble a machine reforming and reconstituting everything it comes into contact with (Craib, 1998). Thus, any space to explore micro-practices, potentially so attractive within Foucauldian analysis, gets lost in a rush to claim the disciplinary power of history. Discursively constructed identities can appear as historical straightjackets from which there is little escape for living subjects. Ironically then, similar to the more positivistic and normative approaches they seek to critique, governmental approaches can serve to collapse, rather than illuminate, the agentic complexities of governance (Hoggett, 2000; Stephenson & Papadopoulos, 2006).

In contrast a feminist psychosocial approach to analysing the state seeks to make space for more fully considering the human dynamics of the state; experience, agency, identity as they connect to subjectivity and emotion. But it does so in a way which retains the Foucauldian refusal to reduce them to individualised and internalised micro-practices, where individual action in the everyday context is not driven by sovereign consciousness. Instead micro-practices, action as a benefits officer, a welfare claimant or a social worker, for example, are seen as relational practices constituted through the daily interaction between client and benefits officer within the benefit office, or the engagement between social worker and foster parents, or looked after children, or with other workers within the context of the social services child protection teams like those considered in Gail Lewis’s work discussed in the next section of this chapter. These are contextually and relationally driven in that they are enacted through human relationships. Drawing on a range of psychodynamic feminist material semiotic and critical race theory, a feminist psychosocial approach rethinks the relational as the space in between the individual subject and the social order. Indeed, the strength of these perspectives is that they reject the literal distinctions between the two.In [what follows in this] chapter of the book I elaborate this theoretical synthesis as a means to claiming the relational as crucial to understanding the meso level of governance through which the state materialises as a formation of dynamic and shifting yet ordered set of practices. Relationality, from this perspective, rethinks the terms of the micro-macro debate so apparently intransigent within scholarship on the state by refocusing our attention where the action is; action which brings personal histories, biographies, structural tendencies and cultural orderings into one frame. Crucially, this action is at the day to day level which is not thought out and motivated in the rationalist sense. It occurs at the affective emotional level. From this I am suggesting that there is a specific aspect of politics to be taken account of in our discussions of the state; the ‘relational politics’ of policy making. By relational politics I am referring to the dynamic emotional process through which social categories such as gender and ethnicity get lived out, resignified and resisted in the everyday policy process and the ways they act back to reconfigure that very process itself. Thus I am claiming that despite its ‘under the surface’ ‘hidden’ character, relational politics is a powerful driver for the shape of the state, the distribution of power and inequality in ‘it’ and through ‘it’.

I advance this theoretical argument in three stages. First I explore how feminist intersectional analysis allows us to theorise a space for complex experience which sits at the meso level between the individual and the collective. I then explore how psychodynamic ideas of a dynamic unconscious can be used to understand this negotiation in terms of the emotional process of managing difference and complexity; connecting power, difference and emotion at the most intimate level. I then use these ideas to outline how ‘feeling work’ operates through the dynamic interdependent social and cultural struggles for differentiation, distributing feeling one way or another; thus, enacting the social order(s). Finally, I explain how this feeling work is crucial to maintaining social ordering as an ethical process which is about enacting the socially and culturally good and bad.

My aim here is not to displace or to claim ‘better’ knowledge about what governance is than more traditionally explanatory accounts. I suspect that this sort of work will always have a valuable place in tracing patterns and orders which form at a distance from everyday experience. Instead, it is to suggest that we need to make sure we are also asking a set of different questions about governance and how these orders happen at the level of everyday practices, to explore opportunities for challenge and change at this level. This is what I think a consideration of relational politics offers. It is what is traced in the empirical chapters which follow in the second part of Power, Politics and the Emotions.

Understanding the state as it is lived through us

Relational politics is a different way of thinking of ‘the’ state and government as a process. This means that ‘the’ state or government do not have an inherent character. The way they work can be changed. Indeed change might already be happening if only we could see it.

This different way of thinking about 'the' state matters. It matters for our political and social justice projects including the political projects of the left(s) and the radical left(s) who have been anti liberal or at least anti neoliberal states because the state is often understood as an elite project. This is because it can offer a way of thinking about the role of people who make the state up, who do its work at the day to day level which offers more than a reductive dismissal of their capacity for human good. People like the lecturer, doctor, nurse, benefit clarke and the vast array of civil and public servants who teach, heal, protect and organise daily life in contemporary liberal democracies.

How can we be anti-state if there is no state as such? If we are against the state where does this leave the myriad people making it up? Those nurses, doctors, lecturers, teachers and administrators who change our lives for the better as well as for the worse? Those people who are often us? Where does responsibility for social change lie?

From my feminist psychosocial point of view the state comes into being through the everyday processes of relational contestation that I call ‘relational politics’. By relational politics I mean the everyday actions, investments and practices of the multiple and shifting range of people and other material and symbolic objects that make up the state. One of my core concerns in Power Politics and the Emotions is to highlight this everyday relationally contested nature of the state because, if this is not recognised, then we run the risk of seeing a contemporary neoliberal drift as definitive of the liberal democratic state project’s nature. If the only manifestation of the state is the [one we are in] the neoliberal one, then the only option for those against neoliberalisation would be to give up on the idea of the state altogether, letting it wither on the vine, or killing it off by other more violent methods. But, if, as I am contending in Power Politics and the Emotions, neoliberalisation is not all that there is to the state, then this killing off would be misguided at best. Indeed, if we understand neoliberalism itself as in some way hostile to the state, or at least to a state which engages with human subjectivity and agency in life enhancing ways, then such a killing off of the state by neoliberalism’s critics only serves to support neoliberalisation. Killing off, abandoning or otherwise giving up on the state project is a potentially self-defeating practice. It is for this reason that I conceptualise this risk of giving up on the state as part of a neoliberal suicide. This is a form of state suicide which, though it may be usefully contemplated, should not be acted upon.

Rather than abandoning the state to its melancholic suicide via neoliberalism, Power, Politics and the Emotions is interested in exploring the possibilities for renewal and reparation which potentially come from within the state via its relational politics. Not by its institutional structures and processes, but from its ongoing everyday ethical life. It is this real, messy and uncontrollable agency constitutive of the everyday [institution], rather than the idealised coherent singular abstracted [institution] of (neo)liberal fantasies, that the idea of relational politics seeks to capture. … [This concept of relational politics] draws attention to the way in which the [institution] comes to be through the ongoing negotiation of subjective loss, which is at its heart, a process of constantly resisting hegemonic foreclosure around difference. There is always (potentially) resistant agency within the state [and its institutions]. It is therefore through this focus on relational politics that I am asking a new set of feminist psychosocial questions around power/agency and subjectivity in the enactment of the state [and its institutions] itself. My aim is to shift analytic attention away from ideas of institutional structures, social norms and ideologies to what Tess Lea thinks of as ‘the normative state of being the [institution]’ where ‘being the [institution] is the self, a self-state which shapes desire and emotional investment, the visceral medium through which the myth of rational [institutional] enterprise is vivified’.

This shift in analysis is so important because it speaks to the way in which many of us are implicated in the workings of day to day state activity. It gives us renewed responsibility for what the state does in its everyday manifestations. Systemic social inequalities are not the product of an invisible historical hand. They relate to what we do day to day between ourselves in institutional spaces. These collective actions produce systemic inequalities. These structure our lives, but this structure is living it can be changed as well as sedimented through our actions. These actions are not the actions of autonomous individuals, they are the actions of relationally connected beings who enact (or relationally choreograph) the world together. We are responsible for our parts, but not the whole part. We are responsible together.

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