The End of the Meat Politics Era

During the media cesspit of the most recent presidential election, many complained that only nine swing states held real power. In reality, it was a handful of counties within those states, a handful of towns within those counties, a handful of neighborhoods within those towns, and so forth until campaign targeting became so specified that some began to question whether the “undecided voter” even existed. Among the many competing (and contradicting) campaign postmortems, a totalizing demographics narrative emerged above all else. In the face of any particular campaign speech, debate, or gaffe, pundits (mostly on the center-left) provided a cruel and acidic answer: given demographic shifts across the country, a Romney victory would have been near impossible. Not only could Romney simply not have won, no Republican could have won, and no Republican will win a presidential election for the next twenty years or so. Mostly what this argument says is that the Republican Party has done such an excellent job of appealing to white middle-class and upper-class voters (mostly men), that they built life-long enemies of Latinos and younger, poorer voters (particularly women).

I buy this logic, at least as an explanation of the 2012 election, as much as I think the myopic optimism that this demographic swing will crush the right-wing for decades is naked hubris. But what I find most compelling about this demographic claim is its apparent paradox. On the one hand, raw bodies have decided the future of American politics and elections have become the horse race the media so wish it to be — i.e., a numbers game. But on the other hand, this numbers game negates the fundamental idea of democracy: that your vote counts. The Democrats walk a dangerous line when they tell their own base that a Republican victory is impossible: if it’s impossible, then why go out and vote? In other words, the number of bodies on your side is the most important thing, but the future is already decided so nothing is important.

Borrowing slightly from the famous science fiction writer William Gibson, we can call this form of politics “meat politics.” Meat politics is the creation or redistribution of raw bodies and demographics for political ends. It doesn’t rely on media campaigns, finely crafted messages, political negotiations, or even legislation, unless, of course, as means to procure more bodies. The history of the twentieth century was marked by a domination of meat politics, particularly the beginning of the “short twentieth century.” For example, the widespread rejection of liberalism across Europe in the 1920s led to a swell in mass movements like communism and fascism. The basic commonality these systems hold (or at least held at one point in history) is a recognition of the importance of mass meat politics. Their etymologies do a good job of telling most of the story. Communism obviously implies the “commune,” or a collective togetherness or “commonality” amongst many subjects. Fascism is a derivation of the Italian word “fasci,” which literally means “bundle” but came to imply a guild or group. Both relied on mass public demonstrations as a means to flex political muscle. Arguably, the communists main political weapon at this time was workers’ strikes. And the March on Rome was even more successful than Mussolini had anticipated, effectively scaring his way into power by showing the Italian king what 25,000 black shirts looked like – a comparatively meager protest to today’s standards.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the “horseshoe theory” that claims the further left or right you move on the political spectrum, the more these politics begin to bend back in on each other. In terms of policy content and political ideals I hold the admittedly conventional view that fascism and communism are almost entirely distinct. But it’s important to remember that large public demonstrations – a hallmark of meat politics – were relatively new during the 1920s. Major revolutions at the turn of nineteenth century, while mythologized after the fact, relied on very few public participants outside of regular warfare. The storming of the Bastille was no more than a thousand people and the idea to use massive groups of bodies that weren’t armies didn’t really arrive until the mid eighteenth century with what the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell called Monster Meetings. This turn to focus on meat politics in the 1920s is mainly a reaction against the political forms that sparked World War I: liberal, capitalist parliamentarisms. The mentality of collectivity rejects the liberal subject that the Enlightenment described as autonomous from the will of others. Capitalism relies on the notion of unequal individuals, and the result is a conservative maintenance of bourgeois classes, or worse, aristocracies. Mass politics, monster meetings, meat politics are anti-reform and pro-revolution. Or at least were at one time.

Admittedly, meat politics is a contemporary way to describe a century’s worth of politics that have already been theorized. The German-Jewish philosopher (and himself a tragic victim of the Holocaust) Walter Benjamin saw the crux of law (both its creation and preservation) as a self-justifying form of “mythic violence.” I’m painting with broad brush, but for the sake of clarity Benjamin saw the power of the state as its ability to reduce human agents to their physical bodies and inflict punishment on those bodies. Later theorists like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben would elaborate on Benjamin by reintroducing the Greek concepts of zoe and bios. Both of these words translate literally to “life,” but whereas bios refers to a “way of life” (as in “social life”) zoe means “bare life.” All of us possess a sense of both, but to reduce a subject only to zoe, to bare life, is, perhaps, one of the cruelest punishments we can inflict, and cannot be done without extreme power. Foucalt developed the notion of biopower, whose logic runs as follows: older orders of power (kings, etc.) exerted their sovereignty through the ability to either let someone live or make someone die. Think the “thumbs up, thumbs down” scene from Gladiator. But a newer form of “biopower” is exerted in the opposite way – the rulers can let someone die or make someone live. This form of power is a bit harder to grasp, but the easiest example might be state enforced pro-natalist policies (some of which persist in Europe to this day). Otherwise, you can imagine how bodies are merely created through redistribution – i.e., the gerrymandering that has successfully given the Republicans the House with a minority of the constituents.  For Foucalt, Nazi Germany was the ultimate power in that it took each of these forms to their extreme: they forced both death and life at will. But the contemporary ideology of meat politics is firmly one of biopower and zoe. Meat politics holds that through demographics, bodies, and numbers (i.e., the ability to procure and redistribute zoe), power is obtained. What our contemporary politicians and pundits lack is any critical sense of history that reminds us of the horrors of this ideology. In light of these philosophies stretching back to Benjamin, it’s shocking to hear the tone of celebration in center-left pundits as they congratulate the Democrats for a more effective ability to manipulate bodies and demographics.

The overall purpose of my invocation of meat politics, though, is to declare its death. In the increased focus on “ground game,” get-out-the-vote, demographics, and polling (now that we weirdly have our first celebrity pollster in Nate Silver, which certainly isn’t a result of his camera-ready charm and charisma), I psychologize this phenomenon in Lauren Berlant’s term of “cruel optimism”: something you desire is actually already long dead and your continued desire is only an obstacle to your flourishing. Though I attributed meat politics to the anti-liberal movements of communism and fascism, it also sits as the core ideal of democracy: one man, one vote. Here, your body is the only necessity to contribute in politics, and all bodies have the same value. But this ideal is simply not the reality and the word “democracy” almost never means what it should.

The most obvious demonstration of this would be to remind ourselves that “one man, one vote” has never been a reality. Besides the openly discriminatory legal disenfranchisement of women, minorities, convicted criminals, the lower-class, and the young throughout history, in America the electoral college casts its vote every four years to remind us that aristocracy never truly died. Of course, all sorts of para-legal forms of disenfranchisement still occur as evidenced by the gross voter suppression attempts in the 2012 elections. But the most blatant failure of the democratic ideal (and, thus, meat politics) is the political travesty of the 2000 presidential elections, which saw the man with the most bodies lose, revealing the halls of power in the politician-selected court system. Even in the courts of public opinion Bush “won” based on deft media manipulations by teams of lawyers. Gore appealed to democracy as meat politics: “Count all the votes.” And the Bush legal slogan countered: “Al Gore doesn’t want to count all the votes, Al Gore wants to count the Al Gore votes.” Neither of these were true, but in the end the vote tallies didn’t matter. The election wasn’t won or lost on numbers, but on rhetoric.

The 2000 elections are an extreme example, but more recently the Occupy Wall Street movement poignantly reintroduced the possibility of a meat politics. If Occupy is about nothing else, it is about bodies and numbers. The fundamental idea that merely occupying a space, that is collecting bodies together, can instigate political change is clear enough. Moreover, by calling themselves the 99% Occupy reveled in their demographic majority while reducing their own constituency to zoe. It has become fashionable, even on the left, to declare Occupy a failure, and while I agree that it has not forced the change many hoped it would, it is a fatal victim of history. Occupy might have succeeded brilliantly in past eras, but it’s an anachronistic form of meat politics at a time when masses of bodies simply don’t impress or threaten anymore. Fittingly, it was in Rome in 2004 where the largest single mass demonstration occurred: three million people gathered to protest the invasion of Iraq. For as much effort and passion that was required to assemble three million people for a single political cause, it took almost no effort for the Bush administration and the US military simply to ignore these protests, knowing full well they would suffer no political repercussions.

In light of this, it is unsurprising that 100,000 leftists gathered in New York for an even more undefined cause would be easily ignored (by whomever they were protesting, which is still not quite clear). Marches in the range of six figures regularly occur in Washington DC and are regularly ignored by politicians and the media. When I read “We are the 99%” I interpret this slogan as a form of muscle flexing. We have the numbers and you don’t, we hold the power and allow for the existence of the 1% as it is, and we can revoke the liberties of the 1%. But, of course, this isn’t the case; otherwise, the current political situation would be very different. Ignoring the fact that the 99% slogan presupposes a totalized opposition, the era of meat politics is over and majorities mean little, if anything, anymore. I suggest we should read “We are the 99%” as elegiac. We are the majority, and that is all we are. Our one political strength – numbers and bodies – is now worth nothing.

If the Democrats continue to pursue a meat politics strategy, they will be stuck in the twentieth century. The dominant political power of our current era is probably something best described as “information politics.” Most cynically, capital is the only existing form of power (and we could look at the various studies that break down the “cost of a vote” as superficial evidence), but I don’t quite believe this. In our supposedly “transnational” or “global” era, the largest corporations have superseded any national law, but I don’t fully buy the Marxist argument (put forward by Fredric Jameson and others) that global capitalism has infected every crevice of locality down to the minute functions of our subconscious minds. But the oft-hidden forces of capitalism have a logic of their own and that logic urges them to spread without mercy, and that’s where media and the flow of information are the next battleground of politics. Why, with “democratized” outlets and Web 2.0, we choose to be influenced by major media talking points seems mysterious. I won’t be so arrogant to suggest I know a solution to the “next era of politics,” but we ought to recognize that that moment has already arrived.

Benjamin Court is a freelance writer on art, culture, and politics and a PhD student in Musicology at UCLA. Read other articles by Benjamin.