Estragon: I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir: That’s what you think.
—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
The photographs come in a bright, nearly fluorescent hue.1 Their connecting theme is “love.” In a portrait called Love (hands in hair), a woman with reddish hair and shuttered eyes is clutched by a pair of male hands reaching from outside the frame. In another picture a man in a jean jacket dances alone, almost reaching for a nearby hand. In Love (hands praying), a woman with closed eyes folds her hands amidst a crowd of partygoers. As if in a secular ritual, she meditates in the anonymity of the nightclub. The people in the photographs dance to music modeled on noises emitted by the industrial machinery of Detroit and Manchester, the twin birth cities of techno.
In 1989, however—the year in which these photos were taken—the machines are no longer operative. Most of them have downsized or relocated to China, whereas the twin cities of techno have deindustrialized. Traveling through a Chinese megacity some years before, the German photographer Hilla Becher noticed a reassembled copy of a steel mill she once shot in Europe. Now, the youngsters in Wolfgang Tillmans’s nightlife photographs seek to dance away industry, politics and history itself.
The time and place of Tillmans’s shots are worth noting. They document a Thatcherite London and a Berlin in which the Wall is crumbling. To the east, state socialism is nearing collapse. A fully global capitalism is triumphant. Western deindustrialization is accelerating. Deployed the same year the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his fabled essay on “the end of history” in the National Interest, Tillmans’s camera becomes witness to an exercise in collective amnesia: an attempt to banish the ideological specters of the last century and quietly stride into a private utopia. An age of “post-politics” has opened. As Tillmans later recalled in an interview:
That’s how living together could be: being peaceful together and enjoying the senses. It seemed a very tangible and inherently political thing to me… suddenly everybody felt that there was this utopia that was very real, and you could actually live this utopian dream.
By the close of the 2010s, however, Tillmans’s world already looks disturbingly different. He has begun to photograph Black Lives Matter protests. He travels to refugee camps. His recordings now come in a chrome-like, grayish veneer, a clear contrast to the motley colors of 1989. He begins to engage in mainstream politics, launching a series of posters for the 2016 Remain campaign to safeguard the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union: “No man is an island. No country by itself,” “What is lost is lost forever,” “It’s a question of where you feel you belong. We are the European family.” The slogans are set against Tillmans’s heavenly backdrops, images of the sky as seen from an airplane window. From a distance they look like digital renditions of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. As a boy he had first been to Britain in the early 1980s; his flyers for the Remain campaign now were to save the lost worlds of 1989. “As usual, of course, it didn’t last,” he remembers.
Tillmans’s romantic references are understandable. For the photographer an overpowering nostalgia for post-history had kicked in. The artist’s personal utopia of forty years was fracturing, and he responded with a search for analogues from the very same 1990s: figures of empathy, unity, love. In this respect he proved a representative child of a post-revolutionary age. As the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted in 1994, “human rights, dissidence, antiracism, SOS-this, SOS-that” were “soft, easy, post coitum historicum ideologies, ‘after-the-orgy’ ideologies for an easy-going generation which has known neither hard ideologies nor radical philosophies.” The contrast with the politically overcharged twentieth century was striking. In Baudrillard’s view, Tillmans’s generation had “rediscovered altruism, conviviality, international charity, and the individual bleeding heart.” The new generation were “spoilt children of the crisis, whereas the preceding one was that of the accursed children of history.”
Tillmans’s gathering with “the spoilt children of the crisis,” however, would come to a close, just like Fukuyama’s end of history would. A species of “politics” returned to the world after the 2008 credit crash, one that forced the artist to confront, in one critic’s words, “the fragility of the political consensus on which his personal utopia depends.” Yet the new political age did not witness an integral rebirth of the “mass politics” from which Tillmans’s partiers were liberated in 1989. It was “political,” to be sure, but in a way that uneasily superseded and complemented the post-politics of the 1990s, drawing private and public back together on terms wholly unfamiliar to us from democracy’s classical age.
The resultant order, which I’ve referred to as “hyperpolitics,” presents a challenge. While the expiry of “post-politics” is plain to see, so is the insufficiency of the political vocabulary we have inherited from the twentieth century for describing its successor. This indicates the need for a new framework adequate to the present. Yet if hyperpolitics offers some tentative clues for analyzing the post-2008 epoch in the West, the concept can only be fully grasped as part of a broader chronology of the political forms—from mass politics to post-politics—that ran across the twentieth and 21st centuries.
Halfway through her novel The Years, French novelist Annie Ernaux gives us a rearview rendering of the mid-1990s that recalls Tillmans’s nightlife photographs:
The rumor was going around that politics was dead. The advent of a “new world order” was declared. The end of History was nigh… The word “struggle” was discredited as a throwback to Marxism, become an object of ridicule. As for “defending rights,” the first that came to mind were those of the consumer.
Born to working-class parents in 1940, Ernaux had already become one of her country’s most celebrated writers before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2022. First published in French in 2008, her “collective autobiography” of postwar France appeared shortly before Lehman Brothers went bust and induced a heart attack in the international financial system. The English translation of The Years came out in 2017, at the close of the populist decade.
When it was initially published, Ernaux’s work diagnosed a shuttered, claustral world in which citizens had retreated into privacy and seclusion. “In the humdrum routine of personal existence,” she remembers, “History did not matter.” Politics was relegated to the back burner. Technocrats, mostly stationed in central banks and other institutions from the IMF to the European Commission, took the reins.
A suitable idiom was devised for the new world. British prime minister Tony Blair claimed that opposing globalization was like opposing the changing of the seasons, while the term “Alternativlosigkeit” (“alternativelessness”) steadily settled into the German vernacular. A group of Polish poets attended the opening of the country’s first McDonald’s. Across the ocean, the Democratic Party chose “Macarena” as their theme song for the 1996 Democratic National Convention. In Sarajevo, U2 performed their song “Miss Sarajevo” in the city under siege. (“You’re going to go back to a rock show. You’re going to forget that we even exist. And we’re all going to die” was the clipped response by one of the locals.)
The mood could certainly feel liberatory. The release from the ideological churches of the twentieth century was met with a sense of elation, especially by those who sought to remove the strictures of gender and race that had drawn the contours of “organized capitalism” since the Second World War. The breach allowed for a set of practices of which Tillmans’s parties were themselves a paragon.
Yet the triumph of the private also required a careful marginalization of the public. In contrast to Tillmans’s triumphalist story of liberation, Ernaux was able to document the transition to post-politics with a focused ambiguity, seeing around rather than through the new order. “Since no one represented us,” she claims, “it was only fitting that we [did] as we pleased, so that voting became a private, emotional affair, governed by last-minute impulse.” Overall, one required “the habit and long-standing memory of ‘electoral duty’ to bother to go to the polling station on an April Sunday in the middle of spring vacation.” Drugs and festivity initially seemed to offer solace, coupled with increasingly exuberant promises of consumption. “There was an ad that read: Money, sex, drugs—choose money,” Ernaux recounts, while France “graduated to the DVD player, the digital camera, the MP3 player, ADSL, and the flat screen.” Rave music became the mourning ritual for the industrial economy, while clubs and outdoor festivals turned into “havens of sonic rapture and chemical intoxication,”as Gavin Jacobson notes.
Political debate descended into a stream of excitable banality. Election analysis slid into something like black-box research after a plane crash, with “the people” now a natural disaster and commentators agonizing over declining voter participation. “Liquid” fears of private perversion, from child abuse to presidential misconduct, replaced the openly public scandals of 1960s and 1970s. “Everything is permitted but nothing is possible” was the cosmology of the 1990s, in the words of French philosopher Michel Clouscard, while his colleague Cornelius Castoriadis registered a “society adrift” amidst “a rising tide of insignificancy.” The British writer Sam Kriss remembered the period from a younger, millennial perspective:
Back then, it was not normal for young people to define themselves politically. My friends were fond of making grand statements like “I’m bigger than feminism” or “Politics is for little minds.” The millennial generation wasn’t stereotyped as preening, moralistic, or oversensitive: We were all supposed to be boozy nihilists, uni lads or frat bros. Back then, the problem with the voting public wasn’t misinformation, or extremism, or that we were all at each other’s throats—it was that we couldn’t even be bothered to vote.
“We didn’t quite know what was wearing us down the most,” Ernaux recalls, “the media and their opinion polls, who do you trust, their condescending comments, the politicians with their promises to reduce unemployment and plug the hole in the social security budget, or the escalator at the RER station that was always out of order.” Here was liberty and emancipation, but also profound desolation and despair—a “cold revolution,” in the words of French novelist Michel Houellebecq.
Two decades of populist turmoil later, these testimonies register as both familiar and unfamiliar—like a Magritte painting mixing recognition and alienation. The rapid individualization and decline of collective institutions these writers recorded has not been halted. Barring some minor and mainly digital outliers, political parties have not regained their members. Associations have not seen attendance rise. Churches have not refilled their pews. Unions have not organizationally resurrected themselves en masse. Political competition is still highly constrained, driven by a narrow cartel of career politicians and specialists ever at the mercy of hostile markets.
Such absences are hardly confined to the state. Across the West, civil society remains mired in a deep and protracted crisis, with what passes for “political” action monopolized by flash mobs, NGOs, online personas and philanthropists. At least in one, abiding sense, the era of post-politics has not closed itself.
Yet some coordinates have undeniably shifted. For one, the cocktail of diffidence, euphoria and apathy so characteristic of Tillmans’s and Ernaux’s 1990s, its heavy post-historic affect, barely applies today. Triviality and excitement—the “depressive hedonism” that British writer Mark Fisher diagnosed in the early 2000s—have morphed into something wholly more recondite. President Joe Biden was elected by a record turnout of 81 million. His opponent garnered 74 million votes. The Brexit referendum was the largest democratic vote in Britain’s history. The Black Lives Matter moment proved a mass acclamation—on its call, many of the world’s biggest corporations and celebrities took up the mantle of racial justice: they went from Jeff Bezos redrawing the Amazon logo to David Guetta sampling Martin Luther King speeches during a rooftop DJ set.
A sense of breathlessness now runs from top to bottom. The George Floyd protests stood out as the largest protests in American history—thousands of demonstrations, with an estimated attendance of up to 26 million in the U.S. In the summer of 2020, almost one-tenth of the American adult population took to the streets, with both corporate lawyers and unemployed teenagers rioting into the early hours of the morning. Months later, QAnon and anti-lockdown protests assaulted state institutions from Canada to Germany. Platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Twitter are bursting with political content, from vloggers reciting anarchist pamphlets to right-wing influencers raving about refugees. Issues of consumption, from veganism to climate budgeting, figure prominently across personal lives. Self-help manuals advise citizens to detect and exorcise racial biases. Flags and gender markers proliferate across Instagram and Twitter profiles. A new political sensibility is visible on soccer fields, in popular Netflix shows, in the ways people describe themselves on their social media pages.
Today everything is again political, and fervently so. But despite borderless passions overtaking and remaking some of our most powerful institutions, from art institutes to political parties to supranational bodies, very few people are involved in the sort of organized conflicts of interests that we would once have described, in a classical, twentieth-century sense, as “politics.” Neoliberalism is not being superseded by a renascent social democracy; globalization is not splintering into “deglobalization,” nor is the welfare state returning to its classical postwar form. How should this new period be understood?
Instant analysis is always perilous. Like a high-speed camera, contemporary history risks falling prey to the fluidity and indeterminacy of the situation it seeks to capture, wedged between impressionistic detail and grand abstraction. It certainly appears difficult to write a “history of the present” when the present itself has become so diffuse: much like how the Marxist theory of history felt obsolete in an age after history, the unfolding “polycrisis” is always one step ahead of us in its awesome abstractions: 50 percent cut in GDP, 30 percent unemployment, $5 trillion stimulus, fifteen million jobs lost. “History” and “politics” are clearly taking place—but can we even say what “history” and “politics” mean anymore?
Novels and visual art offer us a less abstract point of entry. And if Ernaux, Houellebecq and Tillmans had to formulate their work in reference to the “political unconscious” of the post-political age, there is also a literature that tracks the earlier transition from “mass” to “post-” politics. In his memoir Returning to Reims (2009), the French writer Didier Eribon describes his upbringing in a communist family in northern France, from the postwar period to the 1990s. As a gay man, Eribon had always felt out of place in the universe of his working-class parents, members of a party that saw same-sex love as the expression of “bourgeois deviancy,” strategically opposed labor immigration and kept a firm hand on both their militants’ private and public lives.
Yet for Eribon this hardly decreased appreciation of the social home that the French Communist Party (PCF) had built for his mother and father. Their party card was more than a guarantee of material benefits (even if it was also that); neither was it a cheap identity marker with easy exit options. It instead stood out as a sign of complete affiliation, an immersive form of membership in an estate or “pillar”—the glue that cohered groups and granted them a sense of self in a society deeply hostile to their interests, emotions and habits. The party, Eribon claimed, was the sky of his parents’ world—“the organizing principle and the uncontested horizon of our relation to politics”:
The words “the Left” really meant something important. People wanted to defend their own interests, to make their voices heard, and the way to achieve that—aside from strikes or protests—was to delegate, to hand oneself over to the “representatives of the working class” and to political leaders whose decisions were thus implicitly accepted and whose discourses you learned and repeated.
This required a transfer of agency, but also carried an assurance of power. In contrast to a public sphere mostly seen as an arena for individual self-expression, where representative institutions are intrinsically suspect, one “became a political subject by putting yourself into the hands of the party spokespersons, through whom the workers, the ‘working class,’ came to exist as an organized group, as a class that was aware of itself as such.” The very “way of thinking about oneself, the values one espoused, the attitudes one adopted were all to a large extent shaped by the conception of the world that the ‘Party’ helped to inculcate in people’s minds and to diffuse throughout the social body.” Voting was thus never a purely personal act for Eribon’s mother and father. Rather, it was “an important moment of collective self-affirmation, a moment that affirmed your political significance.” Here was a state within a state, a family beyond the family, a counter-society inside society.
Representation also fed back into political culture. In Eribon’s view, mass membership gradually repressed the prejudices which many workers organically absorbed from French society at large. “By means of their vote for the Communist Party,” he claimed, “individuals went beyond what they were separately or serially, and the collective opinion that was produced through the mediation of the Party, which both shaped and expressed it, was in no way the reflection of the various heterogeneous opinions of any of the voters.” Racist attitudes were never absent in his family, yet “they never became established as the kernel of a set of political preoccupations.” Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini similarly cast the Italian Communist Party (PCI) as “an island where critical consciousness is always desperately defended: and where human behavior has been still able to preserve the old dignity.” To him, the PCI was “the saving grace of Italy and its poor democratic institutions”:
a clean country in a dirty country, an honest country in a dishonest country, an intelligent country in an idiotic country, an educated country in an ignorant country, a humanist country in a consumerist country.
These modes of affiliation were hardly exclusive to the left. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the right built an equally impressive strip of fortifications across capitalist society around churches and neighborhood clubs. “Everything was Catholic in the experience of a Catholic,” a Dutch journalist recounts of her upbringing, “and one was a Christian 24 hours a day.”
This landscape began to fissure in the 1980s—the moment that Eribon and Ernaux both cast as a twilight hour for mass politics, situated around the turbulence of the Mitterrand government, when the far right first made its real headway into French electoral politics. Partly motivated by Mitterrand himself, who sought a new purpose for his socialists after their market turn, the far right now rose as a real contender to the established left.
Eribon’s father’s migration to the extreme right also had to be expressed in a different register from the communist lifestyle he had adhered to before. “Unlike voting communist, a way of voting that could be assumed forthrightly and asserted publicly,” his father’s new vote “seems to have been something that needed to be kept secret, even denied in the face of some ‘outside’ instance of judgment.” In contrast to the PCF, in “voting for the National Front, individuals remain individuals and the opinion they produce is simply the sum of their spontaneous prejudices,” an act carried out in the enclosure of the ballot box. Post-politics had begun, and with it came the privatization of political life so visible in Tillmans’s utopia.
Returning to Reims documents the collapse of mass politics, tracking an orbital movement from party to privatization in the 1980s and 1990s, alongside the gradual eclipse of the social worlds Eribon’s parents inhabited. Yet already in the 1990s political theory had waged a physiognomy of the new, post-political age—one that identified key factors for its own supersession.
To the British political scientist Colin Crouch, the age of post-politics was characterized by a paradox. As he wrote at the beginning of his Post-Democracy (2004), in the new millennium “democracy” had become the unsurpassable horizon of every regime on the planet. Even overtly authoritarian countries from Russia to China paid lip service to its values, leading to a carefully planned form of “imitation democracy” in which elections might be held but leaders could not be ousted. Yet this duly “optimistic view of current democracy,” Crouch claimed, repressed some disturbing facts. The ascent for formal democracy was also a time of escalating inequality and capitalist boosterism. The new democratic optimism had “nothing to say about the fundamental problem of the power of corporate elites,” which had acquired the freedom to move their assets around the globe, bringing any government to its heel.
A façade of control was maintained, of course; democracies both young and old held elections, elected governments and maintained competitive party systems. Yet declining turnout and membership statistics, and ever more minute differences between different party programs, indicated that citizens could only gaze at democracy’s shadow, a “minimalist” compression with little resemblance to its mid-century predecessor, when Eribon’s parents spent entire lives inside the workers’ parties.
The emptying out of political parties and the decoupling of elites from masses could be compensated with public relations, open primaries or focus groups. A speculative substitute for mass politics drew off the new techniques pioneered by a quickly growing financial sector. Spin doctors and corporations supplied a welcome anchor for politicians unmooring themselves from their base. Yet this also rendered relations between voters and governments highly volatile. It molded a new public that oscillated between retreat and protest, attended to like a fickle child whose wishes it would never be possible to satisfy.
While group life underwent a severe reduction with the decline of institutional affiliations, this hardly decreased the need for collective identification. Instead of involuntary organizations, a new world of lifestyles premised on consumption—whether sexual, dietary or economic—could foster new forms of public belonging, forms that lacked the hierarchies and rigid structuring of the older civil society. Often, these consumption markers displaced questions of ownership with questions of identity, substituting what one owned with who one was. Driven out of the party and the association, people increasingly found solace in freestanding identity groups.
Elites were not the only ones to retreat from society, however. The American public’s apathetic reaction to the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and the expansion of secret police powers under Blair stood as the clearest signs of a slow process of civic withdrawal that cut across all democracies. As the British historian James Heartfield notes, the new approach to politics was “the modern equivalent of following court gossip and watching public hangings,” with a stance on power essentially “tangential and voyeuristic.” To Crouch, in turn, the splintering of the working class burst a closing stone of the democratic edifice itself; the “crisis of egalitarian politics and the trivialization of democracy” were close correlates. Party democracy might have been confining, but the new politics simply left citizens out in the cold.
A new publicity seemed to offer antidotes. The aversion to a densely organized civil society and the celebration of a new transparency was visible in the election statements of Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt, whose Citizens’ Manifestos (1991, 1992) arrived two years after Fukuyama’s article. There, a penchant for entrepreneurship was combined with a paean to technocratic policymaking, against the “massive pillars on which Belgian society built its roof.” These were “tall skyscrapers in which an ordinary citizen could spend their entire life without ever having to step outside his philosophical milieu … and get his social ‘conveniences’: school, union, hospital, mutual society, savings bank, housing society, cultural fund, subsidised holidays, appointments and so on.”
In Germany, sociologist Ulrich Beck proved both anatomist and apologist to the new order. In his view, a “second” process of individualization on par with the Renaissance or Reformation had overtaken Western societies at the close of the century. Released from the old status categories that had tied individuals to certain pillars with their parties—be they Christian, socialist or liberal—his new subject moved flexibly between “life options” and encountered the economy as brute fate instead of conscious human artifice. The result was “political privatism,” or a general incapacity to construct the majorities necessary for democratic action. Public life was now about our
own lives and space, in relationships, parenthood, sex and love; the great unfinished experiment with healthy eating, in which a new and quite personal relationship is achieved with nature and with people’s own bodies; the forms of active empathy expressed in protests against animal transport or in a commitment to the welfare of homeless people, asylum seekers or drug addicts; the minor and major conflicts between men and women in their own everyday life and in the economy … the institutional opening of a social space of “self-culture.”
What did all these analyses and their purported alternatives amount to? By the end of the 1990s, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek anthologized the most prominent critics of the new regime. Rather than transcending the horizon of “post-politics,” he claimed, they practiced an unreflective inversion: an escape into a “pure politics” without interest groups, corporate personalities or classes. But without these boundaries, political life would quickly become boundless and indeterminate—an example, in Žižek’s view, of Hegel’s “bad” infinity.
All the critiques of post-politics recognized the separation between “politics” and “policy.” On the one hand, politics named the formation of a collective will that determines what society would do with its surplus materials. Policy, in turn, relied on the execution of that will. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the politics of crisis steadily turned into a crisis of politics, these two moments underwent a mutual estrangement. The determination of the collective will was relegated to a mediasphere addicted to novelty and run by public-relations experts, while the execution of policy was handed over to unelected technocrats. In the widening of this separation lay the seeds of a transition from post-politics to hyperpolitics.
Visibly, the terrain of post-politics shared many key features with the hyperpolitics that would finally come to supplant it—the demobilization and weakening of civil society, the uprooting of parties, the increasing insulation of the state from popular pressure. Yet novelty invariably presupposes contrast—why not stick with a more familiar term?
In the years after the 2008 financial crash, the political ice age that had followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall began, steadily, to thaw. Across the West—from Occupy Wall Street in the United States to 15-M in Spain and the anti-austerity protests in Britain—movements began to emerge that once again raised the specter of interest bargaining and class conflict.
There had been precedents, of course, like the anti-globalization governments of the Latin American pink tide in the early 2000s. This type of action did not take place within the formal realms of politics, and their “neither right nor left” rhetoric was sometimes perceived as sanctioning an anti-political attitude. Yet they nonetheless marked an end to the era of technocratic consensus that was first locked in by the post-1989 order. These movements were followed up by a general surge in nominally populist forces on both the left and right. Worldwide, political campaigns that claimed to speak for the people won majorities, attacked courts and locked up opponents. Here, populism stood out as both perpetrator and symptom, the expression of an ancient, ineradicable demon tormenting global democracies.
Across this “populist explosion,” organizational alternatives to the old mass party also began to proliferate. Movements, NGOs, corporations and polling companies with names like Extinction Rebellion and the Brexit Party offered more flexible models than the mass parties of yore, which are now perceived as too sluggish for politicians and citizens alike. The people who would have once been party members can now opt out of enlisting in long-term, involuntary associations, while politicians meet less resistance at party congresses. The continuity with the preceding post-political era was clear. Parties continued to hemorrhage members even as protest activity was on the rise.
Hence the curious combination of old and new that hyperpolitics presents: it ended the separation between public and private that had reigned since the post-political 1990s, but it did so on terms unfamiliar to us from the twentieth century. Twentieth-century political movements already qualified as “superpoliticized” (fascism) or “ultrapoliticized” (militarism), symbolizing the collapse between public and private that was instituted in the bourgeois nineteenth century and that seemed to pass with the totalitarian age. For Eribon’s parents, after all, there was no clear-cut distinction between the individual and the collective realm; the Communist Party formed their world, and the world formed the Communist Party.
Political life has not slid back into this register, despite occasionally freakish visions of a fascist or far-left relapse. Instead, the mood of contemporary politics is one of incessant yet diffuse excitation. Emotionally, it is related to the crisis of attention characteristic of the age of the internet and smartphone. “Hyper,” in turn, indicates both a state of supersession and intensification: the elongation of a vowel that has already been vocalized but does not yet spell out a new word. This is not simply about securing a sense of continuity with the preceding period of post-politics, which first split politics from policy, and whose division hyperpolitics widens rather than closes.2
From 2020 onward, millions marched against police violence, COVID policy or climate inaction, making frantic demands on their governments. In terms of turnout, these new movements could be impressive, and many of them effected unprecedented changes in public opinion. Racial attitudes, for instance, have steadily liberalized over the past ten years, while climate action figures on many a governmental agenda. A return to “class” also became visible in phenomena like the novels of Eribon’s protégé Edouard Louis, the popularity of the economic tomes of Thomas Piketty or the Western enthusiasm for the Korean film Parasite, albeit in an individualistic register mainly centered on cultural (mis)recognition.
On the policy front, however, the balance sheet of these political forms proved painfully ephemeral. Questions of race, climate, socioeconomic inequality, police violence and health policy remain under-remedied. Except for some trained activists, the participants in the 2020 BLM protests quickly went back to their day jobs with little mark of their participation, save for the black squares that adorned their Instagram profiles. Unlike the 1963 March on Washington—where marchers came wearing jackets adorned with their union buttons and civic labels—most of the George Floyd protesters shared no prior affiliation, membership lists or institutional cadre, with only a few, foggily funded NGOs as stewards. Perhaps this is why, despite being targeted by the largest protests in American history, virtually all the police-department budget cuts in late 2020 were reversed soon after. (Now they were notionally summoned to suppress a post-COVID crime wave.)
Such phantom effects are not limited to the left. On the right too, “movements” from the Tea Party to Trumpism to QAnon rise, proliferate and disperse with unnerving rapidity. Rather than concrete results or new social relations, this political tendency seems to mark its influence by its ability to reproduce its frenetic form of activity, something it has had special success doing at nonprofits, in the media and in an increasingly digital public sphere—not to mention in the minds of those who consume these cultural products. Hyperpolitics comes and goes, like a neutron bomb that shakes the people in the frame but leaves all the infrastructure intact—an awkward synonym rather than an antonym to post-politics.
We are on new and treacherous ground, as Tillmans’s latest photographs indicate: displays of protest, such as a close yet cool portrait of the hands of a BLM activist, or airy nature scenes. In other pictures, he focuses on the bodily poses of millennials engaged in daily routines, evoking a sense of publicity indistinguishable from private intimacy. Private and public have morphed again, yet the result would be unrecognizable to Eribon’s parents.
In May 2020, the radio station France Inter commissioned a series of prominent writers to reflect on the consequences of the pandemic. The tenor of most was one of hopeful transition: COVID would mark a civilizational watershed, leaving the world indelibly refigured. But one of the program’s first invitees, Michel Houellebecq, disagreed violently. “After these lockdowns we will not wake up in a new world,” he claimed, “it will be the same one, just a bit worse.” To him, COVID was “a banal virus, unglamorously related to some obscure flu illnesses, with poorly understood survival conditions, unclear characteristics—sometimes benign, sometimes deadly, not even sexually transmissible: in short, a virus without qualities.”
Houellebecq has long stood out as the most emblematic novelist of the post-political age. His debut, Extension du domain de la lutte (1994), titled Whatever in English translation, covers the nihilism of a generation that has known neither politics nor history and simply seeks instant gratification. The Elementary Particles (1998) chronicles the hedonistic post-politics of the 1990s, enriched by the latest feats of genetic engineering and spacecraft. Lanzarote (2000) retakes the touristification of the world registered in his first novel.
As the American critic Christopher Caldwell pointed out in 2020, the age of post-politics required “dismantling hierarchies, institutions and cultures.” Although presented as an economic imperative, this generated a problem for fiction writers, since “the same hierarchies, institutions, and culture are what novels have always been about,” and post-politics “does not nurture these the way it did in an age of large and loyal families, intertangled commercial enterprises and long-settled communities.” In Caldwell’s view, Houellebecq “faced this predicament with artistic integrity, refusing to fantasize that individuals in our time can somehow be re-inserted into such ‘novelistic’ webs of meaning.”
By the time of Platform (2001), however, the party is already over, and an inescapable sense of paranoia has kicked in—Islamic terrorists are disturbing the resort that the dreamy Westerners have built for themselves, and spawning a surveillance state. In Submission (2015), the marginal threat morphs into a full-frontal assault, when Islamists mount the cockpit of the state and found a caliphate on the Seine. The dream of post-politics is finally over, yet the alternative that Houellebecq imagines is a regressive traditionalism with no electoral appeal, workable only through blackmail and coercion. In Serotonin (2019), a competing successor to post-politics arises: the disorganized, fleeting occupation of crossings and motorways, with farmers blocking the highway and shooting at French police. Houellebecq now seemed to presage the Yellow Vest protests, which first arose just a few months before the novel’s release, when President Emmanuel Macron announced a tax on gasoline.
The novelist is losing his grip, however. In his most recent novel, Anéantir (2022), the story at first appears to be eminently contemporaneous. Houellebecq’s account is set in the year 2026, and protagonist Paul Raison is an adviser to his friend Bruno Juge, France’s minister of economy and finance. Presidential elections are underway, and Juge is planning to run on a modernizing platform after delivering a reasonably performing economy for the preceding five years. Videos of the minister’s beheading surface online, reminiscent of ISIS footage, engineered with such ingenuity that the department’s specialists find themselves at pains to figure out who composed the clips. A series of mysterious cyberattacks occur, shutting down traffic in several international ports.
At this point, the novel changes gear, as Paul leaves Paris to visit his father, on life support after suffering a stroke. The homecoming involves his sister Cécile—a populist, born-again Catholic and Le Pen loyalist—now married to an unemployed notary. We likewise receive glimpses of Paul’s mother Suzanne, a conservationist, and his brother, Aurélien, an archivist at the Ministry of Culture in an unhappy marriage. The novel ends with Paul’s own personal descent into purgatory after a cancer diagnosis.
To the habitual Houellebecqian, the constitutive elements of Anéantir will feel symbolic of the post-political age whose portrayals once brought him to prominence. But something feels off. The novel reads as if it were written compulsively and in haste, and the tone is uncharacteristically mellow. What has happened? Put bluntly: the central subject of Houellebecq’s original novels—the nihilistic societies of the 1990s and 2000s, with their correlate post-politics and post-history—have become far less reliable targets in the 2020s. As a raw capitalist reflex, neoliberal policies will no doubt retain their attraction. But they are hardly election winners anymore, and mercantilist measures are now back on many a policy agenda. The political culture of the 1990s has also morphed. What to do when the “entrepreneurs of the self” of the 1990s become the “zombie Catholics” of today? The great portraitist of the post-political subject has lost his model; in the resulting confusion, the natural pivot is to existentialist cliché: death, faith, Jacob wrestling with the angel, love eternal and so on.
The problem appears symptomatic of the new atmosphere that the 2020s have ushered in. The unrelentingly bleak vision of French life in Houellebecq’s finest novels, which tied together the personal and social dimensions of despair, seemed to implicitly ratify almost any anti-establishment movement (though never openly supportive of the gilets jaunes, it appeared that they had a shared object of critique). The characters in Anéantir, however, do not appear as the resigned victims of neoliberal restructuring. Rather, we see men and women outside of history, facing a godless universe as Christians without a church: the sister’s Catholicism, for instance, is purely performative, detached from any concrete denominational infrastructure. The novel may reference nearly every contemporary political orientation—from right-identitarians to anarcho-primitivists to deep ecologists—but all appear merely as unwitting agents in a “gigantic collapse,” a naturalized disaster personified by Paul’s father’s comatose state.
As a novelist, Houellebecq ably predicted two of the three potential successors to post-politics: right-wing pseudo-traditionalism and populist uprising, the politics of anti-politics. Yet he failed to predict what has arguably become the most prevalent successor form. Hyperpolitics promises the re-enchantment of public life for subjects who Houellebecq believes had effectively removed themselves from the public sphere. In its melding of privatized self-expression with political enthusiasm, it discovered an outlet for the craving for telicity—the quest for public purpose so characteristic of the earlier twentieth century, in which humans remade the world to remake themselves—that the 1990s had neglected. That the form this quest took would be unrecognizable to a time traveler from the age of mass politics only adds to its elusiveness for the artists and critics of Houellebecq’s generation.
In early 2022, Houellebecq announced that Anéantir was to be his final novel. The close of the era of post-politics coincided with the completion of an oeuvre. This allowed for a rare retrospective view of the era of which Houellebecq’s books were a lasting embodiment: the era of post-politics that spanned the 1980s and 1990s, now fading from view. With its disappearance, both Tillmans and Houellebecq have seen the floor drop from under their feet, cast, along with the rest of us, into a world unkind to nostalgics and futurists alike.
Art credit: Wolfgang Tillmans, Love (hands in hair) and Love (hands praying), 1989. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; and Maureen Paley, London.