The notion that ‘the personal is political,’ which emerged in the late 1960s from second-wave feminism and has since become generalized across post-New Left activist movements, clearly responded to a real problem. Various forms of social suffering had been reduced to personal, psychological distemper: poverty is the result of laziness or cultural dysfunction, debt results from a compulsion to prodigality, depression and anxiety are mere medical conditions to be plied with therapy or pills, homosexuality and gender variance are individual perversions to be hushed up, racist social stratification is a matter of the benighted personal attitudes of bigots, the sexual division of labor and the violence which enforces it is an issue for marriage counselors. And this privatization of suffering has not gone away, despite the increasing prevalence of perfunctory nods toward ‘systemic this’ and ‘institutional that:’ in an era in which the devalorization of labor-power comes cloaked in the ideology of personal responsibility, official wisdom still often reduces to, ‘it’s not the mode of production and the entire organization of social relations — it’s your fault.’
Thus any effort to open up the ‘private’ realm of everyday life as a locus of social struggle is significant. But is this what practices informed by the formula ‘the personal is political’ did, or can do? There is a tendency among those attempting to resurrect the stinking corpse of social democracy to say, no, claiming that “the personal is political” degrades the political to the level of the personal, that is, to quibbling over trivial lifestyle choices, that it has moved in lockstep with the dismantling of the welfare state, and that we need to return to the capital-P Political. This criticism is understandable, especially in its frustration with the self-sequestration of puritanical activists and the balkanization of identity formations. But while both sides of this apparent antagonism — let’s call them ‘the personal is political’ and ‘The Political is political’ — talk past one another, they remain one-sided and inadequate in precisely the same way: in their implicit assumption that political understanding is the sine qua non of radical change. But Marx long ago saw through this error: “Political understanding is just political understanding because its thought does not transcend the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is, the more incapable is it of comprehending social problems.” These words could be carved as an epitaph over the tomb of 100 years of sharp and lively political thought and defeated and recuperated social struggles.
With the establishment of bourgeois-democratic regimes, the personal and the political are constituted by their separation. The one cannot exist without the other as its antithesis. Marx, following Hegel, referred to these spheres as “civil society” —the realm of private, isolated, particular individuals, each regarding all the others as mere means — and “the State” — the realm of the citizen: an abstract, fictitious juridical personage formally entitled to participate in an imaginary political community through the vote, the seeking of legal redress, etc. Hegel (in)famously argued that whatever the bellum omnium contra omnes of civil society, of private individuals fighting over their private needs, the State hovering above it was concretely universal, that it embodied the interests of society in general. Marx, accepting Hegel’s categories, proved that the State was not a concrete universal, that its form derived from the interests of a particular class — the capitalist class — merely represented as universal.
Now, the constitutive separation of personal and political, civil society and State, cannot simply be declared null by activist fiat. The real social relations that necessitate it must be overcome. By attempting to herald the ascension of the earthly personal into the heaven of the political, this move merely multiplied and diffused the separation upon which both terms rest. The personal and political are like layperson and priest: one without the other is meaningless, and both exist because the institution of religion exists. And like the Protestant Reformation reduced the external separation between laity and clergy, only to reproduce that separation within the minds of the laity themselves, the program of those proclaiming “the personal is political” merely implanted bourgeois society’s diremption of the personal and political, with both of their ills, inside themselves.
The result has been the infection of everyday life, and struggles over our use of it, with the pestilence of politics, without remedying at all personal privation. Everywhere in recent decades, ‘activists’ and partisans for ‘social justice’ have, on the one side, taken to petitioning the police and the courts for harsher sentencing of various particular instances of social wrongdoing, and, on the other, assumed the posture of vigilante police and kangaroo courts themselves, turning every social media platform into a cavalcade of juridical proceedings. We are now called to split ourselves into person and citizen, not just when we enter the voting booth, but every time we have a grievance with someone in our daily lives.
The attempt to paint the personal with the gravitas of the political implies that its deficiencies result from its lack of an adequately political form, or at least that such a form would be necessary and sufficient to redress them. What this political understanding does not grasp is that the deficiencies of the personal reside in its real content, in its determination as private by a mode of production that undermines any basis for material human community, isolates individuals as warring monads, and autonomizes all social powers as apparently objective, alien powers over and against the individuals themselves. The misery of our everyday existence is not that we are separated from political power, which itself gaurantees and reproduces separation, but, as Marx noted, that we are separated from “life itself, physical and spiritual life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment,” and thus “the transcending of this isolation and even a partial reaction, a rebellion against it, is so much greater [than a political campaign], just as the man is greater than the citizen and human life than political life.”
An intuitive grasp of this can be discerned in many proletarians’ “lucid apathy toward the whole political façade,” as Horkheimer phrased it. Thus in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the majority of people with yearly incomes below $30,000 (if we can use empirical census data to estimate objective proletarianization) did not vote. We sense that our formal, “illusory sovereignty” (Marx) in the political sphere, be it “authoritarian or liberal,” only conceals our real unfreedom in the social sphere, which means the invisible compulsion to sell our labor-power, and if we cannot find a buyer, merely “police control” (Horkheimer), “the highest social concept of civil society” (Marx). “Political understanding” does not spring from those who know that their social misery could never be rectified by merely political, that is, abstract, juridical, pseudo-universal, means. It springs from those whose social position is already fairly well assured, but who covet political power — consequently the second-wave feminism which touted ‘the personal as political’ resolved into, as Wendy Brown has shown, a slew of well-funded, litigious ‘interest groups’ attempting to nudge the State machinery into sanctioning, punishing, and incarcerating on their behalf.
‘Personal’ social misery cannot be overcome by strengthening its political integument, but, on the contrary, only by grasping its social root, and revolutionizing it in totality. “Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his ‘own powers’ as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished” (Marx). Such a revolution will put an end to the alien life of politics, and reinvent the magic of life.