In recent decades, public commentators and political scientists alike have observed a widespread delegation of tasks from democratic to technocratic, international and market bodies. This ‘neoliberal’ displacement has often been pinpointed as the cause of dissolving ideological cleavages and of growing public disenchantment with politics. Yet while the shift of responsibilities from political to allegedly non-political spheres was long thought to have led to widespread political disengagement, recent upsurges in populism and identity politics have called this view into question. Are such recent developments to be understood as a repoliticization, in reaction to previous depoliticization? Or was the political never quite as deflated as we thought? Against this background, questions about the boundaries of the political sphere have again reached the top of both public and scholarly agendas.
Missing from such debates, however, is an expanded historical perspective on the complex entanglements of depoliticization and politicization processes. Research on political history often focuses on the many manifestations of politicization: the rise of political parties, mass movements, and popular leaders. Yet phenomena of depoliticization – the removal of particular issues from political agendas, the manufacturing of tacit political and ideological consent, and citizens’ non-participation – are often less visible and therefore far less studied. In recent years, historians of neoliberalism have started to explore this terrain, demonstrating how the institutional dismantling of the Keynesian welfare state involved the re-framing of contentious issues in terms of ‘natural’ globalization and economic ‘necessity’, placing them beyond the realm of collective deliberation. This workshop’s goal is to expand such insights beyond the narrow margins of the late 20th and 21st centuries: to study depoliticization processes and their interdependencies with politicization as an integral facet of European modernity since about 1750.
Aims of the workshop
The workshop’s aims are threefold. The first is to improve our understanding of the contemporary dynamics of depoliticization and politicization by studying earlier iterations of their entanglements. Which discursive strategies and performative practices did historical actors from the late 18th to the 20th centuries employ to depoliticize certain issues? Is it true that depoliticization, as one prominent account puts it, ‘has to happen in a slow and unobtrusive way and that it is most effective when contemporaries do not even realize that it is taking place’ (Steinmetz/Haupt eds. 2013), or can it also be a publicly expressed strategy, as recent studies on neoliberalism have indicated? Under which conditions were past attempts at depoliticization successful? And when were non-contentious issues or processes eventually (re)politicized?
Secondly, the workshop aims to rethink the strong normative bent of current debates. Neoliberal delegation, citizens’ political abstention, and populism and identity politics are often approached as problems – aberrations of a mass democracy of engaged individuals respecting the boundaries of liberal debate. But this ideal is not only historically contingent; it is highly questionable if it has ever been fully realized. This workshop focuses on the plurality of historical contexts in which depoliticization and politicization processes took place, and on the diversity of actors, ideas and practices that drove them. How can these be compared between democratic and non-democratic regimes, and between various historical timeframes and geographical regions? To which spheres (economic, bureaucratic, legal, religious, scientific, private, etc.) did historical actors aim to displace contentious political issues and tasks, and how were such attempts contested and countered?
Thirdly, by analyzing the complex entanglements between depoliticization and politicization, this workshop seeks to enhance our understanding of ‘the political’ as a facet of historical modernity. The idea of the political as a specific sphere of social interactions has been contested since its emergence in the late 18th century. Depoliticization and politicization processes can therefore not simply be understood as a ‘decrease’ or ‘increase’ of activities aimed at this fixed realm. Instead, attempts at depoliticization or politicization should be seen as struggles between historical actors with very different conceptions of which institutions, actors, and practices count as ‘political’ and which do not. This leads to the questions how historical actors waged these struggles, which discourses and practices they implemented to achieve their respective aims, and which institutional or other changes resulted from such contestation of the limits of the political.
The workshop welcomes papers conducting (comparative) case studies on depoliticization in relation to its counterpart politicization. Cases can be drawn from any area in Europe and timeframe between the mid-18th and late-20th century. We also welcome papers on cases of global interactions with European areas, for example in transatlantic and (post)colonial settings. Paper proposals should include a preliminary title, an abstract of 250-300 words, and affiliation and contact details.
Abstracts can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by October 1, 2021. Successful applicants will be notified before November 1.
The workshop will feature pre-circulation of first draft papers and oral presentations with subsequent discussion. It will take place at Radboud University, Nijmegen, on April 1–2, 2022, and/or partly or fully online, depending on the COVID-19 situation. Travel and accommodation expenses will be covered. The workshop is funded by the Thorbecke Fund of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW). A publication is intended.