Some thoughts on what “policy” means and how an anarchist politics can think the organization of society otherwise. This essay was originally written in January 2020 for a project undertaken with Platanos Trust, in which I researched the implementation of pedagogical policy in schools.
From 21 January 2021, most British businesses will not be allowed to recruit people who were not born in the UK for jobs that pay less than £25,600 a year. This policy merges the British class system with the universal system of xenophobia, keeping not only foreigners out – and those who are in, under strict surveillance and aggressive policy orders – but also blaming any of them who were in on poor people. “Economically inactive” British people left holes open to be filled by a “distorted” system. Summoning a timeless image of plague, conquest, war and a mythical unity of the strong social body holding together on the island, they bemoan Britain’s “reliance on cheap labour from Europe,” making labour sound like a greasy dinner made by chefs with unwashed hands.
The sentiment is familiar. It is thrown around the media and online advertising companies like Twitter every day. But behind the statement itself, who it tries to keep in and who it makes demonic narratives about, something else is revealed – an absolute reliance on this thing called “policy.”
There was a national vote. There were debates. There were scams and tricks and swindles. And at the end of it, the years of what presumably the government wants to call “expensive labour” done by the right people in silken suits with Eton accents – the economically active – is just a policy. A policy statement that orders people into and out of the land, turning space into just a product of a government paper. It is written in the halls of power, so physical life, society, space and land have to change.
We rarely consider the peculiarity of our reliance on policy. This piece of paper, written by one person or a small team of unelected officials, create the dogma that everyone has to abide by. Law is based on these policies. People’s lives are created or ruined by these policies.
There is possibly a moment of something related to collective action. People come together. People ask a question, and try to answer it. And then, once all the voices have gone silent, a single document is released.
So, let’s consider what a policy really is, and why we rely on it so much.
In their 2013 book The Undercommons, American philosophers Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue that any policy is always at risk of universalizing the subject. For policy to work, one singular way of seeing and understanding must expand into every space of society, subsuming any difference into a single ethical standard. For one organization to be able to say resolutely what is wrong and what is right, a risk is always present – the risk of creating codes for living that are irrelevant to the life of the space and culture that the codes apply to.
A policy functions as a universal law, a way of managing the city. The word comes from the Latin “politia,” meaning civil administration, state governance, ultimately from the Greek “polis,” meaning city or state. A policy is a rule of planning imposed on the city, on the congregation of people. The policy must be imposed by an authority, by a subject whose way of being is spread out among the people, restricting them to one behaviour. It must necessarily create binaries of right and wrong, and the choice of what to put in the category “wrong” depends on the choice of one sovereign authority, one body – either a single person or a group of powerful people – who can decide the rightness and wrongness of actions and relations they are not participating in.
The question, then, is: into what are the subjects of policy being included? Are they included into their own group formation, their own social body that they have created and realized by themselves as citizens? Or are they included into a framework which is entirely external to them, a framework imposed by a distant authority that they must conform to?
To be included, there must be an accepting body. There must be a single authority into which everyone is included, a representative of the maternal embrace. That body itself, though, may not be the body that most accurately represents everyone. Here we find the second root of the word “policy:” the Latin “apodissa,” meaning a receipt for money spent, from the Greek “apodexis,” which means proof, a declaration, to show and to speak. To be included within the organized codes of a policy, then, is to be spoken for by the authority that wrote the policy. It is to hand over one’s voice to the authority that can speak. It is to recognize a debt, and receive a receipt for it. To say – I am indebted to your power, so you must speak for me.
Debt and policy have this interesting relation. Each one’s logic relies on the other to maintain itself. The governance of society is based on the indebtedness of its subjects. Wars make the population feel indebted to certain heroic figures, which mythologizes the notion of tradition, of the status quo, of the good old parties serving in their good old way, so people vote for the standard regime. Wars keep everyone calm in the knowledge that they are protected by this mythical authority that imposes policies, and those policies maintain order.
The population must be indebted to authority so that it feels a need to serve authority, to continue working for the mythical notion of “the greater good” and “the nation,” these illusive concepts that never materialize or produce anything for the commons, for the people, but rather function to maintain power for those with power. Getting a university education is a defining example of this. To get a degree, a student must become indebted to the government, in both a very literal sense – an average student in England finishes a Bachelor’s degree with £50,000 of debt –, and in a metaphorical sense – the government has provided access to “its” job market, to the possibility of higher earnings. This keeps the student in the service of the government after the degree.
Finishing with no debts, nothing holding the student in place, nothing forcing her into the economy and the market, would allow her freedom. She would go and do something else. She would think, or open a local commune for a few years and build ideas with her community and her peers; she would play, develop, study, know more and build the ability to actually understand what is going on in the world in order to change its all-pervasive horror and brutality.
But instead, the student is indebted. She is locked inside a deep and very transparent cage of debt. Everyone can see her debt and everyone knows it is there, so she must perform. She must go straight to work, otherwise people will call her a leech, a benefit scrounger, a lazy idiot. The right-wring press will publish stories about what a feckless and odious lump she is. If she has children, they will furiously accuse her of having too many, of pumping out kids just to reap in the monetary rewards. If she does not have children, they will violently label her a spinster, an old hag, social deadweight, selfish and greedy.
There is nothing the student can do but go straight to work, in a job she does not care about and feels nothing for, a job that will make her depressed and anxious in her thirties, after ten years of going to the same place and doing the exact same thing with no idea why, no notion of what purpose this job actually has or what it produces for anyone who needs anything – but she will go anyway because there is no other option, because she is indebted, and her debt is planned by a policy written by an authority that she must serve.
Harney and Moten write,
Every utterance of policy, no matter its intent or content, is first and foremost a demonstration of one’s ability to be close to the top in the hierarchy of the … economy.
As an operation from above designed to break up the means of social reproduction and make them directly productive for capital, policy must first deal with the fact that the multitude is already productive for itself. This productive imagination is its genius, its impossible, and nevertheless material, collective head.
Policy is a way of not just speaking, but speaking for others, speaking on behalf of someone who is silenced by this act of policy speaking. It is, as Harney and Moten say, an “utterance.” The fundamental aim of policy is to abolish the productivity of “the multitude.”
Whatever we want to call it – people, the commons, society, the underclass, the proletariat, the workers, the multitude – the part of society rejected from capitalist success is a productive part of society. It is formed of people who start community centres, who run cafes, who drive buses and shake hands and laugh and hold the soup spoon and make the tea and pat a shoulder and say it’s OK and who fight to survive together. That logic does not produce profit, so it is not beneficial to authority’s policy. Policy is made to subsume that logic within the pursuits of authority, which is the pursuit of profit. The community centre is turned into a Starbucks and the hand that help the soup spoon now holds a silver tray and serves drinks to the thirsty bodies of authority.
What the policy is doing is abolishing difference. It is creating uniformity. It produces a single idea into which all bodies must fit, and that idea looks like the bodies who wrote the policy. It is white, privately educated, male, property-owning, able-bodied, married and socially conformant.
It may seem like a simple question, but the remarkable difference in experiences of life between those who write the policies and those who are affected by them cannot be seen as simply irrelevant or neutral. The experience of society and the city is defined by each individual body’s relation to power and history. The people affected by the decrees of a white paper written in Westminster, or by any other authority, are not the people whose way of life set the mould for the policy. Their way of life is what disrupts something in the cultural myths of the country.
The British myth is that we are a nation of hard-workers, of soldiers. All old people are seen as veterans, whether they fought in a war or not. There is always some kind of war that can be mumbled about – something they did back then, before it all got worse. We love to moan about the laziness of the Spanish and their siestas, the French and their lunchtime wine. We are the only real workers. So “we” make a policy based on cheap labour from those lazy foreign countries, to correct the economic inactivity of our fellow citizens who have gone wrong.
That policy, written by arch-believers in the cultural myths that no one else really believes, then creates the myths it began with. Once the policy comes into effect and all the restaurants and pubs stay open but there is no one to work in them, then we all have to work double. We become the moaning hard-workers, all somehow having survived a war (the War of Brexit, maybe we’ll start to call it, or the Euro-British Wars), that the myth always said we were, but that we never were before.
We can find an interesting example of the problems of policy in Austria. In May 2019, the Austrian parliament passed an educational policy into law. It banned any ‘ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head’ in primary schools.
It did not apply to just any covering of the head. A previous law had already had such an intention, which resulted in the public satirically denouncing people for wearing animal suits, skiing gear and pollution masks. A representative of the police said that, while the policy should be aimed at limiting the visibility of Muslim headwear, it was instead used as a joke to stop stag parties in silly costumes.
The new policy made the intention much clearer. It was about adherence to one single cultural aesthetic: Christianity. And within that aesthetic resided many other codes based on race, gender and belief. The ban intended ultimately to make being Muslim illegal; it wanted to make being brown suspicious; or, in the broadest definition, it wanted all difference within the borders of Austria to be eradicated, so that a traditional myth of Austria’s origins could be created, a myth that weaves a tale of white, heterosexual men going to work in overalls and white, heterosexual women taking care of babies in laced corsets.
Accusations came immediately in response to the policy. The Austrian government was accused of racism, of an inability to understand the nature of culture, of offensive and violent dismissal of its citizens, and of general ineptitude. They made an attempt to redefine the policy as accepting and open, not excluding everyone who is not white and Christian. They said that the Jewish yarmulke and the Sikh patka would not be affected. Primary school children would still be able to reproduce the cultural aesthetic of Sikhism and Judaism.
While the government clearly thought that this tweaking of the policy would make it seem more inclusive, more favourable to some minorities in the country, instead it made the criticism against them even fiercer. It was now totally clear that the ban had one single point of focus: Islam, and one intention: to make being Muslim a crime. This policy revealed the severity of Islamophobia within Austria.
However, the Austrian government maintained that the educational policy was created to ‘free girls from submission.’ The education spokesman, Wendelin Mölzer, said that the policy was about sending a signal ‘against political Islam’ and promoting integration. What does integration mean here, though?
Integration as an abstract proposition in liberal societies seems to mean a drive towards inclusion, towards a mixed population of people who mutually accept each other. This policy reveals, however, that what integration means is assimilation; it means to abolish any difference, any way of being that is not that of the reigning mythology of the country, and to stop existing as a minority; to be extinguished as a different individual and to become everyone. Assimilation is annihilation.
Furthermore, the Austrian government portrayed itself as a hero of liberation, as a force that cuts the chains of poor Muslim girls who are forced to wear oppressive headwear. This position claims that the white, European, Christian norms are the only correct way of existing. What European Christians have traditionally tended to do is the pinnacle of the right way to be; all other forms of life are either condemned to backwards stagnation, or are on their way to becoming white and European. There is an evident remnant of colonialism in this kind of thinking. The way European nations justified their violent colonisation of other places and people was by emphatically stating the superiority of their own Western culture. Winston Churchill believed that Britain was improving India by colonising it. He thought that he was doing a favour to the inferior Indians by imposing imperial rule on the Indian subcontinent and extracting all the country’s wealth, stealing it for British use.
The Austrian government claiming to be helping Muslim girls uses the same absurd illogic. It fails entirely to understand that there are other ways of life and that they are just as justified at being life as the white Western tradition. It also removes any agency from Muslim girls and women, presuming that they must be dominated by an oppressive authority. The policy is ignorant of the fact that they may be making the active and considered decision to cover their heads themselves. Anyway, the claim also ignores the fact that Christian nuns also cover their heads and all men in Europe up until the late twentieth century wore hats, covering the tops of their heads. Covering one’s head does not signify oppression. Being forced to reveal one’s head against one’s wishes and to renounce any cultural autonomy – that could be considered oppressive.
The enforcement of rules set by one reigning power is always problematic. That power is claiming to be able to speak universally, to expand its own logic as the only logic possible for all life.
So what could be improved? What kind of system would allow a social performance that does not impose policies from a distant body that claims to know what is best for people, and in the process eradicates all difference from the cultural paradigm? Harney and Moten, again, have thought about this.
Think of the way we use ‘policy,’ as something like thinking for others, both because you think others can’t think and also because you somehow think that you can think, which is the other part of thinking that there’s something wrong with someone else – thinking that you’ve fixed yourself somehow, and therefore that gives you the right to say someone else needs fixing. Planning is the opposite of that, it’s to say, “look, it’s not that people aren’t thinking for themselves, acting for themselves together in concert in these different ways. It just appears that way for you because you’ve corrected yourself in this particular way in which they will always look wrong for you and where therefore you try to deploy policy against them.”
What the philosophers call “planning” is a way of thinking outside the universalizing condition of policy. While policy is a controlled force imposed on the city, “planning” as an act of collective study is resistance to control. It looks away from any path by refusing to universalize one person’s logic.
Planning is a process of becoming, rather than of being. It is always in movement towards something else, towards a collective way of changing. The community of people thinking together – planning themselves and their own relations to each other, planning their dreams and how they want society to be – is a community that is always becoming something that it cannot have imagined before. Only by this collective pursuit of the unknown can the violence of universalising a single way of thinking be abolished, in favour of new group formations that create truly innovate knowledge.
To fully achieve that would be the realisation of an anarchist project, to make a society whose rules are always adapting to who is affected by the rules. A rule for parliament does not apply to hotel cleaners in Cornwall or airport staff in Inverness, so the collective planning of those groups can create their own model of social cohesion.
But before that complete anarchy – which, while it would be beautiful, does not seem possible anytime soon – there are realizable ways of bringing people before policy, making life matter more than the rules that order it. Housing collectives can often achieve a great deal in planning their own way of living in their space, and community action groups can resist the policies imposed by authorities that know nothing about how life is actually lived.
The point is that we take policy for granted. We fight towards getting policy rewritten to make it more beneficial to society. We protest so they write the climate crisis into industrial policy. We march so they strip the racism from immigration policy. But we do not question why we believe in policy at all. The policy speaks for us, speaks as us, and in the process we forget how to speak.