Deeply contradictory and conflicting tendencies have shaped ‘the political’ over much of the twentieth century. In its early decades, unprecedented levels of political participation, the politicization of ‘social questions’ and a new abundance of social movements were countered by apprehensions over the supposedly dangerous effects of mass political agency. While colonialism and empire seemed untenable by the second half of the century and ideals of democracy came to enjoy virtually unchallenged legitimacy, fierce contestations over the substance of democratic politics reflected and fuelled a protracted cold war, and the exercise of political violence by both state and non-state actors. In academic scholarship these conflicts generated an intensive and interdisciplinary debate on the contours and content of ‘the political’.
By century’s end the distinction between ‘politics,’ i.e. formal political institutions and their practices, and ‘the political’ as the realm of conflicting views and controversial negotiations about the shaping of modern society, became a key concern of modern political and social science, theory, philosophy, and cultural history.
Referencing discussions from earlier decades of global tumult (Schmitt 1932, Arendt 1958), some scholars from both left and right argued that ‘the political’ has all but exhausted itself in a ‘neoliberal’ technocratic present (Fukuyama 1992, Zizek 1999). It is evident, however, that ‘the political’ has not simply receded. Rather, it is in a state of perpetual metamorphosis, encompassing new fields of social practice as it withdraws from others, occasionally challenging the stability of entrenched political systems, and frequently appearing as ‘antipolitics’.