The Political Party and its Alternatives 2010-2011

At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, turned heads when he told the audience at the Democratic National Convention, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America”¦ there is the United States of America.” Likewise, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to create the illusion of a non-partisan world by recruiting members of the French Left, such as the economist Jacques Attali, into his cabinet. Recently, there has been a great deal of work by those discussing political agency and organization on the decline of the nation-state and its displacement by non-state and sub-state actors. Writers on the left, from David Harvey looking at the global city to Hardt and Negri working on political mobilization to the American Studies scholar John Carlos Rowe looking at “post-Nationalism” see the nation state as, increasingly, one factor among many rather than as the central factor in political and economic organization. This change in the role of the nation-state, it is argued, is also leading to a change in the nature of political organization. The party, once the locus of revolutionary desire, seems to be changing significantly as a spate of NGOs and transnational corporations increasingly take on the role of political actor. Both within nation-states and at the level of international party imaginaries, the party and partisanship are taking on a different role. The Statist vision of the party as a nexus of action and a starting-point for praxis appears to face displacement by a concept of the party as an ideology-disseminating and fund-raising body, which can be rhetorically sloughed off when the need is felt.

At the same time, nationalist parties, national religious parties, and peasant and indigenous movements are as active as ever. If the role of the party is losing ground, there nevertheless seems to be a retention of interest in institutions that can enable and promote collective activity. What were once derided as “issues politics” and “identity politics” have proven to create real political allegiances that do not adhere to a party structure, mobilizing groups toward political action. Using a different but related tactic, autonomous social movements are trying to re-envision the role of people in politics, trying to shift the locus of action to the humans involved in political practice. Meanwhile, one-party states continue to vaunt the centrality of the party to all elements of national life and culture while embracing a quasi-free market. Parties continue to be active in national and international politics, but at the same time, people are increasingly searching for and implementing alternatives to the party structure. These alternatives can entail ground-up advocacy and activism, networked through various channels, or they can entail measures such as the Washington Consensus that aim to control the political environment through economic sanctions and privatized governance. Both of these forms of governmentality aim to circumvent the state and the party systems.

The Polygraph Editorial Collective would therefore like to host a DUCIS graduate seminar focused on the party and its alternatives. We want to look at both the concept of the party and its relevance or lack of relevance in an increasingly globalized society. Is the party still an important topic, or has its importance become little more than a façade? Is the party still a category with utopian potential or have parties been rendered into the propaganda wings of international capital? Whither party politics?

Note: All Duke-affiliated graduate and professional students who participate regularly in this seminar will be eligible to apply for the Duke University Center for International Studies’ summer research funding support. For more information about DUCIS summer grant opportunities, see: