Some might say that this whole thing about “play and democracy” is a misunderstanding, forcing play into a space, where it doesn’t belong: the realm of politics.

Having said before that there’s no forcing play, obviously I want to avoid that. I really, really want to avoid that.

The thing is, though, that play is already always political. In fact, it could be argued that play is indeed more political than contemporary politics as it is taking place in parliaments and similar institutions.

How is that?

Several political theorists have described how we’re now living in an era of “post-politics” or “post-democracy”, as Colin Crouch describes the situation in his “Post-Democracy” from 2004:

“The fundamental cause of democratic decline in contemporary politics is the major imbalance now developing between the role of corporate interests and those of virtually all other groups. Taken alongside the inevitable entropy of democracy, this is leading to politics once again becoming an affair of closed elites, as it was in pre-democratic times.”

Chantal Mouffe elaborates:

“Politics therefore has become a mere issue of managing the established order, a domain reserved for experts, and popular sovereignty has been declared obsolete. One of the fundamental symbolic pillars of the democratic ideal – the power of the people – has been undermined because post-politics eliminates the possibility of an agonistic struggle between different projects of society which is the very condition for the exercise of popular sovereignty”

The “hegemony of neoliberalism” has effectively eliminated the space for democratic plurality, and without that, there are no politics to be conducted, only technicalities to be “managed” by “experts”.

In the words of Lynne Segal:

“Neoliberalism has had one remarkable success, despite all its own contradictions and disasters. Its extraordinary victory has been ideological: it has convinced so many that its version of predatory, corporate capitalism is inescapable; that political resistance is inevitable.”

This is often expressed as the “politics of necessity”, even by politicians, which seems strange when you think about it, since they thus effectively contribute to the undermining of democracy and the space for doing politics. Politicians against politics, quite the slogan, huh. That’s where we are, however, at an unfortunate and undesirable impasse where the traditional realm of politics leaves little room for the political.

What about play, then?

For starters, play won’t ever accept the politics of necessity.

Reawakening our imagination, lifting our spirits, bringing us hope, play is political precisely because it insist that there are always alternatives, other ways of living, and it encourages us to explore these possible worlds together. Play is, according to a definition by game scholars Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in “Rules of Play”, “free movement within a more rigid structure”. While I don’t intend to wade into any lengthy discussion of definitions, I contend that play can’t ever exist without some degree of “free movement”. Absent such freedom, we risk entering into what Huizinga dubbed “false play” in “Homo Ludens”, further unpacked by Thomas S. Henricks as “that perversion of human creativity that occurs when organizations take over and manage play for their own ends”.

Hence, when Judith Butler argue that:

“The ethical question, how ought I to live? or even the political question, how ought we to live together? depends upon an organization of life that makes it possible to entertain those questions meaningfully.”

…I propose that play allows for such an “organization of life”. When we play, we, explicitly or implicitly, ask and examine those questions of how to live and to live together. This takes me back to that quote from Henricks I used in the first post of this series:

“I argue that play is that social laboratory. When we play with others, we create and administer a publicly acknowledged reality () When people agree on the terms of their engagement with one another and collectively bring those little worlds into being, they effectively create models for living.”

Furthermore, play resists “instrumentalization”, reminding us that some actions are undertaken with no rewards or external purpose in mind. Play is the primary purpose of play. Play also has a profound social dimension, refusing to embrace the individualism also brought by neoliberalism (see “Recognizing the Other”).

For these reasons, and many more yet to be examined, I don’t consider it a heretic act to connect play and democracy. Play is political by nature and I believe that if we set it free and follow its path, play might lead us to a radically different way of doing democracy and living together.

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Mathias Poulsen

I think a playful mindset is essential for us to live better lives together. I organise the CounterPlay Festival to cultivate a #playfulsociety.
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