IDIOMS beginning “the politics of…” are often used to describe a dimension of other activities that is thought to be less than essential to them. “The politics of the university,” “the politics of sport,” “the politics of art,” refer to an apparently extrinsic aspect of activities thought to have their essence elsewhere. Whatever the essence of the university is, the usual thought goes, it cannot reside in its politics, which more or less wastes our time and diverts us from the true academic calling that is ours. Whatever art is truly about, the same thought goes, it surely cannot essentially involve the politics of, say, its involvement with galleries, dealers, and the art market.

Similarly, or so it would seem, with “the politics of politics”: like other activities, politics is most often thought to have an essential part (however it is defined: participating in the life of the city, discussing, militating, deliberating, voting, enacting and mandating the application of appropriate legislation, protesting, demonstrating, organizing) and an inessential “politics” or “politicking” (what in Paris is called “la politique politicienne” and in Washington “playing politics,” or increasingly, in an interesting gesture of disavowal, just “politics”). On this construal, everyone, including those most energetically and enthusiastically involved in it, eagerly denounces the politics of politics as a kind of corruption of what politics essentially is or should be, everyone deplores the fact that politics seems to be increasingly bound up in its own politics in this way, and we invest our hopes in figures who seem to be doing politics in the absence of its politics.

But this apparently secondary and supposedly debased dimension of politics (its “politics,” then, the politics of politics), cannot satisfactorily be thought of in this way as merely derivative or parasitic with respect to a true or essential politics. In fact, it is co-extensive with politics from the start. Our fondest desire may be to find or invent a politics unaffected by the politics of politics (a truly moral politics, perhaps, of the kind Kant seems to encourage), but that desire is metaphysical through and through. The zoon politikon, or political animal, is engaged in the politics of politics as soon as that zoon is engaged in politics, i.e. from the very first, “naturally,” as Aristotle put it. The logos of politics is irreducibly affected by the kind of distortion and deceit that is usually — moralistically — associated with rhetoric and/or sophistry, with “spin”. Politics is always already the politics of politics.

This structure is complex enough to impinge on the issue of truth, no less, the truth of truth, even, in its relation to the politics of politics. We might be tempted to call it a question of the politics of truth. This expression “the politics of truth” is of course still relatively indeterminate, and already has an uncomfortable sloganizing feel to it. As it happens, “politics of truth” is one definition Michel Foucault gives of philosophy itself, in the context of his late development of the concept of parrhēsia: a kind of freedom of speech or “fearless speech,” as it has sometimes been presented, a kind of “telling truth to power” that for Foucault and many of his enthusiastic followers defines the proper role of the philosopher, at least with respect to the political sphere.

But Foucault’s concept of parrhēsia is, actually, quite unsatisfactory to capture what is at stake here. A quick way of stating why is that Foucault repeatedly and insistently needs to separate parrhēsia into a good form and a bad form, the good form being the kind of speaking out that is associated with a famous and seductive image of Foucault himself addressing a crowd through a megaphone; and the bad form being consistently associated by him with rhetoric and sophistry. This attempt to distinguish a good form of parrhēsia from a bad obviously opens a question about parrhēsia “itself,” as it were, prior to its distinction into these good and bad forms. And this will mean that Foucault’s analysis founders on a simple fact — that Foucault mentions in passing but never satisfactorily deals with — namely, that parrhēsia is the name of a rhetorical figure, a name, in Quintilian, for example, for the figure of rhetoric that claims to eschew all rhetoric and presents itself as the plain unvarnished truth. Far from being a philosophical answer to politics, or the ground on which the philosopher can occupy a salutary position of robust and recalcitrant exteriority with respect to politics (which is what Foucault wants from it), parrhēsia describes the basic rhetorical figure of politics itself in its politics. In other words, it reiterates the eminently metaphysical claim (boldly or baldly made by every politician ever, of whatever persuasion) to be simply speaking the plain truth in the absence of rhetoric.

This means that achieving the desired position of exteriority, of truth, with respect to politics and rhetoric is not going to be so easy (if parrhēsia itself is a figure of rhetoric, it will follow that rhetoric — like a Moebius strip — has no outside), and that by the same token politics has no outside. This does not mean that it is simple or homogeneous, but that it is constitutively doubled up on itself. Again: politics is always already the politics of politics.

Political philosophy, that rather disreputable, not very philosophical branch of philosophy (as Giorgio Agamben and Leo Strauss agree), has always wanted to get out of politics, to put an end to this politics of politics, by finally speaking its truth, indulging in that undecidable entanglement of teleology and the death-drive that defines philosophy as such — so that, for a quick and easy example, the best image of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” might always be that of a graveyard. But if politics is constitutively the politics of politics, then this ambition is compromised, and political philosophy needs to be quite radically rethought.