Philip Seymour Hoffman: One of us

by burtenshaw


I remember watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘Party’s Over’ in late 2009 as my utopian hopes for the Obama presidency began to fade.

I was making the transition to radicalism that recovering liberals will recognise. Taking the step from a worldview in which the predominant political system was fundamentally decent but needing change to one that saw the system itself as fundamentally flawed.

One of the most important recalibrations on that path was how I understood ‘politics’. From a young age we are conditioned to see it as a synonym for government, a professionalised Other that is divorced from our day-to-day lives. As a result ‘politics’ is a niche interest in the popular imagination, a vaguely-intellectual pursuit you might like if you’re not sporty, can’t play music or carry delusions of grandeur.

This can go some way to explaining the perverse phenomenon of the ‘politico’ – fans of professional politics much the same, in their way, as supporters of Man United or Liverpool. On balance, the level of harm done by football’s barstoolers isn’t that significant. ‘Politicos’, on the other hand, do great damage – promoting a disempowering idea of how societies function that situates power exclusively in the hallowed halls. We have an unusually large number of ‘politicos’ in Ireland, unsurprising for a country with such a weak democratic tradition. Their Premiership is the American Congress, the apex of professional politics.

17/18/19-year-old me was one of these pitiable souls, spending time campaigning for the presidency of a country I’d barely been to, partisan on issues that didn’t affect me on behalf of people I’d never met. And, what’s worse, emotionally invested in it. As is so often the case the negation had to come from within. It was reading American radicals like Noam Chomsky and watching films like ‘Party’s Over’ that helped me make a decisive break from a fascination with professional politics. Over the course of five years I turned to campaigns, protests and then organising as the means to realise social change – and a worldview more concerned with what was happening below than above, and how it related to the society I lived in.

Seymour Hoffman’s ‘The Party’s Over’ featured interviews with professional politicians – people like Newt Gingrich – and plenty with those who reproduce the spectacle of professional politics, like Bill Maher. But it was at its most compelling when talking to people engaged in politics “at the grassroots”. He begins by talking about how he “always had an aversion to politics” but couldn’t quite say why. In the end he produces a searing critique of that kind of politics, professional politics. He strips away the glitz to reveal a pantomime inextricably linked to concentrations of wealth in the hands an élite. And yet one that retains the ghosts of democracy in the participation of citizens and activists trying to assert their right to participate in society.

The film isn’t perfect. It reclaims ‘politics’ for the streets without ever delivering the nail to the coffin of its professionalised deformity, preferring the ‘good system corrupted’ narrative. The greater truth is that the system was made this way. In the conditions of economic despotism which prevail under capitalism professional politics will always represent capital – and whatever democracy exists within it will be won as a concession.

But consciousness-raising is a process. Five years ago ‘The Party’s Over’ was the bridge I needed – offering a glimpse of a system that to me at that moment looked beyond repair and, crucially, pointing to an alternative direction. A path to a politics that related more to quotidian life, community and popular empowerment.

I’m sure there will be many obituaries written about Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of the great actors of his generation, an accolade he thoroughly deserves. But in the spirit of ‘The Party’s Over’ I thought it was worth writing something that wasn’t about his place among the pantheon of greats. A short something on Seymour Hoffman as one of us.

If you get time in the next few days, amid the eruption of vacuous sentimentality in the mainstream press, take a look at ‘The Party’s Over’. It will remind you that Philip Seymour Hoffman was more than a star, as removed from our world as those in the cosmos, or as professional politics. He had a foot down here with the rest of us.