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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What is Politics?

‘Man is by nature a political animal.’ARIISTOTLE, Politics, 1

Politics is exciting because people disagree.

They disagree about how they should live.

Who should get what?

How should power and other resources be distributed?

Should society be based on cooperation or conflict?

And so on.

They also disagree about how such matters should be resolved.

How should collective decisions be made?

Who should have a say? How much influence should each person have?

And so forth.

For Aristotle, this made politics the ‘master science’: that is, nothing less than the activity through which human beings attempt to improve their lives and create the Good Society. Politics is, above all, a social activity.

It is always a dialogue, and never a monologue. Solitary individuals such as Robinson Crusoe may be able to develop a simple economy, produce art, and so on, but they cannot engage in politics.

Politics emerges only with the arrival of a Man (or Woman) Friday. Nevertheless, the disagreement that lies at the heart of politics also extends to the nature of the subject and how it should be studied. People disagree about both what it is that makes social interaction ‘political’, and how political activity can best be analysed and explained.

Defining politics

Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live. Politics is thus inextricably linked to the phenomena of conflict and cooperation. On the one hand, the existence of rival opinions, different wants, competing needs and opposing interests guarantees disagreement about the rules under which people live.

On the other hand, people recognize that, in order to influence these rules or ensure that they are upheld, they must work with others – hence Hannah Arendt’s definition of political power as ‘acting in concert’. This is why the heart of politics is often portrayed as a process of conflict resolution, in which rival views or competing interests are reconciled with one another. However, politics in this broad sense is better thought of as a search for conflict resolution than as its achievement, as not all conflicts are, or can be, resolved. Nevertheless, the inescapable presence of diversity (we are not all alike) and scarcity (there is never enough to go around) ensures that politics is an inevitable feature of the human condition.


Any attempt to clarify the meaning of ‘politics’ must nevertheless address two major problems. The first is the mass of associations that the word has when used in everyday language; in other words, politics is a ‘loaded’ term. Whereas most people think of, say, economics, geography, history and biology simply as academic subjects, few people come to politics without preconceptions. Many, for instance, automatically assume that students and teachers of politics must in some way be biased, finding it difficult to believe that the subject can be approached in an impartial and dispassionate manner. To make matters worse, politics is usually thought of as a ‘dirty’ word: it conjures up images of trouble, disruption and even violence on the one hand, and deceit, manipulation and lies on the other. There is nothing new about such associations. As long ago as 1775, Samuel Johnson dismissed politics as ‘nothing more than a means of rising in the world’, while in the nineteenth century the US historian Henry Adams summed up politics as ‘the systematic organization of hatreds’. Any attempt to define politics therefore entails trying to disentangle the term from such associations. Not uncommonly, this has meant attempting to rescue the term from its unsavoury reputation by establishing that politics is a valuable, even laudable, activity.

This is because, in the popular mind, politics is closely associated with the activities of politicians. Put brutally, politicians are often seen as power-seeking hypocrites who conceal personal ambition behind the rhetoric of public service and ideological conviction. Indeed, this perception has become more common in the modern period as intensified media exposure has more effectively brought to light examples of corruption and dishonesty, giving rise to the phenomenon of anti-politics. This rejection of the personnel and machinery of conventional political life is rooted in a view of politics as a self-serving, two-faced and unprincipled activity, clearly evident in the use of derogatory phrases such as ‘office politics’ and ‘politicking’. Such an image of politics is sometimes traced back to the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, who, in The Prince ([1531] 1961), developed a strictly realistic account of politics that drew attention to the use by political leaders of cunning, cruelty and manipulation. Such a negative view of politics reflects the essentially liberal perception that, as individuals are self-interested, political power is corrupting, because it encourages those ‘in power’ to exploit their position for personal advantage and at the expense of others.

This is famously expressed in Lord Acton’s (1834–1902) aphorism: ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The second and more intractable difficulty is that even respected authorities cannot agree what the subject is about. Politics is defined in such different ways:

as the exercise of power,

the exercise of authority,

the making of collective decisions,

the allocation of scarce resources, the practice of deception and

manipulation, and so on.

The virtue of the definition advanced in this text, ‘the making, preserving and amending of general social rules’, is that it is sufficiently broad to encompass most, if not all, of the competing definitions. However, problems arise when the definition is unpacked, or when the meaning is refined. For instance, does ‘politics’ refer to a particular way in which rules are made, preserved or amended (that is, peacefully, by debate), or to all such processes? Similarly, is politics practised in all social contexts and institutions, or only in certain ones (that is, government and public life)?

From this perspective, politics may be treated as an ‘essentially contested’ concept in the sense that the term has a number of acceptable or legitimate mean-ings. On the other hand, these different views may simply consist of contrasting conceptions of the same, if necessarily vague, concept. Whether we are dealing with rival concepts or alternative conceptions, the debate about ‘what is politics?’ is worth pursuing because it exposes some of the deepest intellectual and ideological disagreements in the academic study of the subject.

The different views of politics examined here are as follows:

politics as the art of government

politics as public affairs

politics as compromise and consensus

politics as power and the distribution of resources.

Politics as the art of government

‘Politics is not a science ... but an art’, Chancellor Bismarck is reputed to have told the German Reichstag. The art Bismarck had in mind was the art of government, the exercise of control within society through the making and enforcement of collective decisions. This is perhaps the classical definition of politics, developed from the original meaning of the term in Ancient Greece. The word ‘politics’ is derived from polis, meaning literally city-state. Ancient Greek society was divided into a collection of independent city-states, each of which possessed its own system of government. The largest and most influential of these city-states was Athens, often portrayed as the cradle of democratic government. In this light, politics can be understood to refer to the affairs of the polis – in effect, ‘what concerns the polis’. The modern form of this definition is therefore ‘what concerns the state’ .

In many ways, the notion that politics amounts to ‘what concerns the state’ is the traditional view of the discipline, reflected in the tendency for academic study to focus upon the personnel and machinery of government. To study politics is in essence to study government, or, more broadly, to study the exercise of authority. This view is advanced in the writings of the influential US political scientist David Easton (1979, 1981), who defined politics as the ‘authoritative allocation of values’. By this he meant that politics encompasses the various processes through which government responds to pressures from the larger society, in particular by allocating benefits, rewards or penalties. ‘Authoritative values’ are therefore ones that are widely accepted in society, and are considered binding by the mass of citizens. In this view, politics is associated with ‘policy’: that is, with formal or authoritative decisions that establish a plan of action for the community.


However, what is striking about this definition is that it offers a highly restricted view of politics. Politics is what takes place within a polity, a system of social organization centred upon the machinery of government. Politics is therefore practised in cabinet rooms, legislative chambers, government departments and the like, and it is engaged in by a limited and specific group of people, notably politicians, civil servants and lobbyists.

This means that most people, most institutions and most social activities can be regarded as being ‘outside’ politics. Businesses, schools and other educational institutions, community groups, families and so on are in this sense ‘nonpolitical’, because they are not engaged in ‘running the country’. By the same token, to portray politics as an essentially state-bound activity is to ignore the increasingly important international or global influences upon modern life, such as the impact of transnational technology and multinational corporations. In this sense, this definition of politics is a hangover from the days when the nation-state (see p. 123) could still be regarded as an independent actor in world affairs. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that the task of managing complex societies is no longer simply carried out by government but involves a wide range of public and private sector bodies. This is reflected in the idea that government is being replaced by ‘governance’.

This definition can, however, be narrowed still further. This is evident in the tendency to treat politics as the equivalent of party politics. In other words, the realm of ‘the political’ is restricted to those state actors who are consciously motivated by ideological beliefs, and who seek to advance them through membership of a formal organization such as a political party. This is the sense in which politicians are described as ‘political’, whereas civil servants are seen as ‘nonpolitical’, as long as, of course, they act in a neutral and professional fashion. Similarly, judges are taken to be ‘nonpolitical’ figures while they interpret the law impartially and in accordance with the available evidence, but they may be accused of being ‘political’ if their judgement is influenced by personal preferences or some other form of bias.

Nevertheless, few who view politics in this way doubt that political activity is an inevitable and permanent feature of social existence. However venal politicians may be, there is a general, if grudging, acceptance that they are always with us. Without some kind of mechanism for allocating authoritative values, society would simply disintegrate into a civil war of each against all, as the early social-contract theorists argued .The task is therefore not to abolish politicians and bring politics to an end, but rather to ensure that politics is conducted within a framework of checks and constraints that ensure that governmental power is not abused.

Politics as public affairs

A second and broader conception of politics moves it beyond the narrow realm of government to what is thought of as ‘public life’ or ‘public affairs’. In other words, the distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘the nonpolitical’ coincides with the division between an essentially public sphere of life and what can be thought of as a private sphere. Such a view of politics is often traced back to the work of the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle.

In Politics, Aristotle declared that ‘man is by nature a political animal’, by which he meant that it is only within a political community that human beings can live ‘the good life’. From this viewpoint, then, politics is an ethical activity concerned with creating a ‘just society’; it is what Aristotle called the ‘master science’. However, where should the line between ‘public’ life and ‘private’ life be drawn?

On the basis of this ‘public/private’ division, politics is restricted to the activities of the state itself and the responsibilities that are properly exercised by public bodies. Those areas of life that individuals can and do manage for themselves (the economic, social, domestic, personal, cultural and artistic spheres, and so on) are therefore clearly ‘nonpolitical’.

An alternative ‘public/private’ divide is sometimes defined in terms of a further and more subtle distinction, namely that between ‘the political’ and ‘the personal’. Although civil society can be distinguished from the state, it nevertheless contains a range of institutions that are thought of as ‘public’ in the wider sense that they are open institutions, operating in public, to which the public has access. One of the crucial implications of this is that it broadens our notion of the political, transferring the economy in particular from the private to the public realm. A form of politics can thus be found in the workplace. Nevertheless, although this view regards institutions such as businesses, community groups, clubs and trade unions as ‘public’, it remains a restricted view of politics. According to this perspective, politics does not, and should not, infringe upon ‘personal’ affairs and institutions. Feminist thinkers in particular have pointed out that this implies that politics effectively stops at the front door; it does not take place in the family, in domestic life, or in personal relationships. This view is illustrated, for example, by the tendency of politicians to draw a clear distinction between their professional conduct and their personal or domestic behaviour. By classifying, say, cheating on their partners or treating their children badly as ‘personal’ matters, they are able to deny the political significance of such behaviour on the grounds that it does not touch on their conduct of public affairs.

The view of politics as an essentially ‘public’ activity has generated both positive and negative images. In a tradition dating back to Aristotle, politics has been seen as a noble and enlightened activity precisely because of its ‘public’ character. This position was firmly endorsed by Hannah Arendt, who argued in The Human Condition (1958) that politics is the most important form of human activity because it involves interaction amongst free and equal citizens. It thus gives meaning to life and affirms the uniqueness of each individual. Theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (see p. 79) and John Stuart Mill (see p. 48) who portrayed political participation as a good in itself have drawn similar conclusions. Rousseau argued that only through the direct and continuous participation of all citizens in political life can the state be bound to the common good, or what he called the ‘general will’ (see p. 79). In Mill’s view, involvement in ‘public’ affairs is educational in that it promotes the personal, moral and intellectual development of the individual. In sharp contrast, however, politics as public activity has also been portrayed as a form of unwanted interference. Liberal theorists in particular have exhibited a preference for civil society over the state, on the grounds that ‘private’ life is a realm of choice, personal freedom and individual responsibility. This is most clearly demonstrated by attempts to narrow the realm of ‘the political’, commonly expressed as the wish to ‘keep politics out of’ private activities such as business, sport and family life. From this point of view, politics is unwholesome quite simply because it prevents people acting as they choose. For example, it may interfere with how firms conduct their business, or with how and with whom we play sports, or with how we bring up our children.

Politics as compromise and consensus

The third conception of politics relates not so much to the arena within which politics is conducted as to the way in which decisions are made. Specifically, politics is seen as a particular means of resolving conflict: that is, by compromise, conciliation and negotiation, rather than through force and naked power. This is what is implied when politics is portrayed as ‘the art of the possible’. Such a definition is inherent in the everyday use of the term. For instance, the description of a solution to a problem as a ‘political’ solution implies peaceful debate and arbitration, as opposed to what is often called a ‘military’ solution. Once again, this view of politics has been traced back to the writings of Aristotle and, in particular, to his belief that what he called ‘polity’ is the ideal system of government, as it is ‘mixed’ in the sense that it combines both aristocratic and democratic features. One of the leading modern exponents of this view is Bernard Crick. In his classic study In Defence of Politics, Crick offered the following definition:

Politics [is] the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated

by giving them a share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and

the survival of the whole community. (Crick, [1962] 2000:21)

In this view, the key to politics is therefore a wide dispersal of power. Accepting that conflict is inevitable, Crick argued that when social groups and interests possess power they must be conciliated; they cannot merely be crushed. This is why he portrayed politics as ‘that solution to the problem of order which chooses conciliation rather than violence and coercion’ (p. 30). Such a view of politics reflects a deep commitment to liberal–rationalist principles. It is based on resolute faith in the efficacy of debate and discussion, as well as on the belief that society is characterized by consensus rather than by irreconcilable conflict. In other words, the disagreements that exist can be resolved without resort to intimidation and violence. Critics, however, point out that Crick’s conception of politics is heavily biased towards the form of politics that takes place in western pluralist democracies: in effect, he equated politics with electoral choice and party competition. As a result, his model has little to tell us about, say, one-party states or military regimes.

This view of politics has an unmistakeably positive character. Politics is certainly no utopian solution (compromise means that concessions are made by all sides, leaving no one perfectly satisfied), but it is undoubtedly preferable to the alternatives: bloodshed and brutality. In this sense, politics can be seen as a civilized and civilizing force. People should be encouraged to respect politics as an activity, and should be prepared to engage in the political life of their own community. Nevertheless, a failure to understand that politics as a process of compromise and reconciliation is neccessarily frustrating and difficult (because in involves listening carefully to the opinions of others) may have contributed to a growing popular disenchantment with democratic politics across much of the developed world. As Stoker (2006:10) put it, ‘Politics is designed to disappoint’; its outcomes are ‘often messy, ambiguous and never final’.

Politics as power

The fourth definition of politics is both the broadest and the most radical. Rather than confining politics to a particular sphere (the government, the state or the ‘public’ realm) this view sees politics at work in all social activities and in every corner of human existence. As Adrian Leftwich proclaimed in What is Politics? The Activity and Its Study (2004), ‘politics is at the heart of all collective social activity, formal and informal, public and private, in all human groups, institutions and societies’. In this sense, politics takes place at every level of social interaction; it can be found within families and amongst small groups of friends just as much as amongst nations and on the global stage. However, what is it that is distinctive about political activity? What marks off politics from any other form of social behaviour?

‘Faces’ of power

Power can be said to be exercised whenever A gets B to do something that B would not otherwise have done. However, A can influence B in various ways. This allows us to distinguish between different dimensions or ‘faces’ of power: _ Power as decision-making: This face of power consists of conscious actions that in some way influence the content of decisions. The classic account of this form of power is found in Robert Dahl’s Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (1961), which made judgements about who had power by analysing decisions in the light of the known preferences of the actors involved. Such decisions can nevertheless be influenced in a variety of ways.

In Three Faces of Power (1989), Keith Boulding distinguished between the use of force or intimidation (the stick), productive exchanges involving mutual gain (the deal), and the creation of obligations, loyalty and commitment (the kiss)._ Power as agenda setting: The second face of power, as suggested by Bachrach and Baratz (1962), is the ability to prevent decisions being made: that is, in effect, ‘non-decision-making’. This involves the ability to set or control the political agenda, thereby preventing issues or proposals from being aired in the first place. For instance, private businesses may exert power both by campaigning to defeat proposed consumer-protection legislation (first face), and by lobbying parties and politicians to prevent the question of consumer rights being publicly discussed (second face). _ Power as thought control: The third face of power is the ability to influence another by shaping what he or she thinks, wants, or needs. This is power expressed as ideological indoctrination or psychological control. This is what Lukes (2004) called the radical view of power, and it overlaps with the notion of ‘soft’ power (see p. 142). An example of this would be the ability of advertising to shape consumer tastes, often by cultivating associations with a ‘brand’. In political life, the exercise of this form of power is seen in the use of propaganda and, more generally, in the impact of ideology (see p. 45).

At its broadest, politics concerns the production, distribution and use of resources in the course of social existence. Politics is, in essence, power: the ability to achieve a desired outcome, through whatever means. This notion was neatly summed up in the title of Harold Lasswell’s book Politics: Who Gets What, When, How? (1936). From this perspective, politics is about diversity and conflict, but the essential ingredient is the existence of scarcity: the simple fact that, while human needs and desires are infinite, the resources available to satisfy them are always limited. Politics can therefore be seen as a struggle over scarce resources, and power can be seen as the means through which this struggle is conducted. Advocates of this view of power include feminists and Marxists. Modern feminists have shown particular interest in the idea of ‘the political’. This arises from the fact that conventional definitions of politics effectively exclude women from political life. Women have traditionally been confined to a ‘private’ sphere of existence, centred on the family and domestic responsibilities. In contrast, men have always dominated conventional politics and other areas of ‘public’ life. Radical feminists have therefore attacked the ‘public/private’ divide, proclaiming instead that ‘the personal is the political’. This slogan neatly encapsulates the radicalfeminist belief that what goes on in domestic, family and personal life is intensely political, and indeed that it is the basis of all other political struggles. Clearly, a more radical notion of politics underlies this position. This view was summed up by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1969:23), in which she defined politics as ‘powerstructured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another’. Feminists can therefore be said to be concerned with ‘the politics of everyday life’. In their view, relationships within the family, between husbands and wives, and between parents and children, are every bit as political as relationships between employers and workers, or between governments and citizens. Marxists have used the term ‘politics’ in two senses. On one level, Marx (see p. 55) used ‘politics’ in a conventional sense to refer to the apparatus of the state. In the Communist Manifesto ([1848] 1967) he thus referred to political power as ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’. For Marx, politics, together with law and culture, are part of a ‘superstructure’ that is distinct from the economic ‘base’ that is the real foundation of social life. However, he did not see the economic ‘base’ and the legal and political ‘superstructure’ as entirely separate. He believed that the ‘superstructure’ arose out of, and reflected, the economic ‘base’. At a deeper level, political power, in this view, is therefore rooted in the class system; as Lenin (see p. 81) put it, ‘politics is the most concentrated form of economics’. As opposed to believing that politics can be confined to the state and a narrow public sphere, Marxists can be said to believe that ‘the economic is political’. From this perspective, civil society, characterized as Marxists believe it to be by class struggle, is the very heart of politics.

Views such as these portray politics in largely negative terms. Politics is, quite simply, about oppression and subjugation. Radical feminists hold that society is patriarchal, in that women are systematically subordinated and subjected to male power. Marxists traditionally argued that politics in a capitalist society is characterized by the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, these negative implications are balanced against the fact that politics is also seen as the means through which injustice and domination can be challenged. Marx, for instance, predicted that class exploitation would be overthrown by a proletarian revolution, and radical feminists proclaim the need for gender relations to be reordered through a sexual revolution. However, it is also clear that when politics is portrayed as power and domination it need not be seen as an inevitable feature of social existence. Feminists look to an end of ‘sexual politics’ achieved through the construction of a nonsexist society, in which people will be valued according to personal worth rather than on the basis of gender. Marxists believe that ‘class politics’ will end with the establishment of a classless communist society. This, in turn, will eventually lead to the ‘withering away’ of the state, bringing politics in the conventional sense also to an end.

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