The Odd Blog

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On Politics

Posted by That Other Mike on 25/11/2007

This blog is partly based around political commentary, and I thought it might be interesting to have a stab at actually defining the subject. Politics, in terms of definitions, is a little like obscenity; we know it when we see it, but find it difficult to define accurately when pressed. Not to mention that both leave us feeling a little dirty and ashamed afterwards.

Note that this is an exploration of politics as theory, rather than the rounds of the great game which we see played out around us daily; one is the effect, the other the cause or explanation of the effect.

Before I go into the rather dry theoretical stuff, I’d be very interested in seeing people’s reactions to what I’ve said here; in that vein, if all I’ve unwittingly done is hamhandedly rehash someone else’s ideas, please let me know. This is all out of my own head.

Various sources give various definitions, such as

[t]he art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation, and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs.1

or

[…] the process by which groups of people make decisions. Although the term is generally applied to behavior within civil governments, politics is observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.2

While these are moderately satisfying for rough definitions, I would argue that they really don’t get to the heart of the issue. Neither one (nor, I suspect, most others) really tells us what politics is as a thing in itself; both of them are utilitarian definitions, by which I mean that they define politics as a thing by what it does, rather than by its essence3.

Another definition which might fit would be that politics is the study of means and methods of governance; as the Merriam-Webster has it, “the art or science of government” 4. This definition, I think, is one that would probably be assented to by most people, but it still runs into problems; some positions which we routinely classify as political reject the legitimacy of the idea of governance altogether, such as Anarchism5, or, to a lesser extent, various strands of US Libertarian6 thinking.

Their rejection of governance as in any way legitimate leaves us with a problem; as I said, most people and definitions would not hesitate to place these viewpoints squarely into politics. Yet they squarely repudiate the entire meaning as previously given.

This leave us with a problem, for which I can see only two possible solutions7: either we accept that Anarchistic thought is not political, which seems, on the face of it, to be patently absurd; or we accept that such a limited definition is of little to no use, and attempt to find another one.

To this end, I would argue that to make a workable, accurate definition, we must look to the attributes of politics and see what is common throughout. We cannot say that it is something related to government or governance only; while this seems to be the most common arena in which people encounter politics, as we have seen, certain areas of it reject the concept entirely.

The commonality is certainly not in method; political systems range from tyrannies to democracies, from constitutional monarchies to empires, from no system to small-scale syndicalism. There is no common thread there.

Similarly, we cannot say that it derives solely from content; while political systems and ideologies frequently touch upon economics in some ways, all too many of them do so in a manner which suggests simple acquiescence to the status quo. This much is obvious when we look at the obvious, unthinking acceptance most Westerners give to the status quo of moderately-regulated capitalism or the attitudes in the former Eastern Bloc regarding guaranteed jobs and housing8.

Where, then, do we derive a meaningful definition? It is my belief that the only significant common denominator between political systems is power – the ability to influence or have authority over external events to whatever degree in a significant or binding manner.

In terms of what we mean by “power”, I would include the use of coercion, whether physical, economic or social, as well as voluntary acts and associations. The exact mixture of these, of course, is dependent upon circumstance.

Following this, it seems therefore that politics is the study of power interactions. I hesitate to use the term “power structures” for the same reason that I do not believe the above definitions of politics regarding “governance” are appropriate; some political philosophies reject the legitimacy of power structures per se. Thus it seems more suitable to use the term “interactions”.

In conclusion, I would thus assert that we can define politics as the study of how people interact in regards to external power.


1 Dictionary.com, “Politics”; http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/politic
2 Wikipedia, “Politics”; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics
3 I use the term “essence” here advisedly, knowing full well that certain New Age types, postmodernists and frothing philosophers have abused it over the years; I use it in the strict sense of being the “basic, real and invariable nature of a thing” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/essence).
4 Merriam-Webster, “Politics”; http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/politics
5Wikipedia, Anarchism; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism
6 Specifically, members of the Libertarian Party USA (www.lp.org), a “pro-market” group whose apparent understanding of freedom extends only to money; or the Cato Institute (www.cato.org) and similar think tanks.
7 The argument could be made that because it is a stance which rests upon the rejection of government, it does in fact conform to this definition; to my mind, this is specious, akin to saying that Atheism is theology.
8 “Germans hanker after barrier”, Guardian Unlimited, 08 Nov 07 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/germany/article/0,,2207087,00.html)
9 Meaning, of course, the dominant Western mode of moderated representative government, universal adult suffrage, etc.

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4 Responses to “On Politics”

  1. I must admit, Mike, this is a question I’d never considered before reading your post. I understood politics as a system of cause and effect and didn’t really feel the need to define it further. Having said that, however, and having given it more thought, I would probably concur with your analysis.

    I say “probably” for two reasons. 1) The study of political theory/ideology isn’t really my area of expertise; 2) My “instinct” is that there is something organic about the development of political protocols and structures — it grows in a specific way to fit localised needs that, whilst definitely “about” power, might be better termed “control”, “order” etc. Also, it’s a form of power that is often granted or allowed, and can and is often taken away…. “Power” might be a little too sloppy a term. Or it might be bang on the button.

    Does that help? he he he.

  2. Mike said

    Well, my thought processes often run to the abstract and ontological… Not enough to do, probably.

    That was something I considered, actually, about control, but it didn’t seem accurate. Power, after all, also has the neutral meaning of being able to get things done, deriving as it does from posse. Control, on the other hand, has a definite hint of coercion or the absence of choice.

    It helped. Made me think further on it 🙂

  3. Control certainly does have a less neutral definition, when you put it like that. The Catholic church maintaining its political influence through the doctrinal control of the masses, etc. But perhaps we’re too concerned about avoiding negative terms? Isn’t it a system that, in its many forms, IS about an absence of choice? Let’s face it, every political ideology is imperfect. Even democracy is piss-poor when compared to the unattainable ideal — but it’s about the best we’ve got (or that’s what we’re led to believe :-))

    Power for power’s sake… or power in order that a system of control (in the negative and positive sense) might achieved?

    Just throwing questions at you. See if anything sticks 😉

  4. Mike said

    That’s an interesting view; while one can view politics as being about the absence of choice in some cases, in many others it isn’t… I suppose my intention was to avoid positive and negative terms in an attempt to focus on the purely descriptive.

    Democracy is certainly the least worse of all the systems, IMO, and even (when implemented properly) rises to wonderful heights at times.

    Power in the sense of doing stuff towards certain ends, really.

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