WHAT IS POLITICS?
‘Man is by nature a political animal.’
ARISTOTLE, 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 someone else into the story (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 what it is that makes social interaction ‘political’, whether it is where it takes place (within government, the state or the public sphere generally), or the kind of activity it involves (peacefully resolving conflict or exercising control over less powerful groups). Disagreement about the nature of politics as an academic discipline means that it embraces a range of theoretical approaches and a variety of schools of analysis. Finally, globalizing tendencies have encouraged some to speculate that the disciplinary divide between politics and international relations has now become redundant. (Chapter 20
considers how, why, and with what justification, politics has been criticized.)
What are the defining features of politics as an activity?
How has ‘politics’ been understood by various thinkers and traditions?
What are the main approaches to the study of politics as an academic discipline?
Can the study of politics be scientific?
What roles do concepts, models and theories play in political analysis?
How have globalizing trends affected the relationship between politics and international relations?
Politics, in its
broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live. Although politics is also an academic subject (sometimes indicated by the use of ‘Politics’ with a capital P), it is then clearly the study of this activity. Politics is thus inextricably linked to the phenomena of conflict
. 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 (see p. 7) 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.
Conflict: Competition between opposing forces, reflecting a diversity of opinions, preferences, needs or interests.
Cooperation: Working together; achieving goals through collective action.
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’.
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 science of government, 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 meanings (concepts are discussed more fully later in the chapter). 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, it is helpful to distinguish between two broad approaches to defining politics (Hay, 2002; Leftwich, 2004). In the first, politics is associated with an arena or location, in which case behaviour becomes ‘political’ because of where it takes place. In the second, politics is viewed as a process or mechanism, in which case ‘political’ behaviour is behaviour that exhibits distinctive characteristics or qualities, and so can take place in any, and perhaps all, social contexts. Each of these broad approaches has spawned alternative definitions of politics, and, as discussed later in the chapter, helped to shape different schools of political analysis (see Figure 1.1
). Indeed, the debate about ‘what is politics?’ is worth pursuing precisely because it exposes some of the deepest intellectual and ideological disagreement in the academic study of the subject.
Figure 1.1 Approaches to defining politics
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’ (see p. 57). This view of politics is clearly evident in the everyday use of the term: people are said to be ‘in politics’ when they hold public office, or to be ‘entering politics’ when they seek to do so. It is also a definition that academic political science has helped to perpetuate.
Polis: (Greek) City-state; classically understood to imply the highest or most desirable form of social organization.
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 on 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 those that are widely accepted in society, and are considered binding by the mass of citizens. In this view, politics is associated with ‘policy’ (see p. 365): that is, with formal or authoritative decisions that establish a plan of action for the community.
Authority can most simply be defined as ‘legitimate power’. Whereas power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others, authority is the right to do so. Authority is therefore based on an acknowledged duty to obey rather than on any form of coercion or manipulation. In this sense, authority is power cloaked in legitimacy or rightfulness. Weber (see p. 81) distinguished between three kinds of authority, based on the different grounds on which obedience can be established: traditional authority is rooted in history; charismatic authority stems from personality; and legal–rational authority is grounded in a set of impersonal rules.
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 on 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 ‘non-political’, 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 on modern life, as discussed in the next main section.
Polity: A society organized through the exercise of political authority; for Aristotle, rule by the many in the interests of all.
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 ...