What is politics?

By Timothy Fitzgerald
11 Sep 2012

In thinking about politics, a chance encounter with an excellent pedagogical website at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, College of Arts and Sciences [1] provides me with a starting point.

In order to help students to write essays on “Political Science” and other topics, The Writing Center performs a valuable on-line service to pedagogy, a service which can be appreciated and profited from by readers, students and also lecturers such as myself in different parts of the world. Much of the practical advice on writing essays is excellent, and shows a high level of pedagogical competence. And they do this for a whole range of subjects, not only Politics.

However, the advice given by the Writing Center embeds an uncritical and widely disseminated discourse about politics which in turn reflects the dominant structure of faculties in the university and the wider assumptions of modern America. These assumptions may be internalised and adopted by students in many different countries. My comments are not intended as criticism of the services offered by that webpage. My concern is both more general and more specific than this, with the theoretical and methodological problems in isolating and defining a domain of politics or political science in the first place.

The Writing Center at Chapel Hill has posted the following student-friendly hand-out on its webpage explaining what politics is:

>em>At its most basic level, politics is the struggle of “who gets what, when, how.” This struggle may be as modest as competing interest groups fighting over control of a small municipal budget or as overwhelming as a military stand-off between international superpowers.

Politics is here characterized in terms of “struggle”, “interest groups”, and “fighting over control”. Political science is constituted by the description and analysis of such struggles. This summary of politics, necessarily brief given the practical task of essay writing, but one which might be reproduced in many student essays around the world, indicates a specific domain characterised by conflict and competition over resources which might have been the subject matter of economics, human geography, social anthropology, religious studies and other disciplines as well.

Furthermore, this characterization of politics in terms of competition over scarce resources may imply an assumption about ‘human nature’ which could itself be contested. It could be, for instance, that some historically-identifiable orders of power and theories of the good life have legitimated practices which promote radically different conceptions of human flourishing. While it is probably true that human life has always been characterized by contestations of power and conflict over resources, it should be held as a possibility that the contemporary celebration of individualistic self-interest requires an ideological illusion to make it seem more credible than alternative systems of collective representations.

We can observe this very explicitly in modern liberal economic ideology, which, by placing self-interest at the centre of its theorizations, seems to have greatly contributed to the very conditions of inequality, scarcity and want that economists hope to ameliorate. Its promotion of an ideology of individual self-interest, and the globalizing liberal belief that selfishness and greed promote an overall harmony of interests, may itself be partly the cause of the massive impoverishment of vast numbers struggling for survival in so-called developing nations, and the rapid degradation of the environment.

Unfortunately, faith in progress acts as an ideological filter which makes the possibility of falsifying the paradigm seem counter-intuitive. It is in the context of these thoughts that I will go on in future blogs to ask why political theorists incessantly remind us that our ‘political’ categories come etymologically from Greek, and that Aristotle is the one who gave us the basis for modern political theory.

What then do political scientists do?

According to the advice given by the Writing Center at Chapel Hill,

Political scientists study such struggles, both small and large, in an effort to develop general principles or theories about the way the world of politics works.

This raises at least two significant issues. Firstly, we might ask: in what sense does such a world of politics exist? “The world of politics” is not itself an observable phenomenon but a more-or-less arbitrary demarcation of the spectrum of human agency. I say arbitrary, because – like the equally indeterminate ‘world of religion’, there are no boundaries to what can and cannot be described as politics.

There are no objective limits, independent of the agent’s own imagined assumptions, which can tell you where a political practice ends and a religious or economic (etc.) practice begins. When I say ‘the agent’s own imagined assumptions’, I do not mean a purely subjective, solipsistic imaginary. I mean that there are no boundaries existing independently of what specific dominant interest groups and their control of media of communication declare there to be.

For example, when Jefferson made his Declaration of Independence, it was precisely that, a declaration. He and a growing class of like-minded Americans were articulating an aspiration, not a fact. He was rhetorically promulgating a new imaginary world order. This new world order would be characterised by nation states protected from ‘religion’ by written constitutions which declare human rights. These human rights are part of the inherently rational order of the world, and are delivered to us through natural reason unfettered by traditional religious superstitions which deny such freedoms.

This Lockean imaginaire, which is encapsulated in his concept of ‘the state of nature’, [2] is essentially no different from a powerful myth which acts as a charter for action. So when political scientists claim to be describing and analyzing the world of politics, I take it that they too are really making a proclamation about a world which ought to exist, rather than making objective descriptions about a world independent of our desires and intentions. They are in effect inventing and re-inventing ‘politics’ as they speak about it. I feel the same scepticism about the existence of such a world as I feel when religionists claim to be describing and analyzing a world of religion.

I have discussed many cases of these apparently factual descriptions about religion which, on closer inspection, turn out to be constructing the objects of their own research. Beneath the blarney of neutral objectivity and precise description and analysis, they are constructing and reconstructing the imagined objects themselves, a reified idealization ‘politics’ which depends on the (often unconscious) exclusion of a mirror-image construction of another reified idealization, ‘religion’.

The second significant issue that I want to raise here relates to the question of objectivity and the question of ‘science’. I will discuss this in the next blog posting. I also want to discuss the origins of ‘political theory’ in Aristotle, and why, despite the etymological connections which are incessantly flagged up by those looking for a respectable origin for their discipline, modern politics seems to have little to do with the Greek master.

NOTES

[1] http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/political-science/
[2] Locke develops his concept of ‘man in the state of nature’ in various works, especially his Two Treatises on Government (1688 [1690]). It is an exercise in theoretical abstraction intended to show that his own belief in the values of liberal individualism is justified within his interpretation of natural law and natural reason. In short, the liberal bourgeois myth of the rational individual as the source of all value is given narrative shape in the form of Adam and his descendants. Elements of the Lockean myth are derived from various empirical sightings of Native Americans and other colonized peoples about whom he speculates.

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© Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Languages, Cultures and Religions at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.


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