What is Politics?

There is a sentiment common around election time that if you do not vote, you have no right to criticise.  This is an understandable reaction, but whilst it is certainly true that one fairly consistent aspect of living in a ‘liberal democracy’ is a lack of voter turnout, it would be wrong to equate this with a general lack of political engagement.

A crowd of people is split in two.  The larger faction of 2/3 says “We didn’t vote because it won’t make a difference.”  Pictures like this miss the point that little would actually change if everyone voted.

There are many reasons a person may choose not to vote and none of them, not even voter apathy, are a good reason to deny someone the right to complain about politics.  The fact of the matter is that wealthy and educated people are the most likely to vote, meaning that those who have lived a more privileged life have a louder voice in the political sphere.  Apathy is, therefore, inherently political.  Often, though by no means always, it is a poor or marginalised voice saying: “Your political system is so twisted, so stacked against me, that you have left me with no confidence in it whatsoever”.  To realise this is to realise that the idea that the non-voting public have no right to protest is a thoroughly elitist idea.  Voter apathy is a legitimate political response to the hegemony of the corporate media and political class who exist to obfuscate and complicate to the point where no meaningful choice can be made.  This, of course, has become all but a cliché now, yet it is a narrative that should continue be told again and again.

Even when compulsory voting is implemented the core problem remains the same: the proliferation of information is controlled by those with vested interests in maintaining the current socio-economic hierarchies that make up the global capitalist system.[1]  In short, as long as the media is owned by rich people, it will favour the interests of rich people.  This does not change if voting is made compulsory.

But politics is not simply what happens in Westminster.  We can trace the modern concept of politics to Plato and his student Aristotle, who were proud of their systems of governance, believing that the Polis (Greek city state) was the most effective model.  In his own lifetime however, Aristotle saw the unification of Greece under his former student, Alexander the Great, suggesting that politics may be a far wider notion than he had thought.  Similarly, contemporary political thought is often dominated by party politics, but politics is a far more expansive concept than this definition allows.  The tendency of many to forget or ignore the broader political picture relates to the side-lining of what the criminologist Peter Joyce calls ‘extra-parliamentary’ politics.[2]  He uses this term to describe political actions taken outside ‘conventional political activity’, with the aim of ‘influenc[ing] a state’s decision making process’, listing ‘direct action, civil disobedience, physical obstruction and counter-cultural protest’ as notable examples.  This definition, though, is a narrow a one.  Certainly, a common aim of many extra-parliamentary actions is to influence government and parliamentary decision makers, however there are many examples of political actions taken to influence non-parliamentary decision makers as well.  For example, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ (RMF) campaign had the express purpose of influencing university authorities initially to remove a statue of the colonial era businessman and politician, Cecil Rhodes, and then to ‘decolonise’ curricula at multiple universities.[3]  It would be difficult given these circumstances, to argue that this was not a political movement.  Likewise, anarchist political theories and practices, whilst occasionally using existing organs of representative democracy to bring about specific outcomes, are fundamentally concerned with not only addressing felt needs in a community as a result of failures of government, but challenging the legitimacy of government and state altogether.[4]  Prominent recent instances of this include Greek anarchists who have sought to address issues that have arisen due to a lack of public services in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  Again, these are plainly political actions, yet they take place beyond the narrow understanding of politics as intrinsically linked to parliament.

One thing politics is intrinsically linked to, however, is the concept of power: who has it, and who does not.  As Stephen Sykes explains, power is ‘plainly one of a group of words, including violence, force, domination, manipulation, influence, authority, persuasion, and others which the English language has at its disposal for speaking of how agencies, both personal and collective, make a difference in the world.’[5] A point of particular importance to which Sykes alludes here can be summed up in the great feminist rallying cry of the sixties: ‘the personal is political’.  Clearly systems of governance and power have profound and far-reaching effects on how each and every person lives their life, and how that affects others.  The social structures such systems create are the same structures that colour the way we view the world.  Is it right, for example, that women are overwhelmingly lumped with the responsibility for work performed in the home, including the majority of child-rearing, and that they do this for free?  Political leaders will often attempt to divorce the idea of power from this kind of personal consideration, instead focussing on support for free speech and freedom of the press.  This, however, is easily exposed.  The considerable influence the mass media has over apparently democratic processes is notorious, and on occasion it will even let its guard down and admit as much.  Clearly, then, power is a more fluid concept than simply one group having it and another not.  Power can be debated for, demanded, or even seized, and all of this is politics.

The Sun newspaper’s infamous post 1992 election headline read: ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won it’, as if media hegemony was a good thing!

In spite of the definitional complexities, it is true that extra-parliamentary politics is often carried out by people who feel their options for effecting change within the conventional political system have been exhausted, or even that they never existed in the first place.  As well as this, as we have already established that extra-parliamentary politics can also be done by those attempting to influence decision makers, those acting to address felt needs, and those who reject the parliamentary system outright, it seems our definition of extra-parliamentary politics needs to be slightly wider.  Perhaps a more helpful definition would be that extra-parliamentary politics is any action outside parliamentary politics, which stems from frustration or direct political intent, taken by people whose political agency is limited.  Whilst this can be in opposition to parliamentary politics, it is not necessarily so, for example in 2013 the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was arrested for a planned protest against fracking, explaining that she felt there was a “democratic deficit” because the government had ignored the “abundantly clear” public opinion.

However we choose to define politics, one thing is clear: it does not simply refer to parliamentary democracy, but to a whole network of power relations operating at every level of society.  The belief that we have no claim in these power relations is pervasive, and not a hundred miles from the truth, at least in parliamentary terms, but that does not mean we give up hope.  As we shall see in the next blogpost, political power wields violence at every turn, but there are many who believe that grassroots politics – how we organise our communities and our lives – can subvert this violence.

[1] It’s worth acknowledging that compulsory voting is a huge topic with many arguments for and against it.  I am strongly against it, but appreciate that this blogpost is already too long!

[2] Peter Joyce, The Politics of Protest: Extra-parliamentary Politics in Britain since 1970, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 12.

[3] Devashree Gupta, Protest Politics Today, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 3-5.

[4] Paul McLaughlin, Anarchism and Authority: A Philosophical Introduction to Classical Anarchism, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 82-83.

[5] Stephen Sykes, Power and Christian Theology, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 8.

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