What Is Politics?

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What Is Politics

On hearing the word politics, what usually springs to mind are images of
government, politicians and their policies or more negatively the idea
of corruption and dirty tricks. The actual definition seems to have been
obscured and almost lost by such representations and clich├ęs that tend
not to pinpoint the true essence, which defines this thing, called
politics. In order to make an attempt at a definition of politics a
systematic approach is required. To begin with, a brief historical
overview will be considered, to understand the origins of politics.

Following this, different core concepts, which are imperative to a
definition of politics, will be discussed, in the hope to discover a
true and fair interpretation of the word politics.

The word politics comes from the Greek word "polis", meaning the state
or community as a whole. The concept of the "polis" was an ideal state
and came from the writings of great political thinkers such as Plato and
Aristotle. In his novel "The Republic", Plato describes the ideal state
and the means to achieve it. Hence, the word politics originally has
connotations in the ways in which to create the ideal society. An ideal
society is in practice a rather difficult aim and even an impossible aim
to achieve. Politics implies measures which could and should, in the
views of their devisor, be implemented in the hope to create a better
society, than that which is already present. The very fact that Plato
and Aristotle saw imperfections in the societies in which they lived,
prompted them to write their political philosophies. These philosophies
provided the first written recognition of politics. In his writings his
"The Politics", Aristotle states that "Man is by nature a political
animal"(The Politics, 1) in another words, it lies deep within the
instinct of man. It is almost primal. Due to his nature man should
consider and realise his role within the "polis". So according to
Aristotle Politics is not a dreamt up concept, but rather an inherent
feature of mankind.

To begin with, the basest premise that underpins the notion of politics
should be considered in order to arrive at a fair definition. Man is
self-preserving by nature. He thinks and acts, whether that is as an
individual or as a group who share interests, with foremost regard to
his own interests. Self-perpetuation is the number one rule. He
therefore possesses his own interests, ideas and preferences, which may

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differ to those of his contemporaries. In the "Blackwell Encyclopaedia
of Political Thought", Miller supports this premise:

"Politics presupposes a diversity of view, if not about ultimate aims,
at least the best ways of achieving them". (Miller, 1987, p.390)

Politics consider this view of man, in that on meeting others whose
interests oppose his own, conflict is bound to occur. What could be the
cause of this conflict in interest? The world has its limits; all
material wealth within it is exhaustible. Who therefore, gets how large
a share, of those resources, which are present on the earth in limited
supply? If man were permitted to act on and pursue his own selfish
interests, snatching that, which he desires, a society would quickly
become under rule of violence. Politics is a way of combating the
degradation of society into a violent and unstructured mess by reducing
it to be governed by the primitive instincts of man in order to resolve
conflict. Leftwich states in his essay entitled "Politics: people,
resources and power" from his book "What is Politics?"

"...politics compromises all the activities of co-operation and
conflict, within and between societies, whereby the human species goes
about organising the use, production and distribution of human, natural
and other resources in the production and reproduction of its biological
and social life." (Leftwich, 1984, p.64-65)

Politics therefore may be defined a means to resolving this conflict
through various means, which will be tackled later in this essay. If
however one was to take this premise of the existence of opposing
opinions as false, conflict between individuals should never occur and
politics would not be required to resolve problems. To justify politics
however, this premise must be true and through simply considering, the
society in which we live it is evident, that conflict exists. In his
definition of politics in the "Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political
Thought" Miller advocates this view, stating that if "people (were to)
agree spontaneously on a course of action...they (would) have no need to
engage in politics."(Miller, 1987, p.390)(Added) Thus, politics exists
due to the broad spectrum of ideas and opinions within any society.

To resolve conflicting opinions, a consensus must be agreed upon by all
parties affected. Also in "The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political
Thought", Miller cites three methods which are a feature of politics
when resolving disagreements within society, these three elements are
"persuasion, bargaining and a mechanism for reaching a final
decision"(Miller, 1987, p.390). This means that politics tries to act as
a peacemaker by offering solution(s) to conflict to the parties involved
by means of discussion with them. The outcome will most probably require
the yielding of at least one of the parties implicated in order to meet
at a compromise. The mechanism is the way in which the parties make
their final decisions based on the scenarios with which they have been
provided. This may take the form of a vote.

How is it that the final decision made though compromise is enforceable?
For surely in order for politics to be of any use as a pacifier in
strained relations it must carry some sort of authority and power.

Politics implies power. Dahl, in Modern Political Analysis, states that:
"a political system as any persistent pattern of human relationships
that involves, to a significant extent, control, influence, power or
authority." (Dahl, 1984, p.9-10)

Certain members of a society must have the authority over other member's
in order to enforce civil discussion in the first place. It seems to
follow that for certain individuals to exert more power than others they
must have the support of a large proportion over those which they have
authority. Going back to the premise that man is at heart a selfish
creature, it must be true that even those in power are immune to the
effects of pursuing their own goals to a certain extent. Politics could
therefore be defined as a power struggle between those in influential
positions. Power can only be obtained by obtaining the support from as
many groups and individuals as possible. This can be achieved by
providing tempting solutions to conflicts that already exist in a
society, whether this be in a honest or dishonest way. By appealing to
members of a society with solutions to their problems and promises to
act in their interests, a group or individual can gain support and
ultimately authority over other groups and individuals. Politics could
thus be defined as a calculating art of power gain or power retention or
more simply as power struggle.

The ultimate power is found in government. Miller continues to name the
state as "the chief arena of politics, in the modern world. (Miller,
1987, p.391)

It is within this institution that all of the aforementioned takes
place. Thus, politics could be defined as the workings of government as
a guarantor to a peaceful society. The government is run by the
politicians, it is the politicians who form the ideas to hopefully
settle conflict in the society they govern. However it seems that if
politics are the working of government those societies and communities,
which do not possess a government, are devoid of politics. In Britain,
we have a government so we tend to relate the politics as the workings
of that government. However, in every community and corporation where
there is hierarchy politics must exist. In a company for example, a boss
makes decisions and resolves conflict. In a tribe, a leader makes
decisions to keep internal conflicts to a minimum and ultimately ensures
the survival of his tribe. Thus politics is present in every community
and is used to manage workings and disagreements that may occur within
any co-habitation. John Horton, contributor in Leftwich "What is
Politics?" supports this view. Horton quotes from "Rationalism in
Politics and other Essays"(1962) by Michael Oakenshott;

"Politics I take to be the activity of attending to the general
arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought
together. In this sense, families, clubs and learned societies have
their politics" (Leftwich, 1984, p.112)

Here Oakenshott acknowledges the existence of politics in all kinds of
human societies and communities, because of co-habitation. Horton
however goes on to name the state as being as possessing certain
features which make it particular from those other examples of politics
listed by Oakenshott. These features suggest the mandatory and
authoritarian nature of the state, when compared to those politics that
exist in say a sports club. Politics occurs in all kinds of communities.

Whether it be the sports club or the state government and is concerned
with devising a method of organisation and attempting to implement that
method of organisation within that community over which it acts. It is
present in these communities as a necessary measure to avoid conflict
due to those inevitable diversities in opinion and therefore ultimately
needed to promote as peaceful an existence as possible.

In the process of establishing the core concepts of this affair called
politics, it is plain to see that a brief definition is virtually
impossible. Politics is not simply an object or a single stranded idea.

It is not a concise term but rather a complicated notion, which embraces
premises, opinions, and qualities of human nature, actions and
institutions. It seems to arise in those situations where humans live in
coexistence whether that be by choice or otherwise. Any attempt at a
definition would be to confine and customise politics to suit ones own
particular views. Nevertheless, in fitting with the title of this essay
an attempt at a definition shall be made.

Politics is the means to creating a more organised and peaceful society,
by providing methods to resolve conflict that naturally occurs between
men, by means of civil discussion and rational compromise. It thus stems
the need for violence in tense situations and ultimately looks to avoid
the degradation of a community into utter chaos. Authority is the
underlying feature of politics and ensures its enforceability. Power
underpins its very existence; it is a prerequisite for politics exist.

Without authority, politics simply is not feasible. The most visible and
widely accepted example of politics is the workings of the governmental
institutions. However, although at first glance one may not be aware of
it, politics in its various forms is present wherever and whenever
humans form a community. Referring back to the views of Aristotle,
politics is an intrinsic feature of mankind.


Aristotle (1996) The Politics and the Constitution of Athens (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press)

Crick, B (1992) In Defence of Politics (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Dahl, R (1984) Modern Political Analysis (New Jersey: Prentice Hall)

Leftwich, A (1984) What is Politics? (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Miller, D (1987) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Plato (1987) The Republic (London: Penguin)

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