My lectures on what is politics1


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My lectures on what is politics1

  2. 2. MY LECTURES ON “WHAT IS POLITICS?” 2010 LECTURE ONE “WHEN POLITICS DECIDE OUR FATE, WE MUST DECIDE WHAT SHALL BE THE FATE OF POLITICS” WHAT IS POLITICS? There was a time when politics was like a game of chess, played by emperors, kings and princes amongst themselves. We, the common people, were not allowed to play any role. It is because there was no parliament, no opposition, no free press, no independent judiciary, no private property protected by law from the rapacity of power, in a word, no public voice except that of the kings and his favourites. But with the rise of democracy, politics has come out of the courts of kings to an open arena. Every individual has to play an active or passive role. Whether politics is respectable or not, it is undoubtedly important because it influences virtually all the aspects of modern society. In other words, each one of us is now the subject as well as the object of politics. LAYMAN’S UNDERSTANDING OF POLITICS We, the common men, think of politics as a dirty business, a debasing activity, a noisy, violent affair such as demonstrations, meetings, slogan shouting, political rhetoric, gimmick of elections, strikes, lathi charges, firings, etc. We think of politicians as unmitigated scoundrel, a fat, power-mad, unscrupulous rabble-rouser who talks a lot but does little, and more to be feared than loved or respected. Political activities for us include political propaganda, divide and rule, poster war, political parties and their power-motivated activities, false promises, deception, populist politics of mobilisation of large crowds hired for a day for rallies to impress others with the strength of their following. Everyday through the newspaper, radio, television and internet, we are getting informed about the “great favours” done by politicians, about corruption charges against them, about the decline of morality and ethics amongst politicians, about unaccountable government policies and decisions etc. Children are advised by their parents to remain aloof from “politics”. Students are advised to devote themselves to studies and stay away from politics. Government employees are legally debarred from participating in politics. The so called “white collar” teachers, professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, writers and artists are told to mind their own business and to work for the welfare of society by remaining neutral in political struggles and power game. This is what politics means in common parlance. Notwithstanding, from birth till death, from morning till evening, we as citizens are overshadowed by the State, the government and the “power structure” of the society. As soon as we wake up in the morning, the electricity which we switch on is provided by the State, the water tap supplies water provided by the State; fuel is supplied by Indane gas, milk is supplied by Mother Dairy; if we go to college, office or the place of our business, we reach our destination by State buses which run on State-built roads. We are born in a government maternity home, study in government schools, colleges and universities, get our marriage registered in a civil court, get employment in government offices and when we die our family get the benefit of a government insurance NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, ORISSA Page 2
  3. 3. MY LECTURES ON “WHAT IS POLITICS?” 2010 policy, provident fund etc., and our last “benefit” is the electronic crematorium by the State. We held the government responsible for unemployment, epidemics, poverty, illiteracy, famine and inflation. Ironically, politics is discussed by all but practised by few, criticised by all but praised by few. With the expansion of the power of governments, nearly everything has come to be described, in one way or another, as ‘political’. LECTURE TWO FOUR REACTIONS TO POLITICS Politics has many faces and can be a force for good as well as evil. We react to politics with a mixture of sentiments, which may change with time and events. I have identified the reactions of “we the people” into four categories. In the first category, I have put those people who love politics. They are the people who relish the excitement of political events, such as elections, as they would an exciting athletic contest (Cricket/Football World cups or Grand Slams, perhaps). In the second category, I include those people who are simply fascinated with politics because they care about the issues and their consequences for people in their own communities or around the world. On the other hand, the third category include those who hate politics, either because they think politics sets groups and individuals against each other, or because it involves abuse of power, deceit, manipulation, treachery, and violence. They often brand “politics as the last resort of scoundrel”. People of this category go with Ernest Benn who has sarcastically described politics as “the art of looking for trouble, finding it where it exists or not, diagnosing it wrongly, and applying the wrong remedy.” Finally, there are people who are indifferent to politics, who perhaps find it boring because it has little to do with the things that matter most to them. This is certainly true for a lot of bores in universities who believe that one cannot enjoy a poem or conduct a love affair without at the same time making a political statement. DEBATING PERCEPTIONS OF POLITICS We are now aware of the fact that there as many opinions about politics as there are people. This is because “finality is not the language of politics”. Politics has been portrayed as the exercise of power or authority, as a process of collective decision-making, as the allocation of scarce resources, as an arena of deception or manipulation and so forth. A number of characteristic themes nevertheless crop up in most, if not all, these definitions. In the first place, the politics is privileged with many connotations. One, politics is referred as an activity and academic discipline both at the same time. It is an activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live. As an activity, politics is the process by which the goals of society are selected, ordered in terms of priority both temporarily and concerning resource allocation, and implementation. As an academic subject (sometimes indicated by the use of ‘Politics’ with a capital P), it is clearly the study of this activity. Second, politics is a social activity. It arises out of interaction between or among people, and did not, for example, NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, ORISSA Page 3
  4. 4. MY LECTURES ON “WHAT IS POLITICS?” 2010 occur on Robinson Crusoe’s island. Third, politics develops out of diversity, the existence of a range of opinions, wants, needs or interests. Fourth, this diversity is closely linked to the existence of conflict: politics involves the expression of differing opinions, competition between rival goals or a clash of irreconcilable interests. Where spontaneous agreement or natural harmony occurs, politics cannot be found. Finally, politics is about decisions, collective decisions which are in some way regarded as binding upon a group of people. It is through such decisions that conflict is resolved. Nonetheless, the debate about ‘what is politics?’ is worth pursuing because it exposes some of the deepest intellectual and ideological disagreements in the academic study of the subject. The different views of politics examined here are as follows: • Politics as the art of government • Politics as public affairs • Politics as compromise and consensus • Politics as power and the distribution of resources. LECTURE THREE “POLITICS AS THE ART OF GOVERNMENT” • I begin my lecture with Bismarck who declared that “politics is not a science . . . but an art”. The art he had in mind was the art of government, the exercise of control within society through the making and enforcement of collective decisions. • This definition of politics is in consonance with the original meaning of the term in Ancient Greece. The word ‘politics’ is derived from polis, which literally means 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 was Athens, often portrayed as the model of classical democracy. All male citizens were entitled to attend the Assembly or Ecclesia, very similar to a town-meeting, which met at least ten times a year, and most other public offices were filled by citizens selected on the basis of lot or rota. Nevertheless, Athenian society was based upon a rigidly hierarchical system which excluded the overwhelming majority – women, slaves and foreign residents – from political life. • Traditionally, politics is being understood in relation with the personnel and machinery of the State and government. For example, Garner argues, politics is confined to that of the “business and activity which has to do with the actual conduct of affairs of the State.” Paul Janet is of the view that politics is discipline which “treats the foundations of the State and the principles of government.” • When I am being asked by my students in class as “what they are going to learn in the subject of politics that concerns with the State and government?”I only respond with series of questions that are related with systematic inquiry of politics in terms of State and government. • Traditionally, we inquire a range of arguments and debates within the framework of politics as art of the NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, ORISSA Page 4
  5. 5. MY LECTURES ON “WHAT IS POLITICS?” 2010 government: is politics a restricted activity, confined to what goes on within government or the state, or does it occurs in all areas of social life? Is government necessary or can societies be stable and successful in the absence of government? What form should government take, and how does government relate to broader political processes, usually called the political system? Who makes laws? How are the laws made? Are the laws good or bad? How should the law-making body be organised? What form should the law- executing agency, the executive, take? How should the executive be organised so as to remain responsible to the people? How other institutions like bureaucracy, police, army, prisons, etc play their role in society? • We also study the deep controversies that surround the nature and role of the state. For instance, since the terms ‘government’ and ‘state’ are often used interchangeably, can a meaningful distinction be established between them? Is state power benevolent or oppressive: does it operate in the interests of all citizens or is it biased in favour of a narrow elite or ruling class? Moreover, what should the state do? Which responsibilities should we look to the state to fulfil and which ones should be left in the hands of private individuals? • Equally, we also seek the answers of following questions: What are the relations between the people and the government? Do the people exhaust their rights, responsibility and power by voting government to power once in five years? Are the people only to be used as pawns on political chess-board? How do the people behave and why do they behave so? How public opinion is formed and why is it so easy to play mischief with it? Why does the politician get power by giving false promises, slogans etc., to the people? Why do the people obey the laws of the State? Is it the duty of the people to disobey anti-people laws and revolt against a bad government? Is it reasonable to launch a political movement against a duly elected government? • A person is said to be “in politics” when they make decisions on behalf of the community. The main point here is that not all decisions are political. Specifically, political decisions are “public” and “authoritative”. Yet, not all decisions are public. Most of what happens within families, among friends, or within voluntary associations belongs to the private sphere. Actions within private sphere are voluntary, not regulated, and do not bind anyone outside the group involved. For example, with whom you go for dating and what food you buy are private decisions. When many people are indifferent to politics, it is largely because they value this private sphere, in which they may place their family life, friendships, faith, and nature, more highly than they regard the public life. • Politics is also authoritative. This was made clear in the writings of David Easton, who defined politics as the “authoritative allocation of values” for society. This definition involves three terms: “values”, “allocation”, and “authoritative”. By “values”, he means “the things considered valuable [e.g., power, wealth, reward, employment etc.]”. By “allocation” he means distribution of these valuable things to various individuals or groups by means of “policy” which consists of “web of decisions”. Decision denotes the “selection among alternatives”. Policy implies “arriving at a decision as well as its implementation.” “Authority” means formal power that is vested in individuals or groups with the expectation that NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, ORISSA Page 5
  6. 6. MY LECTURES ON “WHAT IS POLITICS?” 2010 their decisions will be carried out and respected. A policy is “authoritative when the people to whom it is intended to apply or who are affected by it consider that they must or ought to obey it.” In other words, authority does not signify the use of brute force (coercion). It denotes the capacity/right to secure more-or- less willing compliance (obedience) from its subjects (individuals or groups) for a particular decision or course of action. • It should be noted, however, that this definition is highly restrictive. Politics, in this sense, is confined to governmental institutions: it takes place in cabinet rooms, legislative chambers, government departments and the like, and it is engaged in by limited and specific groups of people, notably politicians, civil servants and lobbyists. Most people, most institutions and most social activities can thus be regarded as ‘outside’ politics. • The link between politics and the affairs of the state also helps to explain why negative or pejorative images have so often been attached to politics. This is because, in the popular mind, politics is closely associated with the activities of politicians. Put brutally, politicians are often seen as power-seeking hypocrites who conceal personal ambition behind the rhetoric of public service and ideological conviction. Indeed, this perception has become more common in the modern period as intensified media exposure has more effectively brought to light examples of corruption and dishonesty, giving rise to the phenomenon of “anti- politics”. • Nevertheless, few who view politics in this way doubt that political activity is an inevitable and permanent feature of social existence. However venal politicians may be, there is a general, if grudging, acceptance that they are always with us. Without some kind of mechanism for allocating authoritative values, society would simply disintegrate into a civil war of each against all. The task is therefore not to abolish politicians and bring politics to an end, but rather to ensure that politics is conducted within a framework of checks and constraints that ensure that governmental power is not abused. NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, ORISSA Page 6