What is Politics? Crafts, Conflicts, and Oppression

Most of this blog is about ‘politics’ in one form or another. But it’s not entirely easy to say what identifies things as ‘political’. Sometimes the term is given a very wide definition (e.g. the making of decisions by groups) but that doesn’t seem much use – other times it’s defined quite narrowly (e.g. anything relating to the affairs of government), which also seems to miss what’s interesting.

A related question is why do politics? What is the point of it? I don’t think this would be the same for everyone. I do notice certain patterns though.

One view of ‘politics’ is sort of a generalisation from war – different groups are in conflict, and the important thing is simply to ensure that my side wins. Because we’re the best side, obviously.

Another view might be that ‘politics’ is a sort of craft – how can the ‘ship of state’ be most effectively ‘steered’? This can agree with the above that there’s a sort of constant ‘war’ going on, but it’s one in which ‘we’, the political-minded, are not engaged. Rather, we want to moderate, resolve, and generally control these conflicts so as to make things as peaceful as possible.

A particular flavour of this would be to treat ‘politics’ not as a practical but as an intellectual craft – the skill of best formulating hypothetical constitutions, say, or just of best understanding the ‘laws’ by which society progresses.

And finally, a last view of politics might be to see it principally in terms of ‘oppression’ – that is, as the first view said, there is a conflict going on, but it’s a conflict in which one side is systematically the aggressor against, and overall is ‘beating’ the other. The goal of politics is not to pick a side and back it, nor to keep this conflict under wraps, but to support the ‘oppressed’ in each case, with the goal not of having them triumph, but of reaching a point without oppression.

Obviously this isn’t all-or-nothing: most people will exhibit all of these at some point. For instance, the formation of rival parties, movements, ‘isms’, etc. means everybody will be drawing on the psychology of number 1 – my team is right, we have to fight the other team, they are bad. And there’s nothing wrong with that, within limits.

But I think it’s clear that there will also be fairly big variations, and that they will tend to relate to people’s actual political views. The primacy of the last one – politics as defined by the fact of systematic oppression, and as having the goal of ending that – is probably the best definition I can think of for ‘left-wing’.

What’s interesting is how people thinking in terms of one might view people thinking in terms of another. For example, it’s common to hear people from somewhere around the political centre complain that those on the far left ‘are entirely negative – they only know what they’re against, not what they’re for’. In part (in part), this may be due to the fact that those centrists are envisaging politics as a realm where ‘we’ (the politically active) are all basically on the same side, with the same goals (we all want to ‘make society better’, don’t we?) and are engaged in sharing advice about how to do that, even if sometimes we diagree.

But those unhelpful leftists are perhaps approaching politics more as a realm of struggle – and forces at war with each other don’t give each other advice. The focus might be less on identifying the right ‘plan’ and more on identifying the right ‘side’, and how to support it.

I think this can go too far, of course. Everything is best in moderation. But I also think it’s worth stating out loud: for me personally, I don’t approach politics primarily in terms of contributing to a shared ‘craft’, a body of knowledge either academic or practical – although that is, for example, the way that I generally approach philosophy, and the way that scientists, we might hope, generally approach science.

Rather, on this blog I primarily treat politics as something defined reactively, by the responses that are possible/necessary to the unfortunate fact of oppression.

Which is not to say, of course, that there is no such shared, non-conflictual ‘craft’ of how to organise people in society, at whatever scale. There is – but it’s quite different from most of ‘politics’ as usually understood, and in some ways it’s only been developed as a systematic discipline over the last century (or less). How to de-escalate situations, how to increase group creativity, how to avoid groupthink, how to stop people from feeling excluded, how to transmit information across networks rapidly, etc. In its intellectual aspect it might be called ‘social psychology’ – in its practical aspect, I’m not sure what to call it.

I don’t talk much about that, whatever it’s called. Primarily that’s because I’m quite useless at it, and can only suggest the absolute most basic and general principles of it (e.g. you’re more likely to get a decision to reflects everyone’s interests if everyone has a say in that decision). But it’s also because I don’t think it should be too hard – once we’ve turned our insane oppressive society into a sane one, and in doing so dissolved everything we would normally think of as ‘politics’.

2 Responses to “What is Politics? Crafts, Conflicts, and Oppression”

  1. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I think of politics as the process of coming to decisions in the face of differences of opinion. This includes the first and last of your definitions (about conflict and oppression), but not the middle one (politics as craft). I think it’s important not to include the notion of politics as craft in the definition – it facilitates class rule and technocracy. Those in positions of authority (politicians, senior civil servants, journalists, etc.) have a vested interest in promoting this point of view because it disguises the fact that they all belong to the same class and pursue their own class interests. It allows them to rule more easily.

  2. Lindsay Says:

    I’m partial to this definition of politics, from Echidne of the Snakes: “[W]hat politics IS, at its basest level is self-defense.”

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