Sunday, 7 September 2008

A (re) introduction to Politics

“Oh that Prime Minister of ours hasn’t got a clue about what he’s doing!” The truth is that most people don’t have a clue about what the Prime Minister does, what he should be doing or what they can do in order to improve their political environment. Politics is everywhere. It shapes our lives. It dominates the news. It empowers and weakens us. It does so many things yet sometimes it appears that nothing is being done. But what exactly is politics?

Politics is difficult to define yet easy to recognise. For instance, take a look at the media. US Presidential elections. Prime Minister under pressure. Government invests in education. Politics is essentially a process that seeks to manage or resolve conflicts of interest between people. It is a decision making process. This process results in laws, economic and social decisions, and international relations. And the great thing about politics is that it starts with YOU. Indeed, and at the risk of echoing the obamian doctrine, “yes we can”, yes YOU can. But yes you can what?

Such an obamian-optimistic vibe (of which I support), however, is not shared by all of us. “A good politician”, wrote the American writer H.L. Mencken, “is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” Cynical views of politics and politicians are legion. One only has to look at George Orwell’s 1984: “the Party seeks power entirerly for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. The object of power is power.” Surely, the Obama doctrine seeks to change that. It seeks to give YOU the chance to effect change. But how can you do that if most people don’t even know what governments do in the first place?

Giddens provides a good insight into governments’ role in society. It provides means for the representation of diverse interests. It offers a forum for reconciling the competing claims of those interests. It creates and protects an open public sphere, in which unconstrained debate about policy issues can be carried on. It provides a diversity of public goods, including forms of collective security and welfare. It regulates markets in the public interest and foster market competition where monopoly threatens. It fosters social peace through the provision of policing. It promotes active development of human capital through its core role in the education system. It sustains an effective system of law so that citizens know their rights and duties. Governments have a directly economic role, as a prime employer, in macro and micro intervention, plus the provision of infrastructure such as roads. Finally, it fosters regional and trans-national alliances and pursue global goals.

Government, however, cannot act in a vacuum. It must base its decision on some sort of moral basis, or a particular political philosophy. Political philosophy is an interesting area of politics, dating back to ancient civilisations. Confucius (a Chinese philosopher) believed that a ruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by his own example, and should treat them with love and concern. Only the morally upright ruler should be able to govern. However, such a positive characterisation of government wasn’t shared by Plato. For Plato, all conventional political systems (democracy, monarchy, oligarchy) were inherently corrupt. Plato argued that the state ought to be governed by an elite class of educated philosopher-rulers, who would be trained from birth and selected on the basis of aptitude: “those who have the greatest skill in watching over the community.” Isn’t this a bit elitist? Save a handful of exceptions, isn’t this the case anyways in the world today? Look at the British Parliament: it is dominated by an elite clique that was conditioned for a lifestyle not shared by the majority of people. In today’s Western World, democratic principles imply that everyone has a role to play in politics. This is a view shared by Aristotle (a Greek philosopher), who believed that ethics and politics are intertwined and that a truly ethical (or inherently good and righteous) life can only be lived by someone who participates in politics.

Our participation in politics is rooted in the foundations of political ideologies. The media speaks of a right-wing and left-wing politics. But what does that mean? This classification dates from the French Revolution era, when those members of the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) who opposed the monarchy sat on the left, while those who supported it sat on the right. The right wing is often linked to moral and social conservatism, law and order, and religion, while the left wing is often linked with redistribution of wealth (and thus higher taxes) and resources towards the poorer or less successful sections of society, and with secularism and disestablishmentarianism. The right wing is more often linked to the idea of social equity (being fair), and the left wing to the idea of social equality (being uniform and equal). Government is supposed to protect and preserve our freedoms. But how much intervention should government exercise in our personal freedoms? The more they intervene, the more authoritarian they are. In contrast, libertarian governments tend to stay away from our personal lives thus giving us more freedom to do what we like.

The British political system is mainly dominated by the “two-party system”, where Labour and Conservative parties rule the political arena. National political decisions are made within Westminster (Parliament), where the House of Commons and House of Lords debate on political matters (i.e. the economy, healthcare, law and order, education etc). In the US, this is made within Congress where the Senate and the House of Representatives form the political soul of the country. There is no real world government, although there exist mechanisms to govern international relations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The effectiveness of international organisations is, however, a matter of debate.

This note has tried to kill far too many birds with a single stone - but if there is something I want you to take with you once you leave your desk, it is this:

Every now and again, silence must be disturbed in order to give way to new and better ideas. The increased power of corporations; a growing consumerism trend; weakening social cohesion; individualism dwarfing harmony; short-termism over sustainability; profits over people; corruption corrupting integrity; respect and family values fading away and being traded for selfish principles; waging war, not for self-preservation or the promotion of noble ideals, but for furthering self-interest; the heart-tearing feeling of seeing the face of a disappointed child who has been let down by society; poverty. It is not up to me to give you an insight into the future of politics. But it is down to you to fight for a brighter political future. Making decisions to improve your life and the lives of those in your community. Standing up for tried and tested principles that have shaped modern civilisation: respect, trust, family, harmony, integration, integrity, the rule of law, and equality. In a world where our economy is richer but our society is poorer, we must recognise that we’re all in this together and not allow anyone to be left behind. The speed at which the modern world changes can be exhilarating, but also disconcerting. So it’s more important than ever to strengthen the ties that bind society together and provide reassurance and stability: family; community; a sense of responsibility; sustainability. That’s politics guys. That’s what it should be all about.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, but a failure to grasp the essence of politics. In fact what is revealed in this article is merely another articulation of homogenization: just as the EU is willing to turn to constitutionalism, the world to the UN - you are willing to retrace your footsteps to fundamental core values. Politics is the willingness to occupy values with particularistic meanings. Institutions and states are merely those vying for power to define the values, the fight to institute their particular values as the universal. This is the true politics of our world. Reverting to utopian values, such as those you have listed, oversimplifies human relationships and underestimates the politics inherent in man himself.

Andre Carvalho Pimentel said...

Anon is right in that some of the values expressed by the author are utopian in nature. But I must stress the following: how can we progress and develop ourselves (and our politics) if we don't have certain (utopian?) goals in mind? I could use Justice as an example: surely the courts' aim is to achieve justice - but do they? I think we all agree that they should. Thus trying to achieve apparently utopian goals is not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it oversimplify human relationships. Unfortunately language will never be able to fully describe and decipher the nature of such relationships. But it is always good to have a foundation on which to build upon. Look at companies for instance, they all have a mission statement - such a mission statement might oversimplify the nature of the business and underestimate the complexity of running that business, but arguably without such a mission statement the business will fail as it won't have a particular strategic direction. In the same vein, I think that politics really ought to follow certain key (simple yet powerful!) values in order to get the best out of society.

Becky Aldous said...

I disagree actually with Anonymous. I think it's a pretty good introduction to politics. I'm about to start Politics at the University of Leicester and I found this article quite useful.
And yes I do think that we should have key values brought back to the basics of our society. I live in an area in London where people don't really care about anyone else; there is no sense of community; no sense of family; the youth are constantly disrespecting the elderly...CHAOS!