What is Politics
In its broadest sense, politics concerns the way in which people interact – how they make decisions and settle disputes. It is, therefore, concerned with power and the way in which power is distributed in society. Whilst power is most obviously held by the government and its agents, it is not exclusively held by them. Decisions are made at many different levels. Politics therefore operates at many different levels.
People as social beings.
People are social beings. They choose to live together in groups. Because people live together in groups, there is a need to make decisions – about how the resources available to the group are to be shared out, for example, or how conflicts which arise within the group are to be resolved. The study of politics is the study of how such decisions are made. It may also be the study of how such decisions should be made.
Since the resources available to any group are limited, questions inevitably arise about how the resources which are available should be distributed. Should everybody have an equal share, for example, or do some people deserve a bigger share than others?
Since it is possible to increase the resources available to a group (by conquest, technological advance or better management of existing resources), further questions arise. For example, what (if any) strategy should be employed to increase resources and what is the best way to protect the resources which already exist? Since there is no single correct answer to such questions, different people have different ideas about what is the best action to take. According to some commentators, the conflict which arises from the expression of different views is at the heart of politics. The study of politics is the study of conflict resolution.
a) Politics as the study of conflict resolution.
Modern society is highly complex. individuals argue over many different interests, values and beliefs. Conflict does not just take place between individuals, however. It also exists between larger groups between countries as well as within them. According to one viewpoint, the aim of politics is to remove conflict so that people can live in reasonable harmony with each other. In other words, the aim of politics is to produce consensus – a broad agreement over what people want and what they believe is right.
So, politics is about conflict. In Britain the Conservative and Labour Parties embody the disagreements between conservatives and socialists. In the USA political divisions are between the Republican and Democratic Parties or in Germany between the CDU (the Christian Democrats) and the SPD (the Social Democrats).
Conflicts in non-democratic countries.
Even in undemocratic countries politics is present. Military leaders who stage a coup in order to wrest a country from the control of politicians might ban political parties, democracy and freedom of speech, but they are not abolishing politics. They are merely changing the context of politics and divisions, argument and conflict will now occur between the army and the navy or within the army.
The example of the Soviet Union.
In the former Soviet Union many observers saw the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a monolythic party in which there was no disagreement. No other parties were allowed to exist, so they concluded that there was no political competition. Of course there was, but it took place behind closed doors, within the party; for example the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky in the 1920s or Brezhnev and Krushchev in the 1960s.
So, politics will be with us so long as people continue to disagree!
In general terms, it can be argued that conflict arises for two main reasons. First, it arises because of conflicting interests. And second, it arises because of conflicting values or beliefs.
In a country such as Britain there is a complex web of interests which people want to expand and protect. Many of these interests are economic and financial. People want a job with good pay, a comfortable house, holidays and so on. They want a good education for their children, health care and security against poverty. Miners want a prosperous coal industry. Publishers want people to buy lots of books.
Although many of the interests, such as the desire for a good health system, are common to all people, difficulties and disagreement emerge because resources are limited and different people have different priorities. Some people might want more money to be spent on high-tech machinery in hospitals, for example, whilst others want more nurses to be employed at a better rate of pay. Since there may not be the resources to take both approaches, choices have to be made. It is the necessity of making such choices which leads to conflict.
How to spend resources?
As resources are scarce, choices must be made about how they should be spent. Both defence and education are vital to the health of a country but how do you strike the correct balance? Some might say that priority rests with a well financed education system; well paid teachers, good buildings, lots of new books. However other would say that for national security defence cannot be neglected. Unfortunately defence is an expensive business; tanks, planes and ships all cost a great deal of money and so other areas must lose out. This is conflict between two view points that must be resolved.
Who gets what?
Resources are also distributed unevenly between different individuals; some are very rich with large houses, big cars and high incomes. Others are incredibly poor with insecure employment, if any, poor life chances and low income. Is this distribution of resources fair? Some, usually Conservatives, would say that it was, that those who work hard should keep their wealth and that differences in wealth provide incentives to work hard and aspire to greater achievements. Others, usually on the left of politics, such as Socialists or Communists believe that inequalities of resources are morally wrong and that differences in resources should be evened out or even abolished. In the Soviet Union everybody, at least in theory, had equal resources, equal wealth.
When people defend their interests, it does not necessarily mean that they are being selfish. Opponents of a new open cast mine, for example, may be furious that it is close to their homes, but they might also claim with some justification that to open the mine would be an ecological disaster because of the damage it would cause to the wildlife living on the site. Such arguments might produce support from people living miles away who are not personally affected by the project. Political activity, in other words, can spring from a set of values and beliefs as well as from self-interest. Equally, the way in which a conflict is resolved might owe more to the values and beliefs of the decision makers than to their personal interest in the matter.
b) Politics as the study of power.
In any conflict the winner is the player with the most POWER. That power could be derived from, among other things, supporters, money or skill. In a military conflict the winner is the side that has the most military power and uses it wisely. In Politics the individuals or party with the greatest power will be able to make decisions, according to their ideas and principles, about how the country is governed- the conflict would have been won. For example, in a liberal democracy, it is the party that gets the most votes in free and fair elections which wins the conflict and is able to enact its ideas and policies.
It is relatively easy to see why politicians desire power. It is more difficult to define it. The political scientist, Robert Dahl (‘The Concept of Power’, Behavioural Science, 1957) described his intuitive idea of power:
‘A’ has power over ‘B’ to the extent that A can get B to do something which B would otherwise not do.
It is important to note that power is a relationship. A person sitting alone on a desert island has no power because there is no-one over whom to wield that power- there is no ‘B’.
Types of power.
Robert Dahl’s definition of power is extremely broad. It is helpful to divide power into three different types: coercion, influence and authority.
Coercion is based on force. A is able to get B to do something that B would otherwise not do because of some explicit or implicit threat. Some commentators argue that the South African government was encouraged to release Nelson Mandela and to relinquish power to the ANC as a result of the sanctions imposed on South Africa by the rest of the world. This illustrates the negative aspects of coercive power. However, there are positive aspects to coercion. ‘If you do not… we will impose sanctions’ can become ‘If you do… we will lift the sanctions’. In the latter, the end of coercion becomes a reward. In Britain the state tends to wield coercive power. If individuals break the law the state can remove their liberty or even, in extreme circumstance, remove their life.
Influence is based on persuasion. A has influence over B if A can persuade B to do something B otherwise would not do. Influence is most commonly associated with pressure groups such as trade unions, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the British Medical Association (BMA). Pressure groups seek to persuade government to adopt policies that suit the needs of the pressure group, it members or society as a whole. Recent examples of groups trying to use the power of influence to win the government round to their point of view on a particular issue is the Countryside Alliance or the fuel tax protesters.
Authority is based on the right to wield power. A can get B to do something B otherwise would not have done because B believes A has the right to tell them what to do. A parent, a teacher, a priest or a government are all believed to have the right to tell their students, children, etc. what to do. In political terms we obey the laws made by politicians mainly because we believe that they have the right to make those laws.
Authority is an extremely important aspect of power when we relate it to modern society. There is no way that a large and complex country such as Britain could be controlled purely through the threat of coercive power. People must obey the law because they believe it is the right thing to do. The German sociologist Max Weber believed that authority could be divided into three types: traditional, legal and charismatic:
Traditional authority includes the monarch, the Pope and a parent. Their authority is customary, well established and comes from experience as much as their position.
Legal authority encompasses those who gain their authority from their office, for example, the prime minister and the US president.
The final category is perhaps the most problematic, charisma. An individual is considered charismatic when the strength of his or her personality is so great that people will follow their lead. Charismatic leaders have included Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher.
Weber’s typology should be handled with care because it is difficult to separate clearly different types of authority as there is considerable overlap. Similarly, there is a degree of blurring between the different types of power. Most governments, for example, rely on people to obey the law due to the government’s authority, however, they must also be able to turn to coercion to threaten those who do not respect the laws or the government’s authority with certain sanctions.
Consent and legitimacy.
In democratic countries a governments authority is based on elections. Provided those elections are free and competitive (freedom of speech, a number of parties from which to choose, a secret ballot, etc.) they allow the people to give their consent to government. This means that the people are governed in a manner and by a government of which they approve.
Consent outside democracy.
However, consent need not be achieved solely through elections. Many regimes that would not be considered democratic have tried to show that they have the consent of the people through demonstrations, marches and public shows of support. The Nazis in Germany in the 1930s tried to show their public support through mass rallies, and public support in Cuba for Fidel Castro has been shown by ‘spontaneous’ public demonstrations.
However, in western states, elections are the usual means of gaining consent. An elected government is considered to be legitimate, in that it is the rightful government. From its legitimacy comes its authority.
Why is this important?
The link between legitimacy and authority is extremely important in representative democracies. The fact that the people elect representatives makes the government legitimate. Those representatives then make the laws that will govern people lives. People obey those laws because they believe that their elected representatives have the right or authority to make law. Therefore most people obey the laws not because they fear the sanctions that would follow from a breach of the law but because they believe that the law was made in their name and that it should be obeyed. The result is public order.
Governments lay down laws in order to create predictable patterns of behaviour. These laws reflect the ideology and morals of the society. The fact that people abide by these laws is known as public order. Public order is necessary to create a stable society in which art, science and commerce can flourish. However, some degree of disorder is also necessary to allow progress. Absolute order implies no disagreement. Without disagreement ideas are not challenged and there is no progress.
There is a fine line between authority and coercion. The British government may gain legitimate power by winning an election, but does it have the right to use coercion if people do not obey laws passed by the government? Should citizens have the right to protest against what they believe are unfair or unjust laws?
When people protest against what they believe are unfair laws, their action is usually described as ‘civil disobedience’. According to Heywood (1994), there is an important difference between a criminal act and an act of civil disobedience. Whilst a criminal act is committed for selfish ends, an act of civil disobedience can be justified by reference to religious, moral and political principles’ (Heywood, 1994, p.216). Civil disobedience is, in other words, political whilst a criminal act is not. This is because civil disobedience uses ethical grounds to question the way in which power is used whilst a criminal act does not.
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