What is Politics?

Beginning with an attempt to attribute a precise definition to “politics”, this article moves forward to contradict the prevalent notions of ‘the political’ being confined to the public life of an individual, the State and its institutions. Politics is not only intertwined with the day-to-day events of one’s life but also it’s present in its private sphere. The first part of this article is concluded by attributing a political dimension to the concept of Nature. 

The entire article defines politics and approaches to power with the help of a simple issue of distributing a piece of chocolate among two children, which is considered to be purely apolitical prima facie. The dynamic dimensions of politics being prevalent in every aspect of human life, however, cautions us from an attempt to generalize the term and attribute a single definition to this undefinable, abstract entity.  

Politics is something concerning the polis. While polis stands for a city-state, it’d be much better if it means ‘a a community’ as city-states can be adjudged as a higher level of social interaction. If so, politics acquires a new definition of ‘something concerning the community’. Whatever concerning the community shall be in sync with the aspirations of the common folk and shall ultimately result in social well-being. Therefore, politics is an act of decision-making keeping in mind the hankerings of the community and formulating policies for the common good. However, this decision-making is not only confined to the term ‘community’ or ‘society’ but it’s also about decisions made by a family or an individual. If politics is about decision making in a society, then it’s also about decision-making in a family because family is the lowest unit of social interaction. 

For instance, consider a child complaining to his father because he got fewer chocolates in number than his brother. This situation can be called political because:

  1. The child is making a ‘claim’ and aspires to ‘equal treatment’.
  2. The father is considered to be a ‘decision-making authority’ who is supposed to take ‘just decisions’.
  3. The decisions are ‘binding’ on both the children. 

On considering the first point, the child made a ‘claim’ because he was free and he has the right to do so. Hence, politics is also about freedom and rights. Freedom comes from self-realization and thus, politics is a path to achieve self-realization. The child made a ‘claim’ because he aspires to equality. Hence, isn’t politics also about aspirations for a better living? 

Coming to the second point, the father is entitled to take decisions on behalf of the two children. Here, the father becomes an authority. Considering a larger unit of social interaction, decisions can be made by an individual or by a group of people. Where it’s impractical for the entire population to make decisions, a group of people make decisions on behalf of the entire population. However, in any of these forms: may it be individual, group or representative; the decision-maker is expected to make just and fair decisions, in sync with the aspirations of the people that make the ideas of justice and fairness intrinsic to politics. 

However, the father is a decision-maker because he is vested with the power to make decisions. Therefore, power is a prerequisite for decision making and so, power and politics are inseparable. This power is a typical form of ‘power over’ someone, in this case, his children. When the concept of ‘power over’ is exercised by a narrow personal interest, it leads to a personality cult and the authority becomes authoritarian. In this case, the decisions taken will be serving the exerciser’s interest and not the interest of the community as a whole. This is similar to the case of ‘bourgeoisie oppression of the proletarian’ and it can be resolved via a proletarian revolution. Hence, politics can also mean political actions like a revolution, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience, or any form of collective action that aspires for the public good

It’s already mentioned above that politics is also about aspirations for a better living. If that’s so, politics is also about actions to realize this aspiration. However, power doesn’t necessarily mean ‘power over’. It’s also defined in terms of ‘power to’. However, the concept of ‘power to’ overlaps with freedom as freedom is the power to do something and similar reflections are made with respect to the first point.

Finally, the third point paves the way for defining politics in terms of an obligation. Whatever decision the father makes is morally binding on the children. In a larger sense, the decisions made by an authority is morally binding on the community. If so, what if such decisions are contradictory to the aspirations of the people? What if the decisions are authoritarian? What if the authority exercises his power for his interest? The Communist Manifesto considers power to be all about subjugation and oppression where one class is seen oppressing the other. As mentioned earlier, this issue can be resolved only through political actions. So, when authority becomes authoritarian, power becomes a means of subjugation and oppression and hence, politics also becomes oppression and subjugation

Politics is interesting because people disagree. In the above example, the two children disagreed based on which chocolates were divided among them. This makes politics a struggle over scarce resources. It is to be noted that disagreement is intrinsic to a community and if politics, as defined above, is something concerning the community; then politics is also about disagreement and conflicts in opinion. Disagreement makes social interaction political and for the smooth functioning of the community, there shall be co-operation and consensus and disagreement is an obstacle to the same. These disagreements shall be resolved through discussion and deliberation. Therefore, if politics is about disagreement, then politics is also about resolving it. Politics is hence, also about discussions and deliberations. Politics is the phenomenon of conflict and cooperation

However, as mentioned in the earlier paragraphs, disagreements are also resolved through the exercise of coercive power and if it’s incongruent with the concept of the public good, political actions serve as an antidote. People protest because they feel that they can be much better off if they’re granted political attention. Hence, they imagine an alternate world where they are lucky enough to receive the aspired attention and where they can lead a more sophisticated living. Hence, politics is an arena of imagination and aspiration for a better livelihood. 

As time progressed, the exercise of power by the authority was confined to the public domain of an individual’s life. This led to the separation of social from ‘political’ and led to the framing of the concept of the state. In the due course of time, ‘political’ came to define the power of the state and its institutions. If so, politics is also about public agencies with power or authority to make decisions that have an impact on every member of society. Chancellor Bismarck declared politics as an art and here, he refers to the art of governance. However, ‘political’ here is only confined to the state and its agencies. It is to be noted that politics also exists in society as deliberated in the earlier paragraphs. Separation of the private and the political doesn’t imply that the private sphere is apolitical. For instance, the conflict among two children in a family, that’s seen as totally private and out of the purview of the state, has a political connotation. For instance, parents have to get their child educated and it’s the inalienable right of the dependent members of a family to be treated with respect. What if a woman in a family becomes a victim of domestic violence? The State cannot merely be a lotus-eater in this case simply because it concerns the private life of an individual. The exploited has to be legally backed by the State and hence, it justifies the legal intervention of the State in private affairs. In line with the famous radical feminist slogan, ‘the personal is the political’.  Therefore, politics is not only about the State but also it’s intertwined with the day-to-day lives of every individual. 

Coming back to the chocolate conflict, on the face of it, the two children who are considered to be ‘apolitical’ get involved in political action. They make claims and consider their father as an authority to make a fair decision. The chocolate they are fighting for is manufactured by a company that is bound by the Companies Act and the Income Tax Act. GST and SGST are appropriated from the price of the chocolate. Moreover, the children have the right to education and are going to schools either funded by the government or run by private institutions bound by the laws made by the State. The children use public roads and public transport to go to school and their father may be a taxpayer and so on and so forth. This is how a conflict between two children that appears to be apolitical prima facie is being made thronged by political ideas and perhaps this made Aristotle declare Political Science as a Master Science

From the above discussion, it’s undeniable that politics is similar to a leaf in the bud of one’s life. However, more than being related to the concept of power, authority, society, conflict, justice, protest, governance, privacy etc. Politics is also present in nature. Politics becomes resource geopolitics or politics of resources. Politics is subjected to translocation from ‘political’ to ‘cosmopolitical’. Whereas politics aspires for the betterment of the community, cosmopolitics widens the scope of the ‘community’ to include plants, animals and other living beings. This makes the air we breathe and the water we drink, political. The State intervenes in framing laws to prevent air pollution to an extent that the right to clean air and safe drinking water has been brought under the purview of basic fundamental rights. The State is committed to ensuring that the people are provided with safe drinking water. The State frames laws for waste disposal and stubble burning and gets involved in mining activities and search for natural resources. This makes even nature a political entity.