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So You Say You Don't Like Politics?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

 You hear it often enough. (You might even say it.) “I hate poitics.” What does that mean? Well, obviously, it's referring to politicians and the making and enforcement of legislation. “Politics” in this sense means corruption and betrayal. Preening sociopaths telling people what they want to hear during election time and then forgetting all of that once elected, and serving the “special interests” until the next election.

 

Obviously, there are other forms of politics that don't even include elections and the pandering involved with them. I once told a man (who asked) that I taught politics. “Politics!” he said with derision. Now, pardon me as I engage in some (I don't think groundless) speculation. The gentleman in question appeared to be Arabic and he spoke with an accent. So it's possible he had previously lived in one of the many corrupt dictatorships in that part of the world. In places where human rights are purposefully disrespected and success either depends upon social connections or makes one a target for extortion, it probably makes sense to keep one's head down. To stay out of “politics” and (as this man seems to have done) get the hell out and move somewhere else.

 

But everything described is about details of various systems of politics. Should people instead say: “I don't like the way things work in the system of politics where I live?” I think it's important to get down to the roots here. Because I think there's more to it than just a sloppy choice of words. I think that a stated disdain for “politics” is a condemnation of more than just one particular system of politics. On top of that, I will argue that even this specific criticism of our system of politics is childish, delusional and counter-productive.

 

The word “politics” comes from the Ancient Greek word “polis” which stood for the city-states that people had organized themselves into. The philosopher Aristotle used the word “politika” to refer to affairs regarding the “polis.” So it was about how people got along, or should have gotten along, in the communities of the Ancient Greek “polis.”

 

Seen in this light, “politics” is about how groups of people interact with each other. How do they respect one another's needs? What are the group's value system? How are material things distributed amongts the membership. The political scientist Susan Strange once used the expression “Politics is about who gets what.” And that, to me, is the root definition of politics. “Who gets what” within and among various groups of people. So the literal meaning of “I don't like politics” is “I don't like the negotiations over who gets what among people.”

 

This definition of politics takes us beyond the world of formal politics with politicians and legislation. That's why we have things like “workplace politics” and “classroom politics” and “relationship politics” and “family politics.” All of these places are sites where groups of people have to decide “who gets what.” Conceivably, there are instances where things are decided 'naturally.” For instance, while the race is not always to the swiftest, a race can be run by the fastest runner and there's no debating the matter. (Although a formal race, with rules and judges and entry restrictions takes us right back to “politics.”) But the idea is that it is natural that the fast person wins the race, and any form of negotiating is “politics.” Likewise, in a system of violent anarchy, who gets what is determined by whoever is strongest, most ruthless, luckiest, ... but then again, this is a system like any other.

 

The idea of “systems” of politics brings me to the components of all politics. Politics is comprised of systems, values and power. Imagine the most perfect form of democracy that you can. That's a system of politics. Now imgaine the most totalitarian dictatorship that you can. That's another system of politics. Imagine a family ruled by an iron-fisted patriarch. That's a system. Imagine a family where both parents are equals and decisions involve negotiating with all the family members. That's a system. Imagine a classroom where a martinet dictates the subject matter provided by the ministry and deviations from full attention are met with corporal punishment. Now imagine a classroom where the students choose the subject matter and the teacher guides them in their investigations. Those are systems.

 

All of these systems are based on values. These values are to be perpetuated by the systems. Male authority. Child-centred learning. Individual equality. These are all values represented by different systems of politics. Obviously, there can be a disconnect between the stated values and the subsequent results. Or the professed values and the real values. Patriarchal systems might state that God made men dominant over women, but in reality the patriarchs don't believe in God and just want to dominate women. A classroom might claim to be concerned with empowering learners and rewarding hard work and merit when it is really a system of propaganda and marks are more dependent upon favoritism and bribery.

 

Power is the last component. For better or for worse it declares who gets what in the values-based systems of politics. In a classroom where a wise and fair teacher rewards the highest grades to the ablest students, it is the teacher and quick, hard-working students who have the most power. In a system of violent anarchy, the strongest, most ruthless individuals will have the power. In a family, the parents and the oldest children will tend to have power over the younger, smaller members. In a dictatorship, power will be centralized around a small group of elites or even in one individual. In a representative democracy, power will tend to go to the politicians or parties whose ideas appeal to the largest groups of people.

 

To say “I don't like politics” is really akin t saying “I don't like dealing with other people.” Because politics is everywhere. Politics is wherever groups of people have to negotiate how to get along and who gets what. There are good and bad political systems, representing good or bad sets of values and distributions of power, but “politics” itself is inevitable and unavoidable. We must settle on the best ways of politics or learn to be self-sufficient hermits completely cut-off from the contact of other humans.

 

Fine then, former critics of “politics” might say. “Then I object to the politics of corrupt dictatorships and to the politics of our present corrupt pseudo-democracies here in the West.” Now for this section of the essay, I'm going to pretty much dispense with what could be called the “right-wing, populist” critique of democracy in here in Canada. There is a lot of ground to cover and I don't wish to spend too much time providing a detailed refutation of the theory that our political system is dominated by the weakest groups in society. The unemployed, the poor, immigtants, minorities, women, etc., do not dominate our political system and they do not bribe our politicians from the vast sources of wealth that they do not have. Finally, on this matter, it is important to point out that if politicians win office by appealing to these groups of people because these people collectively are so numerous that their votes are enough to get them elected, then that's democracy, plain and simple.

 

No. Here I'm going to address the left-wing criticism of our political system. This critique differs from the right-wing critique in asserting that it is rich and powerful individuals and groups (as opposed to the poor and weak) who corrupt our politicans. This leftist critique of politics in the rich countries states that there are extremist, far-right parties, led by con-artists and lunatics, who exploit the fears and prejudices of stupid people, in order to win power and then shamelessly serve themselves and the plutocrats. Then there are mainstream “liberal” parties who gull “liberal” voters who want things like health care and environmentalism and a safety-net for the poor, by expressing “compassionate” rhetoric but who are just as careerist and corrupt as the far-right parties they compete against.

 

The United States example provides the starkest evidence of this. Both the Democrats and the Republicans backed the policy of bail-outs and non-prosecution of Wall Street criminals. George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq leading to the death of over one million people and the traumatizing of millions more. Barack Obama reinforced the US troop presence in Afghanistan, tried to overturn the removal of forces agreement that Bush had been forced to sign with the Iraqi government, helped to sabotage the Arab Spring in Egypt, armed and backed the Saudi devastation of Yemen, toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi via NATO airstrikes and Islamic fundamentalist proxies (and thereby plunging the country into chaos) and he is trying to do the same with Syria. All told, the butcher's bill for Obama's policies are over half-a-million killed and millions traumatized. There is no appreciable differences between the major parties on servicing the plutocracy and maintaining imperialism.

 

It does make for an efficient cycle of fear and hopelessness though. The far-right parties stir up hatred and bigotry and the liberal parties claim to stand as a bulwark against them. The far-right parties offer an extremist, absurdist economic platform of allowing complete submission to capitaist rapacity and the liberal parties offer to “reform” the worst aspects of corporate criminals. Some sane and decent people vote for the lesser evil, and we thereby have true competition of ideas.

 

In most OECD nations besides the United States there are also “social-democratic” parties that offer a more genuinely leftist platform of pubic services and social justice. But depending on the degree of leftness of the critic, these social-democratic politicians and policies are just as bad as the rest. In some incohate way, their reformism blocks genuine revolutionary change. (This revolutionary change is supposedly just around the corner, if not for the machinations of bourgeois politics, but the evidence for this assertion is generally non-existent.) Or these social-democrat politicians become disconnected from their supporters because of their high salaries as legislators or their cushy jobs in the higher echelons of the party. Through their proximity to elites, they begin to identify more with a wealthier segment of society than with the working class. The disgraces and failures of the UK's Labour Party under Tony Blair and his followers is one of the worst cases of this. So, for these, and many other valid reasons, many on the left elect to avoid “politics” and focus on other tactics such as “movement building.” I will return to the subject of left-wing tactics in another essay.

 

There is, of course, a “centrist” critique of politicians and politics. “They're all the same.” “They're all crooks.” These sentiments are expressed by essentially “apolitical” people. They don't have the deluded and racist conspiracy theories on the far-right, or the critique of power-relations of the left. They just notice that money is removed from their paycheques and bank accounts by the government and the state, and that some of it is going to obviously corrupt politicians (who openly make anywhere from twice, to three times what they earn), who are seemingly always being discovered lying or mired in scandals. “They're all the same!” “They're all crooks!” And so, they don't vote. They don't follow “politics” very closely.

 

(I suppose I should mention that along with various leftists and “apolitical” non-voters, there are far-right non-voters. For these people, no party is offering the truly “radical” program that would stir them to vote. Until a party offers a genuinely murderous, fascist, or fanatical theocratic program, they'll stay home on election day. I will ignore far-right non-voters together with far-right voters for this discussion.)

 

Now, if it isn't already clear, I think there's a lot that is valid in these left-wing and mainstream criticisms of the political process in the wealthy countries. But I disagree with their conclusion that we ignore the political process. In the case of the “They're all crooks!” mantra, the fact of the matter is that they're not all crooks. If they were crooks, another way to describe them would be gangsters. And what do gangsters do? They rob people out-right and generally give nothing back in return. (Some could argue that drug-lords in South America who make most of their money from sales to the USA give back more to the poor neighbourhoods they come from than they take. These gangsters have their mansions and cars and servants and etc., but they also build housing and provide services for the poorest from money brought in from outside the community. But this is an isolated phenomenon, and inapplicable to a discussion of corrupt politicians in the rich countries themselves. In the first place, these happy states only take place after a violent struggle for supremacy among rival gangsters and things can be thrown right back into miserable violence if a drug kingpin is overthrown or agreements break down among rivals.) But more importantly, by definition, corrupt politicians in the developed countries get their wealth from the community they live in. The overall electorate and the economy they work within. If they are simply crooks they wouldn't provide any services of importance. They would either not provide them or they would monopolize them and vicously gouge those who needed them.

 

If politicians were truly crooks, and nothing more, then we would be living in something like a dictatorship. Our politicians would be a tiny ruling elite or a vast majority of miserable peons, who were suppressed with a bullying apparatus of police and armed forces. In such an environment, it is, as I said earlier, the rational thing to keep your head down, try to remain inconspicuous, and hope to be able to escape to someplace better. We don't, at the moment, live in a gangter-dictatorship. We live in one of those place that people from outside see as “better” than a criminal dictatorship.

 

It really should go without saying that Canada is not a gangster-run country. But in order to show the “They're all crooks!” argument for the lazy thinking that it is, I think we should go into some detail to prove that it is not a criminal dictatorship.

 

In the first place, we receive valuable services from our political system. There is an education system, which, while it does try to inculcate the values of patriotism and obedience, and while it's primary goal is probably to produce valuable “human resources” for the national economy, it also gives individuals the tools they need to seek out other sources of information (including subversive ones) and thereby become critical thinkers. Also, while it's in the self-interest of the state to have a skilled workforce, there's no reason why a gangster-state would provide the first several years of this education free of charge. If we lived in a gangster-state, would we have public health insurance? Would we have (most of us anyway) cheap access to clean drinking water? Would gangsters provide food inspectors? Would there be a court system that ever challenged the ruling elite in a state run by out-and-out crooks?

 

Of course, there are corrupt politicians. And there are wealthy and powerful people and groups who act as if they're above the law. And there are some people, the poorest, minorities, or their advocates, who have their rights ignored. I will point out in my next essay that the absence of political and legal accountability is taking us further and further in the direction of a criminal-gangster state. But for the moment there is too much evidence that not all politicians are crooks.

 

It is sometimes said that politicians are what makes politics so divisive or tawdry. This sentiment is expressed from all across the political spectrum. Again, this is lazy, incoherent nonsense, so attempting to wrestle with it will be difficult. As near as I can figure it out, if this argument is to have any sort of logic to it whatsoever, it seems that only a certain sort of narcissistic, power-monger would think of a career in politics. In order to make people vote for them, as opposed to someone else, a politician will stir-up hatred against his or her rivals, invent divisions where there should be none, and offer rewards to voters most similar to themselves. And their rivals do the same. And, once elected, they continue to “divide and conquer” the electorate by continuing to exploit hatreds and to engage in sham debates. For example; he Conservative Party of Canada refused to provide information about its controversial weapon sales to Saudi Arabia when it was in power, but since its recent defeat in the federal election it now calls for transparency and details.

 

Obviously, the concrete example just provided and the similarities on Wall Street and foreign policy of the Republicans and the Democrats mentioned earlier, show that there is a lot of truth to this idea. But to believe that the general public is comprised of innocent little lambs led astray by evil politicians is simply asinine. The electorate is not a united, undifferentiated mass of sturdy, honest folk who would, under different circumstances, be marching arm-in-arm to one collectively undertaken triumph after another. There are differences among people and in a representative political system, different people will select different politicians. People will vote according to their different values. People will vote according to their different interests. And people with more wealth and power will tend to have their interests attended to the most. To assert that it is the politicians who are the dividing force within the politicians is nonsense. They are more a symptom than a cause.

 

Are we to believe that in Canada, if the politicians were all taken away on an alien space-ship, that differences between French and English, East and West, social conservatives and social liberals, rich and poor, etc., etc., would disappear? It is a self-evidently absurd proposition. It is a doomed attempt to find easy answers to complex questions. The fact of the matter is that there are differences, real differences that divide us. Because of a number of historical and structural factors, Canada, as a whole, has done a decent job of managing these differences. Enough people get enough of what they want from the political system that they're not driven to acts of violent frustration against it.

 

Finally, I'd like to address the leftist critique that formal politics should be avoided, due to the corrupt and corrupting nature of representative democracy in a capitalist system. In my occasional attempts to debate with leftists about this, I often have to deal with the straw-man argument that I'm saying we should place all of our faith in politicians and all of our work in the former political process. What I'm opposed to is the belief of some leftists that the formal political process should be entirely, or almost entirely excluded. I will argue that the intellectual bankruptcy of this position is demonstrated by the lengthy record of miserable failure of the left on so many issues. Deliberately refusing to engage with the political process means refusal to participate in the actual process whereby things are decided.

 

What has happened to income inequaity since the 1970s? It has increased dramatically. Leftist failure.

 

What has happened to militarism since the 1970s? It has exploded. Leftist failure.

 

What has happened to combat environmental destruction? Net negative. Leftist failure.

 

This is failure because, for all of its talk of “movement building” and “alternatives,” what leftists fail to see is that all they're doing is petitioning the same politicians they claim to want nothing to do with, to enact the policies that they want. Somehow or other, they believe that, what with their power being in the streets, all they have to do with the politicians is to occasionally pester them as gadflys, and this, combined their rallies and petitions and inward-looking media initiatives, will give the results they want. The fact that this has failed to produce anything of value, decade after decade, will not deter them from their delusions.

 

You see, as I've been arguing, politics is about who gets what. And the way we mediate our differences as a society is through the form of representative politics and legislation. That's how it's done. We cannot wish this reality away. People differences will not disappear if the politicians go away. The most childish anarchist I have ever encountered appears to believe this. He proudly insists that voting itself is a sham process. But when pressed to explain what will happen were this system to disappear, he absolutely refuses to offer one word. “Follow me into the abyss!” seems to be his rallying cry.

 

The left made most of its progress earlier in the 20th Century, when it participated in the process whereby things got done. When it formed mass parties that competed for power. Yes, power. The power to set policies. Which is to say, the power to make it easier to form unions and more difficult to locate factories in anti-worker hell-holes. Power. Something too many leftists have deliberately refused to pursue while simultaneously wondering why they're so ineffective. You cannot have an impact if you have no power. If you exit yourself from the process whereby things get decided, then you self-evidently have less power on the subsequent decisions. Even when they didn't win power, by competing for it, they forced parties further to the right to offer more. The CCF/NDP incorporated some of their policies. The Liberals took some of the CCF's policies. Even the (then) “Progressive” Conservatives were offering constructive policies that would benefit the majority. Now that there are only some die-hard Marxist parties and leftist activists have abandoned the NDP, we see how the political spectrum has swung rightwards (to all our discomfort).

 

Unless and until the left gets involved in the formal political process, we will be ineffective. The adolescent fantasy that we can have an impact on things without getting our hands dirty by making compromises; that we can make pronouncements from some lofty tower and the politicians will implement them, must be abandoned. Especially since part of this “strategy” is based on the silly notion that we can actually “demand” things from people who disagree with us, without having any threats to back-up our demands.

 

Now, please understand, there are limits to the compromises leftists should make. And, to be sure, it can be demoralizing and oppressive to participate in political organizations. A lot of politicians ARE narcissistic sociopaths. Organizations do create their own oligarchies. But then again, narcissists and hierarchies aren't exactly absent from non-government organizations, or even local activist communities. Wouldn't it be better to suffer these irritations for a process that could actually produce tangible results?

 

I think I'll stop here. I think that I've established that it is nonsense to say that one can exist outside of politics (unless one lives completely apart from the rest of humanity). It is nonsense to believe that we can wish away the world of politics and politicians. And it is rendering ourselves useless to believe that we can have an impact on politics without seriously pursuing politica power ourselves. There is hard, dispiriting, sould-destroying work that needs to be done, if life for the majority of people on this planet is to become easier, hopeful and purposeful. We on the left need to allocate more than a mere 2% of our efforts on charting the way forward. Some of the vast time and resources we use critiquing and complaining needs to be used constructively.


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