There are not many people yet in the pub. I’m quietly starting my hamburger, trying to find a conversation topic that could interest the two guys I’m eating with, when the question falls. Not a casual question, it is THE question. The question everyone asks when one is studying politics:
– So, with what you’re doing, you, like, want to be a minister, right?
(It all started just too well)
– Actually, no, I don’t want to be a minister.
– Really? So some MP, you want to run for MP?
– Neither, in fact I’m not interested in electoral politics.
– Oh I see, you’re one of these guys who do not believe in elections, you’re more about dictatorships and strong power. I mean, everyone has their thing, right? (he laughs) Nobody can force you to actually be a democrat.
– No. I mean I don’t want to take parts in politics. Actually what I am studying is far from every form of election or government.
– So, in that case, what are you doing, exactly?
This is an example of the typical discussion one can face when having the weird idea of saying they’re studying politics (and to be studying politics in the first place). So no. I don’t want to be a minister. I don’t want to be a dictator either, by the way. I also don’t want to make laws, and, to quote what has been said later that evening, my studies are not about “coming to a country and making all the politics and law things nice and all”. If anyone knew how to manufacture a working democracy from scratch, they wouldn’t be teaching it in universities, because they would be too busy ruling the world. For the record, it is not that it is surprising or absurd to hear that kind of discourses: when someone wants to be a doctor, they study medecine; when they want to be a jurist, they study law. So it could appear logical that studying politics is something you do before starting a career as a politician. And in fact, it is often the case. But politics, that is to say the thing that is called “the political science”, although it has something to do with the political life, is not about learning to be a good politician.
The problem comes from the fact that in fact, for a long time, politics has indeed been about this topic. It is always hard to put a beginning at the existence of the political science, but we can identify, in history, many authors who have written about the behaviour of a good government, or to imagine what a good government could look like. Most agree that what has been called “modern” politics was more or less born with Machiavelli’s Il Principe, that was more or less the first book explaining that a good politician adapts his behaviour to the circumstances, therefore entering more or less the realm of what was going to eventually become utilitarianism: the idea that an action is good because of its consequences. Machiavelli was not writing for the pleasure of the knowledge of what did governments do, or to insctruct the people of the various forms of power and institution, his main goal was to give a practical guide to efficient government, efficient government being defined as a governement that stays. Later on, and actually, still a bit today, some authors have spent a massive amount of time and efforts trying, as did the first authors in that tradition, to determine which system is the best.
But the organisation of the institutions of a governement is still is quite a reduced part of politics: it doesn’t take a genius to notice that what we call “politics” is much wider than knowing who is at which place in the hierarchy of a state. In fact, if we reduced our relation to “the political” to a graph, the designation of the government would take a reduced place in comparison to other stuff we also consider as political, such as our efforts to promote a cause, to defend our neighbourhoods, to obtain recognition, and so forth. Of course, all these elements involve some relation to an institution (in general) or to a collective dimension at least. But the relation between, say, the territorial organisation of the state, or the possibility for the Prime minister to dissolve the Assembly, and the meeting held by the association for the promotion of the neighbourhood of Thisplace-upon-Thatlake, or the angriness felt by the workers of factory X in the same town is very unclear. Leading to the terrible, horrible question: what do things we call political have in common exactly?
French politists have the tendency, when giving their first lecture, to tell to French students that English people are luckier than them because they have different words to speak about politics while we must content ourselves with the single “politique” term, leading to even more confusion. It is a reflection that comes from Jean Leca, a French scholar that has spent a massive part of his career discussing the question of “What is politics about?” and is extremely interesting if you’re capable to read French. In my first lecture in politics, a clear distinction of the things we were interested in was established as such:
- First there is “la politique”, or politics. This is what we talk about when we say Mr X did something and that it was “politics”. Generally, it is not considered as a very positive thing: if the government has decided to defend this law, it was of course for “politica reasons”, per instance (meaning, to get more votes at the next election). Some people will try to avoid being included in the “politics” of their company, or reject a choice because “it’s politics”. What we talk about here is politics as an activity, which is aimed at determining who does what, not only in terms of people, but also in terms of parties. Politics is, in that understanding, the activity of competing for power and the rules defining it.
- But there is also “les politiques”, or (public) policy. In that case, we would talk about the policy of a government, which can be good, bad, concrete, efficient, and what not. One would never say “These two people can’t stand each other because of policy reasons”, or at least, it would be very unclear and need some explanation. Policy includes laws, institutional systems, organisations, power repartition between diverse parts of the state, and so on.
- Finally, there is “le politique”, which can be translated in both polity and political, depending on what exactly you mean. In both cases, we assume that we are talking about a realm, more or less institutionalised, to which we relate when we talk politics. Leca says that a polity is a group which has no defined function, marked by collective choices that fix its form and serves to answer the question of identity of the group. In everyday terms, politics in that meaning is a form of justification to the extent that it relates to that group: “I want to raise this question because it is political”, can say the protester, per instance.
Because of that diversity, we have a certain inventory of stuff we can immediately classify or not as “political”: the selection of the Minister of Burdget, per instance, the relations between communities in Northern Ireland, or the construction of a road are often classified as “political”, while the sexual relation between my neighbour’s husband and the milkman does not appear immediatly as political to me, as the mending of my bike, the opening hours of the pub in my street, or the family gathering that will occur in two weeks. This is obvious, but still difficult to situate: it could very much happen that the sexual relation between my neighbour and the milkman or the opening of the pub become something political, if per instance a group decided that it does not concern private people but the society. This is more or less what happened, in the case of alcohol, in the United States by the end of the 19th century, eventually leading to something everyone agrees was political, the Prohibition.
All the same, something that is political in a context can very much be apolitical in another. Take per instance this picture (this is not me being obsessed with sex, but a concrete situation that actually happened).
This situation is hardly conceivable as “political”, and the motivation of these two women for kissing are probably closer to the realm of emotions: erotism, love, attractiveness, whatever. Now, if I say that this kiss is taking place in front of a group of people demonstrating against gay marriage (the people in white and pink in the background), the change of the setup leads to a change of comprehension, and something that was not political is now obviously political. But I have so far only taken examples in the “fringes” of the political: a kiss, a pub, these are not at the core of the political life, while we know that elements are “really” political. Voting, per instance. Or being candidate to an election. Here the same problem occurs: can we exactly consider that the reflexive vote of the guys who votes because it is “his duty as a citizen” and doesn’t care who he votes for is “political”? This is a bit complicated.
A good answer to that question has been given by researchers busy with that phenomenon, that consists in saying that “political” is a way of perceiving something and qualifying it: potentially, everything can become or cease to be political, regardless of what it is, “political” designing a reference to a collective and the acceptance that there is a conflict. But this leads a bit too far from the first question: if I don’t want to be a minister, why the hell do I study politics?
Well, because of that blurred definition, precisely. And because I think it is meant to stay blurred: it is not a matter of definition, it is more or less the definition itself. Because its object is extremely volatile, political science has to be diverse itself, more or less floating around the same questions: What is power? How do people organise themselves? What is political and why? What is the importance of the institutions? How do people obtain what they want? I can be extremely interested in politics without giving a rat’s arse about being elected myself. Because what is “political” is not reduced to elections, posts, functions and ministries. On the contrary, studying the topic leads to being interested in more or less anything but that. “Who governs” is a very reduced question in the political realm, in which most interaction has nothing to do with that question. And concretely, all that is very inefficient in the political life, for a simple reason: it lives on the conviction that “the political” is something extremely well defined, while the evolution of the political sciences tends to relativise all this. So in a way, to be efficient in political life, one has to not take in account how politics work.
So studying politics is a bad idea if you want to be involved in politics. It doesn’t mean it is useless: first, I think that if more “politologists” were taking in account more of what actually makes politics, we would have a much more precise sight of the world we live in; second, we have learnt to see things as fixed, while politics (as a part of sociology) teaches to seize them in relation, as constructed elements that are always relative; third, for the same reason, politics teaches the limitations of binary and simplistic modes of thinking. It doesn’t make my hamburger better, but still, it’s quite enjoyable.