Posted by: HAT | March 1, 2010

A Definition of Politics

Thinking that “politics” was an activity that separated two spheres of human life and activity, the political life of the polis from the animal life of the oikos, was always a mistake. Thinking that “ethics” was something that could be applied to politics or not, as people chose, was likewise a mistaken way of thinking about politics. Even though the term “politics” derives from the Greek word polis, and has etymologically had to do with the forms and activities of a designated “political community” or a human group considered under the distinguishable aspect of the life of that polis, that usage was always a willful, effortful refusal – a refusal consistent with the distinguishing spirit of the language in which it arose – to admit and acknowledge the connections among connected things.

The mistake has always been fatal for someone. Of course, everyone dies some time. Its fatality has not been the difference between dying eventually and not dying ever. Its fatality has been the kind of fatality that names the difference between having a life and never having one. Of course, everyone has a life in a technical sense, in the sense of the kind of life that people are happy to share with animals and plants. The distinction between zoē and bios rests on that generality. But at least ever since “politics” came to be distinguished as the human activity that concerned the separate sphere of the polis, only some of those lives have been the kind of lives that could be thought of without reservation as “real,” “meaningful,” “full,” or “considerable” lives. Happy lives. Good lives. Desirable lives, in the sense that a person could want to live that life. The invention of politics as the activity of a distinguishable and unrelated sphere, in which a distinct form of life takes place that does not take place elsewhere, has always been fatal in that sense for those whose life did not take place in that sphere. It has even been fatal for whatever portion of the life of all those whose life sometimes coincided with or took place within that sphere took place elsewhere.

In other words, this understanding of “politics” has always been a murderous lie: “[part of] how we live has nothing to do with how we live.”

“Politics” remains a serviceable word, maybe, if it can be thought of as “all the ways people in groups go about making decisions.” “All the ways” includes (e.g.,) habits that have frozen into structures, laws, constitutions, and respect or contempt for those; every kind of arm-twisting, from beating up on the kid on the playground to decide who gets to have the quarter, to beating up on the country halfway around the world to decide who gets to profit from the manufacture and use of advanced technical weaponry and who gets to pay for it in the flesh; every kind of lobbying, from the baby’s whining for ice cream to the teen’s recruitment of one parent against another to the staff’s letter to the department head to the consumers’ refusal to buy green grapes picked by non-union migrant farm workers. “All the ways” includes (e.g.,) drawing and acting on lines of exclusion, making and respecting boundaries for paying attention, systematically (i.e., cooperatively) consigning some voices to oblivion, systematically (i.e., collaboratively) privileging one or another point of view or mode of discourse, schooling generation after generation in canons of respectful behavior and confidence in expertise, moving with or against the shifting fashions in emotionalism and rationalism and stoicism and activism. “All the ways” includes (e.g.,) cultivating or failing to cultivate a tradition of resistance and counter-hegemonic consciousness through humor and story, sabotage, incompetence, non-compliance (or, compliance), non-participation, avoidance, standing up or backing down, hanging in there or bagging it, talking till the cows come home or shutting up.

All the ways includes all the ways.

The personal is political; so is the impersonal. The point is not that “politics” is – ever, possibly – something distinct from how people live. How people live is – always, unavoidably – politically consequential. There is no apolitical space. There never has been. The “truth content” in the old saw that man [sic] is the political animal is that for people, living is ineluctably politics.

Politics is form-of-life inseparable from life itself; that is, it is how people live [together]; that is, it is the practice of ethics.

It makes very little sense to say that politics needs an infusion of ethics. It might make more sense to ask whether the ethics of which some politics is a practice is an ethics its people really want to keep practicing.

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