What is Politics? [Note 02.3]

Politics 80X
Fall 1998
Note 02.3

Note 02.3

What is Politics?

in Larkin’s World

1 The Substantive Subjects of Politics

Politics always concerns some substantive question. Two [or more] parties disagree about what should be done in some specific time and place. The question always takes the form ‘what action should be taken?’ Typically, it is framed as a broader question ‘what action would it be appropriate to take in a situation like this, and why would it be appropriate?’ Answers to the broad question are then adjusted to fit [specific] interpretations of time and place in which the action will be undertaken, and expectations about consequences.

An important point to keep in mind is that there may be disagreement and contest about every point: how to define the ‘issue’, how to interpret the context, what kind of situation this is, what actions are appropriate in such a situation, which details of the present circumstances matter, what consequences and effects will [and may] follow, and by what terms of judgment those consequences--sought, unintended, or undesired--should be weighed.

The substantive questions concern four broad areas--economics, security, organization, and prestige [status]--and, usually, some combination among them. The following table shows examples of subjects and where they are located in this plat.


2 The Central Terms of Politics

For many the central term of politics is power. They see politics as a field of striving in which players use their strength and wealth to induce and compel others to perform acts they would not choose if they were free.

I believe they have their finger on a widespread, recurrent fact of social life. People do try to force others to act against their will. But I do not call this politics. I call this coercion. By failing to give coercive acts their right name, political analysts turn off the spotlight of criticism. In the jargon, they ‘normalize’ coercive practices. Of course, the readiness to say that power is the key to politics has other sources. Of these, the most important--and the one which any understanding of politics must take into account--is that people come to politics as unequals. Their capabilities and wealth do differ, and that has real consequences for the relations which must exist in any complex society between those with access to greater resources and those with access to less.

In Larkin’s world, the central term of politics is negotiation, in a double sense. First, our situation, and even how to talk about it, is negotiated: that is, we negotiate our interpretations of our situation through conversation with others.

Second--remembering that politics is about choices of actions--we must negotiate with another what we will do.

Of course, there are some things we can do alone. But complex tasks--even the everyday complex tasks a family must perform--require sharing and coordination. So I say that politics is the quest for complementary projects, understood as projects through which participants intend to accomplish what they cannot accomplish alone. When two [or more] participants agree to undertake complementary projects, they make a decision. Then they must enact their agreement, which is also rich in ongoing interpretation and renegotiation as difficulties are encountered or new opportunities found.

So the key elements are:

[a] conversation, [b] interpretation, [c] negotiation, [d] decision [choosing complementary projects], and [e] enactment, always [f] cycling recurrently through those steps.

In this view, society is a complex, multi-layered, ongoing negotiation and enactment of complementary projects, explicit and implicit.

Among the most important ‘terms’ to be negotiated in any polity are those governing how inequalities are accommodated. Given inequalities, what are ‘just’ or ‘appropriate’ terms of complementary projects? This itself must be politically negotiated. When we speak of the ‘legitimacy’ of a political order, we usually mean that participants accept as somehow right or unavoidable the terms in which inequalities of access to authority and resources are reflected in political negotiations.

3 Politics as Ever-Present

It is not possible to reduce complex social differences to any simple calculus, or to find the answer to social issues by referring to ‘expertise’ or ‘technology.’ Our understandings of all complex matters must be negotiated, and therefore are political. Even moreso, then, disputes about what to do are irreducibly political.

For example, it is a political choice to decide that certain types of economic transactions will take place in a market. Moreover, the market has trading rules; whether those have been gradually arrived at through practice (custom, precedent), or are imposed by a regulatory agency (Securities and Exchange Commission), they are the result of a political negotiation, and whatever deference is given them is the result of an ongoing negotiation of legitimacy.

A serious argument can be made that all economic transactions are the result of political negotiations, and therefore that economics is a subdiscipline of politics.

4 Disputes in Which A Central Feature is the Difference in Subject or Level

One reason why issues of political governance are so hard--hard to conceive, hard to find outcomes which are broadly acceptable--is that substantive interests are located on different levels, and parties are focused on different types of concerns.

We can illustrate that by going back to the original table, and considering four big questions: shall the US government agree to unrestricted sale and use of encryption software? should there be any restriction on the content of web sites? and should buying and selling on the web be subject to local taxation? and who should govern the ‘shape’ of the Net, including allocation of addresses?


Encryption. There are two axes or differences. Advocates stress economics--foreign trade, domestic prosperity, profit for firms; against that, the FBI stresses social order (with a subtext that that includes defence against attack from abroad). Advocates stress privacy--individual security--against which the FBI insists the government should have recourse.

Content. In part, this is a contest between advocates of ‘security of expression’ and ‘security of access’ and advocates of ‘security against filth’. Part of the dispute is about the extent to which state structures (schools, libraries) will reflect the choices of specific families, that is, the parents of specific children. Some entities seek profit from sites others regard as pornographic. Still others frame this as a ‘social order’ issue at the level of the State and of sub-national entities (states, counties, cities, school districts, &c.).

Local taxation? Is taxing a purchase made on the Net an exercise of local jurisdiction or an act analogous to an impediment to interstate commerce? It was only a few years ago that the European Union permitted tariff-free sales among EU members states. This is a level of jurisdiction problem, but it is also a ‘which aggregate?’ issue, in that the claim taxing will dampen economic growth conflicts with the State claim to revenue.

How is the Net to be governed? Clearly an organizational issue. The developing solution appears to be to acknowledge a voice for the State and for international organizations, while endeavoring to retain consensual regulation as the governing organizational paradigm. But State executives and legislatures are not likely to rest easy with that, and we anticipate ongoing contest.

5 Claims

Larkins’s world is full of claims. As I understand the world of politics, and of social life and collective understandings, our assertions about the world, and about what ought to be, are best understood as claims. I see everyone, including those who rely most heavily on assertions of authority, such as scientists, Presidents and officials, doctors, and teachers, to be doing nothing more than making claims.

Then there are four types of claims:

[a] existential claims: something exists, such as the Net, or (more complicated) a set of people properly termed "hackers", or (even more complicated) a set of similar circumstances, such as "attacking sites"

[b] set claims: that given circumstances are an instance of a given set, or a person properly understood as a member of a given set

[b] causal claims: given ‘these circumstances’, if we do X the outcome will be Y

[c] normative claims: an outcome Y is preferable to an outcome Z

and of course that is followed by a clause of form ‘because . . .’, which is a causal claim.

We negotiate with one another whether we are ready to ‘adopt’ or ‘rely on’ or ‘entertain’ such claims, and the choices we make are expressed, ultimately, in decisions we make whether or not to undertake specific complementary projects.

That’s Larkin’s world.


© 1998 Bruce D. Larkin.

Posted: 98.10.18.