What is politics? Whilst scholars such as Weber and Schwarzmantel largely focus on defining politics as power, others such as Leftwich and Crick focus on the scope within which politics occurs.
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The question of ‘What is Politics?’ is one that due to its interpretive nature has drawn much debate from numerous political scientists. Whilst scholars such as Weber and Schwarzmantel largely focus on defining politics as power, others such as Leftwich and Crick focus on the scope within which politics occurs. The two key themes that both distinguish and align the authors in their interpretation of politics are those of ‘power’, and ‘the role of the state’.
One of the key issues regarding the definition of politics that the authors give prominence to in differing measures is power. Crick’s proportionalist view focuses solely on shared power as being crucial in defining politics, rather than all power conflicts. For Crick “A struggle for power” is not politics it is “simply a struggle for power” (1982: 20). Whilst Weber (1991: 77) agrees that the sharing of power is part of politics, he also defies Crick’s definition, arguing that it is not the only form of power related to politics. Weber (1991: 78) argues that any power related conflicts arising from political institutions should be constituted as politics. This is a point that could be criticized by Crick, based on his ontological belief that politics is an activity exclusive to the proportional delegation of power. When the need for the elite to consult diminishes, Crick (1982: 21) argues that politics ceases to exist. However Crick’s ontological approach lacks credibility as to define all forms of government that don’t follow the model of shared power as non-political seems too narrow. To classify China, for example, as a state that has no politics due to its authoritarian structure seems nonsensical. Moreover, this definition would carry major derisory international implications due to the contradiction of such a state being part of a political organization like the United Nations without China itself being political. In contrast, Leftwich (1984: 104) argues that every case including people, resources, and power should be considered as political. However, such a view seems too encompassing. The broadening of the term ‘politics’ to cover the majority of often unimportant daily interactions acts to render Leftwich’s definition as almost meaningless due to its lack of specificity.
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Whilst Weber (1991: 78) and Leftwich (1984: 104) focus largely on observable power conflicts in relation to politics, Schwarzmantel adds an extra aspect by arguing that “an important dimension of power is the capacity to affect and mould peoples consciousness” (1987: 10). This claim, although largely unverifiable, gains strength when put into practice since it is logical that the most efficient way to coerce politically would be to make people believe that how they act is in their own interests. Although Crick may respond that this use of power is not political, as it isn’t about compromise, it is clear that such an application of power does have political consequences as it would have a significant impact on political interests, which are a key component in Crick’s view of politics. The “tolerance of different truths” and “open canvassing of rival interests” that Crick (1982: 18) sees as fundamental to politics are clearly susceptible to the moulding power that Schwarzmantel addresses. As Schwarzmantel states, “choice does not take place in a vacuum” (1987: 11), and so the factors that affect choice should also be considered when debating the definition of politics.
This issue of the implementation of power is linked to another key area that the authors debate in defining politics, which is the definition and role of the state. Both Weber (in Schwarzmantel 1987: 8) and Schwarzmantel (1987:8) argue that it is the state’s attempts to justify its power that are central to defining politics. The weight behind this argument is that since legitimized power, according to Weber, is the only “means specific to the state”(1991: 78), it follows that this is how the state, and thus politics should be analysed. Leftwich criticizes such a view of the central role of the state in relation to politics, arguing that “it is not necessary for there to be a state for there to be politics”(1984: 103). This is based on his ontology(1984: 104) that politics is both a public and private activity that occurs wherever people, power, and resources are in conflict. Crick attempts to devalue Leftwich’s ontological approach by arguing that such interactions lack the “valuable qualitative distinction” (1982: 30) of settled order that is necessary to precede politics. However, this criticism seems too subjective to hold weight against Leftwich’s argument. Since the concept of order is not empirically verifiable or universally defined, it seems inappropriate to use it as a measure for determining the scope of politics.
Crick’s alternative approach is that states are not necessarily political; states which fail to proportionally empower their constituents cannot be classified as political (1982: 16). Crick (1982: 29) instead focuses on the governments within territorial societies as the imperative tools which allow for politics to take place. This is a view which is particularly important to analyse due to its global implications; as it renders international relations between states as being non-political due to the lack of an authoritative world government. This is a view which is contested by Schwarzmantel who argues there is generally an agreement that “politics refers to the relationship between states on an international scale” (1987: 1). The strength of this counter argument is compounded by Weber’s definition of politics as competition for power (1991: 78). This struggle for power is clearly evident internationally with superpowers, transnational bodies, and non-governmental organisations all actively seeking to influence the distribution of power. Thus Crick’s view that politics doesn’t exist internationally is regarded as misplaced in the approaches to politics of both Weber and Schwarzmantel.
As the discussion on the question of ‘What is politics?’ is a subjective one, it logically follows that is unlikely that any universal definition will, or needs to, be reached. As this review has shown, these authors share substantial similarities and differences in defining politics, with much insightful debate and analysis arising as a consequence.
Crick, B., In Defence of Politics (Penguin, 1982)
Dunn, J., The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics ( Basic Books, 2000)
Hay, C., Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
Leftwich, A., What is Politics: The Activity and its Study (Blackwell, Oxford, 1984)
Schwarzmantel, J,. Structures of Power: An Introduction to Politics (Wheatsheaf Books, 1987)
Weber, M., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Routledge, 1991)