Thursday, 15 January 2015

Politics: what is it good for?

The politics of Robinson Crusoe, the original rugged individualism, can only get you so far provided you are kept relatively isolated from other people. But when we have pervasive proximity to others in everyday life, rapid transportation to reach diverse areas, and 24/7 media linkages across the world, isolation is not an option.

We have to live with others. The only question is how. The most optimistic amongst us like to dream that if there were no government around, everyone would cooperate in perfect harmony. Their naivety is sadly exposed by the regrettable, but quite undeniable, existence of exploiters who would never miss a chance to take unfair advantage of others. Using force, stealth, or deception, they would feed off the labour of others while accumulating ever more land, wealth and power for themselves.

Nine years before Crusoe’s creator, Daniel Defoe, was born, the dangers of leaving people to do as they pleased without any kind of law and enforcement were vividly dissected by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book, Leviathan. It would not matter if there were saintly people who would always put the interests of others first, or the majority of people would prefer to live in peace with others, so long as some were inclined to cheat, manipulate or dominate others, everyone would have to submit to endless mistreatment or fight back by whatever means available.

On Hobbes’ analysis, even well-meaning people could through misunderstanding end up mired in violent conflicts (he lived through the English Civil War). But while most of us would grant his conclusion that a government is therefore indispensable to make and enforce laws for the peace and wellbeing of all, few could go along with his prescription for giving the power of government to an absolute ruler.

If not an absolute ruler who can make decisions without challenge from anyone, Hobbes would ask, then who is to be entrusted with such power? The answer is: politics. Not politics in the distorted sense of ‘petty party political point-scoring’, or as a short-hand term for the unsavoury business of some professional politicians. To equate politics with such activities would be like treating medicine as what is practised by quacks and charlatans.

Politics is the art of organising society so that the people can govern themselves through a set of rulers who will look after their common interests by the laws and policies they institute. The progress of politics through the ages has consisted in it evolving more effective means to select and remove those with ruling powers peacefully. A key aspect of this has been to give the public the understanding and authority needed to judge and choose who they can count on most to guard against private encroachment and secure the public good.

Unfortunately it is this aspect of politics that has been most neglected for decades. As we saw in ‘The Voter Vanishes’, for example, in the UK nearly half those eligible to vote either don’t register to vote or don’t turn out to vote. For those who do vote, the majority are routinely disappointed that the parties they back don’t get to govern.

The physical wellbeing of people can only be advanced through a combination of medical training of the experts and health education for everyone. Similarly, the collective wellbeing of our society can only be improved with the help of leadership training for those in government positions, and political education for all citizens.

In partnership with the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association), the Question the Powerful project has developed a series of day schools under the title, ‘Politics: what is it good for?’, to engage people in taking a fresh look at political ideas and practices, and learning about why they should exercise their democratic power as voters. Each day school will explore:
• Political history: how did we get here?
• Political approaches: what options have we got?
• Political action and impact: why we can make a difference?
• Political imagination: which future awaits us?

If you would like to participate in one of these day schools or explore developing similar learning opportunities, you can find out more about the initiative here:

On leadership training for those in government positions, see article: ‘The Everest of Senior Public Service Management’

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