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What is politics?

By David De Dau

How would you describe South Sudan’s political systems? South Sudan seems to have abandoned politics based on political parties and instead adopted politics of ethnicity. You will agree with me that our country’s politics is very much associated with tribalism rather genuine ideologies based on the common good for all! On hearing the word politics, what usually comes to your mind are images of government, politicians and their policies or more negatively the idea of corruption and dirty tricks. The actual definition seems to have been obscured and almost lost by representations and clichés that tend not to pinpoint the true essence, which defines this thing, called politics. In order to make an attempt at a definition of politics a systemic approach is required. To begin with, a brief historical overview will be considered, to understand the origins of politics.
Following this, different core concepts, which are imperative to a definition of politics, will be discussed, in the hope to discover a true and fair interpretation of the word politics.
The word politics comes from the Greek word “polis”, meaning the state or community as a whole. The concept of the “polis” was an ideal state and came from the writings of great political thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. In his novel “The Republic”, Plato describes the ideal of state and the means to achieve it. Hence, the word politics originally has connotations in the ways in which to create the ideal society. An ideal society is in practice a rather difficult aim and even an impossible aim to achieve. Politics implies measures which could and should, in the views of their devisor, be implemented in the hope to create better society, than that which is already present.
The very fact that Plato and Aristotle saw imperfections in the societies, in which they lived, prompted them to write their political philosophies. These philosophies provided the first written recognition of politics. In his writing “The Politics”, Aristotle states that “Man is by nature a political animal” in another words, it lies deep within the instinct of man. It is almost primal. Due to his nature, man should consider and realise his within the “polis”. So according to Aristotle Politics is not a dreamt up concept, but rather an inherent feature of mankind.
To begin with, the basest premise that underpins the notion of politics should be considered in order to arrive at a fair definition. Man is self-preserving by nature. He thinks and acts, whether that is as an individual or as a group who share interests, with foremost regard to his own interests. Self-perpetuation is the number one rule. He therefore possesses his own interests, ideas and preferences, which may differ to those of his contemporaries. In the “Blackwell Encyclopaedia of political Thought”, Miller supports this premise: “Politics presupposes a diversity of view, if not about ultimate aims, at least the best ways of achieving them.
Politics consider this view of man, in that on meeting others whose interests oppose his own, conflict is bound to occur. What could be the cause of this conflict of interest? The world has its limits; all material wealth within it is exhaustible. Who therefore gets how large a share, of those resources, which are present on the earth in limited supply? If man were permitted to act on and pursue his own selfish interests, snatching that, which he desires, a society would quickly become under rule of violence. Politics is a way of combating the degradation of society into a violent and unstructured mess by reducing it to resolve conflict. Leftwich states in one of his writings entitled “Politics: people, resources and power” from the activities of co-operation and conflict, within and between societies, whereby the human species goes about organizing the use, production and distribution of human, natural and other resources in the production and reproduction of its biological and social life.”
Politics therefore may be defined as a means to resolving this conflict through various means, which will be tackled later in this article. If however one was to take this premise of the existence of opposing opinions as false, conflict between individuals should never occur and politics would not be required to resolve problems. To justify politics however, this premise must be true and through simply considering, the society in which we live it is evident, that conflict exists. In his definition of politics in the “Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought” Miller advocates this view, stating that if “people were to agree spontaneously on a course of actions, they would probably have no need to engage in politics.” Thus, politics exists due to the broad spectrum of ideas and opinions within any society.
To resolve conflicting opinions, a consensus must be agreed upon by all parties affected. Also in “The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thoughts”, Miller cites three methods which are a feature of politics when resolving disagreements within society, these three elements are “persuasion, bargaining and a mechanism for reaching a final decision.” This means that politics tries to act as a peacemaker by offering solutions to existing or potential conflict to the parties involved by means of discussion with them. The outcome will most probably require the yielding of at least one of the parties implicated in order to meet at a compromise. The mechanism is the way in which the parties make their final decisions based on the scenarios with which they have been provided. In most cases, this normally takes the form of a vote.
How is it that the final decision made though compromise is enforceable? For surely in order for politics to be of any use as a pacifier in the strained relations, it must carry some sort of authority and power. Politics implies power. Dahl, in Modern Political Analysis, states that: “a political system as any persistent pattern of human relationships that involves, to a significant extent, control, influence, power or authority.” Certain members of a society must have the authority over other member’s in order to enforce civil discussion in the first place. It seems to follow that for certain individuals to exert more power than others they must have the support of a large proportion over those which they have authority. Going back to the premise that man is at heart a selfish creature, it must be true that even those in power are not immune to the effects of pursuing their own goals to a certain extent.
Politics could therefore be defined as a power struggle between those in influential positions. Power can only be obtained by obtaining the support from as many groups and individuals as possible. This can be achieved by providing tempting solutions to conflicts that already exist in a society, whether this be in a honest or dishonest way. By appealing to members of a society with solutions to their problems and promises to act in their interests, a group or individual can gain support and ultimately authority over groups and individuals. Politics could thus be defined as a calculating art of power gain or power retention or more simply as power struggle.
The ultimate power is found in government. Miller continues to name the state as “the chief arena of politics, in the modern world. It is within this institution that all of the aforementioned takes place. Thus, politics could be defined as the working of government as a grantor to a peaceful society. The government is run by the politicians; it is the politicians who form the ideas to hopefully settle conflict in the society they govern. However it seems that if politics are the working of the government those societies and communities, which do not possess a government, are devoid of politics. In south Sudan, we have a government so we tend to relate the politics as the working of the government. However, in every community and corporation where there is hierarchy politics must exist. In a company for example, a boss makes decisions and resolves conflict. In a tribe, the chief makes the decisions to keep internal conflicts to a minimum and ultimately ensures the survival of his tribe. Thus politics is present in every community and is used to mange workings and disagreements that may occur within any co-habitation. Whether the sport club or the state government and is concerned with devising a method of organization and attempting to implement that method of organization within communities as a necessary measure to avoid conflict due to those inevitable diversities in opinion and therefore ultimately needed to promote as peaceful an existence as possible. In the process of establishing the core concepts of this affair called politics, it is plain to see that a brief definition is virtually impossible. Politics is not simply an object or a single stranded idea.
It is not a concise term but rather a complicated notion, which embraces premises, opinions, and qualities of human nature, actions and institutions. It seems to arise in those situations where humans live in coexistence whether that is by choice or otherwise. Any attempt at a definition would be confine and customise politics to suit one’s own particular views. Nevertheless, in fitting with the title of this article an attempt at a definition shall be made. Politics is the means to creating a more organized and peaceful society, between men, by means of civil discussion and rational compromise. It thus stems the need for violence in tense community into utter chaos.
Authority is the underlying feature of politics and ensures its enforceability. Power underpins its very existence; it is a prerequisite for politics to exist. Without authority, politics simply is not feasible. The most visible and widely accepted example of politics is the working of the governmental institutions. However, although at first glance one may not be aware of it, politics in its various forms is present wherever and whenever humans form a community. Referring back to the views of Aristotle, politics is an intrinsic feature of mankind.
Having learned of what healthy politics is all about, we should start working towards changing our attitudes on the common mistakes commonly made in the course of political practice.

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