A crash course in politics

The word ‘politics’ these days is a very loaded word with numerous connotations and meanings. The negative associations linked to this word in particular create the impression that politics is something which should be avoided.  Some people are of the opinion that getting involved with ‘politics’ is a waste of time and therefore they steer clear of thinking about it except in times when they believe an action will directly impact them.


Although this mind-set is fairly commonplace, it does not take a lot of prodding to realise that this interpretation of the idea of ‘politics’ is one which deters people from trying to discover the power politics plays in their everyday life on a more fundamental basis. Furthermore, when people do end up taking interest in politics it generally tends to be too late as the sudden interest would be a result of a reaction rather than that of sustained interest. Being able to understand the true nature and workings of politics as well as recognizing it to be a fundamental process which plays one of the most, if not the most, important role in shaping society as a whole, is a matter of utmost importance to anyone who is a citizen of a country or nation.


If one had to search up the definition of politics, one would most likely stumble upon this definition:

Politics is the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live.”

This definition shows politics to be a process which directly deals with the actions groups of individuals take in relation to their surrounding environment and norms. The study of politics would therefore be the study of the various aspects of the relationships between the people and the state, or in other words, the relationship between citizens and their government. It can also be applied on a larger scale to the relationship between one country and another through the medium of the state. This inter-governmental network is what constitutes international relations and shapes the multilateral dynamics of diplomacy.

The study of these relationships would therefore reveal the nature (understood as the essential characteristics of something or someone) of politics to be that of conflict resolution. This is so, since through the study of these complex relationships, one observes the way people master the art of finding different ways and means of co-existing and resolving possible problems. In this state, relationships are destroyed or adapt to form new ones. This balancing act is a continuous process characterized by the direct and indirect actions of individuals or groups based on what they perceive to be the optimal way of governing society.

This understanding of politics however brings us to ask these critical questions: can the status quo within a political system be changed and, if yes, who is able to affect this change? Marxists and feminists have argued that the workings of politics are intimately linked to the power structures that shape society, including through the social norms and customs as well as economic systems. Through this lens power and authority would be extremely important elements when it comes to understanding and analysing political systems within specific historical contexts. In fact different definitions of the word ‘politics’ tend to also refer to power.

As the American political scientist and communications theorist Herold Lasswell pointed out ‘Politics is who gets What, When and How?’ (POLITICS publication 1936).  Politics, understood in this manner, goes hand in hand with the fields of economics as it is dependent upon the means of production, distribution and use of resources.

But is politics simply a question of power and authority?

This question is one which raises more questions than it answers as one must first ask: what is power, how is it exercised and who wields it. Whilst many political philosophers attempt to answer this question it is only through the study of history one can more or less reveal how power is exercised in various socio-political contexts. In fact history of political thought can be traced back to early antiquity, with works such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and the works of Confucius, all works which have tried to set frameworks which would define the acceptable political methods within their given society. Other contemporary political theorists such as Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt (see references) have also been hugely influential in shaping our understandings of power and its inner workings.


Another question raised when looking into the relationship between power and politics is: what is the relationship between politics and the military and, is one an extension of the other.

Although a rather complicated question, historical retrospection shows that these two forces move in hand in hand with one another. Arguments have been put forward supporting the idea that politics is not simply a question of power since military solutions are different to political ones. This is because unlike political solutions, which mainly rely upon diplomacy, deliberations and discussions, military solutions include the use of naked power and direct or indirect intervention. Politics through this view can be seen as a means of resolving conflict by compromise, conciliation and negotiation. However even this argument faces criticism. As the notable military theorist Carl von Clausewitz stated in his book Vom Kriege (On War), ‘politics is a way of carrying war by other means’. The complex relationship is difficult to understand and needs an article for itself, however it is clear that so far one tends to depend on the other and politics and the military have occasionally joined together to form one entity both in the past as well as the present.


In conclusion, whilst it is clear that understanding politics is a challenging task, it is crucial to familiarise ourselves with it. Analysing and questioning seemingly basic concepts such as ‘politics’ has the power to allow us to see how susceptible such concepts are to change. The questions brought up in this article set the foundation for what today is known as ‘political theory/philosophy’ which is the study into the deeper meanings of the political concepts found at the root of our societies such as freedom, authority, legitimacy, transparency, and human rights. Through the discipline of analysis one can provide explanations to current events and to what we understand by the word ‘politics’.




Written by: Veronika Mercieca


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