Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, meaning "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a global, civic or individual level. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. A variety of methods are employed in politics, which include promoting one's own political views among people, negotiation with other political subjects, making laws, and exercising force, including warfare against adversaries. Politics is exercised on a wide range of social levels, from clans and tribes of traditional societies, through modern local governments, companies and institutions up to sovereign states, to the international level.
UNDERSTANDING POLITICAL IDEAS
Ideology is . . . a system of definite views, ideas, conceptions, and notions adhered to by some class or political party. [Ideology] is always a reflection of the economic system predominant at any given time. (Soviet Philosophical Dictionary, 1954).
Political debate is widespread in society. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us are, at a very simple level, political philosophers. In democratic societies like the UK and the USA citizens are expected to have opinions on a wide range of issues that either directly as individuals or collectively as citizens affect their lives.
Even at a simple, unsophisticated level we have views on the ‘correct’ form of government, freedom, equality and equal rights, the ‘proper’ role of government in society, how ‘democratic’ one’s own political system is, the right levels of public spending, and so on. How we think about these and many other subjects will be influenced by the kinds of ideological beliefs we carry around in our heads, the product of our social conditioning, our life experiences and our reflections on them, the nation we live in, our educational level and our social class. We regularly draw on this store of ideological beliefs when we try to make sense of the world. They may not be logical, well structured or even consistent (tortured are those who try to force their experiences into an ideological straitjacket; and, given enough power, they will often similarly torture others into wearing the same garment), but one’s opinions and actions will make reference to those beliefs. Ideologies can be seen as a form of intellectual ‘map’ to help us find our way about the world, understand our place in it, analyse the political and social events going on around us. Maps vary in their degree of accuracy. One can assess their value by comparison with objective reality and debate with others.
Ideologies are associated with power structures. Politicians seek power. Their ideology and the social, economic and political circumstances of the time influence what they do with that power when they have achieved it. Indeed, it is impossible to separate the two. This applies even to those who deny having an ideology. The use of power always takes place in a framework of ideology. Modern politics can only be properly understood by reference to the great ideological movements: conservatism, liberalism, socialism, fascism, and so on.
Ideologies tend to have a bad press. They are often dismissed as ‘errors’ or
‘untruths’. If ideology is ‘a window on the world’ it is a window with glass that distorts the vision. The viewer has difficulty thinking beyond these distortions and assumes what he or she believes to be the ‘truth’. Ideology often distorts ‘reality’ and encourages conflict: ‘One man’s ideology is another man’s falsehood.’ Nevertheless, one must not fall into the trap of assuming that all ideologies are of equal validity. They should be respected as important ways of understanding the world. One should also attempt to examine one’s own ideological beliefs, to better understand the role of ideology in politics and society.
MEANING OF IDEOLOGY IN POLITICS
So, given that ideology is very important in politics, what is ‘ideology’? Is there something about ideological thought that is distinct from other forms of thinking? David Joravsky provides a useful starting point:
When we call a belief ideological, we are saying at least three things about it: although it is unverified or unverifiable, it is accepted as verified by a particular group, because it performs social functions for that group.1
In other words, holders of beliefs do not need to have had them ‘proved’ by some rational, scientific form of testing. To the believers they are the ‘truth’, the ‘reality’. All political ideologies claim ‘true’ definitions of liberty, equality, justice, rights and the ‘best’ society. The ‘particular group’ mentioned above might be any social group: class, nation, profession, religious organisation, party or pressure group. All will have sets of ideological assumptions that are unquestioningly accepted as ‘proper’. The ‘social functions’ ideologies perform are numerous. They will include the creation of a sense of group solidarity and cohesion for members of that group through shared ideological values; an explanation of the past, an analysis of the present, and, usually, a vision of the future with some description of how a better future will come about. There has always been a widely held view in politics and political philosophy that ‘ideology’ merely provides a cloak for the struggle for power, the real stuff of politics. To justify their power and to persuade the people to obey, follow and support them, rulers use ideologies of various kinds. Machiavelli advised, in The Prince (1513), that religion was a very useful tool for the ruler. To Machiavelli the real objective of politics was the getting and keeping of power. Appeals to the welfare of the people were merely part of what we would call the ideological window-dressing, hiding the raw struggle for power. Machiavelli put his finger on one of the most important roles of ideological belief systems (if we may include religion as one of these, for the moment). Until the last couple of centuries, in most societies the dominant form of belief was religion. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rational and scientific forms of thought provided a growing challenge to religion. By the eighteenth century there were sharp and bitter tensions between religious and secular attitudes. One of the features of the Enlightenment was a strong, rational critique of religious beliefs and the perceived baleful influence of religion on politics. It was hoped that one could use reason to discover the laws governing the organisation and functioning of society as the laws of science were being used to discover the workings of nature. Once religion and other forms of irrational thought were removed from political discourse, it was believed, rational programmes would enable human society to improve dramatically.
These ‘rational’ forms of thought contributed to the criticism of the ancient régime in France, the French Revolution, and the development of what we now call ‘political ideologies’ that dominated political debate in Europe and the world during the following two centuries. Far from introducing new forms of rationality into politics, ideological forms of thinking tended to create new forms of ‘irrational’ thinking, stirring up and releasing deep political passions that in many ways resembled the emotional commitment to religion. Indeed, political ideologies for many became ‘pseudo-religious’ belief systems that had many of the hallmarks of religious commitment: ‘heretics’ were persecuted, ‘true’ interpretations of the creed formulated, ideological ‘prophets’ identified and definitive texts written to direct the ‘faithful’ into ‘correct’ ways of thought.
History of political theory
Writing on the history of political theory has rarely if ever been limited to “explanations” and even less so to strictly “scientific” efforts in this direction. Rather; employing the term “theory” in its broadest sense, it has generally included (a) nonscientific types of explanation, especially those of a religious and philosophical character, (b) nonscientific value judgments, especially moral ones, (c) proposals offered for the selection of political goals and for political actions, and (d) mere descriptions of phenomena as seen by political philosophers of the past. It has, therefore, been a blend of philosophy, scientific theory, and description, with far more space and emphasis given to nonscientific philosophical aspects than to strictly scientific ones. Typical issues have included Plato’s “ideas” conceived of as essences having some sort of reality, Christian theological dogmas based on revelation and tradition, and philosophical doctrines that claim to constitute superior knowledge, especially those ascribing to pure reason the power to reveal truth independently of experience. They have included, more specifically, the doctrines of natural law in the sense of a code of moral prescriptions allegedly to be found in nature or reason, and its progeny, the doctrines of natural rights. Indeed, natural law constituted the very core of political science and political theory from about 1600 to 1900. The main topics treated under the guidance of the various doctrines and approaches were the state, its nature, origin, and proper ends; the theory of social contract; the proper relationship between church and state; sovereignty; the best form of government; and the implications of natural law for politics.
Many of these historical efforts have been important stages in the development of human thought and Western civilization; they have influenced ideals, actions, and the history of institutions. As theories, however, most of them were based on belief rather than science in the narrower sense of the term. This is not meant to say that their results must have been false or that religious or philosophical reasoning ought to be abandoned. The only concern here is with the fact that the history of “scientific” political theory must be culled from its fusion with nonscientific religious or philosophical thought.
Ideas and methods of a strictly scientific character have rarely been entirely absent in political thought. The ancient Greek ability of abstraction and of logical and mathematical thinking laid the foundation of modern science. Sophists and their opponents amply referred to empirical observations. The Socratic method of confronting debaters with questions on the meaning and the implications of their propositions and with objections that led them to reconsideration, modification, or selfcontradiction was the early prototype of good scientific method (“clarification of the meaning of propositions and of their implications”). Plato’s and Aristotle’s works abound in psychological observations that, although not subjected to tests in the modern sense, still offer valuable scientific contributions or cues. Aristotle cultivated the methodical gathering of factual data as the base for theoretical work; he carefully examined the risks and consequences involved in institutional arrangements, actual or imagined ones. There has hardly been a political philosopher who did not take some time off from speculation to examine facts and human motives. The preponderance of religious authority in medieval thought, however, beginning with St. Augustine (354–430), led to a millennium of dearth in strictly scientific work. There was a partial revival when reason and Aristotelian thought were being readmitted into scientific work as supplementary sources of knowledge to the extent that they were not in conflict with revealed religious truth (Thomas Aquinas, 12257–1274). But several centuries were still to pass before the typically modern type of scientific theory emerged in the realistic examination of actual conditions and motivations by Machiavelli (1469–1527), the emphasis on inductive methods by Bacon (1561–1626), the experimental and mathematical approaches of Galileo (1564–1642), Kepler (1571–1630), and Newton (1642–1727), and the ensuing ascendancy of empiricism. These new methods stimulated scientific reflection in political theory. No sharp lines, however, were being drawn yet between religion, philosophy, and science. The various approaches were used side by side, often queerly intermingled and, even if scientific in intent, frequently based on erroneous factual assumptions (for example, social contract) or fallacious logical thinking (for example, inferring “ought” from “is,” as in natural law, or necessity from consistency, as in theories of sovereignty [see section 11]).
Important further steps toward modern scientific theory include the emphasis on the significance of “doubt” in the works of Descartes (1591–1650) and Hume (1711–1776), and the rejection of “pure reason” as a source of knowledge by Hume and, less radically, by Kant (1724–1804). Kant restricted the reliability of pure reason as a source of theoretical knowledge in the realm of “is” to only a few conditions and steps of thought, such as the “categories” of mental operations; in moral (“practical”) questions, however, his doctrine that we have a priori knowledge of the basic moral law still maintained an absolutistic approach. Another great scientific impulse for political theory sprang from the work done by Montesquieu (1689–1755) on the political influence of environment (geography, milieu, etc.) and on methods that are apt to check the abuse of power (separation of powers). The vigor with which, pursuing these approaches, the founding fathers of the United States studied the implications, risks, and consequences of institutions and the methods by which the abuse of power could be checked (separation, federalism, a bill of rights) highlighted the development of scientific political thought. For this reason, the Federalist became a milestone in the evolution of scientific political theory. But the authors blended scientific with religious and philosophical approaches (trust in God, natural law, natural rights). Characteristic of this promiscuity are the celebrated words in the Declaration of Independence that proclaim not that all men are equal but that they are “created” equal, and not that they possess certain inalienable rights but that they are “endowed by their Creator” with them. Indeed, to an extent seldom fully realized, our Western values are based not on science but on religion, history, tradition, and the creative idealism of man intent on forming a world in which he considers life worth living.
The separation of philosophical and scientific ways of thinking from religious ones began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and France. Philosophical and scientific approaches remained interwoven, however, until, in the course of the nineteenth century, they, too, began to Part Company; indeed, their separation did not grow sharp and consistent until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. What finally brought it to completion, at least within a broad and influential section of social theorists, was the deliberate elimination of nonscientific elements in what came to be called “scientific method” and in its offspring, “scientific value relativism”
The world has seen many numerous political systems. Some have included great participation by the general public, while others are run by royal leaders or dictators. Some political systems have carefully planned out the economy, while others allow for market fluctuations. Indeed, the laws, priorities and governing styles of nation states are quite varied.
One type of political government is a monarchy. The word monarch literally means "single ruler" and in these systems a king or a queen is generally the leader of the country. Royal leaders are sometimes appointed by preceding leaders, often based on hereditary. In modern times, some royal families, such as in England, have lost control of political society to parliaments and other democratic institutions, leaving them with largely symbolic roles. Other monarchies, however, such as Saudi Arabia, still yield absolute power. Currently, 44 nations are monarchies, although 16 of them still recognize Queen Elizabeth of England, which is a relic from the days of the British Empire.
Socialism is another form of government. While various models exist, the basic concept is the shared ownership of property and the means of production and equality between people. Karl Marx, the theoretical founder of socialism, argued that in a socialist state the people are expected to give according to ability and take according to need. The most famous socialist state was Russia which had a revolution from 1917 to 1922 and had a socialist state until the late 20th century. This was a highly centralized government that had complete control of the economy and military. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialism has ebbed in influence, though some Latin American leaders, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, are attempting to create "21st Century Socialism." Chavez and others are trying to create more socialist nations in the region and are also allied with Cuba, which has practiced a form of socialism for decades.
· A republic is a form of government where people have the ability to elect representatives to govern in their interests. This is a form of democracy -- which means rule by the people -- although it is not a direct form of democracy, as the people do not vote on all issues via national referendums, but instead elect leaders to do so. The United States is a republic, which is quite secular. Other forms of republics also exist, such as Islamic republics (which allows voting in an Islamic society) and socialist republics(which has existed in places like Ethiopia and Burundi).
A dictatorship is a state that is ruled by one person with absolute power. This can be part of a Monarchy but does not have to be. Examples of recent dictators are Saddam Hussein of Iraq (who was toppled in 2003 and eventually executed), and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Dictators have a reputation for brutal, deadly repression.
Anarchism is a society without a recognized state power. Anarchy does not mean complete chaos, contrary to conventional wisdom, but is largely viewed as a form of decentralized socialism, where workers own their own factories and make decisions collectively without coercive power. There have been no examples of long-standing anarchist societies, although, as George Orwell highlighted in his book "Homage to Catalonia," anarchists in 1930's Spain did briefly topple a government and led a society without a centralized state apparatus. This society lasted only briefly due to military interventions from the likes of Russia.