Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Politics: Not Just What You Think

It's a loaded word, politics, conjuring up images of old white men, overfed and overdressed, debating things that often seem only to matter in a very abstract way. It doesn't seem to connect to real life, and often feels as if it only serves other people's agendas. On the Left that usually means big business, on the Right it means the EU or that business is being bound up by red tape. If anything the business of Parliament seems more like an ape house with the leaders of the parties flinging dung at each other. It scarcely helps that in many ways it feels as if the guiding principles of both the main parties in the UK belong to the last century or even the Victorian age and that we need new theories and policies to serve us.

It seems remote, and irrelevant to most of us, though that might be partly to do with the fact that since about 1980 there's been a persistent message of,  'ignore us, focus on the market'. This continues to this day, even after the Credit Crunch and the messiness associated with the current recession showed that politics is absolutely part of our modern world and needs to be on everyone's radar. The sense of isolation from the political process is particularly bad with female voters, hence Labour's pink battle bus specifically designed to appeal to women. I would have felt patronised by such a move, but Harriet Harman felt that it was the only way to connect with disenfranchised women.

This is formal politics, I imagine it looks the same in pretty much any country. A process for making laws that serve the richest in society and excludes everyone else. In Britain it was ever thus, politics was for a long time a matter for the monied classes and nobody else. The Labour movement seems to be dying as more and more people become disillusioned with the ability of politics to change anything, and so we revert to a more 'professional' arena, where PPE graduates are our representititives. Worse, the trend at present seems to be to try and make politics increasingly irrelevant, pushing more of what I at least associate with government into the hands of private enterprise, despite no conclusive evidence that the private sector is actually more efficient (at this point I suspect that its a matter of losing face, and that budgets grow so big that nations get stuck in a 'we can't afford for this to fail' mentality). Even as those well known communist apparatchiks the IMF express their concerns over the power now wielded by corporations, the project blunders on, taking us further from nation-state politics and into an era whee the terra is incognita, to say the least.

Let's pull back, though, is this really all politics is?

My belief is that we treat it as if it is because it makes life simpler, but that in fact politics pervades our lives, so closely we don't even realise that we're dealing in politics every time we meet another person. This is because politics is basically about power and the way that it's wielded. So every action we take is, arguably, connected to the application of power and influence, even if it's just asking your spouse to make a cup of tea, or trying to get into a position where sex is likely to be on the cards tonight. Some political theories acknowledge this, there's a book called The Politics of Housework from the 1960s and the balance of power between the genders has always been the focus of the various feminisms out there. They're also prevalent within other politics that concern fringe

Power is always something we must consider in the way that we handle our relationships, but it is largely invisible. It doesn't matter whether that's a man taking his ability to walk down the street without problems for granted or something else (I wanted to give an example where women could take something for granted but I don't' feel like I can go there, though anecdotally coming home on a Friday night to find that there'll be no writing this weekend because there's a list of jobs waiting for me, feels as if power is being exercised over me, and that my time isn't seen as being important - and I'm pretty sure that Eve doesn't realise what she's doing when she does that). We don't appreciate what we do because don't use power mindfully, and I suspect most of us can't use it mindfully, only in a fashion which satisfies subconscious desires.

When I was at university in the 1990s we looked at a theory by Stephen Lukes who theorised that there are three ways that power is used in our society. The first model was the simple request/command model. A asks B for a cup of tea, and B makes it. It's very simple and direct.

In the second model, we see indirect power. Instead of the direct route A will indirectly use power over B, perhaps by dropping hints or asking indirectly (you know I'm really thirsty). B will be aware of the 'request' even though A never directly asks for the cup of tea.

A sexist might suggest that the first model is intrinsically male, and the second female. I don't think that's right, though you might argue that the second model hedges close to passive aggressiveness and the first is more assertive than anything else.

The third model is where B doesn't even know that power is being used to influence their behaviour, which is more of a societal thing than something you find in relationships. Here B always makes A a cup of tea because it's the right thing to do, B has been so deeply indoctrinated by culture and society to make A cups of tea that it becomes second nature. A real world way to illustrate this might be the way we treat gender, where from the moment children are born (and increasingly before they are born) they are subject to various expectations because of the genitalia they have. As time goes on these behaviours become so ingrained we call them 'natural'.

If we take that at face value, it's pretty clear that there's no such thing as a non-political exchange because most of our exchanges have some sort of desire attached to them. We want things and so we interact and exert power/influence/whatever, in order to get our way. That's true whether it's me asking for a sandwich or your spouse trying to get you to change the TV channel. Even if it's just getting someone to listen to us as we jabber on about the latest shiny thing to have caught our attention, we are exerting power (and I say that having learnt more than ever wanted to know about fanfiction in the last few weeks because Eve has a new passion). We cannot exist without exerting power, without engaging in politics. Even to say 'I don't want to talk about politics', is engaging in it, it's just that, as I say, it's invisible to us.

Is this something we can combat, should we try. After all, there's the argument that this is natural, whatever that word means. However, I do think it might be useful to take a step back and think about what we do and how we do it; about whether we're wielding power in an unfair fashion and to try to be more assertive and plain dealing. Perhaps we should try to, to see where our culture presses down on us and tries to make us conform and start to push against them, whether that's in the form of men letting themselves cry and not be 'strong', or in the way of women acknowledging the power they wield in order to make their families function.  One way or another, it's all power and all politics.

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