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Politics and government

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Published: 1st Jan 2015 in Politics

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‘Politics is synonymous with government and government alone’. Discuss.

Political analysts have long since been obsessed with the analysis of government in order to understand politics and even that government is politics. Hay admits, “political science is the rigorous and dispassionate science of government.” (Hay, 2005) I believe that although there is obviously a strong connection between politics and government they have been pushed far too close together in their understanding, to the extent that some declare them as one and the same, or synonymous. As Leftwich and Held put it, “By focusing on governmental institutions, the discipline of Politics marginalizes and provides little basis for understanding the very stuff of politics, that is, those deep-rooted problems that actually face us all daily as citizens.” (Leftwich and Held, 1984)

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There are an enormous number of definitions and variations on those definitions for the terms ‘politics’ and ‘government’. Depending on which are taken there can be arguments for and against politics being synonymous with government. For example Leftwich says that politics can be seen as, “the process of governing” (Leftwich, 2004) and Heywood says, “It is possible to have governance without government.” (Heywood, 2000) In light of this I feel it is necessary to start the discussion by pinning down a relevant definition for both terms and investigating how these terms interact with each other. Following with a look at how politics can exist in the public and private spheres as well as within civil society whereas government is confined to the public sphere and banished from civil society. I shall then turn my attention to the claim that politics is synonymous with government ‘alone’. I will explore the idea that a government can exist without politics, that politics can exist outside the reach of a government and even that politics is the seed from which government grows. From here I will move on to analyse the use of the word ‘synonymous’ in the given statement. I will argue that to pronounce politics as synonymous with government, which is to say it is interchangeable or even one and the same as government, is to use the wrong terminology. I will use the global issue of the environment to support why the word synonymous is inappropriate and suggest more appropriate language to describe the relationship between the two concepts.

In order to analyse the connection between politics and government it is first vital to have an agreed definition of both concepts. Starting with the concept of government Crick offers us a broad definition, “Government – The organization of a group of men in a given community for survival.” (Crick, 2005) We find a more explicit definition from Heywood, “Government is commonly understood to refer to the formal and institutional processes which operate at the national level to maintain order and facilitate collective action. The core functions of government are thus to make law (legislation), implement law (execution) and interpret law (adjudication).” (Heywood, 2000) From this we can take that there are some central elements that a government requires such as, a governing body; some source of income (taxation); a currency, i.e. a treasury and banking system; courts and a legal system to see that the laws are applied; a method of enforcing laws (police); and a military force to defend the interests of the government. If we apply these fundamental criteria of ‘government’ to ‘politics’ we can see that none of them are crucial for the existence of politics, therefore ‘politics’ cannot be synonymous with, or one and the same as, ‘government’. Following on from this the question arises, if politics doesn’t need these criteria to exist then what does it encompass?

In its broadest sense Heywood describes politics as, “The activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live.” (Heywood, 2005)

Hay (2005) gives a list, albeit non-exhaustive by his own admission, of twelve different ‘senses’ of the term politics. He notes that some of these define politics as narrow and some as broad; he also draws a distinction between politics as a function, process or arena. I will look at four of these definitions and apply them to the relationship between government and politics. In the first sense politics is seen as “Any and all social interaction occurring within the sphere of government.” (Hay, 2005) This is a very narrow definition and defines politics independently of content and only as the arena in which it occurs; in this sense politics and government are indeed synonymous. This has been a popular way of defining politics as it had, “the appeal of identifying unambiguously a set of political issues and a set of non-political issues.” (Hay, 2005) It also helped in defining political science as a, “field of scientific inquiry” (Hay, 2005) However ‘arena’ definitions of politics have become unpopular as they fail to acknowledge political issues that have yet to register on legislative agendas, Hay gives the example of, “the feminist concern with the patriarchal character of the nuclear family.” Hay, 2005) The fourth sense is, “Politics as the noble art of preserving a community of citizens (the ‘republic’) through the construction, pursuit and defence of the common or public interest.” (Hay, 2005) and is an example of politics as a function in which it specifically ensures, “The common or collective interest of the community.” (Hay, 2005) It could also be said for this definition of politics that it is also narrow but again provides a close synonymity with government. The third sense provides us with a view of politics as a process, “Politics as a public and formal set of processes and rituals through which the citizens of a state may participate, often at arm’s length, in the process of government.” (Hay, 2005) Yet again this is a narrow explanation of politics and once more runs, more or less, parallel with the idea of government. It is towards the broader end of Hay’s list where we finally find sufficiently broad in context, but narrow in content, definitions of politics which allow a presentation of the disparity between politics and government. “The ‘Political’ as an adjective to describe the motivations of participants and non-participants in a range of both formal and informal, public and private, processes – where such motivations are political to the extent to which they reflect or express a view as to the legitimacy of the process.” (Hay, 2007) This brings to light how politics can exist in both the public and private spheres whereas government can only be located in the public sphere. Mnookin differentiates between what encompasses each sphere, “Activities that are presumptively outside the legitimate bounds of government coercion and regulation (the private sphere) and those where government has a legitimate role (the public sphere).” (Mnookin, 1982) And then as Hay and Marsh note when defining politics as a process, “‘The political’ may occur in any institutional and social environment, however mundane, however parochial.” (Hay and Marsh, 1999) This then touches on another area in which politics exists and government does not, civil society. Civil society is made up of civic and social organizations and institutions, Grugel cites Walzer as defining civil society as referring, “to the space between the individual and the state.” (Grugel, 2002) and furthers this by adding, “Civil society is crucial for democracy because it is the space between the public and private spheres where civic action takes place.” (Grugel, 2002) The main role of civil society is to hold the state, or government, accountable and to promote individual interest which may be seen as apolitical, pre-political or just totally overlooked by the state. Here we find our first indication that although intrinsically linked politics and government are also very much separate.

Perhaps it can be said that if not synonymous with government politics could be synonymous with something else. The most likely candidate may well be that of power, which can be broadly defined as, “The ability to achieve a desired outcome.” (Heywood, 2000) This, it could be said, is the end goal of politics, as Leftwich and Held say, “politics is about power; about the forces which influence and reflect its distribution and use; and about the effect of this on resource use and distribution; it is about the ‘transformative capacity’ of social agents, agencies and institutions: it is not about Government or government alone.” (Leftwich and Held, 1984)

If we look now at how politics can exist exclusively of government we first turn to Heywood’s fourth notion of politics in which “politics is about power: the ability to achieve a desired outcome, through whatever means.” (Heywood, 2005) From this we can identify that there are certain activities in the world that can lend themselves to the debate on the relationship between government and politics. On the contemporary world stage, especially since the terror attacks in 2001 and 2005 in the U.S, and U.K. respectively, there has been a great focus on terrorism and its related activities. Terrorism can be identified as a political tactic and in recent times has become a tool used by political groups all over the world. Many acts of terrorism have a political purpose, for example the attacks on the World Trade Centre in both 1993 and 2001 were political attacks on the part of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda. This has particular relevance to the relationship between politics and government as al-Qaeda openly have a political agenda yet crucially are not connected to any government. This would indicate that politics and political activity can, and do, exist outside of government. Consequently if politics exists separately outside of government then logically it cannot be synonymous with government.

There can also be evidence for the existence of government without politics. As Crick writes, Aristotle believes that when a polis, which can be defined in modern terms as a community, becomes unified it ceases to be a political community. Crick supports this by stating, “Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions.” (Crick, 2005) If we scan for a ‘unified’ community that has a ‘government’ we can find examples in dictatorships; a dictator makes the decisions and everyone else ‘agrees’ or is made to ‘agree’. As U.S. General George Patton once said, “When everyone agrees, someone is not thinking.” So in a dictatorship there is no politics, as there is no need for conciliation between groups, but a government does exist. This adds more evidence to the case that politics is not synonymous with government otherwise politics would have to exist within a dictatorship where it simply does not.

So if it cannot be said that politics is totally synonymous with government yet there is clearly a high degree of interconnectedness between them, what is the best way to conceptualise their relationship? I suggest that the connection they share is that of ‘logical progression’. We have seen, with the example of terrorism, how politics can exist without government, we have also seen how government can exist without politics using dictatorships as an example and we can take it as read that they can exist together given the numerous examples worldwide such as the U.K. or U.S. It is this cohabitation though that I will use to show that the term synonymous is an inaccurate way to describe the relationship between politics and government. In most, if not all, cases of politics and government existing in the same state or community, it seems that politics came first and laid the seeds for government to follow and not vice versa . I will take the issues of the environment to look closer at this claim. The heavily amplified focus on all things environmental e.g. carbon footprints and global warming, over the past few years has been clear for everyone to see. One of the interesting things this has thrown into the political arena is global communities lobbying around political issues and the resulting effects on governance around the world. Some, including Clark et al (1998), say that a global civil society is slowly emerging through the increasing size, diversity and networking of international non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) “We do find evidence that the construction of a global society is under way but is far from complete.” (Clark et al (1998).

The most recent boom of environmental lobbying, it can be said, has come about due to the effects of globalization, as Eigen states, “Thinking in historic dimensions, civil society is a fairly new force on the global landscape.” (Eigen, 1998) Issues that were previously thought of as local are becoming far more easily identifiable as spanning regions, countries and even the globe. The size, cause and effect of these environmental issues is also far more transparent than ever before, this has come through the increase in technologies, not least the internet, and their power to shrink the world. More people can interact with a larger number of people and have more access to a greater amount of information than ever before. Now that small groups of people can be members of political communities or NGOs that span countries, continents and the globe, there became a requirement for some sort of increased governance above the state in reaction to the pressure of the lobbyists. One of the main organizations to deal with international governance is the United Nations (U.N.) and so it is them who have been at much of the forefront of interaction with, and the progression of, international NGOs. Along with governmental changes at the international level, such as, “New rules facilitating NGO access and participation [at U.N. conferences]” (Clark et al 1998) international NGOs have affected changes at a domestic level also. In October 2008 the U.K. government created a new department entitled ‘The Department of Energy and Climate Change’ in order to address the energy and environmental issues being raised by the global community. One of their three overall objectives is to, “achieve an international agreement on climate change at Copenhagen in December 2009.” This refers to the U.N. Copenhagen Climate Conference at which world leaders will gather to discuss and, hopefully, come to some decisions on the actions that can realistically be taken to combat global climate change. This shows that international NGOs and international communities have caused a rise in the level of governance and government activity on the domestic and world stage. Thus an increase in ‘politics’ has led to the growing and even emergence of ‘government’ activity. This supports the theory that politics comes before, or at least progresses, government when they co-exist in a community. Government is the logical progression of politics.

As I have tried to show it can be claimed that politics is synonymous with government, but only if particular definitions are used, definitions that many would argue to be out of date and largely unattached to the contemporary way of thinking about real world politics. After this I very briefly touched on the concept of power and how it is possibly a more suitable candidate to be described as synonymous with politics. I have also demonstrated how politics can exist separately to government using the example of terrorism and specifically the terrorist group al-Qaeda. Along side this I explained how, in certain situations such as dictatorships, government can be present without politics by its side. This was followed closely by a look at how the term synonymous fails to wholly capture the type of relationship that exists between the concepts of government and politics. There was then a suggestion of an alternative term, ‘logical progression’, which attempts to unravel the complicated links between politics and government. I think it would be detrimental to politics to couple it so closely with government that they become all but interchangeable terms. This is not a slight on all things governmental but rather recognition that the disillusioned public can only become more disenchanted and cynical towards politics if a clear distinction is not made between it and the seemingly ever more ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘elite’ world of ‘The Government’.

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