Politics has been described as ‘who gets what, when, where and how’, ‘the art of the possible’, and in less polite terms as anything to do with people scheming, manipulating or otherwise abusing or seeking power or influence over others. For feminists, ‘the personal is political’; for the ancient Greeks humans were ‘zoon politikon’ (political animals), while for others, politics refers to the activities and processes associated with government. A common misunderstanding is the equation of politics and democracy. While opinions differ on this, is it more correct to view democracy as a particular form of politics and political systems. Political systems can take different forms ranging from liberal democracies in the West to authoritarian, non-democratic systems found in the former communist states or the fascist states of Franco’s Spain or Hitler’s Germany.
   Politics can be seen as an activity as opposed to a set of rules, the aim of which is to solve collective problems and make decisions without resorting to violence or force. It presumes plurality, disagreement and is a continuous process, rather than a finished product. Winston Churchill expressed a common view of politics when he said that ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’, a view echoed in Bernard Crick’s famous In Defence of Politics, where he notes that ‘Politics, then, is a way of ruling in divided societies without undue violence’ (1962:141).
   Many people have a cynical assessment of politicians, political parties and other aspects of politics, seeing them as at best ‘necessary evils’ and politics at worst a corrupt, ignoble, deceitful activity only engaged in for personal rewards. A more positive account can be found in Crick, who holds politics, in keeping with the ancient Greeks, to be ‘a type of moral activity; it is free activity, and it is inventive, flexible, enjoyable and human’ (1962:141). This view of politics sees it as a noble calling, one which engages some of the highest aspirations of humanity, a desire to better one’s community through public service, pursue and work for the public good.
   However, even if we accept the spirit of Crick’s positive assessment of politics, there remains the problem, associated with Niccolo Machiavelli, that politics and political activity often require one to engage in less than moral action for some ‘greater good’. For Machiavelli, ‘realpolitik’, that is the realworld context of political necessity and decision making, sometimes requires extremely difficult decisions the nature of which are departures from normal moral standards.
   See also: Marxism; philosophy
   Further reading
    Crick, B. (1962) In Defence of Politics, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    Machiavelli, N. (1513) The Prince, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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