political talk

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What is politics? There have been times when I was confident of the answer: politics was class struggle, a view complicated at different times and in different ways by disputes over the scientific credentials of Marxism (disputes that encouraged among some participants the belief that working on Marxist theory was an important kind of political action); feminism; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; anti-racism; the Movement for Colonial Freedom and anti-imperialism. However, my interest in this blog is not in defining the term ‘politics’ or stipulating how it should be used but rather in exploring some of the ways ‘politics’ ‘political’ and related terms are used. ‘Political’ is used sometimes to commend (for example, when Western figures say they prefer a political to a military solution of the conflict in Syria) and sometimes to disparage (for example, when the then Australian Treasurer dismissed Labor and Greens criticism of his two budgets as ‘political’). The exploration of these different usages is one way in which the name of this blog ‘talking politics’ can be interpreted. Max Weber’s discussion of the various forms of social action in Economy and Society is as good a place as any from which to start. ‘Political action’, in his view, simply is the work or activity of governing a political organization, the most important example of which is the state. ‘Politically oriented action’, in contrast,
aims at exerting influence on the government of a political organization; especially at the appropriation, redistribution or allocation of the powers of government. (1978[1922], p.55)
Weber offers a different account of politics in a celebrated essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (see ‘Politically-Oriented Men’, posted below) and few people today bother with his distinction. ‘Politics’ and ‘political’ are still used in Weber’s sense to refer to the conduct of states but his ‘politically-oriented action’ is commonly called ‘political’. Electoral competition between individuals or between parties is a clear example, as is much of the work of pressure groups and social movements.

Relations between words and deeds are rarely straightforward. In a series of essays drawing in part on the work of J.L.Austin (many of them now collected in vol 1 of his Visions of Politics) Quentin Skinner advocated a new approach to the history of political thought, arguing that utterances and written texts should not always be read as merely propositional; they could also be performative.

There are cases in which deeds are performed through their affirmation. The conventional British, American or Australian marriage ceremony is the classic example. Imagine that Jennifer Smith and Stephen Jones after living together for some years ‘in sin’, as some of their relatives say, decide to step away from this particular sin by getting married. They organise a state and/or church-approved ceremony in the course of which a person authorised to do so asserts ‘I now declare you man and wife’ (or other authorised form of words to the same effect). Instantaneously, where previously there had been just two people, there is now one married couple and, unless she decides to hold on to her father’s family name, Jennifer Smith magically becomes Jennifer Jones. Of course, Stephen might choose to spare her the trouble by changing his name instead, say, to Stephen Smith, but he could not do so as part of the same ceremony.

The point of this example is that, in the case of marriage, the words are the deed: the pair are married if and only if an authorised person, in the course of a state/church-sanctioned ceremony, asserts that they are married. Legislation under consideration by the Australian parliament at the time of writing (early December 2015) seems likely to authorise a Minister to strip their citizenship from Australians who are also citizens of another state, if they are convicted (or even suspected) of committing a terrorism offence. In this case, too, the words would perform the deed unless the courts get in the way. Yet, it seems clear that the word perform the deed only if the Minister’s decision was enforceable by a complex set of institutional arrangements, including an immigration control system, police and compliant courts. A similar point, obscured by my use of the word ‘authorised’, applies to the marriage example except that the necessary institutional arrangements will be rather different. While, at first sight, it seems that the words perform the deed, they do so only within suitable institutional arrangements.

In most other cases, relations between words and deeds are more complex. Undocumented immigrants do not suddenly become law-breakers when, as often happens in Australia and the USA, some authorised person, declares him /her to be ‘illegal’. And we clearly need to consider the converse relationship between words and deeds, cases in which deeds take the place of words, cases in which, for example, police, a criminal gang, IS or the US military employ violent means to ‘send a message’ to their opponents

In the case of politics, which is my concern here, talking (and writing) are integral to its existence. At one level (Weber’s political action), Governments of independent states interact with their own populations (and with individuals and public or private organisations within them) in part by issuing instructions such as ‘No Dogs, Bikes or Skateboards’, ‘No Entry’, ‘No parking’ or ‘No right turn’. Governments issue instructions on how to apply for a driver’s licence, a passport, visa or identity card, a sickness, unemployment or other benefit, along with appropriate forms for the applicant to complete. Governments interact with the Governments of other states through diplomacy, declaring War or threatening them by asserting sovereignty over hitherto unclaimed areas of land or sea. Within their own jurisdiction, they declare States of Emergency, Public Holidays, periods of national mourning or what they describe as new policies. At another level (Weber’s politically-oriented action), active involvement in politics whether through membership of political parties or social movements, involves participating in, and even organising, meetings, having to listen to others talk and sometimes having one’s own say. Electoral competition between individuals and between parties invariably requires lots of talk.

Words are essential components of political life. Thus, ‘talking politics’ may refer either to the talking (or writing) that goes on within politics or to talking, or writing, about it. Regarding the former, while the words used are often important, we should be careful not to judge political actions by the words employed in their performance. Treaties described by Government agencies as promoting ‘free trade’ or, as Australian Government advertisements called them in late 2015, ‘Free Trade Export Agreements’, particularly those involving the USA, are often concerned less with freeing trade in general, than with enacting complex forms of protectionism, aiming to protect the ‘intellectual property’ of large chemical, IT and other businesses in return for concessions in other areas.

Why there is so little serious examination of political talk in Australia and other anglo ‘democracies’ remains an open question at this stage. My guess is that the answer has a lot to do with the widespread application of the view that thinking can be presented as entertainment – call it cogitainment – as it is, for example, in popular science broadcasts, Q&A, TED talks, the Sydney Festival of (all-too-familiar) Dangerous Ideas – ideas that are dangerous only in the sense that raptors in the film ‘Jurassic Park’ are dangerous (most members of us know that they are not likely to climb down from the screen and bite) and Writers Festivals all over the place

I noted earlier that talking about politics can be a way of doing politics or, making a slightly different point concerning the spoken word, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. The Coalition’s accusation ‘A Big New Tax’ that arose whenever someone in Government or even advising it raised the possibility of pricing as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions was more than just a misleading description: it was also a powerful attack on the (Labor) Government in power.

The line ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ is to be spoken by Cardinal Richelieu in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu; or The Conspiracy. It is easily read as celebrating the power of the written word and thus of the writer. Yet, even if this reading is what Bulwer-Lytton had in mind when he penned this line, it does not properly reflect Richelieu’s situation as depicted in the play. Richelieu’s words, written or spoken, were mightier than his sword only because numerous state functionaries, some of them weilding swords, were ready to act on his command. The pen is mightier than the sword only if it is wielded by an authorised person, like Richelieu himself. Few French people in Richelieu’s day or since could wield their pens to such effect.

Yet, if ‘talking about’ is sometimes a way of ‘doing’ politics it is not always effective in the manner that some of its practitioners might wish. Intellectuals may be tempted to combat racism, for example, by arguing that there is no foundation for the view that there are biologically distinct human races, each with their own distinctive levels of intelligence, industriousness, deviousness or whatever. While criticising what used to be called ‘scientific racism’ in this way may steer undergraduates and some journalists away from supporting racist arguments, its impact in other contexts is likely to be limited. Indeed, if racial difference is not a biological given but rather a social construct, we should not expect it to be particularly vulnerable to rational critique.

There are times when the usage of words in political talk is worth treating seriously. My first two posts, from November and December 2015 – both written before this ‘introductory’ one – are responses to wild talk by Australian politicians, security specialists and media commentators about something called ‘radicalisation’. ‘Against radicalisation’ is an angry rant about the concept of ‘radicalisation’, which is a seriously bad and dangerous idea. I should add that my objection is not to the idea that people may sometimes become more radical, which seems pretty obvious, but rather to the current usage of the term specifically to target muslims. I offered this piece to several Australian media outlets, both print and on-line, all of whom, with the notable exception of the AIM Network, rejected it – as indeed I should have expected. The Folk Devils paper takes up two influential concepts, ‘Folk Devils’ and ‘Moral Panics’, from 1970s academic criminology to argue that, in spite of real limitations, these concepts can help us to understand the current ‘radicalisation’ scare. A third post, ‘Politically-Motivated Men’, due to appear in December 2015, examines what else might be going on when professional politicians and commentators use ‘political’ as a pejorative term in order to dismiss political views or actions other than their own. A good example is Joe Hockey’s responses to Labor and Green criticism of his two budgets which he could only disparage as ‘political’. Other posts will be aded from time to time. In some cases, rather than an excessively long post, i have posted only the title and opening paragraphs of a longer paper. in such cases the papers themselves can be found at academia.edu

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