Last week a facebook friend of mine uploaded a picture of his now deceased father in celebration of what would have been an anniversary of his birth. In response, a friend of his wrote that like his father my friend was a dignified man who maintained said dignity by keeping his head above the parapet of “politics”. The sentiment that “politics” is a dirty business from which good men refrain is not peculiar to this facebook commentary. In my country, Nigeria – and in many others, I am sure – it is a sentiment that is said, and presumably felt, by more people than I would wish.
One of the very first books I had to read as an undergraduate in Political Science was In Defence of Politics by Bernard Crick. In that book Crick was attempting to circle off both the academic study of political matter and the public practice of political office from what he viewed as an ill-informed and treacherous encroachment by those who would make every aspect of human life a matter of politics. Such invasions were, for him, signified by such terms as “office politics”; a refrain often used to describe, for example, the bickering of employees in an office space bemoaning the latest decision by head office to implement a stapler sheriff. Crick wanted to be sure that we understood that that, in fact, was not “politics.”
The misunderstanding about what “politics” is can be found both on the side of the ordinary citizen and the learned academic. In my personal life, this misunderstanding was made most clear to me in my late teens when I chose to study Political Science as an undergraduate. There were those around me that held the same view as my facebook friend’s friend: that politics was a dirty business for dishonest people. They assumed that the only thing one does with such a degree is become a politician; and they were worried for the sanctity of my soul. Never mind that political science understood as the systematic and scientific study of both the historical and contemporary political, social, economic, and legal macro organization of the state and its effect on the relationship between people and their governments has little to do with politicians per se.
I do and at the same time, do not, hold Crick’s point of view. And upon learning that my major field of study within political science was actually political philosophy, those who had been concerned about me were less so. But their initial misunderstandings are still instructive. To be sure there is a rather small sphere of private life that is not “political”. But on closer inspection, that space is smaller than Crick would imagine it to be; and the area of human life and operation that is “political” is far larger than many seem to acknowledge.
In all societies, including the global political one, there are matters of politics and then there are political matters. The distinction between the two is very subtle but it is there. It is the matters of great and grand political machination against which some ordinary citizens would wish to guard. These are matters of politics. But political matters are those from which no one can be removed. When you step out of your house and get on a bus. Believe it or not you have engaged in, and are being affected by, a political matter. The gasoline that drives that bus is a political matter. How much you pay to get on the bus is a political matter. Whether the streets are clean when you get off the bus to get into your place of work is a political matter. How much you pay for your lunch is a political matter. When you get home, your access to electricity, potable water, and heat are political matters. The quality of your bed and the textile of your sheets are political matters. And, of course, most times much of this is significantly influenced by the matter of politics. In short, it would be very difficult to find a person, regardless of profession, whose life is not on a daily – dare I say hourly basis – affected by “politics”.
The dignity of engaging in political matters is found in the profound difference a group of women and men can make to the lives of an entire population by their determination to keep their heads firmly beneath the parapet of politics; I welcome those with the courage to be so “tainted”. But, following Crick’s analysis, I agree with one thing: the decision of headquarters to install a stapler sheriff in your office is not politics.