Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Fear of Politics

At least once a month, I spot someone blaming something on politics, suggesting that politics is inherently dirty and bad. This is one clue I use to tell if someone's going to be incredibly tedious to talk to, because it reveals a serious lack of understanding of what politics actually is. I'm sure you don't want me to think of you as tedious and ignorant and cynical and smelly, so let's all clear it up.

Politics is a process that can be summed up as the means for determining "who gets what, when, where, how and sometimes why." It's inevitable and natural and useful, and it emerges any time that groups of people form. The bigger and more enduring the group, and the more competition for resources, the more pressing this process becomes. We can all agree that the shit we like (food, housing, interwebs, sometimes clothing) doesn't just appear out of nowhere. Someone's got to procure or produce it, and this has been true during (and before) all of human existence. Figuring out who has to do what to make sure this actually happens was tricky enough for early humans, because life was shitter and shorter, and one bad winter meant a fairly immediate choice between only feeding yourself, or risking starvation by sharing food with Occ, who offers you only long-term survival advantages.

In a modern society, it's way more complex, as we have billions of people's economic activities interwoven by several different threads, performing way more tasks to provide way more products and services. This is mostly good; I like my microwave food, my microwave, my internet full of porn, my warm bed, my sturdy house, etc., but I don't want to have to make and maintain all these things myself (except my porn; 99% of it is just pictures of me anyway). But it does mean we each have a lot more to consider when judging the impacts of who we do and don't share our world with.

There's also the issue of laws. I quite like not being stabbed in the face, and I think it's a good idea that we all agree not to stab me in the face. It's such a good idea that I'm willing to agree not to stab any of you in the face in return for you not stabbing me. We can make that a law. But this gets complicated too, partly because of the growing complexity of a growing total population, but mostly because we all want different things, and we're good at convincing ourselves that we're in the right. If a starving young street starfish takes a crust of bread out of Bill Gates's rubbish, is that theft? What if he takes it off his plate instead? What if he adds jam too? How about a jacket to keep warm? How about that diamond-encrusted monocle, so he can afford to eat and stay warm without having to repeat this exercise over and over? How about the home entertainment system too, so he can get by for even longer? At what point is it too much? Deciding this legal matter becomes a matter of politics, because even in the most oppressive autocracies, unbearable or unenforceable laws can't last long.

So that's all that politics is: The meta-system by which these social systems are set up, sort of analogous to how the grand system of evolution produces a huge variety of individual biological systems. You might complain about the shitty pectoral fins evolution's stuck you with, but you can't realistically exit the system in protest. It's inevitable, but not inevitably bad. The products of politics may not always be what we want, but if we had no way of getting involved in politics at all, we'd all have to be loners, totally dependent on ourselves and nobody else.

I think some people maybe get confused between the words 'politics' and 'politicians' (by which they probably actually mean only government officials and electoral candidates, an even more limited definition). But that also reflects plain cynicism. Yes, there are plenty of examples of corrupt politicians, but that doesn't make them all corrupt. What's more, what result would you expect when you start taking it for granted that the people you're handing the reigns to are going to be selfish cocks? It's defeatist, or even self-defeatist, to cling to the notion that all politicians are necessarily corrupt. Holding politicians, both in and out of office, accountable for their public choices is an essential part of a functioning democracy, and has obvious-if-trickier use in non-democracies too. Part of this is simply trying to keep on top of what is and isn't factual truth, and this is the point where politics and skepticism can overlap nicely, even though some skeptics are loathe to go there.

I like to think that most people already know most of this, even without a politics degree. None of it's really complicated or counter-intuitive, and a huge portion of our brains' processing power is evolved to think about exactly these sorts of social interactions, so at least some of it should come instinctively. I would hypothesise that most of the defeatist cynics could accept intellectually why they're mistaken, if you really press them on it, but that they're just too overwhelmed emotionally to cope. This overwhelmingness most likely comes from an inability to handle the scale to which global politics has grown. Our Dunbar's-scale social instincts can't be expected to work properly for a society of billions, and any significant time spent pondering this is likely to produce some major mental incongruity between instinct and intellectual understanding, which leads to a shutdown, a refusal to acknowledge the problem.

I may not be right about the causes of this cynicism, but I think the cure is the same either way: Quit yer bitchin' and do something constructive for a change. If you don't see how you could possibly make a difference, then either shut up and accept it, or learn how to do something sensible and constructive (I'd prefer you aimed for the latter). Politics is not magic, it's not something that just happens by itself in a dark box. It's people talking to other people, and if you could follow this post up to here, then you've got at least half the skills needed for that, so stop being so afraid of politics.