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“The Politics Behind Politics” – Political Expression and Thought Through Time

Humanity has never been homogenous. With different races, religions, morals, and customs, humankind will never be able to have a single identical thought. From this issue, politics was derived in an attempt to handle and reconcile these opposing opinions to achieve a functioning society. However, like all things man-made, politics is and will always be flawed. Only existing in the human mind, dissent, and disagreement throughout politics is inevitable, simply because humans cannot wholly agree. So, in an ever-changing and globalised society, amidst the savagery of modern politics, can we turn away from traditional political thought to achieve a supposed ‘united’ and ‘equal’ society, or is that just another unattainable notion existing in the human mind?

black lives matter trump tower
Protesters marching down 5th Avenue stop and stand before Trump Tower in NYC
May 30, 2020, Mark Clennon

Humanity has never been homogenous. With different races, religions, morals, and customs, humankind will never be able to have a single identical thought. From this issue, politics was derived in an attempt to handle and reconcile these opposing opinions to achieve a functioning society. However, like all things man-made, politics is and will always be flawed. Only existing in the human mind, dissent, and disagreement throughout politics is inevitable, simply because humans cannot wholly agree. So, in an ever-changing and globalised society, amidst the savagery of modern politics, can we turn away from traditional political thought to achieve a supposed ‘united’ and ‘equal’ society, or is that just another unattainable notion existing in the human mind?


‘School of Athens’ – Raphael.


The word ‘politics’ is derived from the Greek word “polis”, meaning “city-state”; from this, words such as “politeia”, “politika”, and “politike techne” are also derived – words critical to understanding basic politics.

Politeia: defined as the “the conditions and rights of the citizen, or citizenship” by Liddell and Scotts ‘Greek- English Lexicon.
Politika: political activities, actions in relation to the state, a constitution, and political regimes.
Politike techne: political ability/skill and management skill.

The etymology behind the word ‘politics’ brings us to its current state-centred definition – the Cambridge dictionary defines it as the “activities of the government, members of lawmaking organisations, or people who try to influence the way a country is governed”, and people have naturally separated politics into ‘public’ and ‘private’ affairs. However, this definition is not entirely accurate or universal. Political theorists have debated the difference between public and private affairs and the line between both has become irrevocably blurred. Traditionally the public/private divide is seen in two forms.

The Public being the state and objects acting as the apparatus of the government, while the private is objects which act autonomously away from the state such as trade unions, businesses, and domestic life. Alternatively, people have seen more and more private affairs becoming public. That of which is open to the public, such as businesses, art, and culture are public and political. In this view, the only thing left that is utterly private is the domestic lives of citizens. Political scientist Hannah Ardent in ‘The Human Condition’ views this in a positive manner; politics encompasses our everyday lives because it is the most important form of human interactions. Humans have blurred the “dividing line” because we see the “body of people and political communities in the image of a family” whose everyday lives and affairs are governed by a “gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping”.

To put it simply, we interact as free and equal citizens, ergo the governing body gives meaning to our existence and reinstates our uniqueness.

Hannah ardent - the politics behind politics
Hannah Ardent – Photo courtesy of Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.

Following this, Andrew Heywood provides a broad definition of politics stating that “Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve, and amend the general rules under which they live”. Heywood goes on further to explain how politics works around the concept of conflict and resolution to achieve a peaceful society, implying that politics encompasses the everyday lives of individuals. Politics functions around changing ideas and ideals, so politics means to reach a resolution through peaceful means, or to “search” for a resolution, in acknowledgement that not all conflict can be resolved. However, Heywood’s broad definition of politics creates problems when it is further specified. Questions about how politics is practised and in what situations that it is practised. Hence, he states that the definition of politics will always be an ‘essentially contested’ idea. Compared to Harvey Mansfield’s definition, which dictates politics as “partisan” (people taking sides and disagreeing). We can see this through the existence of two-party systems like Britain’s Conservative right and Labour left, as well as the USA’s liberal Democrats and right-wing Republicans.

More cynical political theorists have a much more bloody and violent definition of politics. Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong stated that “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed”. Mao’s definition of politics brings light to the stigma and association of corruption, control, and chaos attached to the subject. ‘Politics’ is an almost laden term. While subjects such as History, Social Sciences and, Economics are viewed purely as academic subjects, Politics holds greater stereotypes surrounding it. The most common being that Politics cannot be taught impartially or without bias. Conflict and politics will always be associated together with only 19% of the British public saying they trust politicians. Our assumptions and views on an object will always influence the way that it is defined. According to the Imperial War Museum, from the 20th century onward there has been conflict every year, with an estimate of nearly 187 million deaths. Historically when states disagree, violence ensues. In the eyes of many politics has become synonymous with conflict.

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

John Steinbeck


Imaginary scene from the sultan’s harem.


The birthplace of politics is often associated with Ancient Greece, or more specifically the city of Athens. But rather it was the concept and practice of democracy that is a better fit with its’ Greek association. Politics exists where there is a gathering of a population, regulated by a governing body or system. The concept and practice of politics will always exist where humans live outside of a “state of nature” (Hobbes, Leviathan). However, what we view as “correct” or “acceptable” forms of politics has developed and changed over time.

In the 21st century, the most accepted form of politics is western democracy – so much so that it has dominated global politics and governance. Western politics claims to stand separate from religious influence in order to accommodate their pluralistic, secular society. A pluralistic society places emphasis on separate and different parts of society integrating rather than assimilating, allowing them to maintain their individual identities. Despite the distinctly Christian identity held by many western democracies, discrimination towards minorities or different groups is seen as an infringement upon the rights of the individual, and unacceptable within modern society.

These values stress an important component of western politics – tolerance. One may argue that western democracies are thus inherently liberal. Another component of western democracies is property, and the freedom to own property away from the influence or control of a state. Although it is arguable that this is universal under any form of state leadership, either conveyed within a socialist or capitalist system, the concept of property is a defining feature of politics. Ironically, despite the idealistic image created by western powers, history suggests a much more sinister picture of western politics – of racism, war, and power-hungry leaders. While I do not believe western democracy is inherently evil or wrong, the question of how global politics has become a monopoly by western superpowers arises in my mind.

Politics has drastically changed from being focused on the leadership to those who are led. Historically, revered empires focused their economic, political, and administrative actions into consolidating the power of a singular leader and the elites that surround them and their status in accordance with other empires. Such ‘governments’ (a term used loosely) focused on outputs as a show of power and legitimacy, which in turn minimized revolts and rebellions against them. Unlike modern-day states, these empires were not restricted within their state borders and actively pursued to expand their borders; an Empire which exemplified this was the Ottoman Empire.

Centred around a Sultan, the empire was founded by continual expansion; territories were taxed and funnelled upwards towards the Sultan through a system of Beyliks, which was used to pay the Janissaries, the Ottoman standing army (the first of the time in history), and public projects. The Ottoman empire functioned under the Sultan who for most parts organized military expeditions and expansion. All decisions that were made by the Ottoman Empire can be rooted back to the Sultan – who acted in order to consolidate his power, position, and empire. The empire remained throughout history an unconquerable and formidable force.

However even throughout the Ottoman invasion of alien territories, the land and administration may have become Ottoman but the people and the citizens still retained their faith and ethnic identities, left to live upon their own devices and customs. While I do not deny the history of slavery and other atrocities associated with the Ottoman empire – the Ottoman objectively never attempted to remove identities. This characteristic is not isolated to the Ottoman Empire but many other empires, in which cultural identities remained somewhat untouched. Yet, we do not see apparent Turkish influences on global politics like that of the British or the Americans, which leads me to the belief that Western domination of political thought goes back to the Colonisation.

political expression ottoman sultan Mehmed II
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II – Conqueror of Constantinople.


While empires may conquer the land, they may not colonise the land. The main difference between the two is based on the actions that take place after the land is taken. Conquering is forcibly taking away autonomy from the original inhabitants; the autonomy of the land is stripped away, and the actions and administration are run by the new empire or government. Colonisation is the action of settling amongst and establishing control and over the native/indigenous population of the land.

European colonisation began in the 15th century due to completion of resources, new trade routes and missionary purposes. The competition led colonialists into new territories such as the New Americas and the West Indies. In what was defined by some historians as the ‘Age of Discovery‘, the period was characterised by the collapse of the Mongol empire which completely restricted access to safe and secure trade routes for European merchants. Paired along with the Ottomans and Venetian commercialisation of Mediterranean trade routes, the European states fell into a competition to find cheaper and different trade routes. This resulted in the ‘founding’ of the Americas by the infamous Christopher Columbus.

The economic aspect of colonialism was simply in order to access resources which could be sold and used by the governing states. Through accessing the resources of the land, an undeniable economic advantage was given to the settlers which then catalysed an economic boom in Europe. The resources were created and collected through mass production, which white settlers watched over. One of the greatest resources exploited by the settlers was gold, which was accessed especially in the Americas, which lends to the USA’s economic superiority within the modern age. Settlers had also found themselves “civilising” native/indigenous populations through religion and the creation of ‘democratic’ states. These missionaries believed that there was a religious obligation to spread the message of Christianity (Evangelism), which would aid them in becoming beloved in the eyes of God. The motivations for European colonialism can be summarised by the phrase “Gold, God, and Glory.

Our history books envision European colonisation through a pair of rose-tinted glasses. Romanticised by many historians, the European colonisation is seen as a simple conquest of power. What was gained by the Europeans was simply “won” by these states, simply as all other feared and successful Empires throughout history. Yet, this grossly undermines the detrimental effects of colonisation from all perspectives. What was viewed as a simple victory from the settlers, was only motivated by racism and religious supremacist ideals and therefore created a system which ultimately benefits the white Catholic population.

The reality for many of these colonised states is that of genocide and slavery, leaving them in a constant state of instability which has defined their history. This history continues to be destructive within their everyday lives, as they function under a system that perpetuates the racist stereotypes created by the white settlers. The majority of the products and resources were not gathered through ethical or just means. Vices such as slavery and murder of indigenous populations were used in order to capitalise completely off the resources and land.

The Europeans had essentially exploited ethnic populations in order to benefit themselves. In the case of the Americas, the indigenous population was murdered in order to gain the function of the land themselves. While some may argue that it is “problematic” to generalise the actions of “all officials at the federal, regional and local levels”, to many Native Americans today the actions of the Dutch and Spanish settlers were systematic and intentional. Today there is little representation and justice provided for the remaining Native population, who unrelentingly have their land seized by governments who had taken that land violently before.

For those countries affected by the second wave of colonisation in the 19th century, during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, their lives were explained through theories such as Social Darwinism, dictating them as “unintelligent”. This pseudo-science provided Britain and France reasoning to set up protectorates, laying claim upon the administration of the local governments in order to watch over the actions and decisions which they claimed ultimately benefited them. In truth, the protectorates also gave access to the land’s resources, which, like the Americas’, were similarly exploited and stolen.

Unlike the colonisation of the Americas, the British and French did not decimate the population of the country, though this must not be seen as favourable or an acceptable alternative. After the Second World War, Britain (like many empires) was forced to give up its colonies, throwing these newly independent states into instability. Unprepared to function independently under an unfamiliar new global system, these states were left vulnerable to civil war and newer forces of influence over their governments like neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism.

Ghanaian politician and revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah stated that the main aim of neo-colonialism is “economic domination at the satisfaction of a few”. Abbott in “The Neo-Colonization of Central America.” argues that neo-colonisation is just a form of colonisation, driven by transnational corporations. What Karl Marx referred to as the “primitive accumulation” of natural resources, has driven the colonisation of these states, furthering the western domination that previously was. It may be said that the west colonises the modern world – in unceasing exploitation.

First President of Independent Ghana - Kwama Nkrumah
First President of Independent Ghana – Kwame Nkrumah.

The West benefits from a past of exploitation and violent domination. What is viewed as the idealistic political expression (western democracy) is only achieved in the ‘modern’ world thanks to the developments which have been allowed through the economic boom obtained through colonisation. Without such means, states like the USA and Britain would not hold respected and feared positions on the world stage. The western conception of the ‘modern world’ could only develop because white men could successfully engage in politics without economic trouble. As they developed, newly independent states were left in instability and poverty, still suffering from colonial rule. By establishing systems that had demanded superiority of the white man, the aforementioned also benefit from the position of privilege this has gained them. Modern global politics is dominated by these states who refuse to acknowledge the privilege gained through the exploitation of ethnic populations. Consequently, this has led us to the western colonisation of political thought.

Colonialism. The enforced spread of the rule of reason. But who is going to spread it among the colonizers?

Anthony Burgess

Politics is ironically filled with politics. While naturally, human thought can never be universal, the study of politics is undeniably faced with the reality behind the hidden histories of dominant and ‘successful’ states. The colonial history of these states has allowed them to access and practise politics with the cloak of liberal democracy, sewn with the racist ideologies of the European settlers. What the world views as the idealistic practice of politics is not much more perfect than that of those states that the media presents as corrupt failures. Modern political studies have to acknowledge the effects of history within the development of politics. By doing so these systems can be changed in order to remove these hidden and implicit forms of oppression. By doing so, politics may be practised fair and equally.

Written by Abida Khanom

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