This section of the website provides information on political systems, International Relations (IR) and the International Political Economy (IPE); alongside this, it considers several other areas that are shaped by, if not in fact wholly governed by, “politics.”
From Ancient Greek, ‘politiká’ (Πολιτικά)
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Making decisions that apply to members of a group.
In terms of etymology, the word “politics” comes from the same Greek word as the title of a seminal book, Politics (“affairs of the cities”) penned by none other than Aristotle. Don’t ya no so many influential people study P.P.E.; that’s Politics, Philosophy & Economics. Politics today refers to the operation of a constitutional system of government and publicly defined institutions and procedures. Political parties, public policy or discussions about war and foreign affairs would all be considered political (actually, most things can be seen in some way, shape or form as political).
In a general and simplistic sense one will be either left-wing (red) or right-wing (blue). Generally, the left-wing is typified by a focus on ideas such as freedom, equality, human rights, progress, reform and internationalism. On the other hand, the right-wing is typified by notions of authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition and nationalism. In terms of economics it is rather confusing, but to characterise (quite a lot) left-wing economists will advocate for more not less state-control; they’ll see taxing the rich as a valid way of funding welfare spending on the poor. Right-wing economists will advocate a limited role for the government and low taxation reasoning that companies and private enterprise is more efficient and more productive (and thus, better at generating wealth).
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01. — Left wing vs. Right wing
The New Statesman, first published in 1913, is a weekly British magazine on politics, culture, and current affairs. Founded as a weekly review of politics and literature, it was connected then with members of the socialist Fabian Society, such as George Bernard Shaw who was a founding director. According to its present self-description, it has a liberal, sceptical, political position but is almost always supportive of the UK’s left-wing Labour party.
The Spectator, first published in 1828, is a weekly British magazine on politics, culture, and current affairs. The magazine is generally supportive of the UK’s right-wing Conservative party.
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02. — The “–isms”
Anarchism is a (political) belief in the abolition of all government and the organisation of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. This is obviously many people’s idea of utopia, but without law and order, how can one ensure that they ain’t raped n pillaged? Anarchy is an anti-authoritarian political and social philosophy. It rejects hierarchies as unjust and advocates their replacement with self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions. Anarchism’s central disagreement with other ideologies is that it sees the state (governing elites and their agents) to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful. Anarchism is usually placed on the far-left of the political spectrum.
— The word gained popular coinage in the mid-17th c. and it derives from the Ancient Greek, anarkhos, meaning, ‘without a chief.’
Colonialism is (mostly now ‘was’) the policy of a country seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of economic dominance. It is then, the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country (which may include occupying it with settlers) and exploiting it economically. In a nutshell, the colonising country seeks to benefit from the colonised country. Nowadays such exploitation still occurs but via different political structures and mechanisms.
A form of far-right, authoritarian nationalism characterised by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy.
Feudalism was the dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which aristocrats (the nobility, Lords n Ladies) were given land by the King or Queen in exchange for military service and some rent/tax. The common people (peasants, villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the crops/cattle they nurtured; they also had to go to war if ever the King or Queen, via their Lord, told them to do so. So feudalism is (mostly now ‘was’) a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.
A range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them.
— a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
A range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. The term developed in the 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties, and movements since that time, although has rarely been chosen as a self-description. Within political science and other social sciences, several different definitions of populism have been employed, with some scholars proposing that the term be rejected altogether. A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force and contrasts them against “the elite”, who are portrayed as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests.
— a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.
— “the question is whether he will tone down his fiery populism now that he has joined the political establishment”
— support for populist politicians or policies.
— “the government came to power on a wave of populism”
the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.
— “art museums did not gain bigger audiences through a new populism”
An ideology and movement that promotes the interests of a particular nation (as in a group of people) especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation’s sovereignty (self-governance) over its homeland. Nationalism holds that each nation should govern itself, free from outside interference (self-determination), that a nation is a natural and ideal basis for a polity, and that the nation is the only rightful source of political power (popular sovereignty). It further aims to build and maintain a single national identity—based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history[page needed]—and to promote national unity or solidarity. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to preserve and foster a nation’s traditional culture, and cultural revivals have been associated with nationalist movements. It also encourages pride in national achievements, and is closely linked to patriotism.
Neoliberalism is the 20th c. resurgence of 19th c. ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism, which constituted a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus that had lasted from 1945 to 1980. Neoliberalism is generally associated with policies of economic liberalisation, including privatisation, deregulation, free trade, austerity, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.
A political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism (free markets), democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. … Philosopher John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a distinct tradition, based on the social contract, arguing that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property and governments must not violate these rights. While the British liberal tradition has emphasised expanding democracy, French liberalism has emphasised rejecting authoritarianism and is linked to nation-building. Leaders of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of royal tyranny.
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03. — Theocracy
As Karl Marx has said, it is the opium of the masses. It is used institutionally as a form of controlling and taming society. This is a truism. This is received wisdom. This is a cast iron fact.
~ Sunni and Shia Islam is discussed in this BBC Radio 4 podcast. ~
The split between the Sunni and the Shia came to dominate early Islam, and yet it did not spring at first from a deep theological disagreement, but rather from a dispute about who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad, and on what grounds. The supporters of the Prophet’s cousin Ali argued for the hereditary principle; their opponents championed systems of selection. Ali’s followers were to become the Shia; the supporters of selection were to become Sunnis.It is a story that takes us from Medina to Syria and on into Iraq, that takes in complex family loyalties, civil war and the killing at Karbala of the Prophet’s grandson. Husayn has been commemorated as a martyr by the Shia ever since, and his death helped to formalise the divide as first a political and then a profoundly theological separation. ~— Host, Melvyn Bragg, discuses this topic with Amira Bennison is Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge; Robert Gleave is Professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Exeter; Hugh Kennedy is Professor of Arabic in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
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04. — Terminology
Greek for gathering place or assembly.
The opposite of egoism. The devotion to the interests of others above that of the self.
Belligerent diplomatic relations where at least one party is prepared to risk all and go to the brink of e.g., war or economic ruin to get what they want.
A negative term, used mainly by conservatives to describe government programs in areas where they believe government shouldn’t be involved, especially those that spend money on social problems.
A cooperative effort by two political parties.
An integrated system of ideas about politics, values, and culture.
A leader who gains popularity by appealing to prejudice and basic instincts. Demagogues are considered to be manipulative and dangerous.
Alternative to utopia. Nightmare vision of society beyond that of even a failed, dysfunctional state, where the system is actually planned by those in power, creating, most often, a totalitarian society. Fictional examples are Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.
Dominance or leadership of one state or social group over another.
The belief of a 19th and early 20th century Russian revolutionary party that all religious and moral principles were worth nothing (nihility) and that in order to remake society, one must first destroy the current one.
Government controlled by or greatly influenced by, the wealthy.
A politician who offers the people what they want irrespective of how moral, feasible or practical it is for such promises to be carried out.
Government paperwork and procedures that are slow and difficult. The phrase comes from an 18th c. British practice of binding official papers with a reddish twine.
The politics of realism. Rather than from principle, a self interested approach to politics either from the standpoint of one’s party or, in international affairs, from one’s country.
Defined by some sources as simply a democracy, but otherwise loosely described as a form of government where, in word or deed, rule is constrained by institutional frameworks and is not by the selected few.
Roman à these
A literary genre where a work of fiction advances a political or social theory. Examples would be In the Wet, Atlas Shrugged, Crime and Punishment, and Candide.
Rule of law
The traditional legal concept, dating back as far as Aristotle, that we live under a set of predetermined rules rather than the arbitrary “wise guidance” of any contemporary judge, King or chief executive.
Speaking truth to power
A phrase derived by the Quakers in the 1950s to encourage people to take a stand and speak out against perceived injustices, or bigoted irrational actions, perpetrated by governments. The significance is not to do so anonymously, but to publicly protest, despite possible resulting social exclusion, or even more serious repercussions.
To tell a news story in a certain way so as to turn the emphasis in a politically favourable direction.
Straw man argument
Addressing and refuting an argument your opponents didn’t actually make, even though at first glance it might appear they could make it. A human figure made of straw such as a military target dummy or scarecrow is always easily destroyed or knocked down.
The right to vote.
Name primarily to describe activist women, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, engaged in civil disobedience and other direct action to obtain women’s suffrage.
A politician’s attempt to shape the way the public looks at an issue or event, much the way a tennis player uses spin to direct the ball. Political advisers who spin are known as “spin doctors.”
The undecided, usually independent, portion of the electorate that can “swing” the outcome of an election one way or the other.
A non government, non-profit, research institute of scholars / physical scientists generally dedicated to the advocacy of some broad political, economic or social belief.
An organisation with an innocuous or ‘motherhood statement’ type title used to gain public acceptance so as to introduce programs, funding or legislation of a more partisan nature than one is led to believe.
Tyranny of the majority
A concept first coined in the nineteenth century by French writer Alexis de Tocqueville and also embraced by John Stuart Mill, who claimed that even democracies had limitations in that minority rights could be forfeited in the pursuit of popular causes.
Consequentialist philosophy originally espoused by 18th century writer Jeremy Bentham whereby the best policy is that which gives the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
Vote of no confidence
In parliamentary systems, where the executive can only exist at the behest of the majority of the legislature, a vote of no confidence (generally by the lower house) would be a death knell for the current administration, and would, unless another coalition of parties could form a majority, precipitate an election.
Short for vox populi, Latin for voice of the people. The recorded opinions of ordinary people speaking informally in public places.
British houses of parliament.
In many countries this is the name given to an extensive report which sets out the government’s policy on a specific subject.
A vindictive, often irrational, investigation into someone that uses the media to generate public fear and loathing. See: 📙 Hammer of Witches
German for ‘spirit of the time’. The prevalent beliefs and attitudes of a place or country at any particular period.
Political satire can (1) be all about finding entertainment in politics but also (2) drawing/saying things in clever ways to avoid censorship — a method of advancing political arguments in countries where such arguments are expressly forbidden. The UK has a long tradition of political satire, dating from the early years of English literature. Several plays by William Shakespeare can be seen as satire, including Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. Through the 18th and 19th centuries editorial cartoons developed as graphic form of satire, with dedicated satirical magazines appearing in the first half of the 19th century. Currently there is Private Eye magazine:
Along with various TV shows that focus on political satire:
The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. In fiction and less frequently in non-fiction, satire is a genre of literature and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement.
A picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create amusement (laughs n smiles).
[noun] An imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.
[verb] To produce a humorously exaggerated imitation of (a writer, artist, or genre). — “Her specialty was parodying schoolboy dialogue.”
[verb] To publicly criticise (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm. — “The actor was lampooned by the press.”
[noun] A speech or text lampooning someone or something.
To tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner. — “Opposition MPs mocked the government’s decision.”