The nature of political activity
All social situations at certain times require decisions to be made between alternative courses of action. Parents may disagree with their offspring about the kind of clothes they wear or how late they stay out at night or how long they grow their hair. Students may challenge lecturers about a particular perspective on an issue or when they should submit a piece of work. The members of the board of directors of a company may have different views about future investment or diversification or the location of a new factory. In all these cases, some solution needs to be found,even if the eventual decision is to do nothing. It is the processes involved in arriving at a solution to a problem, where a conflict of opinion occurs, that are the very essence of political activity.
Politics, in short, is concerned with those processes which help to determine how conflicts are contained, modified, postponed or settled, and as such can be seen as a universal social activity. Hence, individuals often talk of ‘office politics’ or the ‘politics of the board room’ or the ‘mediating role’ played by a parent in the event of a family dispute. For most individuals, however, the term ‘politics’ tends to
be associated with activities at state level, where the resolution of conflict often involves large numbers of people and may even involve individuals in other states. Political activity at this level is clearly qualitatively different from the other social situations mentioned, and given the scale and complexity of the modern state, the problems requiring solutions can often be acute and chronic. Solving those problems tends to be seen, at least in part, as the function of government.
Government as a process is concerned with the pursuit and exercise of power the power to make decisions which affect the lives of substantial numbers of people, be it at local, regional, national or even international level. Government may also refer to the institutions through which power tends to be formally and legitimately exercised, whether they be cabinets, parliaments, councils, committees or congresses. Whereas the pursuit and exercise of power tends to be an enduring feature of any society, governments are normally transitory, comprising those individuals and/or groups who, at a particular time, have the responsibility for controlling the state, including making laws for ‘the good of society’. How governments exercise their power and the ideological foundations on which this is based, helps to indicate the nature of the political system and its likely approaches to the resolution of conflicts.
Authoritarian political systems
Broadly speaking, political systems can be seen to range across two extremes, on the one hand ‘authoritarian’ and on the other ‘democratic’. In an authoritarian political system the disposition is to settle conflicts through the enforcement of rules, regulations and orders by an established authority. This authority may be an individual (e.g. a monarch or other powerful individual) or a group of individuals(e.g. a political party or military junta) who may have assumed political power in a variety of ways (e.g. by birth, election or coup). Once in power, the individual or group will tend to act so as to limit the degree of participation by others in the process of decision making, even to the extent of mono polising the process altogether and permitting no opposition to occur. Where this is the case, a society is often described as being ‘totalitarian’ and is perhaps best exemplified by NaziGermany and Stalinist Russia.
Democratic political systems
In contrast, in a democratic political system, the assumption is that as far as possible conflicts should be resolved by rational discussions between the various parties concerned, with the final solution being accepted voluntarily by all participants, even if they disagree. At one extreme, such consultation may involve all individuals, who have in theory at least equal influence over the final outcome (e.g. asin referendums or plebiscites). Given the scale and complexity of modern states, however, such examples of pureor directdemocracy tend to be rare and it is invariably the case that the democratic solution to conflict resolution is achieved indirectly through a system of political representation and responsibility. Under such a system, the wishes and views of individuals are said to be represented in an established authority (e.g. a government) that has normally been chosen by the people and which is accountable (responsible) to them at regular intervals through a variety of mechanisms, including regular and free elections. Implicit in this, of course, is the requirement that individuals are able to change this authority and select another individual or group to represent them. Mono polization of political power by any one individual or group can only occur, therefore, with the expressed consent of the people.
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