What is politics? Is it a science? An art? A “way of being”? Really, it is all three and more. The ancients, particularly Aristotle, conceived of politics as an indivisible aspect of being human and living in a social setting. Postmodernists have taken up this idea and made politics into an essential — even all consuming — part of contemporary life.
A recent essay in The New Atlantis suggests that politics is twisted and misshaped by the discipline of political science. In grad school I spent a fair bit of time hanging around with aspiring political scientists and always felt there was something gravely wrong with their perspective. For one, they were all so smug and cynical about politics — not one of them had a sense of the value and power of ideology. In fact, ideology scared them. Beliefs scared them.
What they obsessed about was theories and, more importantly, methods. The idea that there was a method, a particular approach and understanding, one could just superimpose on a political problem or issue, seemed ridiculous to me. As a historian and philosopher of science, I’d always sit agape as people discussed the “science” of “politics” as if they were discussing a chemistry experiment. All that talk of method and no real sense of the philosophical underpinnings of it all — they even had their own unique definitions for words like “epistemology” and “ontology”.
So when I read an essay in the “public sphere” critical of political science for its poor science and even poorer politics I nod appreciatively. The author is correct, I feel, in suggesting that all the abstractions created by the discipline strangle creative inquiry and actually shift real world political ideas to a soft middle ground of rational conceits. What he doesn’t mention is the structural and institutional role of the discipline — as a breeding ground for policy analysts and government workers and as a statist and corporatist enclave that seeks little else than to provide rhetorical window dressing for the status quo. The essay I link to doesn’t go this far of course, because it can’t.
The key word here is technocrat. Most political scientists are technocrats — they are products, instruments and servants of the machine. Their ideas are rationalized, ordered, calculated, enumerated and denuded of any real humanity. The discourse they provide of politics, as the article suggests, robs it of any proper human context and, more importantly, reality. Political scientists have a definition for realism, but again, it bears little resemblance to the philosophical meaning of the word.
In sum, I think political science is of the very essence of what is problematic in the modern condition. It is a discipline without any real foundation (except in the rationalist, realpolitik Cold War political philosophies of the U.S.) driven by careerists and other number crunchers who would just as soon have everybody defer to their expertise on the subject. Little do they realize the greatest challenge to their enterprise is from outside of academia — even outside the halls of power — among people who have beliefs and values they’re strongly tied to, whether for reasons of ideology or tradition. These are people who continue to believe — rightly so — that politics is a surrogate for many of the most essential human needs, and that its nature is as diverse and multi-faceted as the human race itself. There’s no formula or method to encapsulate it either, and all the attempts to do so only further reinforce a system whose structural assumptions are gravely misguided.
Not everybody, after all, dances to the same tune.