1 People doing politics 1 People doing politics

A mode of doing

I marched against racism, the bomb, unemployment and the Falklands war; I marched for Troops Out of Ireland and, later, the miners. These were the punctuating moments in what, with hindsight, was a maelstrom of traditional activism that revolved around weekly group meetings and the Roneo duplicator.

George McKay, ‘Really revolting party outfits’, 1998

If these people are doing politics, what is it exactly that they are doing?

For the activist, doing politics means, almost by definition, ‘taking action’. And doing that seems to entail making a claim of some kind. It goes with talking, whether chatting, conferring or chanting. It might involve holding a sign on a roundabout, wearing badges and stickers, distributing leaflets. It is to say something about a problem, indeed to identify a state of affairs as a problem, to urge that something be done about it. It is both to make a statement and to draw attention to the act of making it, so that it might be recognised or heard. It sometimes has a transgressive quality, breaking conventions and routines and perhaps also the law, even if only ‘in a nice way’. Taking action often involves taking space, occupying squares and roundabouts, entering office buildings and tv studios or simply knocking on doors.

I have in mind the hundreds of practical judgments, the everyday, taken-for-granted routines and practices, the explicit and tacit knowledge that is brought to bear on concrete situations, the moving about in the legal–moral environment of large administrative bureaucracies, the mastering of difficult human–emotional situations, the negotiating of discretionary space, and the interactive give and take with colleagues that, taken together, make up everyday public administration.

Hendrik Wagenaar, ‘Knowing’ the rules’, 2004

What the public official does is to apply the rules, to ensure due process in public affairs, whether working for the local council or an international organisation. But doing that appears to be much more difficult than it might seem at first. Doing the right thing invariably means working out what might be right in a specific situation, given a certain rule. It means investigating and interpreting that case or situation, establishing just what’s going on, which rule might apply and what might be done to ensure it is applied successfully. It’s less about finding the solution than simply taking the next step. And all of this means much consultation, collaboration and coordination, talking on the phone or round a table, writing memos, proposals, cables and statements.

For the campaign volunteer and the elected representative, in turn, to do politics is to engage with others, to talk and to listen, to debate, to persuade them of a point of view, sometimes to console. Politics is done in the personal encounter and the formal meeting, on the doorstep, in the constituency, the ministry and at the UN. It means identifying interests and casting them as ideas, converting them into votes at polling stations and in parliament, in council and committee. To be elected is not simply to represent but to deal in representations, in accounts of problems rather than problems themselves. Problems take the form of facts and figures, stories and anecdotes, claims and counter-claims, statements and reports, both oral and in writing, communicated in person and on paper.

In effect, what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action which does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future… That is to say, power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus, not reconstituted ‘above’ society as a supplementary structure whose radical effacement one could perhaps dream of. In any case, to live in society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible – and in fact ongoing. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction.

Michel Foucault, ‘The subject and power’, 1982

Note that this work – the work of politics – takes place in a world apart. Politics happens at one remove from what it is ostensibly about. It is a form of action, but its special quality is that it is action about action: we do politics in the here and now in order that something be done (or not done) elsewhere.

Much of this activity, meanwhile, is surprisingly ordinary: it seems to require no particular qualification, though it appears at the same time highly skilled. Those who do politics are knowledgeable, expert and streetwise: they must know as much about doing as they do about politics, and what they know they seem to have learned by experience, in practice, that is by doing.

Politics is rarely done alone, and almost always in interaction with others. That is not to say politics is necessarily a group activity or a matter of collective action, but it is to say that for political action to be meaningful (and therefore political) it must be conducted in interaction. Any given action must relate, somehow, to some other given action.

Politics, like any other kind of action, is fragile, ephemeral, contingent activity, dependent for its process and outcome on those taking part, the situation in which they find themselves and the materials they have to hand. It is deeply uncertain yet highly institutionalised: the activist’s moves just as much as the professional politician’s seem typical, part of a standard repertoire, appear to follow a kind of script.

It is impossible to interpret or ‘read’ one moment or episode in isolation from other moments, episodes and events.

Mirko Noordegraaf, ‘Men at Work’, 2007

Politics, in sum, is a fragmented, episodic, sequence of actions and interactions, events and occasions, moments at which people come together invariably prompted and informed by an understanding that others are doing likewise, or have done or will do so at another time, in another place. This leaves a sense that politics always needs to be ‘put together’.

Why should doing politics look like this? It is in part because these are the qualities of all kinds of action and interaction, all sorts of ‘doings and sayings’. But there is also good reason to think that the doing of politics should necessarily take this form, and these are explored in the next chapter. How might we understand politics as grounded in action and interaction, what are the implications of doing so, and what might it take to represent or write about it in this way?

One comes not into the world but into question.

Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics as First Philosophy, 1984

And then why so many meetings, why all this talk, why so much paper? Why and how is politics done like this, in the performance of specific practices in specific places, by embodied human beings? These are the questions it is the aim of this book to explore.


George McKay’s ‘Really revolting party outfits’ appeared in the Times Higher Education, 13 March 1998. What Henk Wagenaar has in mind is in Wagenaar, op cit, p 644. Michel Foucault speaks of ‘an action upon an action’ in Foucault, M (1982) ‘The subject and power’, Critical Inquiry 8 (4) 777-795, and specifically pp 789-791. ‘It is impossible to interpret…’ is in Noordegraaf, op cit, p 93 and I have the Levinas quotation from Wim Wenders and Mary Zournazi, Inventing Peace. A dialogue on perception, New York: I B Tauris, 2013