Do you have a theory of politics?

I think I’m interested in action as much as politics. I’ve tried to represent and write about the various ‘doings and sayings’ that politics seems to entail, because I’m interested in what’s going on when politics is going on, which isn’t quite the same thing as being interested in politics in essence or in general. I’m not even always interested in what happened; what I want to know is what people do, and how and why it might be significant.

In some ways my aim is to stress the obvious under conditions in which the obvious is vanishing.

Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 2015

What I owe to theory – to other theorists – is clear throughout the book, and I don’t mean to join them, don’t think I could possibly situate my work among theirs. Mine is a more formal impulse, to assert that we might usefully write about politics in a different way, and to claim that simply by doing it – and even this isn’t especially new. It’s new only in the specific academic context in which I work – anywhere else, the idea that we should write about politics as the activity of human beings, and in such a way as to engage others in thinking about it, would be obvious, even crass.

This formal statement is twofold, and has to do with layout on the page, which I’ve talked about already, and with the way chapters are conceived and organised. One of the ways theory works is by devising and using categories: here, the sequence of chapters says that politics has something to do with doing, with gathering and meeting, talk and text, with human bodies situated in space and time. I’ve tried to capture some of the signal practices of politics, ‘political forms’ something like Simmel’s ‘social forms’. In the context of contemporary political science, that’s already quite significant: to say that politics is about these things, or also about these things, is to say that it’s not enough to write only about individuals and ideas, interests and institutions. So let’s talk about action.

Other than that, if it’s politics we’re after, I’m not sure I’d want ‘a theory’ in the sense you’re asking for. After all this variegated doing and saying, it would seem wrong to offer an essentialist definition of politics. I want what I write to be indicative, suggestive, as I’ve tried to explain. I’m concerned precisely with how to think and write in the absence of grand theory or any dominant narrative.

We do politics. Let’s think about that. To begin with, it’s simply an observation. There is politics; politics goes on; politics is everywhere and everyone does it; there has always been politics; despite our best efforts to remove it, it comes back. Whatever it is, it seems important enough to think about.

But what do we mean by politics? Politics is about who gets what, when, how. That’s Harold Lasswell’s phrase, and it echoes wonderfully, but it’s also deceptive. Politics is not the outcome of a process, but the process itself, that is, politics is the means by which whoever it is gets whatever it is; the emphasis is on the how, not the what and when.

So let’s say instead that politics is the means by which we work out who gets what, and perhaps more generally the means by which we figure out what to do – in Easton’s formulation, ‘the production of collectively binding decision’. I think there’s a line (albeit rarely drawn) from here to Deleuze’s idea of governance as ‘action upon an action’, and in turn Foucault’s ‘conduct of conduct’. Whatever it is, this politics is something we do, a mode of action. And it’s something we do, something we do because we must get along with others, something we do in and because of our interacting with them.

A town or countryside at a distance is a town, a countryside; but as one approaches, those are houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grasses, ants, ants’ legs, to infinity.

Pascal, as cited by Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, 1975

In all of this, what’s interesting is the action. What happens if we put action first, before power and conflict, but also almost before politics itself, and before the ‘we’ who do it. What might we learn about politics (and about ourselves) by thinking about doing?

But what sort of doing should count? What kind of doing does politics? I think this is really two questions: what makes politics a matter of doing (and saying), and what makes this doing and saying political. Almost everything I’ve included here is meant in answer to the first, but the second perhaps needs stating again more explicitly. What makes action political is the way it contributes to the identification, processing and settling of an issue, that is, in Goffman’s terms, to the definition of the situation, which I take to mean both what’s at stake and how we know and decide what’s at stake. That is to say, as I’ve tried to show, that politics produces both an issue and an agent – an individual or collective, an authority – capable of acting in relation to it. We discover how the world is and how it might be in the process of debating and acting on it: politics is a way of becoming.

So what I want to show, what I think is there to be looked at, is ordinary but not simple. Doing politics invariably comprises multiple activities, an array of actions, variable in form and function, and loosely articulated with one another. I have tried to show a set of things, and somehow convey the specific characteristics of each. All action is interaction, which requires that it be normal and recognisable to those with whom we interact, but also – because we can never know how they might respond – makes it inevitably and invariably uncertain.

For the most part, I think, what we’re doing is looking for purpose, trying to articulate, refine and realise values and ideas about how life should be. In looking for purpose we make community, not because we come to agree on whatever purpose we have, but because thinking and talking about it requires community of various kinds, in groups and gatherings and myriad other expressions of plurality. We are plural together.

In the end, all I’ve really wanted to say is ‘Look at this!’ Politics. People doing something particular and special, trying to make sense of each other and the world around them, trying to get what they want, for themselves and on behalf of others. A whole array of doings and sayings, marches and meetings, demonstrations and negotiations, interviews and speeches, petitions, papers, gestures and feelings, parliaments and public squares. Politics. I’ve wanted to show it as it happens, as an immediate, interactive, embodied, material and situated activity, to show how ordinary and how exceptional it is, how subtle, difficult, unlikely and uncertain. I wanted to show its rough edges and its shiny side, as if it were something you might pick up and turn over in your hand. Politics. People doing politics.


‘In some ways my aim…’: Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, op cit, p 10

Harold D Lasswell, Politics: who gets what, when, how, New York: Whittlesey House, 1936

Deleuze’s ‘action upon an action’ plays on Foucault’s ‘conduct of conduct’: Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, London: Continuum, 2006 [1988], p 25; Michel Foucault (1982) ‘The subject and power’ Critical Inquiry 8 (4) 777-795

‘A town or a countryside… ‘: Pascal, in Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, New York: New York Review Books, 1986, p 57, footnote