What Is Politics?

I was a history major in college. Mostly, this was because my high school history teachers were smart, Marxist revisionists so we read insane books. (It turned out I was actually interested in interpretation, not history, but it took me a few years to figure that out.) I entered college with all these AP credits in history so, well, I continued with it as a major.

But I was immediately disappointed. Every class seemed to talk about wars, treaties, governments, presidents, great thinkers, great books. It all felt so, well, wrong to me. I kept telling my advisor that I wanted a different kind of history — what people thought, felt, how they lived, dreamed, conceived of the world. The History of Great Men and Great Moments was so full of shit, so out of touch. Who the fuck cared what these rich motherfuckers were up to? And that was when I read Foucault and everything changed.

I’ve had the same frustration with the assumed model of the political. We imagine that governments do things that matter, that dictate how things go. They ‘choose’ a system such as capitalism, socialism, communism. And we live within this system. We might try to change it but this change focuses on them — on legislators and senators, on public policy and elections.

But I can’t but think that this is just not how things work. I see a people — some population stipulated by place — as a networked engine, a system of production. What does it produce? Itself.

I am looking for a model of the political that sees the world in terms of thermodynamic flows of energy, distributions of desire, will, capital. Governments and laws and police and corporations: these are constitutive and constituent of this great social engine. But they do not determine it.

To focus on politicians as the source of power is, as Burroughs says, to be the bull charging the red flag only to meet air. It is a distraction, a diversion from the flows of power and desire and capital that actually define the everyday, that define and create the social body.

I’d like to see these thermodynamic maps of behavior around the world, map how these flows are distributed, what kinds of circuits and feedback loops there are, what kinds of temperatures and valves exist to make this or that social-body-engine.

We don’t choose a system. We are a system.

This has enormous implications for those interested in changing the terms of this life we lead. TC mark


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  • D. S. S.

    your earnest desire to interpret the social/political world is endearing (and hopeful, in terms of TC). But I think the sort of analysis (~social theory) you are interested in (if I understand that to be post-modern discourse) has a couple of problems: it's myopic, it's self-involved, etc. By myopic, I mean it kind of misses the forest for the trees. Foucault wants to make new theoretical models/interpretations of history/power, but it doesn't solve problems, so while it may be all well and good to construct these self-referring analyses, they're always going to be politically mute because they don't refer/affect immediate suffering in the world, which is (or should be) the point of any good social/political orientation. Sure, let's have really heavy analysis/theory. I am for it, but basically, I think I mean to say that it cannot be the new politics. The new politics has to address a world that is inexorably experiencing greater suffering and is potentially encroaching on being ultimately doomed (the environment). These are real problems that have obvious solutions and a pretty decent framework for interpreting them that has been around at least as long as Thucydides maxim: “the strong do as they will, while the weak suffer as they must.”
    For instance, tell a South American peasant that the reason he  cannot have clean drinking water not because is NOT because the water has been privatized at the behest of multinational institutions, but because rather it can be described by some thermodynamic map of behavior. I understand where you are going with this, and it's an interesting fantasy that the sphere of science can take over the social sphere, but it's been tried. We don't even know enough about the physical world to describe it in complete terms. The level of complexity gets out of control as things get larger. Science is okay for science, but human affairs are much too complex to be obtained by rule. Maybe in a thousand years. Email me if you wanna talk about it or something. uncleherschel@gmail.com

    • Guy

      If you haven't encountered it before, bell hooks has number of great writings about the importance  of theory for revolutionary praxis.  Still, I agree, in part, with your comment.

      • Sam

        Can you recommend some bell hooks? Kind of don't know where to start and I'm definitely interested….

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

      Better put as: He who has the biggest guns makes the laws. Pretty simple, could have saved you a lot of writing.

  • Teukros

    I “can't but” notice that in my personal experience, there's a direct correlation between referencing Foucault and navel-gazing douchebaggery.

    • Guest

      how is that a 'bad' thing?

    • Guy

      right. forgot about the “smart people = assholes” tautology.

      • Teukros

        Is “tautology” really the word you're looking for?

  • Kye

    I very very strongly recommend reading Hannah Arendt's “Introduction into Politics.” I think that she might have for you a politics that you might find both appealing and actual. Her thinking also rubs elbows with Foucault in ways that might tickle your cortex.

    It's an unfinished work of hers, but it's one of her clearest statements on what constitutes “Politics.”

    • Reinhold

      First of all, love the post. Second, I was actually going to recommend Arendt as well.  Her essay “On Violence” is brilliant, but her idea of (political) power is something that Foucault would have dismissed as naive. As Kye said, these two thinkers aren't normally paired together…

      • Kye

        He actually sort of did once.

        Foucault in an April '83 interview (It can be found in the Reader, edited by Rabinow): “Here I think you are entirely right to bring up the problem of the relation of domination because in fact it seems to me that in many of the analyses that have been made by Arendt, or in any case from her perspective, the relation of domination has constantly dissociated from the relation of power. Yet I wonder whether this distinction is not something of a verbal one; for we can recognize that certain power relations function in a such a way as to constitute, globally, an effect of domination, but the network constituted by the power relations hardly allows for a decisive distinction.”

        I would have loved to have seen the two have a set discussion, in the Foucault and Chomsky style.

        They really should be considered together more frequently, especially since they give two very clear and distinct routes to take post-Heidegger.

      • Reinhold

        Wow, that’s an amazing quote. +100 points for the find.

        Just to highlight the difference between her and Foucault, here’s one
        of my favorite Arendt quotes: “Power and violence are
        opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence
        appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in
        power's disappearance.” The distinction between “power” and “violence” is
        crucial for Arendt. For Foucault, power is power is power is power. As much as
        I wish Arendt were right…

      • Reinhold

        Not sure where that huge space came from…

  • Jordan

    Love your writing Daniel, always gets people thinking.  Even though I don't have the same level of interest/knowledge on this particular subject, I like that you explore it.  Your Thoughts are always refreshing on Thought Catalog.

  • Jordan

    Love your writing Daniel, always gets people thinking.  Even though I don't have the same level of interest/knowledge on this particular subject, I like that you explore it.  Your Thoughts are always refreshing on Thought Catalog.

  • Y Chilmeran

    I understand your frustration – I was a poli-sci major (though we just called it political studies in NZ). I think the further away you move from that traditional 'International Relations' model, the more interesting and diverse the study gets. I second the Bell Hooks recommendation, and just really anything that challenges a very traditional understanding of politics and IR.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    Politics is what humans who were too physically weak to mate came up with to try and secure said mate. It has since evolved into a measure of control had over many by few.

    • Jelly Roll Morton

      lol. I'm suspicious you might be illiterate but just “getting by”…

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        I didn't catch any misspellings, so I'm not sure I follow your joke. :(

    • To

      Oh my god, please stop commenting on thought catalog!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    I didn't catch any misspellings, so I'm not sure I follow your joke. :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    I didn't catch any misspellings, so I'm not sure I follow your joke. :(

  • Emperor Norton

    Have you ever looked into anarchism?


  • Joe

    This is exactly what I think when I sit in all my comparative politics and political science classes. I have so much respect or you and this article. What are some of Foucault's better books to start off with? I already know a little bit about his ideas on the dimensions of power.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      Read The History of Sex v. 1 and Discipline and Punish — both pretty easy reads. And smart as shit.

  • http://www.oneyearintexas.com Perfect Circles

    You should consider donating to Newt Gingrich's campaign.

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