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On Engagement in Politics

Tony Benn blackboardMany people dislike involvement in politics because what they witness is the shameless acquisition of power, of nepotism and corruption, and partisanship. For far too many, this results in a great number of truly talented people stepping away from engagement in public life. Not only does our society miss out by having the involvement of such great minds, but also we collectively run the risk of being ruled by those who are pathological and narcissistic, who actually enjoy the aforementioned negative characteristics. Unfortunately, many well-meaning political activists take an erroneous attitude to this situation, ending up in two groups going in very different directions. Both those engaged and disengaged from the practical affairs of political life remark, "that's just how politics is", with the engaged group gritting their teeth and carrying on and becoming increasingly part of the system's approach, and the disengaged either forming anemic, if well-meaning, social networks or slipping into the selfish lifestyle of "individual anarchism".

These responses are not helpful. The existence of politics is inevitable because it determines our rights, freedoms, and obligations and the just distribution of shared and produced resources. There is no escaping from it. Every square centimetre of soil, air, and water on this planet is subject to some politics, even bizarre edge-cases considered (e.g., Bir Tawil) on earth or beyond it (the Outer Space Treaty of 1967). Simply put. wherever there are two people or more there will be politics, as they must have a means of governing their polis. But whilst politics is inescapable, the means of governance can be altered. Just as interpersonal relationships can be arranged differently to be more or less inclusive and equitable, so too the political system is not something set in stone and can be changed to reduce the influence of the worst, of the most pathological. The following are a few suggestions that can be applied for making society less of a kakistocracy, the rule of the worst, least qualified, and most unscrupulous citizens.

Oft-paraphrased as "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors" is Plato's famous remarks on the subject (The Republic, 347c):

[347c] ... for they are not covetous of honor. So there must be imposed some compulsion and penalty to constrain them to rule if they are to consent to hold office. That is perhaps why to seek office oneself and not await compulsion is thought disgraceful. But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule. It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do, and then they go to it not in the expectation of enjoyment nor as to a good thing, but as to a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves..

Simply put, unless you seriously think that your liberties and our commonwealth is in the best hands by our political and business leaders, then you ought to be involved in politics. In fact, it is the involvement of the many that our political and economic rulers fear. As the maverick radical British MP, Tony Benn, once bluntly pointed out, "No-one with power likes democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it - including you and me, here and now". Benn, of course, comes from the same generation and culture as historian E.P. Thompson whose pamphlet "Protest and Survive" was a major contribution to the campaign against nuclear weapons at a particularly frightening period of the Cold War as The Doomsday Clock approached midnight.

But the world was not destroyed by nuclear war in the 1980s, and there was a global resurgence of democratic governance in the 1990s. These victories were not achieved through the niceties of various rulers (even if there were pivotal leaders e.g., Mandela, Gorbachev) but rather through the pressure and support of millions of people who talked about the need for a better society among their friends, who wrote terse letters to politicians, who protested angrily, and, where the governing forces did not comply with the will of the people, were prepared to engage in direct action from strikes to sabotage the rule of the unfit. Our contemporary rulers would prefer if these lessons were forgotten, but the truth of history is stubborn; the people lead, the politicians grudgingly follow. Today, the stakes are very high indeed. The industrial production process of a poorly regulated capitalism has pushed the atmospheric commons to a point where nature itself cannot absorb the greenhouses gases produced, and thus we find ourselves in a situation where the land itself increasingly becomes uninhabitable and pandemic diseases become increasingly common. We have never been so close to the end of civilization, let alone the life of other species on this planet.

At the time of writing it has become the fashion of multi-billionaires to blast themselves into space for fun. The very idea that their wealth could be spent on ending starvation, providing health, housing, education, and clothing, etc, for the poorest in the world is absolutely unknown to them. They have, already, abandoned their commitment to the species, and redirecting their wealth to the needs of the many is a righteous need. Surprisingly, the literature on how to achieve such positive change in the world is rather poorly known, especially in a contemporary setting. Whilst discussion of the finer details will have to await a more specialised publication, some core suggestions can be made right away. Firstly, if you really want to make the world a better place create a detailed vision of what that will look like. In doing so, discover what are the common needs among us. People have different wants in this world, but also common needs. Identify what is common to us all, transcending the specific with the general (e.g., it is not diabetics versus people with drug dependency, but health care for all). Be aware, painfully, that most people are motivated primarily by self-interest; make sure that they understand that the vision of a better world is in their interest.

Among the visceral, living, and breathing human beings, seek to transform culture away from the selfish and greedy to the compassionate and generous. Because social bodies hold the power that makes the system function, institutions should be targeted in preference to individuals. The effectiveness of public demonstrations and protest that deliberately identifies such bodies as culpable is effective; individual adversaries come and go, but if the system doesn't change more monsters will be generated. Leverage favourable contacts within the system with well-thought-out proposals. Always encourage others to contribute, to lead, and never allow a group to become an intellectual and disconnected elite or vanguard, separate from the people. Any contribution is welcome; most people want to help in some way and providing them the opportunity to do so is welcoming and effective. Only a precious few will have the time and energy to engage in many activities. Make effective use of modern communications technology. Don't waste time with trolls, or trivial distractions.

These actions are the appropriate way to engage in the political community. One will note that there was nothing about the competitive and partisan attempts to gain office and maintain power. This is about changing the system, not becoming part of it. Despite all this, and on a personal note, always look after yourself and seek balance. Whilst this article has illustrated the importance of being involved in politics, it is not all of life. One does still need to have the means for a livelihood, but once an abundance of necessities, a few utilitarian comforts, and fewer still precious momentos are acquired, of what gain is more? Do find the time to enjoy and immerse in natural beauty or the arts whilst it is available. Do find the time to engage in learning science and technology. Do find the time to be reflective of the past, prepare for your future, and live in the present. But also, engage in the polis and make the world a better place.

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