“Μόνοι γάρ τον τε μηδέν τῶνδε μετέχοντα οὐκ ἀπράγμονα, ἀλλ᾽ ἀχρεῖον νομίζομεν.” –
“We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character.”
– Περικλῆς (Pericles), 430 BC, in Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.40, Jowett Translation
“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
– Frequently, probably falsely, attributed to Pericles, but still correctly summarizing his main points, as told by Thucydides
Do you want to be a citizen or a subject?
This is an either-or question, there is no in-between. And yet, many people have pretended that it could be possible to be non-political. Life indeed seems possible without being constantly invested in politics. Who does not want to have a carefree life? Would it not be nice to just live, just to do what you like, maybe a bit of what you must do in order to finance your “lifestyle,” but after all, don’t we have a right to be left alone by all this political bickering and fighting?
Especially around to the holidays, the specific American idea to not talk about politics at the dinner table returns with a vengeance. Now, I may be living in the United States, and eventually become a citizen, but I am German, more specifically, East German, with enough of a memory of Communist times. I grew up in a repressive, violent and dystopian dictatorship. My family history also tells me that you ignore politics at your own peril. Thus, so far, I have typically successfully avoided the taboo of discussing politics or religion – with gusto (but also within reason – I prefer to be polite, and I still am a paranoid East German, after all). If you can’t talk about these topics, what is there to talk about, really? Small talk? I don’t know anything about sports (maybe some soccer, but that doesn’t score in the U.S.), fashion, celebrity or local gossip – and the weather in Oregon is too easy a topic – it’s either too wet or too dry, so there’s that.
So why would you not talk about politics or religion? First, we may reduce both of them to politics – given that when we mean religion, people really do not talk theology but again politics. I’d be happy to talk theology also (even though I am a rather non-conforming Catholic-Jewish-Zen-Buddhist deist), and in contrast to many self-professed Christians, I have actually read my Bible. But again, when people mean “religion” they actually mean politics, or rather, “culture war.”
Politics is how we organize our society. Politics is everything, from how we relate to our own identities, to other people, to institutions, governments, other countries, etc. When I say “politics is everything”, is that the same as saying that “everything is political”? Maybe, it certainly seems reasonable to assume so. But what does that mean?
Maybe this is more easily demonstrated by looking at the obverse idea of “being unpolitical.” A self-described “unpolitical” or “non-political” person tends to be someone who avoids difficult discussions about central aspects of politics and society. This avoidance of politics can be justified in a few circumstances:
- if you live in an oppressive political system without democracy and the rule of law, where you could expect that a “politically incorrect” statement could lead to imprisonment or death
- in the workplace, where you are always situated within a specific hierarchy, and where company policy or being a civil servant would dictate a sense of aligning with company or state policy in the work context
In any case, you should always be polite and diplomatic – you can discuss politics politely, or rather you should. You want to have a true dialog rather than to bully someone into submission, don’t you? When I say that I like to discuss politics, that does of course not mean that I enjoy assaulting people with my opinion when I very well know they disagree.
Being “political” thus means nothing else than thinking critically: asking questions, understanding that the world is made up of systems just as much as of people. To illustrate this, take the quote attributed to liberation theologist and archbishop Hélder Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” We need to ask questions if we want to change things for the better – so that what we do on an individual level (such as helping poor people directly) can be lifted to a higher, systemic level (such as alleviating poverty in society).
Consider the Pericles quotes above, both the real citation in Thucydides, and the frequently repeated simplification: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” In ancient democracy, being political means being involved in the affairs and management of the state, the city, the polis. Aristotle has famously said that human beings are by “political animals,” which means that we – by nature – are social creatures, and that politics comes naturally to us.
Aristotle’s (and Pericles’) democratically inspired theory stands in stark contrast to the ideology of the “state of nature” fallacy, which assumes that some of “us” (i.e. indigenous people specifically) live in a “state of nature” that is inherently unpolitical (ironically, other parts of Aristotle’s writings were used to support this point as well). Interestingly, this Enlightenment era theory provided a strange path to dispossession and colonization by Europeans, and you can find it in Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and later writers like Lewis Henry Morgan and Friedrich Engels.
The presupposition of the distinct otherness of peoples read as “indigenous”, and the different approach to politics by indigenous peoples and Africans is not just factually wrong (indigenous peoples in the Americas, for instance, have formed states and polities just as Europeans have – the League of the Iroquois even having inspired the precursors to the US constitution) but also endorsing a view of humanity that has legitimized ethnic cleansing, genocide and land theft.
The assumption that indigenous people live in a “state of nature” (or in a state of paradise, or of god, “in dio” – which, as AIM activist Russell Means has suggested, is the real source of the term “Indio” or “Indian” for American indigenous peoples) reflects the underlying philosophy of an “unpolitical” or prelapsarian state of being, which allowed for people to be dominated, to be colonized: These “gente sin razón” (people without reason, as opposed to “gente de razón”) were not to be trusted with freedom and conducting their own politics because they – allegedly – did not possess reason (Kant’s position here is difficult, and Aristotle’s position reiterates the contrast between Greeks and Barbarians).
Wherever people were kept in a state of submission or even slavery, they were kept away from the levers of politics and even knowledge (slavery in antiquity is a curious exception, as some slaves were teachers for the elite and thus knew quiet a bit and could be influential in politics as well – even though those were the exception). Frederick Douglass famously wrote his autobiography under the title “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” to illustrate that he had knowledge, had writing, had reason – and was able to participate in politics. Oppressed people everywhere know that being cut out of politics means to stay in a state of subjugation.
Again, why should you choose self-subjugation?
Let us return now to the first quote mentioned above, for there is a second aspect to being unpolitical. As Thucydides has Pericles say, “We [Athenians] alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character.”
Being political does not just mean to prevent your subjugation, it also means to deliberately and freely serve the public, the greater good. Choosing to not participate in society, opting out of society and politics, means to reject one’s duty to the greater good. Here, Kant comes in – this time as the defender of freedom, reason, and duty to society (people are complicated – it helps to have no heroes and to take the good with the bad). As mentioned above, Kant’s position on the question of race is complicated (and poisoned by the reception of Aristoteles’ ideas of Greeks and Barbarians), but his stance towards bettering society, serving as a role model, and celebrating humanity’s possibility – and duty – to utilize reason, are what characterize Immanuel Kant best. When he asks us, in his Categorical Imperative, to “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” he shoulders us with the responsibility to carry politics – to not just be living in society, but to be a citizen, a role model, a practitioner of politics. “We the people” are the state, not a king or queen, a president or business tycoon. Each of us has a responsibility to exert their civic duty – only then can democracy function.
Of course, we cannot all be active politicians. Thus what does it mean to be “political?” We can all contribute to society in different ways. Even if you choose to become a politician, this starts at the local and state level. Sometimes, people think running for politics means to run for President – which may demonstrate an unhealthy belief in the idea that a state is run by a leader like a boss would run a company. We should not bow down to one leader, we should aim to be co-leaders in a society of checks and balances and separation of powers. We are, after all, the true sovereign, as Enlightenment philosophy since Thomas Hobbes has shown.
Our primary political activity, our “being political”, can simply be to always be involved – discursively or practically – in the betterment of society, in thinking critically, being aware and knowledgeable of politics even on a global scale, and in being the best representation of the ideals making up our society.
The alternative, being “unpolitical”, simply means to reject your responsibility not just as a citizen but as a human being, and to simultaneously submit to authority, willing to sever whatever master is ready to exploit you and those around you.