Chapter 4: Introduction | Chapter 5: The Political Dimension of Society | Chapter 6: Basic Political Terms and Concepts


Chapter 4: Introduction



Politics, in its most fundamental sense, is an integral part of social life and is present in all societies, primitive, modern, authoritarian or democratic.  It entails the processes that decide who gets what, when and how in society.  Humans subjection to political and social authority began untold centuries before recorded history.  Once established, it has continued to increase in scope and complexity, although in varied forms.  Theorists has long pondered this phenomenon, some supporting an existing order while others have promoted either change or the return to some imagined previous order.


   When people living in societies come to recognize the need for social order, they must also be willing to accept the political authority of a person or a group.  But just how is it possible to choose one type of authority over another?  Who is justified to use this power?  The interpretations of the relationship between rulers and the ruled and the concept of legitimacy in political affairs depend basically on two opposing points of view. And both of these revolve around beliefs in the nature of human beings and their relation to society.  If humans are viewed as basically good rather than bad, the type of authority they select and their reasons for doing so are very different.  These two views have been well expressed in Western thought by political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.


   Thomas Hobbes's ideas are contained in his most important work, The Leviathan, published in 1651.  This work is considered a milestone in Western civilization because it represents the first general theory of politics in the English language.  Hobbes maintained that before government in the state of nature every individual had been forced to fight for life against all others.  This situation occurred because people have basically the same needs and hopes and possess approximately equal means for obtaining them.  Since what people need or wish for is generally scarce, it is impossible for everyone to attain the same goals.  Hence, people become enemies.  To escape from such a existence, they finally join together in a social contract in which they agree to cede ultimate authority to a higher authority: government.


   John Lockes' views appeared in a somewhat later work,Two Treatises of Government, published in 1690.  He disagreed with Hobbes that prior to the establishment of government people had lived in constant warfare and aggression.  On the contrary, he believed that in the state of nature people had lived according to the law of nature, whose chief instrument was reason.  It is reason that taught people that they were all equal and independent and ought not harm one another.  Life in the state of nature, while not solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, as Hobbes had characterized it, nevertheless had elements of uncertainty and unpredictability.  Consequently, people entered into a social contract by agreeing that law and order would be administered by impartial institutions and that they would be governed by known laws.


   Since, according to Locke, one of the chief goals of the social contract was to protect individual property rights, the sovereign could not exercise absolute power by denying such rights.  In his view, people are the supreme power and the government the trustee of that power.  As a trustee, it therefore assumes more obligations than rights, acts more as a servant of the people and is at all times subject to recall by the people if it is found to be neglectful or in any way inadequate.  And it is from this concept of this idea of government by trust that Western thought derived the concept of popular sovereignty as a basic tenet of democracy.  Locke therefore viewed the role of government in society as limited in nature, dependent on the consent of the governed and founded for the primary purpose of protecting the property, which includes other rights of individuals.


   Some philosophers and social theorists view the state as having emerged, on the contrary, to protect the rights of a privileged few, rather than to perform necessary functions for the society.  This conflict view of the state originated in the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who also disagreed with Hobbes, believing that in the state of nature people lived as noble savages in peace and harmony.  People only began to fight among themselves with the emergence of private property and at that point had to resort to the creation of a superior power to restore order.  The state, however, was not impartial, serving instead the interests of the powerful by keeping the masses poor and oppressed.  These ideas were echoed in the writings of Karl Marx, who believed that all but the most primitive societies consisted of at least two classes, one dominating and exploiting the other by controlling societys social institutions, that is, by using the state as an instrument of the ruling classes.


   Although it can be argued that the state and other social institutions tend to maintain the status quo and may be instrumental to the continued existence of social inequality, it is likewise true that large, complex, heterogeneous societies simply could not function without a central body that has the authority to make decisions for all.