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


Chapter 5: The Political Dimension of Society

Government is such a pervasive part of our lives that we seldom stop to ask ourselves what it really is or why it has to exist.  We accept it without question and can hardly imagine what life would be like without a person or body with sufficient power to see that decisions concerning what and how things should be done are respected and obeyed.  In modern societies, the source of ultimate political power is the state because it has a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within its jurisdiction.  The state, however, is basically an abstract notion with the real power exercised by a government made up of individuals who apply such power in the name of the state.  Politics, in turn, is the process by which some people and groups acquire and maintain power over others.  The political order includes a system of norms, values, laws and general patterns of behavior that legitimize the acquisition and exercise of power.  It also defines the relationship between government and members of society. 


   Social control is the process used to induce or force the individual to behave in a designated way.  When it becomes institutionalized, that is, when it becomes sufficiently surrounded with customs and traditions to set a pattern, it is called government.  Government is the ultimate source of social control by maintaining order, settling disputes, offering protection and determining collective priorities.  Power is central to the political process because whoever exerts social control in a society must have power to do so.  Power can be defined as the ability of an individual or group to control the actions of others without the latters consentthe capacity to get others to do what you want them to do.  It can be exercised through such mechanisms as rewards, influence or direct coercion.  When exercised with the consenttacit or otherwiseof other members of society, it is called authority.  Power may also be illegitimate when exercised without the official approval of society.  Organized crime, for example, exercises power illegitimately.


   The terms state and government are frequently misunderstood and confused.  The state is a political unit and its government consists of individuals who exercise structured political control within its jurisdiction.  The state differs from all other aspects of social organization in that its political control is complete.  It alone has the capacity to punish violations in expected patterns of behavior by seizing an individuals property, depriving a persons liberty through forced confinement in prison, or in extreme cases, taking ones life.  This capacity to enforce its decisions is known as sovereignty, the supreme power and independence exercised by the state, which is recognized by both its own citizens and by other states.  The basis components of the state, then, are territory, population, government and sovereignty.  Citizenship refers to an individuals formal or legal acceptance as a member of a particular state.  It is acquired by birth or by voluntary desire through a legal process called naturalization. Laws of states vary, but two main principles are following in determining citizenship by birth: jus soli (physically born within a states self-defined territory) or jus sanguinis (on the basis of a blood relationship, usually that of ones parents.)


   Although the words state and nation are commonly used as synonymous even in professional literature, the former properly connotes political unity and the latter cultural unity.  Political unity depends upon the ties that hold together a whole population that occupies a common territory, employs a common government and enjoys egually in common the sovereignty and independence of statehood.  Cultural unity, in contrast, depends upon the ties within a single populational group; and if these ties include a sense of common race, language, religion and shared historical experiences and traditions, the group can be technically termed a nation or nationality. Such a culturally unified group may constitute the majority or a minority in some states or even by spread out throughout several existing states.  Since political and cultural unity are fundamentally distinct, peoples of diverse nationalities can and do live peaceably as fellow members of the same states and enrich one anothers existence so long as governments do not interfere unduly with cultural heritages and/or members of nationalities do not form political factions subversive to the existing social order.


   Many factors contribute to the growth and survival of states, particularly the suitability of their internal political organization.  The three most common structures are the unitary, confederate and federal.  In the unitary system, local governments are merely agencies of the central government.   The central government exercises complete political authority, for administrative purposes, at its will.  The political system itself may be democratic or non democratic in nature. It is more advantageous for a relatively small country with a homogeneous population where uniformity of law, police and administration can be maintained easily throughout the entire state.  The confederate system is the exact opposite in the sense of placing complete political authority in the hands of the constituent units of local governments that create and control a common central government.  A confederation is, in essence, an association of independent states that come together to achieve a united purpose.  Each member retains its own sovereignty and governmental authority except in those areas it chooses to delegate to the unified structure.  Although intended to be perpetual, the member states mayand dowithdraw from the confederation whenever they wish.  A federal system of internal political organization provides for a shared authority between two or more levels of government in the same state.  In this case, the component local governments is supreme with respect to matters of particular importance to it as a unit, while the central government reigns supreme in such areas that involve the state as a whole, such a national defense and diplomatic relations. 


   A constitution may be defined as a collection of norms or standards that establish the relationship between governors and governed.  Every state that ever existed has had a constitution of some kind.  For many, the word constitution suggests a specific written documents drawn up establish a framework for government, to guide political procedures and to mark the limits of authority.  Indeed, the term in its adjective form constitutional implies the existence of effective restraints on political power exercised by the governors and their strict observance of specified individual rights granted to the governed.  The rule of law is an important principle of constitutionality, meaning that every act of an elected or appointed official must be done under the authority of a previously enacted law and subject to review by a competent legal power. Indeed, the theory and practice of law are closely intertwined with all aspects of government and politics.  Law is a means of social control used to establish order; peace and justice in society.  The struggle for a government of law, not of men is part of the history of democratic peoples.


   Practically every constitution in the world today contains an elaborate statement of rights that individuals, in theory, may claim against officers of the government.  A right is a privilege or prerogative conferred by usage or law upon a person or a group.  Since a state that recognizes a right is under obligation to fulfill it, a presumed violation can be defended in court.  A liberty is a less specific immunity from restriction and is presupposed to exist unless curtailed by law; it involves no corresponding obligation on the part of the state.  When a privilege or immunity is expressed in the constitution or laws of a state, it becomes a civil right. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which contains most of the customarily guaranteed civil rights (freedom of speech and press, religion, association, contract, property, as well as those of a personal and procedural nature), plus an expanded number of social rights intended to guarantee an adequate standard of living and freedom to choose ones place of residence or occupation.