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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

What is politics? And why does it matter for fiction?

If you were to google “politics definition,” many of the dictionary entries focus on the mechanics of running a government or a society; these are not wrong exactly, but are not terribly useful. When we say “office politics,” for example, what we mean is often the exact opposite of a smooth-running office!

Early political scientists, when they were in a pedantic mood, might have used a definition like this: “The authoritative allocation of scarce goods.” This is not very good either, but it does focus our attention on a few points:

  • “Scarce goods” implies that some people will get less than they want, or do without entirely. By definition, some people will be unhappy with the “authoritative allocation,” and want it to change.
  • “Authoritative” highlights the importance of authority, the sense that some people or some commands ought to be followed. In other words, a key part of politics is about leadership and obedience, and how that comes about.

But this definition seems sterile. We are given an image of some central bureaucrat sitting in an office and punching numbers into a calculator, thusly to apportion out the chocolate ration. Yet politics is about more than material goods (or even status, which is also a “scarce good” of a sort; but see below). So the definition is often modified to include “The authoritative determination of values.” Here we get into more interesting ground:

  • Rather than focusing on what we want, “values” instruct us in what we should want.
  • Often, this gets to the core of our identities as people. The stakes are thus very high.
  • When two different people disagree on values—say, whether cocaine use is a personal matter or a harmful vice—often they are proceeding from very different principles, which prevent agreement altogether.
  • Without a way to authoritatively settle the question, such disagreements are thus likely to persist for a long time.

Still, this definition assumes that there is a way to authoritatively determine values, and have them stick. Sometimes it can happen, for example in a unified theocracy; but very often, people who disagree with the authority’s values will deny that the authority even has the right to impose them. Religious wars are but a single example; the conflict between Capitalism and Communism would be another.

Notice that both examples also involve “the allocation of scarce goods”; and in many cases, one’s choice of values is heavily influenced by whether you will benefit from them. Of course peasants will want redistribution of capital, and of course industrialists will want state protection of property—whether or not either side could defend its position on moral grounds (and perhaps they can). As they say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Values direct behavior, but they also justify behavior.

Which brings us to Lenin’s Trotsky’s cynical definition of politics: as “the question of who and whom.

In other words, politics is about which actor or group of actors can enforce its will on another group. This needn’t even be about who gets more “scarce goods,” though that often plays a role. Rather, it’s about power—in the worst case (as Orwell so bleakly depicted in 1984), power for its own sake. Policy analysis, discussion of values, appeals to shared humanity or morality or whatever, all of these things are mere rationalizations for the will to power.

This also brings the role of conflict to the fore. Conflict was implied in the other two definitions, as we saw; but Lenin gives it center stage. Politics, for Lenin, is unending conflict.

A full definition of “politics” involves aspects of all three, but conflict remains at the heart. And that is why stories involving politics can be so powerful in fiction.

Authors are constantly admonished that stories must be about a conflict; the protagonist wants or needs something, and must struggle to get it. Political conflicts thus make for a compelling setting for stories, by definition. And each dimension of politics can add another delicious layer to the story. Conflict over possessions, or conflict over status, or right and wrong, or personal beliefs, or even about sheer will to power—as Milton’s rendition of Satan put it, it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven—all of these things can interact and build off each other.

A clear understanding of politics can provide another tool to creating strong stories. And perhaps, with luck, truly insightful stories can improve our politics in real life as well.