The term politics (from Ancient Greek politiká “city affairs”, der. from polis, “city”) is used in reference to the activity and methods of government, or even in the political lexicon to the so-called opposition activity. It can refer to states, confederations, and intergovernmental organizations, or to more limited local and territorial entities, such as regions and municipalities: in the latter cases, government action is more properly called local administration. The concept of Politics has multiple meanings. It can either be referred to:
- the activities that concern governance and management of a state or of a state body;
- the actions or activities concerned with achieving and using power in a country or society;
- the affairs and relationships between different states;
- the participation in public life, either as a profession or as an interest;
- a set of beliefs, principles, or positions regarding a particular view of society, authority, or the world;
- its academic study, political science.
“Man is by nature a social animal; Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god”Aristotle, “Politics”
Generally speaking, we can consider Politics as the social, economic, and cultural sphere in which a single individual or a group of people make decisions that have direct consequences on another single or group of people. Such decisions stem from personal interest, morals, and ethics, or will of power. The study of politics covers a number of different fields such as economy and finance, statistics, sociology and anthropology, history, philosophy, research methodology, jurisprudence and law, and diplomacy, which are constantly correlated to each other.
History of the political thought
The concept of politics, and therefore of state management, came in with Ancient Greece and the city-states. This civilization was the first one to structure its society in order to teach its citizens to duties, rights, and social responsibility: politics was, in fact, a community service, and active participation in public life was seen as the noblest of all activities and was majorly discussed via dialectic rallies. War was part of the citizen’s social duties as well: military service was compulsory, and it could have lasted either 20 years (Athens) or the entire life (Sparta). From the greeks, we have inherited the very model of State as an organized entity, and concepts such as democracy, republic, and justice.
Plato’s The Republic: in this dialogue, Plato covers many topics, starting from defining the essence of justice, and later discussing how an Ideal State can be composed. Such a state should be divided into three major classes: philosophers (the rulers), warriors, and workers. This distinction equals the three “souls” of the individual, which are wisdom, force, and temperance. However, the supreme virtue is the very Justice, that everyone must follow and respect in order to fulfill their tasks. He then proceeds to discuss how it is essential, for the two higher classes, to share life altogether in a sort of collective system (Platonic communism), in which family and goods are shared as well, in order to overcome egoism and personal interest.
Aristotle’s Politics: according to Aristotle, the aim of the state is to allow citizens to achieve happiness, both spiritual and material. To do so, the man should be exempted from economic activities, which are therefore assigned to slaves and barbarians (who are inferior to the Greeks). He later criticizes the Platonic idea of collectivism, arguing that the Man, as a “social animal”, is naturally inclined to own some kind of property. Then, the philosopher proceeds to describe the three physiologic forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and politeia) and the three respective degenerate forms (tyrannid, oligarchy, and demagogy).
The very Roman civilization will take the Greek model as a huge inspiration during the period of the early Republic, after the conquest of the Greek colonies in the southern Italian peninsula (Magna Graecia). The Romans will later expand, update, and renew many aspects of that political system, giving life to the most efficient, precise, and advanced political structure the world had ever seen at the time. First of all, the Romas were the first to revise politics as a professional career: if the Greeks thought about politics as “community” (koinonia), in which each citizen had a fundamental role in deciding the management of the city, the Romans created a strict political hierarchy, with strong public offices that decided the social, political and military course of action of the Nation. Figures like consuls, senators, magistrates, praetors, and quaestors were all invented during the Roman hegemony, and the only way to move from one office to the other was through the cursus honorum (honor course, the sequential order that the politician had to follow), with rare exceptions. All these figures worked in Institutions like the Senate, legislative assemblies, magistratures, tribunates, and councils. The model laid down with these Institutions is still present in several contemporary political systems.
Also, the Roman Law was a fundamental turning point in the field of jurisprudence, as it was the first real judicial system ever invented, and one of the ones that lasted the longest (about 13 centuries). It also heavily influenced more recent systems, like the common law or other several European and South American states’ laws.
Cicero: according to cicero, politics is the completion of the old contemplative wisdom, the pragmatic application of the concepts of justice. Jurisprudence is seen as the very reflection of the two concepts of iustum (right) and iussus (legal). He also defines the two faces of Jurisprudence: the Law (what needs to be applied) and Power (the law enforcement tool).
Both before and after the fall of the Roman Empire, the world started to become heavily influenced by the new, revolutionary Christian thought, which exploded during the Middle Ages: new values, such as mercy, forgiveness, the equality of everyone before God, and a new moral conduct clashed against the old values of power, strength, and will of grandeur that moved the ancient civilizations up to that moment. If before heroes and generals, although with the favor of the gods, were the true proponents of events and were treated like gods themselves, in this new perspective the governors and the state had to be subordinate to religion. It is clear that, from the introduction of Christianity in the power sphere, the clergy will have a bigger and bigger influence over the rulers of the nations (we remember, in this regard, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas) .
In this perspective, a new form of government was derived from the Christian thought: absolute monarchy, which claimed that the monarch had the right of holding the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers, as it was believed that their right was given by God himself (divine right). This system will dominate Europe for centuries.
The Renaissance introduced a new transition of views and, we can say, a return to the past: in actual fact, the Renaissance was a historical time in which most intellectuals chose to denigrate the centuries just passed, seeing them as “dark times”, and went on to recover the old classical values of virtue and anthropocentrism. Niccolò Machiavelli, a diplomat from Florence, wrote during this time his The Prince, which is considered the first-ever political science manuscript, which makes him the founder of western political science.
Generally speaking, the new theoretical model brought on by Machiavelli describes an ideal-type of the prince (governor), who, in his perspective, should have several attributes of leadership in order to manage a city or state efficiently, such as prudence, strength, cunning, wisdom, and command capability. At the same time, in order to maintain authority and exercise efficient management, the prince has the right to utilize several different means, regardless of whether they are considered “moral” or “immoral” (“the end justifies the means”) . This very point implies a degree of autonomy from Religion that was revolutionary considering the era and the grand duchy in which Machiavelli composed his masterpiece.
In the Enlightenment era, several philosophers with different ideas set the bases for modern concepts of state, government, and democracy. Particularly, during this time the most predominant school of thought in political philosophy was the contractualist one. Contractualism follows the idea that society works through a social contract between rulers and citizens, with obligations for both parties. This condition puts an end to the savage state of nature and sets the beginning of the State.
- Thomas Hobbes, with his Leviathan, studied and discussed the legitimacy of the absolute state, in which the power is condensed in the hands of the king, who has to govern over the people who otherwise would be in neverending war (in state of nature). Hence, people sign a contract with the monarch that puts in his hands all their freedoms, in exchange for protection and security.
- John Locke, on the other hand, harshly opposes to Hobbes, and argues that the contract is the tool that limits the human transgression to social rules via the prevention of individual rights, which in turn is guaranteed by a publicly accepted authority: the rule of law, from which not even the sovereign can exempt himself.
- Jean Jaques Rousseau: the social contract of Rousseau works through a more collective view of society since he thinks that the people should have sovereignty and should decide the laws to which they themselves submit. However, this submission does not translate in a limitation of liberty, as the legislation follows the greater interest of society that works as a body. This implies that those laws are an expression of the freedom of the citizens that chose to create them and follow them themselves.
A new, important political tool is introduced, during this age, by the Baron of Montesquieu: the principle of separation of powers. De facto, according to Montesquieu, in order to have a “non-pathological form of the state,” it is essential to separate the three major powers: judicial, legislative, and executive. None of these powers should be superior or subordinate to one another, in order to keep a continuous balance between every single power.
The social-political theories of the Enlightenment will have a huge impact on society and will be the main source of inspiration in the drafting of the modern Constitutions.
The 19th century is the century of the Liberal Revolutions, which happened majorly in Europe and in the Americas. The main goal of these revolutions was exactly the same one of the French Revolution of 1789, which started them all: decrease the power of the monarchy and introduce the new liberal-democrat model of the State (Nation-State), in order to spread the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. The model also connected to the concept of the free market theorized by Adam Smith, which will later lead to mass industrialization of all the western world.
As a response to the social problems highlighted by this new form of the capitalist economy, such as the exploitation of employees and unequal wealth distribution, Karl Marx, developed the model of socialism as a political movement against the unfair power of the bourgeoisie and, more generally, of the dominant classes. The movement will later give life to the trade unions and to the socialist and communist parties all around the world, which will have a huge impact on the organization of the state, a boost towards social and labor rights, and will deeply change the political asset in many countries. The world is now entering a political turmoil era.
The 20th century is arguably the most dynamic century under the political point of view, and the one in which foreign policy gains incredible importance. After the rise and fall of totalitarianism in the first half of the century, which was triggered by the explosion of discontent after the First World War in Europe, in the second half, the political thought is divided into several currents and authors, which come to life the most in the United States. In this regard we remember:
- Karl Popper, an Austrian immigrant, focuses his political work on the critique to Plato, Hegel, and Marx, who he says are responsible for the creation of the roots of totalitarianism, through a utopian vision of history, of which they claim to know the operating rules, that brought society from being open, to being closed. Only through a freedom-based society, with democratic institutions and tolerance, the western world was able to oppose the totalitarian closed society.
- Utilitarianism: this current followed the ideal that society should primarily care about the factors of “good” and “utility”: the first concern of the man is being happy, and the only way to be happy is to achieve social welfare, which in turn is achieved with a high level of social utility. Hence, society must follow an economic path that grants the highest level of utility, that can later be invested in social welfare. Utilitarianism led political philosophy up until John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice” in 1971, and is strongly attached to the capitalist logic of profit and success.
- John Rawls: Rawls heavily critiqued the utilitarianist view, arguing that if somebody is not able to produce utility, either because of poor family background or for other issues, then that particular individual is ignored and forgotten by society. Hence the idea of distributive justice and of proper redistribution of goods (the only form of inequality accepted is the one in which the government redistributes the wealth giving more to the members who are disadvantaged), so that even the ones at the base of the social pyramid can achieve success. John Rawls is considered a modern contractualist philosopher.
Branches of politics
As stated at the beginning of the paper, Politics is a complex concept and covers many different fields. In the sphere of State management, it can be divided as it follows:
- domestic policy;
- foreign policy;
- economic policy.
Domestic Policy is the branch of Politics that covers the internal administration of the State. It touches fields such as public administration, health, and transportation, education, police and armed forces control, etc.
In Democracy, it follows the principles of separation of powers, which divides the state responsibilities in the hands of three distinct authorities: legislature, executive, and judiciary. Each individual authority exercises its power through institutions, which are represented by individuals, groups of people, or organizations. However, although this type of power separation is extremely common in the world today, it is not necessarily the only existing form, as there are countries in which there are fewer or more authorities among which power is divided.
The key point of this system lies in the autonomy that each individual authority has towards the others, such that no authority has the right to exercise the power of the others and no authority has greater or lesser importance than the others. By doing so, each authority is continuously balanced by the others. However, depending on the form of government (e.g.: Parliamentary Republic, Presidential Republic), one political authority may have more or less power than the others; nevertheless, this does not mean that the slightly more powerful authority has the right to overpower and ignore the others: the principles of balancing and autonomy is always present and inescapable.
- Legislature: it is the branch of state management that has the authority to deliberate (legislate) laws and/or change them. It is usually represented through different institutions that vary country by country; the most common legislative bodies are the Parliament, the Congress, the National Assembly, the Legislative Council or Assembly, the National or Supreme Council, the House of Representatives. The members of the legislative bodies can be either elected by popular election or nominated by specific authorities or institutions that have the right to do so; the number of the members is decided by law.
Usually, legislative bodies may be divided into chambers (or houses), with different roles that vary from debate to deliberation. If a legislative body has one chamber that operates all the roles, it is called unicameral. If it has two, it is called bicameral, and so on.
- Executive: it is the branch of state management that executes and applies the laws deliberated by the legislature, and ensures that they are respected. It is usually represented through the institution of the government, which in turn is divided into different departments, such as the President (or Presidents), their ministers, and other public bodies. Its tasks include the direction of police and armed forces, the direction of public services and public administration, and occasionally, in very strict limits and specific situations, even legislation. The members that compose the government are chosen by popular election or nominated by specific authorities or institutions that have the right to do so. The head of the state is represented by the President. In particular cases, the head of state is also the head of government, but not always: as a matter of fact, there are some countries in which the two roles are represented by two different individuals. Each minister follows the guidelines decided by the Cabinet and is the head of a ministry, which oversees the respective department of interest.
- Judiciary: it is the branch of state management that judges the people, groups of people, or private and public bodies that are suspected of having broken the law. It is usually represented by a system of courts and other legal institutions. These institutions are composed of lawyers, magistrates, and judges, who must possess specific requirements in order to gain access to the career. The task of the judiciary is the law interpretation and the final decision of guilt or innocence of a suspect. Law interpretation can derive either by jurisprudence or by case law, or by a mixture of both. Every single country decides the interpretation parameter based on its law.
Foreign Politics is the branch of Politics that covers the relationships between one State and the others and the diplomatic activity. For many years, Domestic and Foreign Polity were treated as two different and autonomous fields of action, and only in the 20th century, it was understood that the two of them were deeply connected with each other, as the foreign interest of a nation is often derived from its domestic needs and, therefore, each state decides its foreign policy based on the national interest. As a matter of fact, the international turmoil that characterized the 20th century gave a gigantic boost to the study of international relations, as the world started to be treated like a dense network of states that interact with each other continuously, rather than a mere composition of states.
In Democracy, the state exercises its foreign policy through specific bodies responsible for drawing up and implementing foreign policy strategies. Such a body is often a Ministry of Foreign Policy (or an equivalent), that decides the international course of action based on the discussion with the other members of the government Cabinet, and later communicates the guidelines to the diplomatic apparat.
It is important to note that states and governments are not the only actors that have a voice in the world-system: with globalization, many international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and multinational companies have also joined the field of foreign policy. All these transnational bodies are important because they also bring to the diplomatic table non-national interests, which can vary from the will of major economic liberties to social pressures to introduce, for example, greater rights in states where none exist or are lacking (in fact, such actors are called lobbies, or pressure groups).
As of today, the international scenario is polarized, meaning that the world is divided into different zones of influence, with a strong American hegemony that deeply shapes both the political and economic relations between its allies and enemies, with consequences on the foreign policy of the vast majority of the world’s states. However, in the last few years, the general tendency has turned towards cooperation, which implies keeping strong relations with a high number of countries, so as to obtain more international relevance, but most importantly for economic, social, and political interests.
Economic Policy is the branch of Politics that studies the effects of the intervention of public authorities and private entities on the economy by elaborating on a set of specific operations in order to reach a number of prefixed micro and macroeconomic targets. Its main goal is to increase the total level of welfare in a society*. To do so, action must be taken on problematic situations in every field of the economy, but particularly in the monetary, fiscal, commercial, and industrial ones.
The choices are made by a policymaker, which can be any public subject that has the power to implement economic policy interventions: the State, the Government, the Central Bank, local societies, or international organizations (such as the International Monetary Fund, or the United Nations). Economically speaking, we define a *society as all the socio-economic subjects that participate in economic exchanges in a country: families, companies, the State itself).
It is not to be confused with Political economy: Political economy is a social science based on the analysis of the economic behavior of the single economic operator and their reactions to the variation of some variables considered fundamental, such as income, prices, taxation, interest tax, etc. It is the study of the economy as it really is.
Economic policy, on the other hand, is the economic science that studies the normative aspects of public and private interventions in order to understand what needs to be done and how something must be. It takes advantage of the mathematical tools of political economy to achieve its goals. There are two types of interventions that can be implemented over time:
- short period: this type of action aimed at stabilizing problematic situations, such as unemployment, or high inflation rate.
- long period: this type of actions aimed at increasing economic development and concern measures of capital redistribution between public and private, or of income redistribution policies improvement.
And several assets to carry out economic policy:
- Fiscal policy: which studies the possibilities of an economic intervention through the lever of public expenditure and the tax levy;
- Monetary policy: which on the other hand studies the efficiency of the economic intervention through monetary leverage, money supply, liquidity, and credit in the economic sector, the level of prices. The measures that can be applied to achieve the prefixed goals can be either direct or indirect, where the first (direct measures) imply an imposition of a certain behavior to a defined category of operators, and the last (indirect measures) imply an influence of certain variables (prices, income, tax) in order to induce the operators to behave in a specific way.
Forms of State and forms of Government
The form of State refers to the relationship between the governors and the governed (State and people) and defines how the State is structured in its totality. The form of Government refers to the relationship between the single institutional bodies and the way the features are distributed.
Forms of State
- Absolute State: it is the type of State in which the monarch has infinite powers and exercises unlimited control over each institution, which is therefore subordinate to the will of the monarch. The State itself is considered the property of the sovereign, who deliberates the laws but at the same time is superior to them (“l’état c’est moi”, I am the State). This form of State has characterized the world for many centuries, until other forms of State (liberal and democratic) took over, but is still present in many realities, as, for example, middle eastern monarchies.
- Authoritarian (or totalitarian) State: it is the type of state in which every aspect of the life of the individual is controlled by the authority of a party or of a dictator (propaganda), that has also the right to control the other institutions. There is a political representation but is strictly limited by the government’s power. This form of State is often referred to the XX century countries that gave birth to fascism and to the ones that followed them but can be any State that imposes an authoritarian law over its citizens.
- Liberal and democratic State: the liberal State is the form of State in which the Law prevails over the arbitrariness of the everyone, including the sovereign, institutions, and the civil society, that in turn are protected by the Law itself through rights. The supreme law is the Constitution, that defines how the single powers are divided. It gained popularity after the French Revolution of 1789. The democratic state is considered its evolution since the liberal State still limited political life only to a certain layer of society. In the democratic State, the Constitution has perfected so to give everyone the right to vote, to be politically represented, or, in case of the social State, to receive the equal starting condition and assistance at the expense of the state. It became the standard model of State in the western world during the XX century, after the Second World War.
- Socialist State: it is the form of State in which the sovereignty is completely in the hands of the people, which is represented by a single party, usually the communist or socialist one, in the contest of the proletariat dictatorship. There is no private property and therefore every means of production is property of the state itself. The production is planned by the State through the preparation of ultra-annual plans. Everyone is considered completely equal and has equal duties towards the State. It was born after the Russian Revolution of 1917 but fell after 1991. However, there some countries that still have that model of State, such as China or North Korea.
Forms of Government
- Monarchy: it is the form of Government in which the sovereignty is in the hands of a monarch, which is the head of state, and remains so until their death or abdication. Usually, the substitute of the monarch, when they divest or cease their activity, is a member of the same dynasty: child, sibling, or another close family member. A monarchy can be:
- Absolute: (see above: “absolute state“ under “forms of State“)
- Constitutional: it is a form of monarchy in which the monarch grants a Constitution that limits their power: the monarch can not deliberate laws or decide for guilt or innocence, but still exercises the executive power along with a head of government and the ministers, all nominated by the monarch. The monarch also decides the judges and participates in the legislative process through the nomination of the members of one of the chambers, while the other one is elected by the people. The trust i
- Parliamentary: it is the evolution of the constitutional monarchy: the legislative is all in the hands of the parliament, which is elected by the people but, depending on the country, the monarch can have the right of veto over the laws that are deliberated. The monarch also decides the head of government and the ministers but does not exercise the executive power. The parliament can remove the legitimacy to the head of government if considered illegitimate or unconstitutional. Depending on the constitution, the monarch can nominate the judges.
- Republic: it is the form of Government in which every citizen in a State freely participates in the political life by directly or indirectly electing their own representatives in the parliament or the head of state and government, whose mandates are temporary. It may include a written constitution or an oral constitutional system. A Republic can be:
- Parliamentary: it is the form of Republic in which the people vote the representatives of the Parliament via free political election, whose in turn elect the government and the head of state. The head of state is also the guarantor of the Constitution, but has limited powers since the real control of the executive is held by the head of government.
- Presidential: it is the form of Republic in which the head of state is directly elected by the people and is also the head of government, therefore of the executive, who also elects the ministers. All their mandates are temporary.
- Semi-presidential: it is a form of Republic in which the people directly elect their head of state through an election and their representative in the parliament through another one. The head of the state decides the head of government, but this needs also the legitimacy of the parliament to exercise any activity. The executive is held by the head of state along with the head of government and the cabinet of ministers
- Dictatorship: it is a form of totalitarian State in which every power is directly controlled or influenced by the dictator or the single existent party and the people have no power (see: “totalitarian state”, under forms of State).
The political spectrum
In the Western world, the political spectrum is often divided between the concepts of Left and Right, with all the variables directly related to them; they refer both to the ethical and social positions and to the economic views of the market that put together, make up a specific political perspective. At the far left or far right take place the extremisms (marxism and anarchism/national-socialism and fascism); moving towards the center, there are more moderate views, that take inspiration from either side of the spectrum.
- Far-Left: it is the part of the spectrum where we find marxism-inspired parties that embrace the values of the social and economic revolution, collectivism, communism, internationalism, eco-socialism, and anarchism. The main ideology leans towards capitalism overthrown and an armed fight against the rich ruling classes in order to establish a new order in which the people have the power. The economic view is based on total statism and collectivism. Examples of contemporary and past parties that are part of the far-left: Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Power to the People (Italy).
- Left: this part of the spectrum is occupied by the individuals that support progressive views of society and that lean towards the values of egalitarianism, social justice, reformism, socialist-democracy, modern socialism, and of the welfare state which grants basic social support such as health care and education. Economically speaking, the left is in favor of state intervention but is divided, depending on the degree of reformism, among statism, the social market economy, planned economy, but also some elements of Keynesianism. Some parties: Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, Coalition of the Radical Left of Greece (SYRIZA).
- Moderate: it is the political tendency between right-wing conservatism and left-wing progressivism. It groups all the views that reject the extreme ideologies and major social and political changes. Economically speaking, moderates are very likely to support the free market with low state intervention. Examples of moderate parties: Christian Democratic Union of Germany, European People’s Party.
- Right: socially and ethically speaking, on the right side of the spectrum we find positions that lean towards conservative, traditional, nationalist, religious, national pride, and patriotism positions. Economically speaking, the main currents are capitalism, free market, and less state intervention. Examples of parties that are part of this side of the spectrum can be the Republicans for the USA or the Conservatives for the UK.
- Far-Right: it is the side of the spectrum generally inhabited by fascism-inspired parties that embrace the ideologies of militarism, racism, ultra-nationalism, anti-communism, but also radical populism and a sovereignism. Contrary to the right economic ideology, far-right movements are generally in favor of economic nationalism, or protectionism, which supports state interventions against the free competition. Examples of parties: Fidesz in Hungary, Front National in France.
It is important to note that American politics has different meanings for some political ideologies and places the parties in different areas of the political spectrum. This is derived from the fact that the United States did not experience any socialist-inspired policy and therefore does not share some of the concepts that are part of the European political system such as the Welfare State.