Seven Theories of Politics: The Rehabilitation of a Loaded Vice Word

Part II:  Radical and Reactionary Theories of Politics: Radical Feminism, Marxism, Rational Choice Theory, Bio-Evolutionary Theory Orientation

The reason I wrote this article is to get people excited about the explanatory power of the word “politics” and to make sense of the world and how to change it. In Part I of this article, I brought up some of major confusions over how the word “politics” is used to describe actions as well as to define the word theoretically. I then posed 12 questions that any political theory would have to answer. The questions were:

  • Temporal reach: How far back into history does politics go?
  • Cross-species scope: Is politics an activity which is confined to the human species?
  • Spatial reach: Where is the arena in which politics takes place?
  • Political agency: Who does politics? Professionals or everyone?
  • Political action: How is politics different from strategies?
  • Interpersonal processes: How is politics different from convincing and persuading?
  • What is the relationship between politics and power? Does politics drive power or does power drive politics?
  • What is the relationship between politics and force or coercion? Are they interchangeable? Are they opposites?
  • Interdisciplinary span? To what extent is politics influenced by economics, technology, history?
  • What are the forces that shape politics?
  • What is the relationship between theories of politics and theories of political sociology?
  • What is the relationship between theories of politics and political ideologies?

Lastly, I identified seven political theories. In Part I, I focused on three political theories that occupy the centrist portion of the political spectrum: old institutionalists (mainstream political science), civil republicans and Weberian political economy. In Part II I discuss the remaining four theories: radical feminism and Marxism on the left and Rational Choice Theory and Bio-Evolutionary on the right. At the end of this article, there is a table which summarizes how each of the seven theories answers the twelve questions above.

Marxist political economy

Contradictory nature of politics in Marx

Marx’s notion about politics is contradictory. In some places he lumps together politics with religion, morals, laws and contrasts this to the economic “base”. However, in his more political writing on France, he seems to give politics more importance than in the first formulation above. In a formal sense, Marx thought that politics was a product of class conflict. In this sense, he saw the state as the concentration of political struggle. In a narrow sense, this would exclude egalitarian societies from politics because they didn’t have any classes. Yet Marx was very interested in lack of private property and in the decision-making processes of these societies. But he implies that decisions about property relations and deciding whether or not to move to a new location are not political.

Politics is inseparable from economics

In Part I, we saw institutionalists and civic republicans both accept the separation of politics from economics, and institutionalists think what they are doing is “political science”. We also saw Weberians will not make this separation, claiming that what they are doing is “political economy”.  Yet they will come down more on the side of the importance of politics. When Marx talked about economics, most explicitly in Das Kapital, Grundrisse, and in other works, he also did so out of a tradition called political economy. People like Adam Smith and David Ricardo would never separate economics from the politics of the day. Despite all these qualifications, we can safely say that for Marx there was no such thing as politics without economics. Marx would have heaped scorn on the disciplines of “political science” for ignoring the economy and the economists who pretend there is no politics in economics.

Historical sweep: politics as relative

Marx had the second broadest historical sweep of the evolution of politics because he points to changes from the relations of property going all the way back  from communal, to slave, to feudal, to capitalist property. This broad sweep of politics enabled Marx to see the relativity of politics in a way that institutionalists, civic republicans and even Weberians do not. For Marx, tribal societies practiced no politics because there were no social classes. At the visionary end of Marx’s social vision, under communism there would be no politics because the existence of social classes would be abolished. Unlike any other theoretician of politics Marx believed politics emerged at a certain, relatively recent point in human history and it would wither away at a later point. Marx’s perspective was not only historically depthful but his interdisciplinary reach included not only economics and world history, but also anthropology and sociology.

The state as passive

Both institutionalists and Weberians think that the state is very important for enacting politics, though for very different reasons. With civic republicans, Marx did not think the state was very powerful in its political activity. Marx saw the state as a relatively passive instrument of the capitalist class, its executive committee and its representative bodies as the “talking shop of the bourgeoisie”.

Place of violence in politics

Marx understood all class conflict as violent because there was a struggle between two classes for control over the natural resources, tools, finished products and power settings. The extraction of surplus value from the working class by the capitalist class with state backing gives rise to class struggle. So for Marx, as for Weber, all politics was violent, either using force explicitly or implicitly. At the same time, the forces that shaped politics were the various contradictions within capitalism.  The electoral politics of institutionalists or the civic debates in public of civic republicans do not give a voice to the working class. With Weberians, real politics takes place behind the scenes and these scenes will never include the working class. Political conflicts cannot be resolved democratically because the economic contradictions that underlie the capitalist system are not addressed.

Political sociology and political ideology

In political sociology, there are ‘functional” Marxists who do not make as much of class struggle in the area of politics as they make in trying to understand the economic contradictions of capitalism – its problems of accumulation. Yet there are others who emphasise the importance of how the class struggle impacts the accumulation process and how the contradictions under capitalism cannot be understood without taking this into account. In terms of political ideology, Marxists are all socialists – social democrats, Leninists and council communists – and all claim Marx’s writings though they differ bitterly over the interpretation of his work.

Rational Choice Theory

Neo-classical economics on the prowl of politics

We said earlier that both Institutionalism and civic republicanism accepts the separation of politics and economics as opposed to the Weberian and Marxian claim that they cannot be separated. Rational choice theory:

  1. first separates economic behavior from politics; and,
  2. takes its theory of economic exchanges and projects it onto politics. There is a kind of political unconscious.

The political realm is a kind of economic market place in which politicians pursue their interests to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs under circumstances where their resources are scarce and wants are many. Rational and collective choice understandings of politics are rooted in neoclassical micro-economics, except they are applied to non-market situations. Gary Becker even tried to apply microeconomic principles of traditional economics to families and human sexual life. He wanted to counter the moralistic, idealistic and romantic beliefs that family and sexual life are supposedly beyond economic calculations.

Unlike institutionalism and republicanism, rational choice theory argues that economically people are self-interested maximizers in their economic exchanges and this is not just a product of capitalism. Rather, they say a desire to “truck, barter and exchange” goes all the way back to hunter-gatherers.

Politics as the management of public goods

For rational choice theorists, the practice of politics is not about the process of governmental goal-setting, decision-making, and monitoring (institutionalists). Neither is it about public debate and compromise to achieve a virtuous outcome (Civic Republicans). Politics is bartering and haggling involving the public, not in a reasoned debate striving towards a collective good, but occurs under very specific public conditions. Based on a Lockean notion of social contract theory, when people are in small groups they behave rationally as individuals. But around issues that involve large groups, there is a danger of collective irrationality. What might those conditions be?

Situations that involve the management of public goods is the arena for politics. This means goods from whose benefits people cannot be excluded, such as clear air, or the conservation of resources. What differentiates political behavior from economic transactions is that in political behavior participants must be far-sighted. What to do about pubic goods does not dissolve after an immediate market exchange. It goes on indefinitely. This requires the presence of institutions and networks. Politics is a kind of market place for regulating the messy collective consequences of trading where the rate of profit is low and the long-term consequences accumulate.

Politicians are like commodities governed by the supply and demands of voting

Rational choice theorists treat politicians as if they were commodities in a market. Just as supply and demand expectations of consumers control the price of commodities, the supply and demand of people’s voting preferences drives the competition between politicians who are driven into and out of office. Rational choice theory believes in liberal democracy not in a political sense, the way the institutionalists do. Rather they believe in an economic democracy where political competition for votes leads to democratic results, just as Adam Smith believed that economic competition leads to social good.

All interpersonal processes like convincing or persuading are really economic exchanges. What would make them political is the presence of public goods. Rational choice theorists do not pay a great deal of attention to political power, because they tend to see political actions as subject to a democratic process of supply and demand. This theory pays little attention to the predominant place collective and cooperative activity – building a bridge, working on a ship – has in human social life.

Politics takes place at the point of exchange

Neoclassical economists claim that capitalists’ profits take place at the point of exchange between capitalist competitors and between individual capitalists and the marketplace. Marxian political economics argue that the most important place where profits are made is at the point of production. This means that it is in the exploitation of the worker. According to Marx, the worker produces far more social wealth – surplus value – than she receives as a wage.

Rational choice theorists ignore political processes that occur before the moment of exchange. That would be in the policy settings of think tanks, upper class social clubs, foundations, and congressional hearings which take place long before voting,  Just as they see economic profits being made at the point of exchange, rather than as Marxists do as at the point of production, so too, they see politics taking place at the point of exchange rather than at the point of political production.  The school of political sociology which fits snugly with rational choice theories are political pluralists. In terms of political ideology, rational choice theory goes best with right-wing libertarians.

Radical Feminist

Critique of the public-private separation of politics from the non-political

Radical feminism goes the furthest of any political theory in how far it carries politics into other areas of human social life. Feminists argue when institutionalists limit politics to the state and its institutions, these accepted boundaries for the arena of politics are not natural self-evident boundaries. Rather, they are the product of past political struggles which resulted in a public-private dichotomy in the first place. For them politics takes place in private settings, such as in families.

Limitations of individualist self

The liberal institutionalists have as its foundation a separate, autonomous, rational and self-subsisting self. This self is not simply describing and reflecting individual-social relations under capitalism, but it appears to be prescribing and structuring relations as if this were the only possible self. Institutionalists ignore the research that in non-capitalist societies, the self is better understood as “collectivist”.

Social contract theory

Once the individualist self is granted, the stage is set for social contract theory. Whether it be Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau, social contract theory starts with the premise that individuals really could subsist in a state of nature but as a calculating rational act, they agree that they would be even better off under social relations than in a “state of nature”. This social contract is required to create both civil society and the state. But even further back into archaic states, radical feminists argued it required sexual contract whereby domestic relations were not understood as political but private.

Capitalist state exploitation of women

Politics has been more exclusively limited to men and more self-consciously masculine than any other social practice. Given that women have conventionally been defined in terms of their relation to what is domestic, this has marginalized women as political actors. The unacknowledged foundation of male public politics is autonomous individuals. Meanwhile, what is ignored is the support and care received from women at home which is a) unpaid, and b) seen as not political. At the same time, the state denies their responsibility to intervene in family disputes. Until recently, it has excluded domestic violence as a category outside its political jurisdiction.

The socio-construction of humanity

Radical feminists reject all social contract theory, and along with Marxists, claim that human beings are social long before we become individuals. Without society, most fundamentally the relationship between mothers and their siblings, there could be no individuality. In fact, there is no such thing as an individual separate from society. It is society that transforms a biological organism – first into a human being and then into an individual. All social relations are political whenever there are resources at stake. Politics is the process by which people organize the production, distribution and use of resources to produce and reproduce their lives.

Gender is political

While agreeing with Weberian and Marxism claims that politics must include economics and history, radical feminist theory insists that the domestic politics of the family and sexuality not be excluded. It is not just in formal settings such as elections or civic debate that politics takes place, but in informal settings as well. The process by which a family decides whether to redecorate the kitchen or go on a vacation is political. When a man takes up two seats on a train with one seat occupied by his bag, and a woman standing up nearby does or does not tell the man to move his bag so she can sit down, that’s politics. When men whistle at women as they go by and women look the other way, that’s politics. Politics is embedded in language. When women end their statements as if they were questions when they are speaking in front of men, that’s politics. When women do emotional work not to appear too smart on a date to keep the man interested, that’s politics.

Power with vs power over people

Unlike all political theory, with the possible exception of Marxism, all power is not hierarchical. There can be power with people, as in egalitarian pre-state societies. There is also power over people as comes is developed in rank and stratified societies.

Power as the process

Generally, feminists are reluctant to make a separation between politics and power as means and end. An egalitarian political process has a good chance of leading to power with people. What feminists are very sensitive to is when a political process over the production, distribution and use of resources and is not egalitarian. When this is the case, it makes power vertical, power over people, no matter how noble the ends. So, when Marxist-Leninists ignore what the working class actually say it needs, when it suppresses the collective creativity of workers self-organizing attempts, its power is always vertical no matter what Leninists say about speaking for the working class.

All strategies are political

While there may be a fine line between strategizing and politics, radical feminists are likely to say it is a safer bet to assume that all strategies are political. Why? Because the cost of assuming some interaction is political when it is really strategic is not nearly as high as mistaking a move someone makes is strategic when it is really political. The same is true with any kind of influence. Convincing, persuading, and negotiating are better understood as a form of subtle politics with bribery, or force at the other extreme. For too long, women have been lulled into what appeared to be cooperative endeavors but were really manipulations of sorts. It is better to assume assertion or even aggression is the norm and then be pleasantly surprised if it turns out otherwise.

Political sociology and political ideology

In terms of political sociology, no school fits it exactly, but the political class model probably comes the closest. When it comes to political ideology, radical feminism is likely to be either social democratic or anarchist.

Biological Evolutionary

Most political theories deny politics exist among non-human species

Up until now, we haven’t addressed the question of the extent to which politics exists outside the human species. Both institutionalism and civic republicanism would explicitly deny that is possible because a) only in state societies can politics exist, or b) politics require reasoned debate which is beyond the reach of any other species. For Weberians, politics requires a state and a monopoly over the use of force which is beyond other animals. For Marxists, since animals do not have social classes (the examples of hierarchies among some of the other animals would not be deemed of the same order as social classes) there would be no politics. Rational choice theory would dismiss the possibility of politics among other animals because the whole basis of politics involves weighing the pros and cons of choices and imagining long-term consequences.

Being a social species with cooperation and sharing makes you a political species

According to Tiger and Fox (Imperial Animal), in order for politics to occur in material production, traveling together in herds and mothers taking care of their young is not enough for politics to take place. There has to be:

  1. a) a division of labor and cooperation in the process of providing food, building shelters and providing defense against attack; and,
  2. b) sharing of resources.

Since there is little or no division of labor in provisioning in other animal societies, there is no economic sphere in which to ask the question about politics’ relationship to economics.

Politics occurs in the cross-fire where genetics, socio-culture and individual learning conflict

Roger Masters takes it further, arguing that politics is the mechanism by which the human species reconciles conflicts between genetic, socio-cultural and individual learning loyalties. He points out that in any situation there are opportunities:

  • to be selfish and only consider yourself, making enemies along the way;
  • to look out for your relatives, which is kin selection and which results in nepotism;
  • to look out for your friends and forming alliances based on reciprocity; and,
  • to look out for strangers regardless of what they give back in return – altruism.

Power is not just about control over material production and control over policy but control over sexual reproduction

What all theories of politics have in common is that it is either a means to power or synonymous with power. Most, if not all, theories of power argue that power has a great deal to do with control over the provisioning of material resources: economics such as food, land, tools, commodities. Most political sciences connect power to control of social policy in the future, and maintaining it practically within its judicial system and police.

However, feminists rightly point out that resources are not just material production. They also include control over sexual resources of reproduction. If we consider that politics is the means of gaining power over the forces of production (economics) and public decision-making and reproduction, then biological evolutionary theory of sexual selection has a great deal to teach us about the  sexual politics of reproduction.

Sex and politics are traditionally separated

What is normally termed “sex” and “politics” are two sides of the same evolutionary coin. Yet what textbook on sexual behavior treats it as a political process? What primer on political science recognized that its subject matter is a derivative of a biological theme as fundamental as the struggle for reproductive success? What politician sees his own compulsive energy as fired by the ancient impulses of sexual competition? What lover sees his sexual process as pride being part of the necessary comportment of the successful mammalian politician? Sex and dominance, reproduction and power are so intimately linked that it is hard to disentangle one from the other when considering sex in its social setting.

Political economy and domestic economy

Unlike other theories of politics, for bioevolutionary politics involves two processes, a political economy and a domestic economy. Political economy involves material provisioning of natural resources to a society. It involves social production. The domestic economy involves sexual provisioning for mating and raising its children. It involves social reproduction.

The beginnings of a domestic economy

For the biological evolutionary perspective, the central political process is the process of sexual selection and sexual selection is based on bonding. A species can get by without much bonding. Flocks, herds, and schools of fish are notable for the interchangeability of their members. But like breeding systems with asexual reproduction, without bonding they restrict their options and reduce the amount of variety on which sexual selection can work. A true social system begins when animals respond differentially to other members of the species as individuals. They begin to select other members for specific kinds of relatively permanent interaction.

Before mammals were political about material resources, they were political about sexual resources. Sexual politics carries into all social species, most completely among chimps (Frans B. M. De Waal), dolphins and to a lesser extent among elephants. When animals form groups, they must organize themselves in terms of mating practices. As a result of fighting, posturing, cooperating, forming alliances and coalitions, males and females organize themselves into hierarchies. These hierarchies have built into them ground rules as to who can and can’t mate with who and under what conditions.

The domestic economy is about genetics, not sex.  While all males get a chance to copulate, only the more dominant get a chance to breed. The more powerful animal gets a better chance to perpetuate himself genetically. The dominate male is more or less sexually indifferent and will often let inferior males mount the females. Everyone copulates, but only dominates propagate. The dominant animal moves more freely, eats better, gets more attention, lives longer, is healthier and less anxious. On the other hand, the death rate among peripheral males at puberty is very high.

Hierarchies are biologically constituted

Bio-evolutionary theory agrees with feminism that family and sexual life is very political. But where most feminists take the existence of these hierarchies as socially and historically constructed and hope one day to abolish them, bio-evolutionary political theory would argue that these hierarchies are not simply products of society but are rooted in biology. The presence of gender stratification may enhance and amplify these hierarchies, but it doesn’t create them.

Furthermore, in response to Marxism, the creation of a communist society with social gender equality may reduce hierarchies but it wouldn’t abolish them, at least for the foreseeable future. Based on dominance hierarchies, the highest in the hierarchies would have access to the best food and the most comfortable nesting. However, that is not the same thing as having control over production. Darwinian political theory would say all social species are doing some kind of political jockeying come mating season.

What is the relationship between politics and natural selection?

There is, of course, competition for resources between species, but that is not political. Politics can only occur within a species in which fight or flight are not fruitful strategies.

The emergence of the state as an unusual problem to be explained

For neo-Darwinian politics, the emergence of the state is not the starting point of politics, but a problem that neither the traditional mechanisms of kin selection theory or reciprocity solves. What ecological, demographic, economic and technological problems arise that make it in the self-interest of most people to accept the subjugation, the asymmetrical production and distribution of resources that the state involves? Roger Masters offers a rational choice answer to the question. He argues that once collective goods emerge there is trade-off most members of society are willing to make between the benefits of irrigation systems, roads, trade, and the end of feuding that makes the subjection and increased alienation worth it.

Political agency, persuasion

There are no professional politicians in the non-human animal kingdom as far as I know, although De Waal makes some amusing cases for some chimps being more political than others. De Waal makes some interesting points about the power of body language to impact others, although sometimes it might be persuasion and sometimes force or the threat of force. I suspect bio-evolutionary politics would define politics as the strategy within a species to mate and maximize genes across generations.

Bio-evolutionary theory in political sociology and political ideology

It is difficult to place biological politics in the field of political sociology. Political managerial might be closest. A knee-jerk reaction of feminists and Marxists would be quickly to tar-and-feather any biological theory as the political ideology of fascists because of the legacy of social Darwinism. But modern bio-evolutionary theorists are generally hip to its past, and are sensitive to the racial and sexual implications it may have. A friend of mine did a survey among evolutionary psychologists to find out what their leanings are in terms of political ideology. In general, they were liberal. There are also a significant number of women in the field of evolutionary psychology who identify themselves as feminists.

Conclusion: Grand Definition of politics

In making a living, we are co-producers. At the very heart of our social existence has always been a wide range of conscious and planned activities involving the purposive use and production of resources for given ends. People in groups could more easily fell trees, and place them across gullies or streams, deploy hunting nets and chase animals into them if they planned together. In the process of planning there are disputes and debates about what policy to follow and how to achieve their aims.

Politics is:

  1. as an activity that consists of the process of social goal-setting, decision-making and monitoring activities which produce cooperation, negotiation and conflict; and,
  2. as an analysis, politics consists of the study of the provenance, origins, forms, resource allocation (human skills, animate sources of energy, inanimate sources of energy), distribution, and control and consequences of power.

Please see Table A which compares the seven theories of politics across twelve categories of questions. The table closes with each theory’s definition of politics.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.