I am brewing on a big old conceptualization of what “politics” is and why I think it is extremely underrated. I do not mean politics only at the level of government issues. I mean the act of playing social games in order to achieve desired outcomes through organization and cleverly considered action.
When I argue for politics, I often start by trying to convince people that they already engage in politics, and that the vast majority of people they know engage in politics too. That this is normal and healthy, becuase it is a way of emergently deciding what will happen by people pusing their interests in the ways they consider valid for themselves.
I will not defend any of these claims here.
Instead, I will make a much smaller point: when I try to convince people about the politics they are already entrenched in, they often show me instances of what they consider to be altruistic or at least apolitical behavior: people helping someone who cannot help them “just because they care”, people choosing to dedicate time to things that serve as a weight on their ambition because it makes them feel happy, or people who things just because, as in this line from The Stranger that always touches me in a way I find difficult to explain:
I told Marie all about the old man and she laughed. She was wearing a pair of my pajamas with the sleeves rolled up. When she laughed I wanted her again. A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad. But as we were fixing lunch, and for no apparent reason, she laughed in such a way that I kissed her.
I want to make it clear: if your explanation of human action and endeavor, doesn’t capture the fact that “people care about things” then you’re doing it wrong. This is very similar to the strawman often given for hedonism: that people will “just end up donig heroin and dying” because of the assumption that people in pursuit of pleasure will not understand how to balance short-term and long-term payoffs.
People care about things. Some of those things look “shallow” like wanting to live in a mansion and eat enormous quantities of food. But they also care about making their dogs happy. They care about seeing people smile. They care about getting enough hugs.
Not only would it be foolish to throw these things away as parts of our explanation of human behavior, but it would be equally foolish to think that people don’t politic in the pursuit of these things. Many, many great figures have assumed that worthiness comes from the use of power, and there is non-trivial element of truth in that. And many politicians have wanted to ring bravery into the hearts of their constuents just as much—and often more—than anything else.
People care about things. If you feel that previous attempts to explain things through pragmatic, game theoretic tradeoffs are thin then let me tell you: I agree. But I think it is less the basic tenets of these frameworks that are failures, but rather that they failed to account for how complex, heteregonous, and overlapping the games we play and the feelings we pursue are.
We contain multitudes, and we politic in the pursuit of their mutually exclusive desires.