Power and Politics, Basic Concepts

  • James AlexanderEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1355-1


Political Thought Body Politic Paradigmatic Concept Historical Reflection Vertical Hierarchy 
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It is no easy matter to discuss the basic concepts of politics. To do so requires both philosophical and historical reflection. Philosophical reflection considers such concepts in relation to truth; historical reflection considers them in relation to time. A basic concept of politics is one which enables us to state the problems of politics. “Liberty,” “justice,” “equality,” “rights,” and “democracy” are not basic concepts for this reason. They are the words for highly sophisticated answers proposed by some to the problems of politics. Anyone who takes any of those concepts to be basic is simply making a mistake.

The basic concepts of politics have been much written about in the western tradition of political thought. There are two types of basic concepts, those which clarify the questions raised by politics and those which attempt to state the answers to these questions. There are three sections in this chapter, one for the questions, one for the answers, and one for politics itself.

The Questions

The basic questions of politics cannot be conceptualized simply. Politics is not a simple subject. So in the last century or so, these questions have come to be conceptualized in terms of six nexuses. A “nexus” is a tension between two features or elements of a human situation which can, at times, appear to be in contradiction but can be reconciled or overcome in some way or other. The six nexuses form a complete sequence taking us from a “state of nature” to the “state.”

The first is the nexus of sociability and unsociability. Aristotle in The Politics thought humans were political animals, that is, naturally sociable; Hobbes in De Cive thought not. Both were right. Humans are, as Kant put it, characterized by ungesellige geselligkeit: they are “unsociably social” (Kant 1991, p. 44). We are continually coming together, to share our activities, before then departing, whether physically or imaginatively, all the while displaying and concealing our separate views of what should be done. This makes all shared human activity highly uncertain. The question is what arises when unsociably social humans try to act together sociably?

The answer is the nexus of conflict and cooperation. Since humans are both sociable and unsociable, when they come together there is a continual uncertainty about the nature of their ability to do anything together and to do it for any length of time: each human reacts against others and reacts against him or herself. In this situation, while humans are together, they experience moments when their ends coincide and there is concord and moments when they do not and there is discord. At this stage “politics is the balance of conflict and co-operation between human purposes on any scale on which you care to look at it.” (Dunn 2000, p. 361) But it is more than this, because the next question arises, what happens when humans come into conflict? Conflict is not, as it might be, the end of politics but one of its conditions.

The third nexus is the nexus of coercion and consent. The result of human conflict would be the continual threat of relapse into unsociability if it were not for this. For here humans impose their wills on each other and not only their wills but their imaginations. If I impose my will on you, in the first instance I coerce you, as if we are at war, by using force. This is a simple possibility, a fact of power. But humans are capable of understanding how they have consented to such coercion: and thus coercion becomes something other than coercion. Through consent coercion might even become concord. At this stage politics is the conversion of power, force, or violence into something else or, as Runciman puts it (2014, p. 11), “the control of violence.” “What’s specific to politics” – at this stage – “is the relationship over time between consensus and coercion” (p. 13). This nexus signals the end of any original condition of equality. Coercion creates inequality, after which consent enables us to justify inequality or even overcome it completely.

The fourth nexus is the nexus of rulers and ruled. The resolution of conflict by coercion and the subversion of coercion by consent mean that an order is established which divides a society into recognized classes, which means fundamentally into classes of rulers and ruled. A community is arranged into vertical hierarchies of classes or castes and acquires its distinctive culture and character through the mechanisms by which these hierarchies are established, sanctified, maintained, adjusted, and exploited. This is the most important of all the nexuses. It is here we find the traditional Greek constitutions of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Grotius declared in the seventeenth century (1949, p. 130) that “a relationship of the parts that rule and the parts that are ruled” was the proper study of the politicus, or political scientist. Collingwood’s remarkable Three Laws of Politics (1992, pp. 189–190) is the best characterization of this nexus. The first law is that “a body politic is divided into a ruling class and a ruled class”; the second law is that “the barrier between the two classes is permeable in an upward sense”; and the third law is that “there is a correspondence between ruler and ruled”: the ruled are educated by the rulers so that they too can become rulers. At this stage power is no longer a mere flux dependent on sociability and unsociability operating through conflict and cooperation: it is a flux which is fixed at a center, even if only an imaginative center, and therefore a center of power emerges. Hence the fifth nexus.

The fifth nexus is the nexus of center and periphery. Unlike the fourth, which is vertical, this nexus is horizontal and is best understood abstractly in terms of the extension of power in space. A power is established at a center, the point at which rulers and ruled are distinguished. Maintaining, changing, and subverting vertical hierarchies consumes power, but it also unleashes greater power outward where it is used in maintaining and extending control at a distance. This power inevitably declines the further we move from the center outward to the periphery. The decay of power allows first outlaws and then other communities to exist, which are either ruled from their own centers or not ruled at all. If the previous nexus raises the question of the nature of the constitution, this nexus raises the question of how the body politic understands itself to relate to the world as a whole.

There are, formally considered, in terms of territory, three major ways in which a body politic can relate to the world. It may be a state, an empire, or a cosmopolis. If a power recognizes other equal powers and divides the territory of the world between them with the eventual acknowledgment of borders, then it will be a primitive state. The modern legal state of the last five centuries is simply this state brought into law (Skinner 1989). It is fundamental to a state not only that it is, as Weber (1994, p. 326) put it, the possessor of the legitimate monopoly of violence within its territory but that it recognizes the existence of equally legitimate monopolies of violence beyond its borders (Lauterpacht 1948). Secondly, a power may refuse to recognize other powers but only its own power extended as far across the world as it can be extended, so there are no borders, and there is no recognized rival de iure, no matter what exists de facto. This is an empire (Münkler 2007, p. 5). Thirdly, a power may extend across the world and be recognized as justified, sublimated, existing in a total world order not by coercion but only by consent: this is – we still lack an agreed language for this – a cosmopolis. This last is perhaps unattainable, but it remains the ideal of a body politic of all humans: it is perhaps the telos of all political activity, even if impossible (Kant 1991).

The sixth nexus is the nexus of past and future. If the fifth nexus concerns space, this concerns time. It is simple enough. The establishment of order has a history, established in memories or canons of literature, including both continuities and discontinuities, which enables us to make sense of the past and anticipate the future. Traditions are established, forgotten, and recovered (Renaissance and Reformation) or criticized and extended (hence Enlightenment) – perhaps even invented (Hobsbawm 1983). Sometimes absolute revelations or epistemic insights convince us that we can establish fixity in the flux of time. There is no doubt that uncertainty about the relation between past and future is a major source of political anxiety. Almost all political philosophy is a meditation on the mortality of states. Even Hobbes’s Leviathan, though a god, was a mortal god.

The discovery of these six nexuses is the achievement of Western political theory. They describe the difficulties faced by humans in attempting to create or maintain any sort of order on earth. The answers to those difficulties constitute politics. But politics is not simple. It is not one answer but a great set of contradictory answers. Four major paradigmatic concepts have emerged which enable answers to be offered to the question of politics. These paradigms are not just historical. All four still exist and still complicate everything we think about politics.

The Answers

Of the four paradigms, or four paradigmatic concepts, in terms of which answers have been proposed to the questions thrown up by politics, the first is simple and already evident in what has been said so far. It is power. The other three are law, love, and commerce.

The four paradigms form a logical, as well as a historical, succession. Fundamentally, there is power. Law is antithetical to power, impersonal where power is personal, fixed where power is a flux. Love is the reconciliation of the two. It offers completion but perhaps only in unattainable form. So there is a fourth paradigm, an adjustment of power, so it is not merely imposed from above but discovered in human activity. Yet even this, so far from answering our questions about politics, puts them in amber, makes them eternally unanswerable. So we must consider all four paradigms.

Power is a fact of all life. All life exerts itself, strains for a “place in the sun”: to somehow take some of the power of the sun, even if only indirectly. Plants exert themselves to cover the earth – they struggle for land (consider the epic struggle eight million years ago between the empire of trees and the empire of grass) – and animals struggle on the face of the earth, above it and below it, to maintain their modes of life, by conquering and consuming plants and other animals and by struggling against other animals, of the same and other species, to propagate themselves across the earth. Raymond Geuss (2008, p. 97) has recently told us: “If you want to think about politics, think first about power.” But there are two ways of thinking about power. One of them is ancient, though it is still with us, and the other is modern. One is absolute, the other dialectical. The first is power in the form of power over others. Here power is a capacity belonging only to the stronger, the lord, the master, the king, the priest, the god. The second way of thinking about power sees power as everywhere, as a matter of relations and acting together, or as a capillary presence and situational fact: not so much “power over,” as “power with” or even “power throughout” – the power evident in a system (Foucault 2004). Such dialectical views are now standard; Hegel spoke of a “master–slave dialectic”; Nietzsche spoke of “slave-morality”; anthropologists now speak of “reverse dominance hierarchies.” Such reversals explain why it is difficult to distinguish power from authority and influence. J. R. Lucas (1967, p. 16) distinguished them as follows: by power, if I say “let this happen,” then it happens; by authority, if I say “let this happen,” then it ought to happen; and by influence, if I say “let this happen,” then others say “let this happen.” This is a good formal distinction. In practice they are difficult to distinguish.

Some have returned to an absolute theory of power. The most famous theory is the one proposed by Steven Lukes (2007):
  1. 1.

    I have one sort of power over you if I can make a decision on your behalf.

  2. 2.

    I have another sort power over you if I can exclude the decision you want from the range of available options.

  3. 3.

    I have yet another sort of power over if I can control the means by which the decision is implemented or the conditions on which the decision depends, even if it is the decision you want.


No matter how dialectically it is understood, power of this sort remains an absolute fact. Since this is so, humans have sought to restrain it by various means. The primary means is law.

If power is a fact or a flux, then law is a frame for the fact or flux of power. The word “law” is derived from an old Teutonic word meaning “to lay something down.” Law seeks fixity, stability, and security through the laying down of standards. Humans have never lived without standards, though these have not always been codified. Law brings with it subsidiary concepts like right or justice or legitimacy which are meant to stand behind any actual law, to make that law right or just or legitimate. Plato suggested a magnificent threefold about where we find law in a political order. There is:
  1. 1.

    A ruler who has the laws within him, is nomos empsychos, the spirit of the law.

  2. 2.

    A ruler who acknowledges laws that are outside himself.

  3. 3.

    A ruler who does not acknowledge laws.


Plato distinguished these in terms of knowledge. The first type of ruler has perfect knowledge, the second has imperfect knowledge formalized in law, and the third is ignorant and rules capriciously (Barker 1959, p. 175). Plato considered the second, which we would now call “the rule of law,” a mere second best. But the Biblical writers, who understood how weak kings could be, considered Josiah, the king who discovered “the book of law,” one of their greatest kings: and for a time suggested that on coming to power, a king should be locked away to study a copy of the law. This was a vision of politics of the second best: though the Israelites did not think of it this way, since for them the law was God’s law. In the absence of God’s law, it is unclear how to ground our trust in law. Is there such a thing as natural law? Or is there only positive law?

Behind these questions lies the greater question of one of the relation between law and power. Power is the realm of is. Law adds to is a beguiling second, ought. Power should be in accordance with law. But power is independent of and prior to law. “Naturally and thus originally might, not right, rules on earth and has the advantage over the latter of the jus primi occupantis. All that we can desire and demand is that it will always be on the side of, and associated with, right” (Schopenhauer 2000, Vol. 2, p. 248). Law requires a power acting on behalf of law to force all power, or all other power, to lie down with the law. As Schmitt (2015, p. 32) put it, power is a surplus. “Even in those cases where power is exercised with the full consent of all those subjected to it, it still retains a certain significance of its own, a surplus value, so to speak.” Aristotle in the Politics could not decide whether to locate the ultimate arche in the polis in rules or a ruler. And power and law have remained the fundamental contradictory elements of politics. No one has succeeded in resolving them. Even in our time Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky (2006) have disagreed on the question of whether power is prior to law or law prior to power.

Justice has been a major concern of political philosophers from Socrates to Rawls. But belief in law and justice has always depended on some higher principle than the law itself. In the Bible (1 Timothy 1:9) it says, “The law is not made for a righteous man.” The idea is that a righteous man, like Plato’s statesmen, does not need the external imposition of law, because the law is within him because of his understanding of and sympathy with the principle of all things: in other words, because of love. This brings us to the third paradigm.

The case for love was stated in full in our tradition by Augustine (1998), who understood that Christianity had destroyed classical assumptions about politics once and for all. A societas perfecta, for all ancient philosophers, was one in which there was harmony, concord: a society of friends or of love, where we trusted our rulers, where we had faith in them. This trust or faith was usually lacking in practice, and the eventual verdict was that such a society could only exist by grace, by an act of God. Such a vision of political grace has almost always existed: it survived into modernity in utopias which looked forward, or in romantic visions of a golden age which looked backward, to a better society. Without such a vision, political philosophy lacks its telos, a good order or eunomia. According to such a vision, right is righteousness. We seek a complete harmony between man and world, and therefore all men. In religious terms this harmony is derivative. Humans can trust God and so can, by grace, by covenant, or even by imitation, trust each other. This paradigm completes the paradigm of law while not belonging to it.

This paradigm of political thought has depended on a multitude of expedients: covenants, oaths, contracts, prayers, sacrifices, priests, prophets, missionaries, and even a revolutionary vanguard. It has its own set of related concepts: faith, hope, charity, benevolence, and trust. All of these expedients were designed to make trust in other men possible. Rousseau’s “general will” was the attempt to create a secular trust and was perpetuated in historicized form by Hegel into the nineteenth century where it existed to inspire Marx to his theories. It was adapted by anarchists: those who took it so far that they disavowed any dependence on God and assumed that humans by their own efforts, by imitation alone, could achieve a perfect society (Rocker 1998). Most philosophers, however, chose other paths. Their expedients – involving rights or any sort of calculus or, more practically, “democracy” (elective oligarchy in borrowed regalia) and “checks and balances” – were admissions of failure. The ideal could not be achieved: so we attempted to patch up the actual. Love was considered “not of this earth.” The Catholic Church could not hold onto its claim to be a perfect society and was usurped by the state, which never pretended to be perfect. The state clothed itself in the paradigms of power and law – the languages of Raison d’état and Rechtsstaat – and finally clothed itself in the next paradigm to emerge: the commercial paradigm which was the contribution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

A political order constructed in terms of commerce is a political order constructed in terms of an adjusted theory of power. Where power formerly had always been understood to be “power over,” here power is understood to be transactional, where the transaction is more significant than the status of the transactors. The revolution in consciousness which came about through the establishment of the commercial paradigm is still not understood as clearly as it should be. It is not that individuals engage in commercial transactions: it is that they fundamentally relate to each other in the manner of a commercial transaction (Hont 2015, p. 3). Without this there would have been no modernity: no enlightenment; no historical consciousness; no science of economics; no politics of gross domestic products, investment, and capital; no romanticism; no revolution; and no ideologies.

The nexus of sociability and unsociability had always caused problems for theorists. The compromise between Aristotle and Hobbes which was established by Pufendorf and taken up by Adam Smith and others was that “sociability was not an immediate and instinctive natural propensity but rather a reciprocal transactional mechanism to repair the feeblest aspects of man’s natural constitution” (Hont 2005, p. 41). It depended, as Smith (1991, p. 12) put it, on “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” The commercial paradigm involves the claim that the establishment of order is an unconscious consequence of acts carried out with other purposes in mind. Passions are no longer condemned, and selfishness is no longer condemned: because, as Mandeville put it, private vices generate public virtues. Particular interests are the motive forces of universal history. This is Adam Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand.” Its discovery unleashed on the world a paradoxical question, the answers to which for a century or longer seemed to offer humanity answers to all the problems of existence. The question was: Until now we thought our achievements were conscious and intended. Now we know they were unconscious and unintended. But now we are conscious of this fact – what do we intend?

The commercial paradigm put everything in the older politics to the question. Yet modern politics has to be considered in terms of all four paradigms. Power has a very insecure hold on the future, even if it seems decisive in the present. Law offers more hold on the future, since it is static, fixed. Love offers security for this rather impersonal law yet also makes it secondary and perhaps seeks a perfection not to be found in politics. And the final hope is that the unconscious activity of humans engaged in commerce in search of their own satisfactions might by some invisible hand generate not only the order we seek but also that continued order we hope for. This is the hope of the enlightened modernity of the last few centuries, in which we still exist. After Hume and Smith, there was the French Revolution and Burke and Marx, and after the long nineteenth century of Bentham and Mill and other optimists, there was the First World War and all the fractured consciousness and modernism and skepticism of Heidegger, Barth, Oakeshott, Gramsci, Schmitt, and many others. The questions of politics are still open.

What is politics in particular?


Politics, for Aristotle, was the word for the activity appropriate to the polis and also the activity of understanding the polis. Aristotle understood all too well that this science was an object of study which at any time could exercise control of the scientists conducting that study. He said at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics (1934, p. 5) that politics was the ruling science, “for it is [the science] that ordains which of the sciences are to exist in states.” Interestingly, the word “politics” in medieval Europe always had a positive meaning: it was only used to describe the good order. For many, like Thomas Aquinas, politics was only found in republics, not monarchies. From the fifteenth century, some writers applied political language to monarchies (Rubinstein 1987). And then came what Maurizio Viroli has called “the revolution in the concept of politics”:

Before the revolution, the word politics had only a positive connotation. Afterwards, it acquired, for the most part, only a negative connotation. Having enjoyed for three centuries the status of the noblest human science, politics emerged from the revolution as an ignoble, depraved, and sordid activity: it was not longer the most powerful means of fighting oppression and corruption but the art of perpetuating them. (Viroli 1992, p. 477)

This shift is now associated with Machiavelli. But Machiavelli kept apart his reflections on how a prince should control the state from his reflections on good order. Careful readers of Machiavelli, like Bodin, Harrington, and, later, Arendt, saw that Machiavelli had wanted to restore classical political science. But things were no longer so simple: the light and dark were henceforth mixed. Harrington (1992, p. 8) had distinguished “ancient prudence” from “modern prudence”: the former was “an art whereby a civil society of men is instituted and preserved upon the foundation of common right or interest,” and the latter was “an art whereby some man, or some few men, subject a city or a nation, and rule it according to his or their private interest.” But now both are part of politics.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the master concept of politics was “the state.” But since the late nineteenth century, political theorists have tried to define politics (or “the political”) apart from the concept of the state. The most impressive of these are Schmitt ([1932] 1996), Collingwood ([1942] 1992), Arendt (1958), Oakeshott (1975), and Rancière (1999). Their definitions are so contradictory that there is reason to think that thinking about politics should now begin with reflecting on the contradictions between them (Alexander 2014). For instance, Arendt and Rancière begin with the singular view that “politics” cannot be associated with rule. The problem is that all major political philosophers from Aristotle through Hobbes to Hegel have understood that “politics is inherently concerned with rule” (Dunn 2000, p. 15). If we cannot ignore Arendt and Rancière, it is because politics is obviously much more than rule and is sometimes “much more” in a way which can seem antithetical to rule.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems that politics has a variety of meanings, which can be arranged in a scale of forms as follows:
  1. 1.

    Politics is, most simply conceived, rule.

    But it is difficult to maintain the fixity of rule in a changing world, so:

  2. 2.

    Politics, at a higher level of complexity, is the maintenance of rule by rulers in a changing world.

    But it is not only rulers who disagree about how to do this; the ruled also disagree about it; and it is possible for disagreement to be incorporated into the system, so:

  3. 3.

    Politics, at an even higher level of complexity, is the maintenance, adjustment, and subversion of rule, as well as deliberation about rule, by those who are in dispute about it.

    But politics is not only a practical matter of dispute, it is also a theoretical matter of conceptualization, so:

  4. 4.

    Politics, at the highest level of complexity, is the critical understanding or science of the maintenance, adjustment, and subversion of rule by those who are in dispute about it.

    Where politics is understood in terms not only of time but of truth.



Politics is complicated by the six questions (nexuses) and four answers (paradigms). It is torn between an ancient prudence which values the common good and a modern prudence which values the individual good. It is very often a matter of “irrelevance, inadvertence and ambition” (Cowling 1963, p. 187). Yet it is also sometimes a matter of the highest ideals. This is why we may well agree with Mr. Pickwick, who said, in the fifteenth chapter of the Pickwick Papers, to a curious and studious foreigner, that “the word politics, Sir, comprises, in itself, a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude.”


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceBilkent UniversityAnkaraTurkey