“Regimes” and Thinking About Politics
June 15, 2015
Conventionally speaking, it is often said that “issues arise,” that is, social, political, and economic issues arise, and that they must be dealt with. Or, perhaps, it is said that “problems arise” and “solutions” must be sought. This is the way we talk most of the time, without being aware of its implications.
One such implication is that such talk abstracts from, even obfuscates, a most basic political phenomenon, viz., the regime. As Aristotle noted, all political societies are characterized by regimes, i.e., particular arrangements of power and privilege, arrangements that carry with them certain “values” or “principles.” In democratic regimes, e.g., the many possess the power and privileges, they govern, which form of rule is based on or leads to a belief in equality as the primary political and social value.
Now, insofar as Aristotle was correct, the view that “issues” or “problems” arise and must be dealt with is misleading in at least two ways. First, issues or problems don’t simply arise; rather, they are created and the existing regime may be said to create them. Certain phenomena are issues in, say, a democratic regime that would not be issues in, say, a monarchy or aristocracy. Second, to say that dealing with issues or solving problems is the crux of politics is also misleading. A more complete description of political activity would be to say that politicians, at least most of the time, deal with issues or solve problems in ways that preserve the existing regime, that is, preserve the power and privileges of “the established political arrangements” or the predominant political elites.
So, consider what is labeled today “health care reform.” While this may be and usually is treated as a technical issue, one best dealt with by “experts,” it is also a political issue, which is to say that any “reform” will necessarily have implications for the regime and for those who “are,” so to speak, that regime. At the most basic level, the issue is whether the reforms proposed or adopted will undermine or fortify the existing regime. And those politicians who are most indebted to the existing regime – most often these are those politicians labeled “leaders” – will seek “solutions” or policies that preserve their status as “the leading politicians.”
Hence, if there is considerable unrest or dissatisfaction among “the people,” these leading politicians will have to navigate so as to appear to favor real change or genuine reform while actually trying to control such change in ways that preserve their power and privilege. And because it often happens that appearances are eventually seen for what they are, viz., mere appearances, the skill needed to navigate these political waters successfully is considerable. The leading politicians must be constantly on guard to avoid either any genuine reforms that undermine their status or being exposed as opponents of such reforms.
Regimes are, Aristotle argued, multi-faceted and ephemeral; hence, they are fluid or in motion, vibrating this way and that, with only momentary periods of rest or stability. In such an environment, to speak of “dealing with issues” or “solving problems,” as if these issues or problems were merely technical and politicians were merely looking for the “best” deals or solutions, is to obscure rather than reveal the reality of politics. And, in fact, this is one way to obscure from “the many,” the uninitiated, what is actually going on insofar as it obscures the degree to which politicians, whether “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate,” seek to preserve the status quo even at the expense of genuine change or reform.