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Let's Talk Politics

Written by Sarah Nadiah


Have you ever stopped and thought, why is the government’s presence in our lives so natural? Where did they even come from? Why do we assume that it is inherently normal that the government is the ones making the policies, that they are the ones who determine who can enter or leave the country and that they are the ones who could allow my name to be legally called Sarah? Most importantly, why do we let ourselves be subjugated to this kind of naturalisation? 


A citizen and the State

Many philosophers have tried to problematize this; French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggests that States have symbolic violence* and that there exists a power relation between citizens and States, in which the latter possess non-violent means of subdual onto its subjects. Others such as Rousseau put forward the idea that this relation is contractual, that in the state of nature**, individuals are suspicious of each other and therefore, to prevent further aggression, sign a (figurative) contract with an appointed authority to maintain peace. 

Have I lost you at this point? Good. The fact that there are so many ways to interpret the process of State-making just proves that, inherently, States and governments are what we, the citizens and subjects of those aforementioned entities, make of it. In other words, there is a civic obligation for citizens to have an inkling concern about how the State operates, and more importantly, how it operates on us. That is what Aristotle meant when he said that humans are political animals. Like it or not, living in a community that has organized itself under a system of sovereignty, implies a certain obligation for us to participate in its political life. 


What is politics?

Maybe at this point, you’re still not convinced. None of what I’m saying explains why there is a need to be politically active i.e., openly joining protests, social media advocacy, debating loudly about it with your friends in a mamak around your 3rd glass of Teh Tarik. To be fair, that was not the point that I was trying to make. Being politically active is not necessarily about being vocal and flamboyant about your political beliefs. Sadly, many people misunderstood so, which deters them from partaking in politics as such modes of political participation have a notoriety to escalate aggressively. Furthermore, by believing that politics could only be practiced in this way, it does not address the problem that some are just genuinely nonchalant about it.

Let’s take this discussion a few years back to my political science class in Licence 1. Although this nuance is hard to be understood in English, it could be helpful to look at the different phrasings of what “politique” could imply for my motion today. In French, thanks to the power of les articles definis, there is a significant difference between le politique, la politique et les politiques;

Le politique: politics in the sense of governance. Think about the government officials who work across the different government ministries, think about the paperwork which takes place at the Public Services Department in Putrajaya. This definition is about the gears and the cogwheels of a country’s administration. 

La politique: competitive politics and what we visibly see as elections, campaigning, voting etc. This is what we would normally associate with contemporary representative democracy.

Les politiques: the policies created through legislative processes.

While we might say that the aforementioned understanding of political participation (political activism) represents a more encompassing approach i.e., which is the most effective at influencing or achieving the ultimate goal of these 3 definitions simultaneously, it is innate only in certain groups of people, specifically those who are generally marginalized and victimized by the system (well, this topic is for another time and day). Stop making politics one-dimensional. Politics is a way of life; it means that as long as you are a citizen of a country, you determine what these 3 definitions of politics should be. The citizen-State relation is symbiotic; as much as we need their governance, they need you to dictate how that governance should be. As much as they need political competition for democratic purposes, they need you to participate in it. As much as they have to come up with citizen-based policies, they need your approval to see if it serves its purpose. 


Where do we go from here?

To be fair, being politically active is (relatively) easy. 

It is as simple as understanding the political regime put in place and grasping how it should/should not be carried out. 

It is as simple as learning history unbiasedly and relating it to the modes of contemporary governance. 

It is as simple as registering as a voter. 

While political activism has a connotation of its own, being politically active simply means that you are aware of your rights within a State and know exactly how to exercise it/when it is blocked. 

For fellow readers who “are just not into politics”, too bad. You are politics. It is essential for you to come to the realization that, in this context, you matter, and you are entitled. Think about it, does it make sense for you to demand less/nothing from something which has the obligation to give you what you deserve? For us to be politically aware, it means to look beyond the State naturalisation of everyday life and to continuously question the symbolic violence imposed on you. It means to realize that you have the power to keep the government in check and to see if they are holding their end of the contract. Simply said, being politically active means to be firstly, politically actualized***. 


* Symbolic violence is a term used to designate an ideology in which there exists a certain unconscious continuous reinforcement of status quo within a social stratification imposed by the dominant power over the subordinated peoples. 

** According to Rousseau, a state of nature is a state of neutrality and peace where solitary individuals will act according to their basic needs and urges and in the name of their self-preservation.

*** Deriving from the term self-actualization, this article proposes that political actualization means for an individual to realize the potential and the full development of their capabilities in political life and activity.