“No politics” is a familiar refrain for many of us. It means we want to talk about enjoyable or directly important topics, the happenings in our daily lives, not the lives of politicians, who, for all intents and purposes are living in a different world than the rest of the population. Politics is what politicians do, or so we are led to believe. We vote (or don’t), and the politicians handle the rest. I don’t want to read a 1000-page bill that discusses nearly every imaginable piece of minutiae about health insurance.
Politics, when viewed through this lens, is a punishment. It is something that is done to us that makes our lives worse. Even when a “win” occurs, namely through the election of one’s favored candidate, the benefits tend to stop at that point. The favored candidate’s election itself turns into a punishment through the inevitable walking back of promises, failure to enact change, or straight-out lies.
Democrats need look no further back than Obama, with his failure to close Guantanamo and paving the way for Trump, and Trump Republicans obviously still don’t have their wall. Occasionally, legislature is put through which actually affects our daily lives, though this is rarely substantial and never occurs before a period of struggle outside of the politicians’ sphere.
All this, however, is a limited view of politics. Politics, at its core, is a struggle for power, specifically power over the way people are allowed to run their lives. When understood this way, it is no wonder that we experience politics as a punishment. No matter which politician we elect to office, they are the one who is in power over our lives, not us. We may experience some vicarious feeling of power, but the actual levers of power are in their hands, and those levers react to politicians’ movements, not ours.
We may leave it at that, but if we do, then what we are saying is, “Well, that’s the way things are, politicians are in the position wield power. If you want power over your life, become a politician.” I hope this appears as absurd to you as it does to me. If it doesn’t, please read it again, out loud if you have to. Let’s suppose for now that we are in agreement and ask the next logical questions: How do we get power over our lives? What kind of politics do not involve politicians? What kind of politics has the potential for reward?
In order for politics, the struggle for power, to be rewarding, it has to result in power. It can be hard to conceptualize what having actual power looks like, because for so long we have only conceived of it in the form of holding political office or maybe as being someone’s boss. So what is power? Simply put, it is the capacity to do what we want to.
Many people equate money with power, which makes sense since money quite often grants us the capacity to do what we want, and certainly in massive amounts it even transcends the law. However, wealth is only powerful (and, it can be argued, only exists) in relation to the poverty of others. In other words, one can only use money as a lever of power when faced with those that need money. So if we look to money for a source of power, we only reposition the players in the struggle for power, and the problem of politics remains mostly unchanged for the bulk of the population.
There are many other reasons why pursuing money for purposes of power are a losing bet, but they are beyond the scope of this short article. Let us instead envision a different kind of power, one that may be familiar to some, one that has historically resulted in reward: collective action.
Collective action is a strategy, but it is also a form of power as it is being used. While any one of us by ourselves is practically powerless before our boss, our landlord or the government, together we become a force to be reckoned with. Your boss can afford to fire you by yourself, but by firing many of us together, they are destroying their source of income. The more of us that work together, the more power we wield.
Collective action has the benefit of being wielded by anyone, regardless of wealth or status, provided that there are others in similar positions. This is fortunate for workers in that there are certainly many of us who have in common the need to work for someone else in order to survive.
And, because of the hierarchical nature of businesses, there will always be more workers than bosses. One finds the same pyramidal structure between tenants and landlords and between government and citizens. (There are, to be sure, businesses with very few employees and landlords who rent just one or two units, but the majority of people who rent and work do so from and for large companies.)
The nature of politics, when viewed through the lens of collective action shifts from punishment to reward. The changes in our lives shift from being abstract, such as our preferred political party being the dominant one, to being concrete, such as a pay raise, repairs in our houses, or the ousting of an abusive boss. Whereas with electoral politics we lose even when we win, with collective action we win even if we lose.
Though at times the boss may not give in to one of our demands, we grow solidarity with our fellow workers. We become a part of a concrete community of people we interact with daily, rather than part of an imaginary, intangible, and abstract idea of a corporate “team” or nation. In this community, when any of us wins, we all win, and what we win is the power to live our lives.