Politics Revisited

By Palonen, Kari; Walker, R. B. J. | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, March-May 2003 | Go to article overview

Politics Revisited


Palonen, Kari, Walker, R. B. J., Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


It has become commonplace to claim that an interest in politics has been declining for some time, especially since the 1970s. Such claims tend to draw both on conventional electoral indicators of democratic participation, but also on a broader sense of a "democratic deficit" generated by the operation of a global market and transnational forms of governance. At the same time there has been a growing literature on the need to "rethink" politics. Indeed, "new" concepts of politics have been announced with some regularity, although in many respects they may have been little more than echoes of the feminist and alternative movements of the 1970s, often betraying an unfamiliarity with older debates and marginalized views. Studies of the conceptual history of politics always illuminate a rich variety of perspectives neglected by the prevailing historical narratives, not least those now enshrined in mainstream forms of political science. Yet whether in terms of a decline or the emergence of something new, it may be that the problematic character of the concept of politics has not been as widely discussed since the time of Weimar Germany.

The articles in this special issue seek to take up various dimensions of the conflicting claims about the decline and revitalization of contemporary politics that have provided much of the broad context for political thought and action over the past few decades. These essays were originally presented at an international conference called "Politics Revisited" at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, December 7-9, 2000. The conference was organized by two research projects of the Academy of Finland, "Polity, Contingency and Conceptual Change," led by Kari Palonen, and "Displacement of Politics," led by Sakari Hanninen. (1)

Rethinking Politics

It was still easily possible to create new "isms" in the arts around the time of World War I, but it is almost impossible to do so today. Similarly, the idea of a comprehensive concept of politics, taking into account all its possible aspects, dimensions, and levels, now has an anachronistic flavor. Claims about "politics as such" appear to be obsolete. Instead of a Hegelian totality, a Nietzschean plurality of perspectives now seems to offer a more fruitful mode of conceptualizing politics. We are thus not obliged to choose between a limited number of ready-made conceptions of politics, but we are invited either to invent new perspectives or to combine old ones in unconventional ways.

The most prominent slogans of the 1990s, postmodernism and globalization, have both been used as indicators of both a degeneration and a revitalization of politics. Many contemporary writers, like Frank Ankersmit, Ulrich Beck, William Connolly, Bonnie Honig, and Chantal Mouffe, have drawn on the broad rethinking of theoretical premises that such slogans so easily obscure. The views of long-established writers, such as Max Weber or Hannah Arendt, though crudely simplified and normalized in the prevailing textbooks, have also served as important sources for reconceptualizing politics. Attempts to recover some sense of the historical context of and the specific problems animating established texts and traditions, or to rethink lines of thought they suggest, remain heuristically valuable clues for reconceptualizing politics.

In certain cases, the label "political" has important existential consequences for specific agents. The most obvious examples concern the juridical status of persons in such cases as political crimes, political prisoners, political refugees, political persecution, and political asylum. Legal scholars have tried to clarify what is at stake in such cases by attempting to demarcate what is political from something that is less controversial. Such demarcations are increasingly controversial, and raise questions about the specific conditions under which politics has been distinguished from, say, the economic, the ethical, the cultural, and the private. …

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