Politics is not just a contest in domination

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At Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson has responded to Jeet Heer’s complaint that a certain segment of the left is driven by “a vision of politics as a contest in domination”. Robinson’s response is more or less that politics is a contest in domination, so the complaint doesn’t stick. While I don’t want to defend Heer’s column, I do think Robinson’s response merits some pushback.

As Robinson notes, people in society hold conflicting values and interests, and it is not always possible or desirable to accommodate all values and interests. There is no compromise to be struck between racists and anti-racists, for example. For racists to win, anti-racists must lose, and vice versa. Politics, in Robinson’s view, is simply the struggle for dominance between fundamentally antagonistic values and interests. It makes no sense to complain about politics being conducted as a pure struggle for dominance, because pure struggle for dominance is what politics is. Rather than trying to twist politics into something that it’s not (and cannot be), we should focus on what’s really at stake, i.e. which values and interests should properly dominate.

Of course Robinson is right to say that some political values and interests ought to take priority over others and there’s nothing inherently aberrant about adversarial politics. I’m not sure this really constitutes a proper response to Heer, who seems to have been complaining about domination of and by people, not values, but never mind that. Still, Robinson overreaches with the suggestion that politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. In fact, viewing politics as a realm of pure conflict renders many perfectly ordinary political phenomena inexplicable.

Robinson anticipates the objection that his view cannot explain why there are such things as political coalitions. Not so, he says; coalitions are useful tools in the struggle. If participating in a coalition confers an advantage over the enemy, then one should participate in a coalition. This response is not satisfactory. Robinson’s view explains why it would be prudent to form or join a coalition. But how could coalitions possibly exist if politics is only about conflict?

I understand a coalition to be an alliance of groups with both shared and conflicting values, interests and priorities. Members commit to pursuing shared ends while compromising on points of disagreement. Such compromises may take a number of forms. One approach is simply for coalition partners to compete for power within the coalition’s internal structure; in some cases, as in certain political parties, this competition may be highly organized and include a system for official recognition of internal factions. Another is for the coalition to simply avoid taking positions on areas of disagreement between the coalition partners. In some cases, the coalition may try to strike a balance between each side’s preferred position. Or one faction or another might just give up on the issue entirely.

So if coalitions exist, then groups with opposing interests and values can and do interact in a mode other than that of unrestricted warfare. That means that if some group or other is criticized for treating politics as warfare, it will have to find some excuse other than the claim that all politics is warfare, because that claim is clearly false.

A couple of final remarks. First, it’s a little distracting that the term domination is deployed so heavily here, because in political theory, domination tends to be a morally loaded term implying subjection to arbitrary power. Robinson cannot be using domination in this sense, because he thinks correct values (which are by definition non-arbitrary) can dominate. What he has in mind is really power rather than domination, I think.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the view that politics is unrestricted warfare between incompatible values implies that a society ordered by the correct values would have no need for politics. At the root of the ostensibly hardheaded, no nonsense view of politics as warfare, it turns out, is a kind of prissy anti-politics that casts all political disagreement and conflict as a symptom of social disease. I do not find this characterization remotely plausible.

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