Question: How political are you on a range of zero to ten, where zero means not political at all and ten an active member of a political group or party?
It’s common encounter people who place themselves at, or very close, to zero. But according to political theory that's not possible.
People believe they’re not political, or apolitical, for many reasons: politics is boring; ambivalence as to whether left or right or some middle group control the legislature; think all politicians are corrupt so have no time for whole shebang, or just want to go shopping and that's that. Put in these ways, there’s quite an appeal to being apolitical. Let the braying asses in politics get on with it whilst the rest of us enjoy happy lives in peace.
Unfortunately, the term apolitical is an oxymoron – people who believe they are apolitical are, quite simply, wrong. Worse, the kleptomaniac, corrupt, and downright nasty can use this to our disadvantage creeping up, eradicating rights, until one day and it’s all too late. In a political context, ‘to say or do nothing is, in practice, to endorse the present situation, however repellent’ (Wolff, J, p4).
This is not a finger-pointing exercise. You have the right in a free and, yes, liberal society to hold whatever views you like, whether right-wing, left-wing, centrist, can’t-seethe-pointist, steeped in one or other religious dogma, and so on.
To understand requires looking at society’s make-up and how it segments into different sets.
The first thing to establish is that we all live in the superset called Society, itself made up of a number of subsets, each a concentric step removed from the political epicentre:
The Leader role can refer to one or more people depending on which part of society you look at, but every society has a leader function.
Surrounding the Leader are the True believers.
Next are the Good Soldiers – on message with the leader and often prepared to do the dirty work on their behalf (often that tyhe True Believers don't want to get their hands dirty doing).
The next two groups are Bystanders – Complicit and Passive. Complicit Bystanders are those not especially active in politics, but nevertheless think the leadership is doing a good job. Often they will be prepared to turn a blind eye, for instance, believing that incidental casualties are acceptable collateral damage on the way to a greater good.
Passive Bystanders believe they aren’t interested in politics and prefer not to get too involved. It is here that our apolitical friends sit. Alas, by not taking a stand – either further toward or away from the epicentre (Leader), they are allowing the debate and the moment to move without their influence which may or may not mean against their interests.
Resisters are those people actively opposed to the leader. These people may be in one of the other categories when it comes to how they are organised in the context to another societal set.
The above model applies to all modern (and most historical) societies. It is how leaders are endowed with power: concentric circles of ever-removed people bestow power on their leaders. The exception are the Resisters, although if we shift context these people may not be Resisters. Indeed, the model doesn’t just apply to societies as a whole, but to political, and other, factions within society.
Let’s look at the above model in the context of some recent history.
Leader. The leader of the Nazi’s was, as you probably know, Adolf Hitler.
True Believers. Hitler was surrounded by a close circle of true believers that included Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, Rudolph Hess, and others.
Good Soldiers. Hamburg Police Battalion 101. This was a paramilitary reserve police battalion that undertook multiple killings under orders from the True Believers, shooting dead civilians (including children, though they did often shy away from this, it was still done) for the simple reason that they were Jewish.
Complicit Bystanders. These were members of society who may not have played an active role but knowingly acquiesced and often approved of what was going on.
Passive Bystanders. Members of society who took no interest (‘I’m not political’) and looked the other way. In effect, they condoned what was going on.
Resisters. Those actively opposed. In Nazi Germany they were often either coerced into silence or killed.
Modern day Islamists
It’s not all about one group or another. Let’s look at how the model applies to modern-day Islamists , keeping in mind that there is more than one Islamist group in operation at the current time.
Leader. A Jihadist Imam.
True Believers. Radicalised Jihadists in the battle field; Preachers who share the ideology of the Jihadist Imam.
Good Soldiers. Suicide Bombers / Terrorists.
Complicit Bystanders. Members of society who silently condone.
Passive Bystanders. Members of society who make no effort; they look the other way.
Resisters. Muslims against Jihadist tactics; The Quilliam Foundation; Non-Muslims
In conclusion, it would seem that being political is not something we have a choice in, even when we think we’re apolitical. Rather, it’s an integral part of the human condition; a part we cannot switch off. Which subset do you stand in and in which political context? Given what you’ve learnt, do you feel it important that people research and form an educated opinion of regarding the issues of the day, rather than leaving everything to the agendas of others?
Recommended / further reading
Project Syndicate (PS) On-line Magazine
Nye, Joseph (2010 ). The Powers to Lead. Oxford University Press.
Wolff, Jonathan (2016 ). An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Third Edition). Oxford University Press.
Kellerman, Barbara (2018). Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Boston. Harvard Business School Press.
Of course, defining and agreeing what constitutes a right has been the subject of many a debate over the centuries and continues in political discourse across the globe. ↩︎
Contrary to some modern assertions, the word Liberal is not a synonym for repression. Quite the contrary and it’s a sad irony that it's used in a derogatory way to silence critics whose intent is oppression. ↩︎
The diagram and terms contained are adapted from The Powers to Lead, Joseph Nye, p.33. ↩︎
The term Nazi was first coined as an insult to the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930s. It was a childish corruption (hypocorism) of the name Ignaz (derived itself from the name Ignacio), which was used in Bavaria at the time as a derogatory word for a backwards farmer or peasant. Anyone calling a National Socialist a Nazi in the 1930s was liable to summary execution. ↩︎
Note, Use of the word ‘Muslim’ has been deliberately avoided here as it would be a syllogism. Not all Muslims are Islamists and, to many, including many Muslims, Islamists have no right to assert they are. Fundamenalists exist in all cultures, relgions, and political creeds; demonising the many on the actions of the few is an Orwellian distortion. ↩︎
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