Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Vocation of Politics

With apologies to Max Weber, I believe there is a useful distinction between the two motives for participating in politics. For some, politics is a career; for others, it is a vocation. Political action brings the prospect of a job, of money, of fame and respect. Yet there are many who would remain equally passionate about their activities in the absence of all these inducements. For sure, the dichotomy is far from clear-cut: in almost every political participant there is a mix of the two motives. It seems unlikely that many careerist politicians have no deep-rooted political interests or inclinations, and even the most ardent of activists needs to make a living. Nevertheless, within each person, I believe we can distinguish these two motivational forces.

It is the idea of politics as a vocation, akin to the fervour that moves priests, that is the more interesting. Why do some feel as though politics has chosen them, rather than them consciously choosing politics? I believe that the most powerful spurs to political action are anger and outrage. People are driven to political participation by their frustration and dissent at the immorality, irrationality and stupidity that they perceive in others. Reformers and revolutionaries are inspired to action by their anger at the status quo and at received modes of thinking, conservatives by their opposition to proposals for change. I believe there is a threshold of outrage beyond which people cannot help themselves but act, and that this threshold is different for different people. Thus in times of great contention and mutual antagonism, a great number of people are motivated to act – in civil wars, independence and suffrage movements. Yet for the most part, the vast majority of people are content with the way things are, and too little provoked to feel the need for action.

Yet there is almost always a dissatisfied minority, and it seems I am among them. Despite growing up in an era of apathy, complacence and consensus, I find myself upset and angered by the most everyday of beliefs and activities. I feel the vast majority of the world acts callously and unethically, and yet feels no remorse or shame about it. Most people around me carry on as if their behaviour is justified and fail to even consider the possibility they may be in the wrong. Indeed, the way most people are set up to think makes it difficult for them to even conceive of how they are doing wrong.

Of course, when faced by such an overwhelming majority, it is necessary to consider the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that everyone else is right, and that you are a lone crackpot. Yet lone crackpots have often been ignored voices of reason, and the majority have regularly been proved by posterity to be wrong. In fact, I claim very few of my opinions to be original, and there is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. But the comfort is scant as compared to the crushing dismay I feel at the lives and opinions of the society I live in.

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