Red Pepper: Politics, our missing link

A movement without an electoral intervention is doomed to lose out, argues Mike Marqusee

Red Pepper, September 2012

We get the word ‘politics’ from ancient Greece, where polis was

used to describe the city‑states that emerged in the sixth century BC. The polis was more than a community or concentration of individuals. It was a self-conscious unit of self‑administration (independent of empires) and from the start was made up of separate, contending social classes.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood explains in her revelatory studies of classical antiquity, Athenian democracy was itself the product of a class struggle and a class compromise, involving aristocrats, on the one hand, and, on the other, artisans and small-holding peasants, who became ‘free citizens’, sharply differentiated from slaves. It was in the context of Athenian democracy that politics emerged as a distinct activity, one concerned with the affairs of the polis, considered as an entity separate from (and superior to) family or clan. Crucially, the polis was contrasted with the more limited and subordinate oikos, household, the private realm of ‘economy’.

Today we’re told that the law of the oikos is dominant, and the polis must yield. Only of course the oikos is no longer the individual household – to which it is deceptively likened – but the imperatives of global capital.

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