Society and Politics (from Margaret Thatcher to Game of Thrones)

by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©

Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there was no such thing as society was intended to mean that only individuals really exist and the concept of society is no more than an abstraction. At one level this is obviously blandly true. At least for the technological moment (lacking constructs such as ‘the People’), there is a biological factuality to each human individual. At another level, it highlights the unusual extent to which, in a post-feminist world, individuals rather than families act as the building blocks of economic and cultural life. However, the need felt by an influential conservative politician a quarter of a century ago to deny the concept of ‘society’ rather than ‘politics’, highlights the growing importance of the one concept at the expense of the other.

We, the modern world, invented society. Its Latin roots refer to treaty-based alliances rather than the inner life of a community. Society has usurped the domain of what the ancient world called politics—the debate that characterizes life within a city—and referred the term ‘politics’ in normal parlance to the activities of a small group of professionals. (Of course there has been a parallel development in academia to redefine politics as the disputes which occur inside the home or between families at the local level, but as this leaves society and politics virtually synonymous, we can feel free to leave it aside.)

The really interesting thing about all of this is that it leaves the space formerly occupied by politics unattended. To give an example, one can do many courses at university on distributive justice (at a theoretical level) and Australian health policy (at a practical level), but I have not been able to find one on political philosophy in the sense that that subject perturbed Plato or Hobbes—the main question of which is, how can we constitute a legitimate political authority?

It is from this perspective that democracy is dying the death of a thousand cuts. At the same time as we promote democracy worldwide as the only legitimate form of government, we have totally ceased to reflect upon the reasons this might be so. Democracy is not like monarchy—the divine right of kings needs no theoretical expositors. Democracy is all about political debate—in the ancient, rather than any subsequent sense.

What is a legitimate government? What are the duties of citizens? Is the state the result of a contract for the purposes of peace or of people’s sociable desire to form communities? Can one truly have a value-free liberal state or are there too many tendentious values embodied in liberalism? What do we want our leaders to be? Do we think that if 51% of us believe something is true, it is? This is just a short selection of the questions we are not asking.

At the level of popular culture this social rather than political culture has become extreme. I always see Wikipedia as the quintessential demotic zeitgeist and, looking up the HBO series Game of Thrones on that site recently, I found the chief of its themes listed as “social hierarchy”. To me that is surely a more apt description of the themes of Downton Abbey! Game of Thrones is instead about legitimate and illegitimate political authority (in the show’s terms, the pressing question is, who is the rightful king?), not Marxist social comment. As in real life, the peasants getting oppressed is sort of incidental to the battle for supremacy amongst the noble houses from whom almost all our major characters are drawn. Then again, in the same Wikipedia summary “sexuality” got a guernsey, not “family”, and this in a story about war (only occasionally, rather like real life again, enlivened by the odd brothel visit) taking place within and between said noble houses (in other words, families)!

Maggie got it wrong. In society today, there is no politics.