The stuff of politics

Getting to know our material

James Plunkett
15 min readNov 4, 2022

If pottery works with clay and music works with sound, what does politics work with?

I think the answer is institutions, but that just raises more questions. What are institutions? And how, as material, do they behave?

In this post I want to share a metaphor that conveys the material properties of institutions. Then I’ll stretch the metaphor to see how far it goes. I’ll end with some claims about the way institutions relate to bodies of practice like public policy and technology.

Let’s start with the basics: what is an institution?

Here’s Douglas North, grand don of institutional economics, writing in 1991:

“Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure politics, economics, and social interaction. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights).”[1]

A key takeaway is that institutions aren’t just organisations, as we commonly use the word. The concept is broader than this. An institution can be a fashion, like the dress code of goths; or a cluster of norms, like gender; or a code of learned behaviour, like professionalism. Institutions are guides for how we behave.

Defined this way, institutions are the material of politics and social change, as wood is the material of carpentry. With politics and public policy we establish enduring systems of social behaviour, or reconfigure or reshape systems that already exist, to make our lives better over time.

What more can we say about institutions and the way they behave? Here we’ll go beyond North, who looked at institutions through an economic lens. That’s useful, but we need a more capacious account that incorporates the messiness of culture. I’d also like a metaphor that is tactile, to give us a felt sense of the thing.

The philosopher Roberto Unger uses a visual language for institutions that I think meets these needs well. So let’s take his metaphor and run with it and see how far we get.

Imagine if we took all of society’s institutions and lined them up on a spectrum from liquid to solid. At one end we’d have institutions that are almost as fluid as water, having barely formed. At the other end we’d have institutions that are frozen hard like ice, holding our behaviour firm.

At the liquid end, we’d have loose institutions like new fashions or nascent social expectations. These institutions shape our behaviour only fleetingly and unevenly; we might better call them norms of intersubjectivity. How should I dress? What should I say, given who I’m talking to and where we are standing? Is that professional behaviour?

These near-liquid institutions are typically informal. They don’t tend to be backed by laws or enforced by the state; instead, they’re held together by social and emotional bonds. We might, for example, ostracise a person if they behave in a way that’s counter to a dress code. Or we might flatter a person who nails the code, calling them ‘smart’ or ‘professional’ or saying they’ve got it together.

Informal institutions are also self-enforced; we do them to ourselves. An institution might, for example, leave us feeling awkward or shy — or proud, or at home — if we behave a certain way.

What about the other, icier end of the spectrum? Here’s where we find institutions like the hierarchy of an army or a social security system. These institutions are fixed firmly by rules to which people tightly adhere. They’re bound by laws which are widely held to be legitimate, often written down and enforced by a single authority, with little ambiguity, so that the words carry force. And while sometimes the rules are physically enforced, as when an institution is codified in law, they’re just as often based on habits. Marriage, for example, is an institution that binds us with the power of ceremony: we wear white, we buy diamonds, we walk down aisles. These ritualistic behaviours snap us to the grid of conformity.

Then there’s everything else in between, which is where most institutions sit. Here we find a world of meltwater, a slip-slide mix of water and ice. And because there are few, if any, domains of life that are entirely free, or entirely unfree, it’s in the meltwater that we spend most of our time. In fact, navigating this in-between world, with its ambiguities and anxious in/out-group dynamics, is much of what it means to live in a society.

So that’s an ontology, or maybe a typology; a picture of the institutions we have now. Next we can make this dynamic by asking: how do institutions change?

They do so by freezing and thawing. And so to all institutions we can assign not just a state of solidity but also a direction of travel. At any point in time, an institution is either melting or freezing. It’s either losing its hold or tightening its grip.

Take an institution like the dress code of white collar office work. It’s been melting for years. A few decades ago, office dress codes were frozen firm, allowing little flex. Men wore suits and women wore skirts and blouses, no questions asked. Then the institution started to melt, sweating like an ice cube under the sun. Notice how the melting happens. The water that forms on the surface isn’t even; it beads into droplets of disobedience as whole departments or companies or sectors break away.

What about an institution moving in the other direction, like a new norm that is starting to form? Think of the four day working week for example. The new norm is unevenly observed; so far, all we see are some slithers of practice and it’s not yet clear what will happen next. Maybe the slithers will melt. Or maybe they’ll solidify and spread, drawing in more people, becoming an icy new norm. That’s what happened, anyway, with the five day working week, 150 years ago.

By what process does this freezing and thawing happen? When we’re dealing with physical substances we account for changes of state with theories of chemistry and physics. Energy is involved in a process by which molecules bond into solids or break back into liquids. We have a whole language to describe changes of state. We say a substance condenses, or vaporises, or deposits. We say things sublimate, or deliquesce.

How do we account for institutional changes of state? That’s what social science is for. We draw explanations from sociology or geography or demography to explain why institutions melt or freeze at a particular time in a particular way. In a sense, this effort to describe institutional changes of state is the whole point of social science; it’s what these disciplines are for.

North’s work is a good example. He used economics to explain how and why institutions form. He argued that economic incentives form bonds; individuals snap to the grid because it’s in their interests, or the interests of wider society, to do so. This makes institutions rational constructions even when the process of construction is unconscious. The modern corporation, for example, reduced transaction costs, which is why people were pulled into the institutions of firms, even if they didn’t know why.

Theories of political economy, though, only go so far. Cultural phenomena and concepts like power and gender and class also need a role. And this is where Unger’s metaphors come into their own.

Unger calls institutions ‘frozen fighting’, which is a phrase I love for the way it captures the power-soaked yet accidental and temporary way in which institutions form.

What Unger is getting at, in his wry, catty way, is that institutions aren’t as natural or rational as we like to think. We reify institutions, talking as if they’re objects out there in the world, beyond our control. Yet at the same time we treat institutions as if they’re created by a rational or optimising process. We assume, and sometimes explicitly state, that the institutions we have are the ones we need; if they weren’t, then why would they have formed?

Really, Unger says, institution-formation is messier than this. We don’t build institutions like cars and fridges, and nor do they evolve via some Darwinian process of evolutionary optimisation. Instead, they’re born from conflict, so those processes of freezing and thawing are ongoing and contested and the result can be irrational, suboptimal, or unjust. Each institution exists in someone’s interests and against someone else’s. And since all these forces are human, just as we can freeze institutions into being, we can also act together to melt them.

So where does this all get us? Institutions run from liquid to solid, they thaw and freeze, and the thawing and freezing is explained by social scientific theories in which power plays a central role.

Politics and public policy, then, is about intervening with intention in the freezing and thawing, in recognition of the realities of power, working with focus and purpose to speed up, slow down, or redirect processes of institution-formation.

How much further can we go before the metaphor totally breaks? Could we use the same language to describe more precisely the work done by bodies of practice like politics, public policy, and technology?

At the start of this post I wrote that politics works with institutions, by which I meant that politicians are to institutions as potters are to clay. I wonder now if we can do better, and specify what politics does to institutions. How does it shape them?

Here’s one thing I think we could say: the prevailing political mood or atmosphere sets the ambient temperature, determining the general level of solidity in a society at a given point in time.

Think of how, at certain times and places, politics runs hot. Picture the elation after a landmark election or the euphoria after a war. A government elected at such a moment has a lot of freedom to change things. Then slowly their heat, and with it their power, dissipates, like a political law of thermodynamics.

The hottest moment of all is a revolution, when all that is solid melts into liquid. But here’s something I find interesting: there are coldsnaps too, although we talk about them less.

A coldsnap is a time when politics gets icy and a society solidifies, so that things become too hard to change. These anti-revolutionary moments are times of stasis and they’re no less dangerous for it; they just precipitate a different type of societal collapse.

Take decadence as an example. A decadent society is one in which nostalgia and conservatism have taken hold, so that things are stuck in their ways. Maybe the population gets older — might we say colder? — so that the median voter sits deeper within icy institutions and is less willing to change.

There might still be exogenous pressure for change. Maybe a new technology is reconfiguring how value is created or distributed, inciting discontent. Or maybe climate change is literally moving people around, creating geographical and cultural pressures. But with the institutional settlement frozen solid, society can’t adapt. Like a glacier nearing a calving, the ice squeaks and groans.

How about the more formal aspects of politics? Is there a useful way to describe the government using this same metaphorical language?

For one thing, when we see institutions in the way I’ve described above, it shows how silly it is to talk about ‘the government’ or ‘the state’ as a singular noun. Government is at best a plural noun, or maybe an uncountable noun, like water. It’s a collection of institutions that we use to do things together. Some of these institutions are more solid than others, all are either melting or thawing, and the boundaries are unclear, if indeed it’s useful to talk of boundaries at all.

Some institutions sit well within what we would traditionally consider ‘the state’. But much of politics and public policy is about institutions that lie beyond this, or whose status is ambiguous. When we pursue a policy objective we’re trying to speed up or slow down or shape processes of institution-formation, and the institutions concerned are just as likely to sit beyond as within the bounds of ‘the state’.

Think, for example, of how we’ve worked as a society to melt the ice of the institution of homophobic bigotry. Or how we’ve tried to freeze new norms of road safety, or of flexible working, or recycling. We’ve used various tools to do this, and the state’s formal role — legislating, or ‘policy-making’ — has been a smallish subset of the work, often coming near the end, when we codify a norm into law. Most of the work of social change long precedes this and sits beyond what we might typically think of as ‘the government’.

All of which makes me think we should borrow a phrase from Lou Downe, founder of the School of Good Services. Downe says good services are verbs, not nouns, and maybe the same is true of government in general. Is it better to talk about governance, not government, and to talk about statecraft in a language of verbs, not nouns?

Next, what about the more formal aspects of democratic politics? What, for example, are elections?

Here’s where I might lose the people I haven’t lost already: maybe elections function like microwaves or ovens. i.e. maybe they’re devices that we use to heat up institutions in a way that is safe and contained.

The rules of parliamentary democracy, for example, define which institutions can and cannot be changed and how and when the changes can take place. An election creates a time-limited and focused heat, making some institutions fluid so that they can be changed, while insulating other institutions. We even have purpose-built insulating architecture like human rights law and constitutions that protect some institutions forever, as best we can. So democratic politics is a tightly formalised and pre-agreed set of mechanisms that constrain and focus the freezing and thawing.[3]

Ok, last one. Can we describe technology using the same metaphorical language? Or rather, can we use these metaphors to explain why technology is so socially important?

I’ve talked a lot in this post about water, saying that institutions solidify into ice. But what if it’s not always water that we’re working with? What if sometimes a society moves from, say, water, to some other substance, like an acid or sugar solution. Institutions would no longer harden into ice but into crystals, and the base substance or molecular structure would determine the crystalline forms.

The more I think about it, the more I think this is precisely the role technology plays. Or, to be more specific, it’s the role that the dominant technological paradigm plays.

Think of the institutions of a technological era, like the industrial age. They all seem to be of a kind. Industrial-era institutions have a common form: they’re hierarchical, siloed, and linear. Those forms are different from the forms that institutions took in the pre-modern or mediaeval era. And those were different again from the forms that institutions now take — or should take — in the digital age, when platforms (flat, networked, and agile) are the dominant form.

So maybe, just as a base solution determines the form of its crystals, so the technological paradigm determines our institutional forms. Show a chemist a crystal and they’ll tell you the solution it formed from. Show a social scientist an institution and they’ll tell you the technological era it’s from.

So what do we think? Is any of this helpful? Or is it pure fiction and indulgence? Here are five reasons I find this a useful corrective to the way we tend to think about politics and public policy.

1. Practice

To be a good carpenter, you need a feel for wood and that’s not something you learn from books. Instead of reading theory, you practice. You integrate learning and doing into cycles of activity and reflection. You drill, sand, and turn.

One thing that’s odd about politics and policy is that we behave as if practice doesn’t matter. We almost never make time to reflect on how our attempts at institution-formation are going, and our formal political and policy-making processes discourage or even disallow iteration.

When we introduce a new policy, we spend time researching, planning, and consulting before making a big announcement. This is like learning to play the guitar by booking yourself a gig at the Albert Hall and not touching the instrument until the night.

We tend to think of this as an insight from digital work, entailing a more agile or iterative mode or policy-making. But centering practice is the way craftspeople have always got to know their material. So in a way what we need now is to return to pre-industrial ways of working, particularly by integrating learning and doing. If we take this insight seriously, we see that we need to pursue politics and policy-making through purposive cycles of repetition and reflection, with a view to honing our understanding of the material properties of institutions over time.

2. Hope

When I give talks about my book, End State, I’m often asked why I’m optimistic about the future. People tend to accept the book’s argument that radical reform is needed but then they look at politics today and doubt we can get there.

When you dig into this view, it tends to be premised on a mental model in which policy is something that’s done by the state. ‘The state’ (again as a singular noun) is controlled by a party or leader, or by technocrats/economists, who ‘we’ need to ‘persuade’. Hence people ask things like: how can we get the government to introduce a four day working week?

Most of the answer is: we don’t need to. Or at least, that’s a small part of the work to be done, and one that comes later, once change is largely won. Most of the work of institution-formation — most of the freezing and thawing — takes place far away from formal politics, via other mechanisms. It happens in civil society, or progressive businesses, or at the frontier of technology, or in comedy clubs, or in conversations with friends.

I feel more positive when I take this broader view of social change. With respect to the four day week, for example, I go from thinking it’s all-but impossible to thinking it’s pretty much inevitable and that we’ll see it freeze into a new norm over the next decade.

3. Technique

Different materials submit to different techniques. If you’re working with metal, you cast, beat, and temper. With wood, you chisel and plane. I’ve bodged enough DIY to know that if you’re struggling on a task that feels way harder than it should, it’s probably time to stop and take a trip to B&Q to buy the right tool for the job.

Public policy is the same. A lot of our longest-running policy struggles are hard because we’re been using the wrong tool for the job. Maybe we’re trying to legislate when we need an economic incentive. Or maybe we’re trying to use an economic incentive when we need moral suasion. Often, the answer is to stop sweating away at the problem itself and focus instead on tooling. In general, we don’t talk nearly enough about tooling. We should be much more deliberate and reflective about the techniques we apply.

4. Technology

Technology matters a lot, that much is clear. But the reason technology matters is less widely appreciated: the technological paradigm determines the form our institutions take.

Pre-modern institutions proved incapable of governing an industrial economy, so in the 19th century economies at the frontier of technology fell into what we might now call a polycrisis. In order to regain control we had to develop new institutions, formally suited for the industrial age.

Likewise today, when we try to use industrial-era institutions to govern a digital economy, it doesn’t work and we end up lurching from crisis to crisis.

This point is especially pertinent during a technological revolution, like the one we’re in now, when we’re transitioning from one paradigm to another. At times like this we’re often slow to notice that our base substance has changed, or we underestimate or misinterpret the change. We keep trying, for example, to use hierarchies, or linear governance processes, when that’s now an anachronistic institutional form.

In my view, this explains much of our present predicament. It’s why I bang on so much about the forms and functional patterns of a digital society and economy (see, for example, here and here and here).

5. Time

Let’s end with the point I began with. When we don’t understand the material we’re working with, we waste a lot of time. Think, for example, of all the energy that goes into arguing over the size of the state. It’s not just that the size of the state is unimportant, it’s that it’s close to meaningless, like arguing over the size of Tuesday. Sure, there are valuable arguments to have about the way we balance individual freedoms and collective conceptions of justice, and about the character of the institutions we build, and the ways in which institutions constrain us, or how they’re funded, or about their sources of legitimacy. But we’ll waste less time if we have these arguments in a way that reflects the kinds of things institutions are and the ways in which they behave. Statecraft, like any other craft, starts with knowing our material.

This post is part of a year-long series on how we govern the future. To read along, follow me on Medium or support the project for £3 a month on Substack. And for a big optimistic take on where politics goes next, read my book End State.


  1. North, Institutions (1991)
  2. In Unger’s work this is all part of a more ambitious project in which politics is the practice of creating the institutional pre-conditions for individual transcendence, but that’s a topic for another day.
  3. This gets trickier because it’s recursive, i.e. the institutions of democracy — the means by which we modify institutions — are themselves institutions, and are subject to similar dynamics. That’s why some of our trickiest challenges concern how we change the ways in which we change institutions, i.e. democratic or constitutional reform.