The special cruelty of politics

I think politics reserves a special hell for the well intentioned.

Politics is cruel in many ways. It is after all about power — the ability of some to impose their will on others, ultimately through violence. Therefore it rewards power-seeking behavior and favors people prepared to lie, steal and kill in its pursuit. The more scruples you have the less likely you are to win political wars. I’ll call this the general cruelty of politics.

Its special cruelty is what happens when people end up serving much worse ends that what they intended to, because they misunderstood the relationship between ends and means.

These are the people who do not enter politics for the power and privileges it offers. They genuinely want to serve a broader community and are seeking to use political involvement as a means to do that. However, the political means through which they seek to serve has its own logic, which is stronger than their good intentions. They end up spending time and resources contributing to outcomes that they judge as much worse than the ones they intended.

How big is this group? Among professional politicians I would guess they are a tiny minority. But if we think of every voter, campaigner, meeting attendee and protestor as being ‘in politics’, the complexion shifts. Here my guess would be that we’re talking about the majority of political participants.

Take the example of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Its governmental record since 1994 leaves almost no room for doubt. Since coming to power the ANC has acted as the main political agent of neoliberal capitalism and has therefore defended and supported the structural racism colonialism and Apartheid had built into South African society’s foundations. This is in direct conflict with the intentions of the vast majority of ANC members over its history.

The ANC was started specifically in 1912 to oppose the structural racism that was being consolidated through and within the founding of the South African nation state. And from at least the late 1960s most members or supporters thought of themselves as socialists, despite latter day arguments that the ANC was always capitalist. It certainly started off as an organization of open aspirant capitalists. But under the impact of post 1945 radicalizations and its ever closer alliance with the Communist Party it assumed socialist positions to attract support.

ANC members and supporters often chose to endure great discomforts, blows and losses precisely because they believed they were contributing to ending racism and capitalism. Yet, looking back now, it is clear they have made all those sacrifices building a party of neoliberal capitalism and structural racism — they were doing the direct opposite of what they thought they were. They were victims of the special cruelty of politics.

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