What more might politics be?

In chapter 1 of The Joy of Politics, I define politics by what it is, what it is not, and what it might be. I also seek to elucidate, and defend, what one means when one says, after Aristotle, that humans are political animals. My purpose, self-announced, is to encourage my reader to think a little differently about politics.

It is certainly possible that politics is more than I say it is, although in saying this I remember a line by Kwame Anthony Appiah, “To recognize that I might be wrong is not to declare that I am.”

In this spirit I was struck recently when rereading a 2014 article in The New York Times by the philosopher Justin Smith entitled “We Are Not the Only Political Animals.”

Common sense tells us that nonhuman animals are not political. We have tended to think this for two reasons, either because animals are not rational, or because animals have no interests of their own.

Smith thinks this is misguided.

There are overwhelming empirical data revealing, to anyone who is willing to look, complex social organization across the animal kingdom, including collective deliberation, division of labor, ritualized conflict resolution, and other forms of behavior that, when identified in human society, are deemed political without hesitation.

In fact, it appears that Aristotle may have explored this territory himself. His forebears certainly did. As Smith writes, “For the first several millenniums of city living, long before Aristotle wrote, human beings did not yet think of themselves as the only political animals.”

This is not Smith’s main point, however. Rather, he wants us to think about politics from a “trans-species perspective,” in which “nonhuman animals belong to the polis, too” (my emphasis). Allow me briefly to explain.

Smith writes,

Endowing and depriving different human groups of rights and resources is, in one understanding of the term, precisely what we mean when we speak of politics.

That which is political, in Smith’s view, seeks “to determine once and for all the true bounds of the polis, to settle who was rightfully a member of society and who was necessarily excluded.”

It is the same with animals.

[T]heir presence in society is conceived as political for the most part only to the extent that rules are made about where they may be raised, how they may be sold, at what price, and so on. They are generally not conceived as political in the sense of being themselves members or participants in a trans-species polis… animals that play a central role in our society are systematically excluded from the polis, from the scope of the political.

Whence Smith’s call “to rethink the boundaries of the political.”


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