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Polysemic concept, politics covers:

Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the United Nations General Assembly (Speech by Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the United Nations General Assembly (RIA Novosti archive 828797) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RIAN_archive_828797_Mikhail_Gorbachev_addressing_UN_General_Assembly_session.jpg)

  • politics in its broader sense, that of civility or Politikos, designates that which relates to the organization or self-management of a city, of a state and to the exercise of power in an organized society.
  • in general, the policy of a community, of a society, of a social group, within the meaning of Politeia, conforms to a constitution drawn up by its founders which defines its structure and its functioning (methodical, theoretical and practical). The policy concerns the actions, the balance, the internal or external development of this society, its internal relations and its relations with other groups. Politics is therefore mainly what relates to the collective, to a sum of individualities and / or multiplicities. It is from this perspective that political studies or political science extend to all areas of a society (economy, law, sociology, etc.);
  • in a more restrictive sense, politics in the sense of Politikè or political art, refers to the practice of power, i.e. therefore to power struggles and representativeness between men and women in power, and to the different political parties to which they can belong, just like to the management of this same power;
  • policy is most often accompanied by an epithet which determines its definition: we speak of political strategy, for example, to explain how it is situated in a combinatorial and planned perception such as to make it achieve its objectives.



Anthropologists have distinguished four primitive political systems, which would be outside any state or institutional logic.

  1. Bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Because of their small size (little more than a hundred individuals), and their mobility, these bands would not feel any need to establish permanent political authorities.
  2. Lineage societies. Described by Evans-Pritchard, in his classic study of the Nuer, this political system involves the reunification of several family groups, within which the elders possess a particular legitimacy, which makes them able to resolve a conflict.
  3. Societies with charismatic notables. Here, power is occasionally represented by a few personalities recognized for their moral qualities or their material attributes. However, this dignity remains individual, and is not hereditary.
  4. The chiefdom societies. A few individuals exercise an indisputable and hereditary power, the extent of which however remains variable.

The existence of societies without States remains however questionable.

Middle Eastern States

During the period of Obeid in Mesopotamia (6500 to 3750 BC) two major facts will appear and combine:

The phenomenon of economic structuring initiated at the beginning of the Neolithic era reached a critical level, which led to the emergence of a new sociological cell, the city, as well as the advent of social inequalities. The invention of writing allows for the rational administration of a given space: “writings, in fact, make it possible to carry messages far, to write down accounts, to keep archives, all resources capable of helping highest degree of state administration ”. The joint advent of this sociological model and this intellectual technology contributes to the emergence of a new human structure, the State, and its corollary, politics.

From the year 3000 BC, the City-States which appear in Mesopotamia seem to favor political regimes quite close to the constitutional monarchy, or even to the republic. A Sumerian poem studied in particular by Samuel Noah Kramer thus reports the presence of two assemblies in Uruk, one, the assembly of elders, being a kind of senate, the other of a people’s assembly. The legitimacy of the king of Uruk seems to depend closely on these two assemblies: in fact, he declares war on the city of Kish only after having received at least the support of the people’s assembly. What is more, the attribution of royal power is only rarely hereditary. The Sumerian term for the king, Lugal, in fact consists of the association of the root Lu, man, and gal, great. What matters here above all are moral qualities and not hereditary affiliation: Sargon of Akkad thus obtains the throne only thanks to his royal virtues.

Gradually, monarchical power grew stronger, both in power (the first coronation ceremonies, which implied a legitimacy of divine right appear at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC) and in extent (the city-states are absorbed by large kingdoms). Democratic and republican institutions, noted by Kramer, are in fact falling into disuse. The strengthening of the monarchical authority will promote, during the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC, the establishment of a standardized administration and jurisprudence, evolution illustrated by the codes of Ur-Nammu (around -2100), Lipit-Ishtar (around -1930) and Hammurabi (around -1750), as well as the Laws of Eshnunna (around -1760). Admittedly, these first legal corpuses did not have an exhaustive aim and rather resemble by their style to collections of moral prescriptions. However, the fact that they intend to correct oral traditions in a rational perspective represents an important break: “the situation in a Near Eastern society is therefore very different from that of societies without history, where customs are absolutely fixed and where change is suffered and not organized ”.

The strengthening of large centralized and rationalized states induces the organization of international relations. From the end of the 2nd millennium BC to -1100, a space ranging from Egypt to Elam, and Arabia to the Hittite kingdom is governed by an elaborate diplomatic system: the Amarna system. Based on a relative geopolitical balance between four or five great powers, this system has its lingua franca, Akkadian, and its own protocols. Thus, “the different kings maintaining diplomatic relations are deemed to belong to one and the same large family or large house (…) kings of identical status treat each other as brothers, those of lesser stature are the sons or servants of the former”. The successive invasions of the peoples of the sea put an end to this elaborate political construction.

It thus seems that the Middle Eastern states have forged almost all political forms and structures. However, if politics is certainly a well-established object, it is in no way a question of political thought or theory. : “The myth, the law, the custom as a whole will never become the object of explicit debate, because they continue to relate to the sacred, and the sacred alone”. Middle Eastern statesmen are primarily concerned with politics, the management of administrative affairs, and very little with Politics, the state order as a whole – for order is part of the divine order as a whole, and cannot be contested, discussed or simply considered.

Greek city

In spite of the Middle Eastern precedents, the origin of the policy is generally confused with that of the political thought and therefore in fact, with the Greek city. Thus the English Hellenist Moses Finley, was able to affirm that the policy “is one of the least widespread activities in the pre-modern world”. It is in fact “a Greek invention, or, to be more precise, an invention made separately by the Greeks, the Etruscans and / or the Romans”.

Throughout the 2nd millennium BC, Greece appears as a simple peripheral continuity of the Amarna system. As noted by Jean-Pierre Vernant: “the Mediterranean has not yet marked on either side of its shores, a break between East and West. The Aegean world and the Greek peninsula are linked without discontinuity (…) on the one hand to the Anatolian plateau (…) on the other (…) to Mesopotamia and Iran ”. In this way, the first known Greek state, the Mycenaean kingdom, is similar in many ways to contemporary Near Eastern monarchies. It is indeed a bureaucratic royalty, characterized by an almost maniacal regulation of social life. In addition, the king or anax has essentially military and religious authority. Also, politics in the Mycenaean era thus took the form of an essentially administrative activity, inscribed in a larger cosmogonic framework.

Effective from the 12th century BC the decline of the Mycenaean world will lead to a complete redeployment of the initial political structures: the anax disappears and the local potentates, known as basileus, most often keep only religious prerogatives. The ebb of monarchical sovereignty will favor two social forces hitherto almost excluded from the political game: “on the one hand village communities, and on the other a warrior aristocracy”. The frequent dissensions between these two forces will make it necessary to set up the political debate or agon, in a public place. Power therefore ceases to depend on a single center, to be the product of constant deliberation: “the arche can no longer be the exclusive property of anyone; the state is precisely what has stripped any private, particular character, which, escaping the remit of genes, already appears to be everyone’s business”.

Gradually a new kind of political entity is established: the polis or city. It is characterized by three main features: the use of rational discourse, the publicization of political acts, and the belief in the equality of citizens before the law (or isonomy). This establishment invalidates the old oral customs, which until then regulated the political and social game. Several legislators, grouped under the generic name of seven wise, will consequently promote a new civic ethic, which testifies to a desire to rationalize justice: the criminal is thus no longer judged guilty vis-à-vis his victim, but of the whole city.

The moral counterpart of this ethic, “sophrosyne” or moderation, brings together all social structures towards a “happy medium”. Solon thus imposes a geometric equality, or homoneia, of the bodies of citizens, in accordance with the relationships of musical types (2/1, 3/2, 4/3): the first class of citizen thus receives five hundred measures of wheat, when the last class only gets two hundred. Subsequently, democrats like Cleisthenes generalize the principle of absolute equality, based on the 1/1 ratio: each citizen therefore becomes the indivisible entity of a single body: the city. In order to guarantee this principle, Cleisthenes proceeded to a profound reform of the Athenian civic space, by grouping the four traditional tribes into ten tribes: purely conventional, this administrative division completes the rationalization of the city.

Middle Ages and modern times

In the Middle Ages, the most widespread political regime was that of the monarchy. The king is then the suzerain of his vassals. From the Renaissance, the king becomes sovereign. In some states, the regime takes the form of the absolute monarchy of divine right, the archetype of which is, in France, King Louis XIV.

End of the 17th century – 20th century

From the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century, during the Enlightenment, the injustices resulting from the inequalities between the three orders, in particular the privileges granted to the nobility, led to profound changes in political regimes in Europe.

England was the first to move to a constitutional monarchy during the Glorious Revolution (1688). France followed in his footsteps almost a century later: the French Revolution broke out in 1789. It first took shape in a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; power no longer emanates from the monarch through divine rights, but from the people, and finds its legitimacy in the “natural, inalienable and sacred rights” which every man (and every woman) possesses from birth. The regime passes to the constitutional monarchy (1791), then to the Republic (1792), then passes through transitional states: empire (1804), constitutional monarchy (at the Restoration in 1815), Republic (1848), empire (1851) , before stabilizing in the Republic (1871).

These two types of regimes (constitutional monarchy and Republic) will gradually spread in almost all the states of the world until today.

From the end of World War II

After World War II, new rights were proclaimed. In France, the 1946 Constitution defines in its preamble rights of an essentially social nature (right to obtain a job, right to strike, right to obtain from the community adequate means of existence). These rights are preserved in the 1958 Constitution.

The emergence and intensification of ecological problems from the 1970s raise the question of the rights and duties of citizens in relation to their environment. State policies are starting to take sustainable development objectives into account, crossing economic, social and environmental aspects, as described at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The European Union is implementing a policy sustainable development.

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