The stuff of politics: Getting to know our material

James Plunkett

Are institutions the raw material of politics? And if they are, what does that help us understand about the nature of politics (and the nature of institutions, for that matter)? Those are the questions explored in this thoughtful and thought provoking essay – where ‘institutions’ are to be understood much more broadly than merely organisations and structures, but something perhaps closer to norms, the way things are done, or more particularly the way things are done which lends them acceptance and legitimacy.

That is of course a pretty broad starting point and perhaps risks derailing the argument before it is properly underway – if pretty much anything can be an institution, then using them to explain something about politics risks being too thin to be useful. But that risk is neatly side stepped by talking about them in the context of a metaphor:

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.

That spectrum seems very recognisable, as does the consequence of the metaphor, that more fluid things change more and are capable of being changed more than those at the frozen end. So step one in changing a frozen institution is to thaw it a little. Much of the thawing and freezing which goes on is climatic, it is the emergent consequence of the interaction of varied forces. To the extent that those forces are aligned, it may be possible to sense a direction of change, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the net result should go in one direction or another, or support one political agenda or another. So that takes us to the next step in the argument, the means by which political activity can influence both the ambient temperature and more specific institutional change:

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.

All of that then provides the basis for an interesting discussion about how to manage political interventions either to create or take advantage of thawed institutions, and from all of that to derive five reasons which are presented as ‘a useful corrective to the way we tend to think about politics and public policy.’ I can’t do any of that justice in a short precis, it’s well worth reading the whole thing.

It does leave me with two questions, though, about the nature of institutions and about the difference between continuous and discontinuous change.

Institutions are themselves complex entities. They can be deeply frozen and completely liquid at the same time and even in respect of the same behaviour. Where, for example, should we position the institutions of UK central government democracy? In both an organisational sense (what Parliament is and does) and a behavioural sense (the roles of the various actors involved), there is widespread frost, and in places the ice is very deep indeed. That there are parliamentary procedures which take place in Norman French is both trivially unimportant and a potent symbol of stable longevity. Over much shorter time periods, what we understand by labels such as ‘prime minister,’ ‘cabinet,’ ‘department,’ ‘election’, ‘scrutiny’, and very many more are all ostensibly pretty much unchanged for a hundred years or more.

But at the same, all those things have been very fluid. None of them operate in the way they did a century ago, arguably none of them operate in the way they did a decade ago. There are many reasons for that, but at least some of those reasons could be expressed in terms of change in other kinds of institutions, including those outside the stuctures of the state and formal politics altogether. In one sense, all of that is simply a way of saying that structures tend to change more slowly than behaviours. But it does mean, I think, that there is a need for care in thinking about institutions in the very broad sense used in this essay: the question of where an institution is between being thawed and frozen is surely always going to be a question about characteristics of the institution chosen to be relevant to the question at hand, rather than being a single intrinsic characteristic of the institution in its every aspect.

The process of thawing can be a gradual one and much of the shared imagery in a temperate country such as the UK encourages us to think about it in that way (which is itself a form of institution). That’s reflected in how examples of change are described, such as this one:

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.

But that’s not how everything changes, it’s not even how thaws always happen. The calving of an iceberg does not have the slow dissolution of a melting ice cube. Many institutions can and do evolve gradually, but some inhibit change so, to draw in another metaphor, their brittleness becomes a critical thing to understand: how far does the twig bend before it snaps? Or to switch metaphor yet again, springs retain their fundamental characteristics while stretched and compressed, but only up to their elastic limit, when they become irreversibly deformed. Understanding whether we are seeing – and indeed whether we want to see – institutions stretching within or beyond their elastic range is important too. Indeed the purpose of some institutions is to inhibit change – that is arguably the primary purpose of constitutions – and their dampening effect can both provide useful stability and dangerous inertia in a changing environment.

That though perhaps takes us back to the central argument being made in this essay. We need to understand the institutional materials which make up politics, including their varied characteristics and behaviours, because understanding those materials gives us a better chance of understanding and influencing change:

There are valuable arguments to have about the way we balance individual freedoms and collective conceptions of justice, and about the character of the intuitions 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.

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