What’s the use of politics?

Humans became the dominant animal species on the planet for a reason. Humans can cooperate in large numbers in a flexible manner. This feature is unique in the animal world. Some animal species such as ants and bees can cooperate in large numbers, but they are not flexible in the way they cooperate. Their cooperation is based on their genetic code. Social animals like chimpanzees, elephants, wolves and dolphins can cooperate more flexibly, but not in very large numbers. Cooperation in a chimpanzee band, an elephant band or a wolf pack is based on intimate familiarity of the band members.

Human language is the main tool to make this cooperation possible.  Animals can communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies. But human language has more applications. Humans can gossip and exchange information about what other people are doing and thinking. This gives humans better information about other people in the group so that they can develop tighter and more sophisticated ways of cooperating with each other. Apes like chimpanzees, baboons and gorillas all show interest in social information, but they have trouble gossiping because of the limitation of their language.

The truly unique feature of human language is not gossip, but its ability to transmit information about imaginary things. All forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation states, churches, cities and corporations, are rooted in common fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Myths, like the existence of gods, laws, corporations or nation states, gave humans the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. For example, churches are based on common religious beliefs. It makes it possible that Catholics who never met before can go together on a crusade or build a hospital together.

Religions as well as ideologies maintain that there is a superhuman order of universal laws that govern the world, which should guide human actions. On closer inspection there is not much difference between them. For example, Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama. Communists believe that the laws of nature were discovered by Karl Marx. Like other religions, Communism had its holy scriptures and prophetic books such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which prophesied that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat over the capitalist system.

Politics involves discussing common fictions such as religions and ideologies to determine what course of action should be taken and gossip to determine who should do what.

See also:
– Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

– UK Parliament. http://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/members/