Action in Political Theory

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We will return to the theories of action to show how action becomes more complex, explaining why and how the theories of action have evolved to interpret actors in a different paradigm.

When we talk about action, we are talking about the environment in which we act. The action is linked to an environment if the environment changes the conditions of action will change.

The concept of action is very ancient, linked to the classical political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, because Greek philosophy questioned the action in order to try to understand how men could act.

The notion of action is very important in political science because it presupposes that it is carried by the human being accompanying the movement of nature. Man is in need of action and will carry the action with attention. Action is on the movement side, which means that philosophy and political theory will appropriate it. Acting must be done for a purpose; it is necessary to act for the good, all the more so in the system of democracy.

The action raises a question about thinking and intelligence. In classical philosophy and Christian philosophy, action is necessary because God is action. Since God is action and movement, man must incorporate this principle of action, which is why he too is in motion.

Kant works on the relationship between good deed and morality: is there always conformity between action and morality? Action is a moral issue in order to think good. Acting is therefore in the interests of the good and the collective interest. Thus, action could have a moral dimension, or at least tend towards the respect of morality, and action would, therefore, be on the side of duty (these notions are similar to public policies). For Kant, the field of action is not necessarily of the order of good, there may be immorality and rejection of the common good.

The political science was born in the 19th century of moral and political sciences. In asking the question of morality, one can only wonder about the nature of the action.

Several problems appear:

  • action only makes sense in relation to the concept of decision. The decision will allow the actor to act.
  • In classical interpretation, action and decision support the world.
  • The decision or action places the act under jurisdiction: have I done the right thing?
  • Acting is perhaps a guarantee of social preservation

The decision is what allows the action to be carried out and the actor to define actions that produce action. The decision is fundamental because you can't act without a decision. Acting without decision is acting without knowledge and without thinking about one's actions. Thus, acts of decision making are part of different dimensions.

We speak of action/decision pair, meaning that in the context of an activity we will try to reduce the share of randomness by posing a rationality that could escape a global process. The action is part of a present - past relationship.

The conditions of the theoretical thinking of the action will be linked to the conditions of the action itself. From then on, the thought of action is a constantly evolving thought.

Thus, the decision has four functions:

  • allows the actor to act;
  • allows the citizen to support the world;
  • to fragment the acts into respective competences;
  • ensure social preservation;

All political philosophers have taken an interest in action. There are many theories of action.

The theories of action[edit | edit source]

Hannah Arendt and action as a condition of modern man[edit | edit source]

According to Arendt, what makes a man a political being is his possibility of action. Action is what allows a man to remain human, i.e. the human individual to be human, or in other words the affirmation of his capacity to exist.

The action is of the order of becoming because the action opposes death. The birth of politics is being sought in the human condition of acting. Human existence is being and dying, but also, meanwhile, belonging to the world. The need to act transcends every individual and even if the situation is very difficult, for Arendt, his only possibility and what characterizes the human being as a human and political being is to continue to act as long as he has the capacity for action. There can be no renunciation, each generation has a duty to act.

Democracy's own characteristic is its ability to act since it questions the people in their ability to take action. What characterizes a totalitarian regime? It is the fact that the individual can no longer act. One fundamental thing is, therefore, the word that refers to the issue of democracy. There is a principle of spontaneity in the human condition. With birth comes the ability to happen, that is, something happens. The fact that each generation is obliged to take action is therefore in the need to make decisions. The capacity for integration and action is founded on words. Thus, what founds humanity is the ability to act.

In this way, acting is what happens, it builds the capacity to become someone and to build oneself as a human being. The conditions of human existence are life but at the same time the plurality of living conditions that are differences and the fact that we all belong to the same world that propels us to a kind of equality where we have the duty to act.

Plurality is both a concept of equality and a concept of distinction. We are both unique and plural. This double character is at the heart of political life.

From there, it will develop the "common world", that is to say, man is not isolated, but he participates in a world common to all men.

Man, through action, can change the world, overcome antagonisms, assert his freedom or show his sense of responsibility. Action is the human activity that most needs the word.

As long as man is endowed with speech and the ability to think, he can change his destiny and so spontaneously, they act together to transform the common world. Dialogue is a mode of constructing political relations with the world. So for Arendt, a totalitarian regime is two things:

  • disparity of plurality: the plurality contingent is to eliminate differences;
  • unique man;
  • political concept of universalisation;
  • The central challenge of the authoritarian regime is to suppress speech.

What is most striking is that the most fundamental issue at stake in these regimes is the destruction of speech. Regardless of the origin of the totalitarian regime, it focuses on suppression of speech because it is the ability to act, the very constituent element of action by reducing individuals to an anonymous collective.

Thus, words are contingent on action and democracy.

The common world is a world where there is word is action, that is to say where there is word and action, a world made of equality and difference, a capacity to speak in order to change the world and set destinies. It is a collective production, with spontaneity we have the capacity to act to transform the common world.

"Action - Decision - Word" are the foundations of the system of democracy, thus the language of man as a political animal by defining himself as an actor with the capacity to think the world.

Basically, action is a necessary human activity that necessarily needs words, speech and action to escape isolation. Speech and action develop within the framework of human relations and are continuously updated.

The action is at the same time new, it cannot exhaust the unpredictable progressing without controlling everything. At the same time as we produce knowledge, we produce non-knowledge. In other words, when man advances, he wants to build a predictable destiny put forward must face the unpredictable.

Action can also be an anguish at times because it presupposes choices that cannot necessarily be mastered.

Without action, there is no capacity to think about the world, to be present in the world and to change the world.

Action in the rational world[edit | edit source]

The rational world is the interpretation in the 1920s which will replace it until the 1970s, assuming that the world will be constructed positively. We think we're moving towards something more rational. The first theorists will seek to pose this concept of rational action. Being rational, man will interpret action as moving towards more and more rationality.

Max Weber identifies four types of actions:

  • Emotional action: thoughtless and spontaneous induced by emotion;
  • traditional action: definition of action by habit;
  • rational action in relation to values: action based on a set of values whose rationality of action is defined in their framework;
  • rational action in finality: an objective is set and rationalities must be produced in order to achieve it.

This makes it possible to lay the groundwork for modern political action and institutionalisation. For Weber, human history is the transition from emotional action to rational action.

Thus, we are progressing towards rationality, we are moving towards an action that is no longer rational. We will abandon the emotional in order to move towards thought and reasoned systems.

Rational action theory will then lead to rational choice theories. We question ourselves on the basis of action which is a process, but which can be a process of action in the economic field. Political action is no different from economic action.

For Campbell, political reality would be determined by individuals who act according to a utilitarian logic of the cost-benefit ratio.

In other words, in the economic system, action is instrumental. All decisions are made on the basis of a relational cost-benefit analysis. This vision remains utilitarian, each political actor naturally calculates the cost and benefit of his or her actions. This approach is collectivist because rationality is no longer moral but economic.

According to John Campbell and James Rule, political action is based on a principle of economic action in the classical sense that human action is a rational calculation. Thus, as an actor, it is necessary to make cost-benefit calculations and if this calculation is not profitable it is better not to take it.

The perceived risk is that if we are in a pure cost/benefit calculation we can be in an opportunistic and not altruistic logic that limits engagement in any risky action process.

The political reality is determined by individuals who are instrumentally motivated but act in a utilitarian cost-benefit logic. It is a calculation logic that describes a whole world where actions are not dictated by pure rationality.

There is a dual constraint to minimizing decision making and maximizing benefits.

The rational choice theory was built on a linear decision-making process, in other words, it is projected into a linear version of the environment. A linear process of action means that the point A decided, it can be a public decision, B and C is the implementation of the decision and D is the output. There are no surprises, simply assign the objectives and means to get the output.

If the rational choice theory is positioned in the field of rationality, it is because it presupposes that the environmental field in which the action is situated is itself rational.

The hypothesis remains that the best way to make politics is to limit one's conviction. The overall consequences of the action must be assessed or a more complicated prevention plan for the action must be developed.

Processus de décision linéaire.png

In linearity, there is no process of deviation, therefore linearity is an absence of rupture, an absence of change, a straight action which is thought to be a process of rationality. In a rational world, it is possible to make choices based on a rational process.

One of the problems is that the theory of rational choice is detached from any cultural reflection. For example, rites are a rationality. The theory of rational choice takes us back to economics and a very classical interpretation of society.

The linear vision is the traditional vision of the decision-making process that today no longer works.

Action in game theory[edit | edit source]

Game theory is another theory of action is the fact that we are in a competitive and more complex system where players do not have to be understood in their way of interacting, it is not based on pure rationality. It is an interactionist theory, therefore, the behaviour of the individual is not bound only by rational choices is also linked to the internal and external constraints merging into the collective game. The decision-making process is a game where it is necessary to play taking into account the games and decision-making of rival players.

This theory assumes that the political actor is a player who plays with external constraints, but who interacts in the game to gain efficiency in the decision of the action itself.

Politics takes into consideration that it must build an alliance system in space-time. It is a more pragmatic model that requires taking into account the many parameters that can maximize gains. It causes a rational vision of action and acting. It's a behavioural theory.

The stakes are no longer pure economic rationality, it is part of a management of duration to maintain power and hold. So it is competitiveness, but much more balanced.

The theory of evolutionary gambling argues that when one wants to act absolutely, the ability to see in the long term is diminished because the immediate game monopolizes the ability to act on the instant. Axelrod and Maynard Smith postulate that players are living organisms without rationality; their hypothesis is that rationality has disappeared in the name of unceasing proximity management. It is a complexity, competitiveness and adaptation that takes place in a process on a permanent basis.

Theories of action in a complex system[edit | edit source]

In the theories of classical action, the interpretation is that every action leads to consequences, in essence, every action produces results.

A complex system is one in which all societal elements are interrelated. In the classical "linear" theory, one can only postulate from the moment one acts, there is a positive result.

In the theory of the complex system, we act in an uncertain world with blurred limits, which means that we are in evolutionary and much more fluid situations.

Theory of perverse effects[edit | edit source]

The more classical theories like Machiavelli's, every actor is a craftsman of modification, he transforms the field in which he acts, but not necessarily in the desired direction. A distinction is made between unintended and perverse effects:

  • Unintended effect: by acting, we are transforming things that were not intended, the results of the action will go beyond the original intention.
  • Perverse effect: it is something that has not been thought of or desired. It is the commitment of an action with a totally different result. For example, featuring down claims that housing cannot be produced for the poor in slums, but it can be produced for the richest. This creates urban and territorial discrimination. The perverse effect is that the richest accumulate real estate capital while the poor remain poor.

Because the social fabric is dense, decisions can be made with intentions in order to produce an inverse result to the proposed intention. Why will it produce a different result? Because society is complex.

For example, the fight against poverty requires money, but since we are only in sectoral systems, we maintain poverty.

In the welfare state, the issue of housing is a matter for the state. Today, its ability to act is diminishing. In some countries, private companies have set up social real estate agencies. Privatizing a social segment where the financial vision does not make sense, and even more so thinking of making a profit from poor people, will make housing even more precarious.

When one is poor the ability to invest time does not exist and vital substations for survival must be filled as food that requires a major temporary investment. In some countries, promoters have reactivated old solutions such as the coin-operated electricity meter. This is a perverse effect of the State's withdrawal from the social housing sector.

It is an institutional issue which, because it has been poorly analysed, has the opposite effect. The concept of perverse effect reveals another concept of action, which is the fact that there may be a gap between the issue addressed and the effect sought.

For Machiavelli, adverse effects may arise from the voluntary actions of men. The action is important but should be used with care. The fact that there may be a discrepancy between the issue addressed and the reality is apparent.

This thesis explains the encounter with complex society and also shows that the complexity in which we live has a strong resistance against public policies.

Albert Hirschman[edit | edit source]

Hirschman (left) translates accused German Anton Dostler in Italy 1945.

For Hirschman, there are always unsuspected and unsuspected consequences in action, which can lead to dramatic changes. The invention of topography was invented to bring people together but became a tool for nationalist and nationalistic demands.

Hirschman analyses the political discourse of the perverse effect as a political construct; in the conservative and reactionary rhetoric that opposes modernity, there is this use of the argument of the perverse effect that all the measures taken are measures that destroy the social instead of constructing it.

According to Hirschman, rhetoric is built on three arguments:

  • the perverse effect argument (perversity)
  • the argument of inanity (futility): argues that the existing order transformation projects are sterile.
  • The Jeopardy argument: Progressive political action constitutes a threat to gains, benefits or rights obtained through the struggle.

Basically, the perverse effect argument can be used politically.

Edgar Morin[edit | edit source]

Edgar Morin .

Morin's theory is that through industrialization, our societies have returned to a complex environment. It is an interesting paradox that when we want to act, action leads us to simplification.

For example, television is a reduction in complexity, a paradigm of simplification. In other words, the public actor wants to simplify the nature of the questioning just as science does, because science proceeds by isolation and segmentation of knowledge, which makes it possible to eradicate the principle of complexity.

Complexity is a tissue of heterogeneous constituents inseparably associated. The action must take into account the complex to succeed. The constituent assembly will mark the evolution of the scheme in an important way.

For Morin, there is a contradiction between a complex system that is an open system in which there are interaction sums that articulate and move in their configuration, that is not linear and that can produce feedback.

Complexity is an open system of interaction where things are arranged according to the configurations of the moment. It is the thought of a world in which everything interacts and there is not one truth in relation to another.

Complexity theory uses the logic of complementarity using the idea of permanent rupture and equilibrium in the imbalance with possible feedback and a continuous arrangement according to conditions.

Boucle retroactive.png

The problem is that on the one hand the real becomes more complex and at the same time we have actors who only function on the reduction of complexity. For Morin, what is fundamental is this contradiction between the fact that if actors reduce the field in a simplistic way they cannot understand complexity, but above all they cannot manage it.

Thus, complexity is a constituent tissue, heterogeneous and inseparably associated. In reality, the great challenge of the 19th century is to understand the complexity of the world in which we have entered.

The complex is difficult because it is not programmable and reduces the ability to judge in the future.

Complexity theory is important because one can no longer act in a linear world.

  • How to act in complex systems?

We cannot know the future; the past in modern societies tends to be forgotten, which means that we are prisoners of immediacy. The problem is that time has dwindled. It is a tyranny of time that makes the conditions of thought of action very difficult.

Morin's proposal and say that we cannot be satisfied with a linear process of action between a decision point and an arrival. It is necessary to restore the action in a complex system, which necessitates the creation of new tools in a system of prospective reconstruction, which consists in redefining public action in the dimensions of the past, present and future. We must, first of all, reconceptualize the past, return to the compression of the past by retrospectively looking back. In order to fight against the loss of time and non-explanation in a complex society, it is necessary to invent tools that make it possible to analyze the past in order to re-examine the present.

The only way we have to act and give it back its autonomy. Therefore we are in a system which has the advantage is to be able to question again the conditions of the action.

Unlike a linear system, it is necessary to question each progress in order to take stock of its action. This means that with each step forward, it will be necessary to act continuously on the conditions of action in order to be able to modify the process of action at any time by integrating the differing opinions of social groups, population groups, etc., in order to change the process of action. The process of public and political action today is much more difficult than it was fifty or sixty years ago by integrating the criticisms and positions of individuals by reactivating and reinterpreting them in the field of action.

It is a process that is necessarily a consultation process because, without consultation, the process is blocked through conflict. The principle of this system and that we are each time obliged to integrate the remarks in a process of more or less partial questioning of the objectives in order to renegotiate them on an ongoing basis. The result of the action is the sum of these negotiations.

It is a process that will be very slow, integrative, i. e. governance by associating as many people as possible in the decision-making and action process, pragmatic and that basically, it is necessary to be able to negotiate one's own arguments and objectives.

The processes of action today must seek in a complex world all these data under penalty of radical failure. The unforeseeable and unpredictable must be taken accordingly.

The problem with the human act is that at the same time as we move forward, at the same time we are making a misunderstanding. The main question of action today is that we produce many non-knowledge which then becomes late knowledge.

The complex world according to Morin is at the edge of the extraordinary nutation of our societies in which we are able to make immense progress and in which we produce misunderstandings that can rise up as serious.

For example, when we talk about public action, political action is very interesting in an uncertain process. The precautionary principle is the invention of a principle of action in an uncertain field, i. e. we are in an uncertain field, but we must act. The precautionary principle is that we must act, but act with caution so as not to provoke something radical, even if we do not know the consequences of where we are going. It is to act within the framework of feedback loop by seeking each time to mobilize the scientific world to bring answers quickly in the field of action, it is these contradictions raise by Morin: difficulty to act, to think the future, overproduction of non-knowledge at the same time as the injunction of action.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This answers the question of how to act in an uncertain world. In Agir pour un monde incertain published in 2001, Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthes postulate that it is necessary to imagine common worlds in order to reinvent new democratic systems.

The hypothesis is that one cannot act in a linear world. We need the tools to assess the risks of decision-making and instantly shift it to develop feedback curves.

To act, it is necessary to evaluate in real time the evolution of the action in order to be able to predispose the action. Now in order to act, it is necessary to equip oneself with tools for real-time evaluation of the tools to produce feedback. It is a process that explains why public policy is much more difficult than it was 50 years ago. Therefore, it is necessary to reinvent processes of action and differentiate between profane and expert knowledge, as expertise becomes the ability of society to think for itself.

We are now in short times and societal dimensions without difficulty, that's why it is necessary to develop new assessment tools and a new methodology with the construction of forums.

Sharing knowledge through societal expertise makes it possible to arrive at a democracy, they will imagine a new democracy which is to say that on the basis of uncertainties it is possible to initiate debates and forums and/or the collective capacity to discuss, and the collective capacity to discuss will be able to help politics to make choices. Since no one knows, as a commitment to the forums of exchange, we must think collectively in order to seize the policy afterwards, it is not the policy that sets out the policy, because it cannot be thought of.

This theory is revolutionary because it advocates the invention of new tools.

Questions about the management of uncertainty will make sense in environmental life. The precautionary principle advocates that when you are in a system of uncertainty, the challenge is no longer to decide but to construct a new decision-making process that takes into account the data you do not have. We will continue to act to act, but taking into account the uncertainty.

To act, it takes thought, Hannah Arendt says that "action without thought is inaction". We are no longer in action, but in inaction and action requires the ability to analyze. The inability to think is very dangerous.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]