Politics is not a video game

I’ve been playing video games since middle school, and the game I probably spent more time on than any other was Sid Meier’s Civilization (3 and then 4). In the Civ games, you play, well, a civilization, starting in the stone age and if you survive, potentially all the way through to the near future.

The Civ games’ style is intentionally charicatured, one of the most prominently incongruous elements being that you are represented in-game as a “great leader” of your civilization, plucked out of history, for thousands of years. If you’re playing India, you’re Mahatma Gandhi, be it 1000 BCE or 2000 CE, and there is no way in which Gandhi can die, be replaced, or anything of the sort.

Upon reflection, I once realized that this incongruity is actually coupled with another, deeper one. In the Civ games, all elements of your civilization represented in the game are under your direct control. You do not, actually, play Gandhi, but rather you embody the entire Indian civilization, deciding exactly what structures Indian cities will build, where Indian military units will go, and what form of government will organize Indian society.

More recently, I’ve often noticed that while this is obviously very far from how the world works, a lot of people seem to think about politics as if they actually do work this way, or something quite like it. “If you want to do away with the current system,” they ask, “what will come in its place?” — as though it’s as easy as opening the government screen, switching government type, and then watching your decision unfold. Or “well if you’re so critical of this government, what would you do in its place” as though it’s purely a question of what our great leaders will to be, not a process of negotiating multiple conflicting political interests.

In real life, one “plays” as a faction among many rivaling factions within a system of government, at best. More often one is merely an individual in a faction which itself is part of a broader faction (like a party or movement) vying for influence within a much larger political system. One’s decisions are never carried out automatically, even if one actually happens to be a popular head of state at the peak of their power with an obedient and well-functioning political party behind them. (This is even the case in the most absolute of single-party dictatorships.)

A realistic understanding of politics requires understanding that long before one’s vision can even begin to be implemented, presenting or representing this vision is itself a move on the political playing field. Each such move is met with reactions from other political players, potentially affecting their own program — a change which then can cause one to alter one’s own again, and so forth.

In other words, politics is a dialectical process. And dialectical processes are notoriously hard to wrap one’s head around.

However, it simply makes little sense to discuss real-world politics as though they were a video game where one can simply decide how things will be. Thinking seriously about politics — seriously enough to actually do something about it — means placing one’s positions, one’s condemnations, and one’s vision within an understanding of the political game.

A sweeping vision for society is a useful thing to have, but not because we will ever be able to hit that “change government” button and implement this vision. It is useful because it gives us an anchor in navigating political struggle towards some better situation. It is useful for garnering support and fostering a unity of purpose within our movement. It is useful because it gives us a context in which to answer more concrete policy questions. But it is absolutely horrific if we intend to implement it by the letter, which would necessarily require a violent dictatorship one way or another — turning it into everything we oppose.

The ultimate outcome of emancipatory political struggle has to be decided by the masses involved in emancipating themselves. This is true in a local context like the decolonization of Palestine (one state? two states? three states? no state? the people living there have to decide) as well as a global context (what comes after capitalism? the people’s will, that’s what.) Any overarching vision has to be understood as a proposal for the consideration of the people, no more and no less.