Politics as a vocation

In her speech at the Ateneo University recently, former president Cory Aquino enumerated what she believed to be the qualities of an ideal leader for our times.  She said that he or she “must have a sense of right and wrong, of morality and justice, and a sense of kinship with all of our people.”

These are very general characteristics which can be claimed by almost every contender for the presidency today.  Ms. Aquino tried to explain what kind of person she had in mind by giving this composite picture:  “…the intelligence of Pepe Diokno, the charisma of Ramon Magsaysay, the courage of Nene Pimentel, the soothing and healing personality of Christian Monsod, the vision of Jose Rizal, and the commitment to the country of all the Filipinos at EDSA.”  But this too only impresses upon the citizen the near impossibility of finding a living figure who can lead our nation at this time.

Perhaps what we need is not one person but several, who can imagine themselves being “called” to politics, as priests and nuns are called to the religious life.  Not every good person can make it as a politician.  And as everyone knows, it takes more than an abundance of good intentions to run a government or lead a nation properly.

There are two types of individuals needed in government: the civil servants who will administer the affairs of government and not engage in politics, and the political leaders who will fight and assume responsibility for governance.  Some of the good people Ms. Aquino mentions are cut out for administrative roles, but may not make it as political leaders.  Others could be effective politicians but poor civil servants. What we may be looking for are individuals who, in the words of the German sociologist Max Weber, have a real “vocation for politics”.

Politics here is simply understood as the striving to change or influence the distribution of power in society.   In Weber’s view, this field properly belongs, and should go, not to those who “live off” politics but to those who “live for” politics.  In the modern state, political power has become so concentrated in political officials that it behooves everyone who wields it to ask how he can hope to do justice to this power.

Thus Weber asks:  “What kind of a man must one be if he is to be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history?”  Exactly what Ms. Aquino tried to answer in her speech at Ateneo.  Max Weber – to whose writings all political sociology invariably turns – mentioned “three pre-eminent qualities (that) are decisive for the politician”: passion, responsibility, and proportion.  

The first is passionate devotion to a cause, whatever this cause might be.  The ideal politician approaches politics not as a playground for his ego, but as a field in which he seeks to achieve a  cause much larger than himself, his family or corporation.  The striving for power in his case is a purely objective enterprise, which he takes up methodically and relentlessly, and dedicates exclusively to the service of “the cause”.  He does not allow himself to enjoy it for “purely personal selfintoxication”.  This passion, Weber warns, is not the same as the “sterile excitation” that is common enough among intellectuals.

The second is the feeling of responsibility.  The true politician is driven by a substantive purpose.  He is concerned with producing concrete results, not impressions.  Therefore, he never takes lightly the responsibility for the outcome of his actions.  He cares and worries if his actions cause injury to other people.  Even as he passionately devotes himself to “the cause”, his political conduct remains rooted in an “ethic of responsibility”.  This is an attitude that compels the leader to give an account always of the foreseeable consequences of his decisions.  Thus, the responsible politician will never be heard invoking the authority of “ultimate ends” to justify indifference or unmindfulness about injurious results.

The third is  a sense of proportion.  Unlike the “power politician” for whom politics is nothing but an ego trip, the true politician maintains a “distance towards one’s self” – he resists the temptations of “a quite vulgar vanity”.  He has an instinct for power.  Yet he looks upon the striving for power not as enjoyment but as an unavoidable means to the attainment of a higher goal.  Therefore, he never loses his objectivity.  He is neither resentful nor vengeful.  In victory, he thinks of “the responsibility towards the future which above all burdens the victor.”  He does not exploit ethics or dishonor the enemy he has defeated.

This notion of the political vocation restores to politics the dignity it has lost in many societies.  At the same time, it is a reminder of the arduous tasks that await those who are “called” to it.  Because of my exposure in media, people often ask me if I have any plans of entering politics.  My answer has always been, following Weber’s criteria, that I feel I do not have the passion for it.

I am filled with awe by the standards by which this great thinker, Max Weber, measures politicians and would-be politicians.  He concludes: “Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.  Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”  It is not of politicians, as we know them, that Weber seems to speak.  He is really speaking of leaders and heroes.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>