What is the point of political theory?


Lawrence HamiltonLawrence Hamilton is the NRF British Academy Research Professor in Political Theory, Wits and Cambridge. He contributes to rethinking political theory from and for the Global South. His works include Amartya Sen (2019), Freedom is Power (2014) and The Political Philosophy of Needs (2003)


If politics is about who rules whom and how, theorizing about politics seems like a luxury, especially in the Global South, where many live precariously in the daily struggle to survive. Democratic political rule can seem secondary to more pressing needs, such as securing enough water, food, shelter and security. But this is wrong. Politics determines the extent to which ‘basic’ needs can be met, and under democratic conditions it is where ordinary citizens collectively select their representatives who determine the more complex needs that constitute their lives and livelihoods.

If we ignore or remain passive vis-à-vis politics, we vacate the space within which it is decided ‘who does what to whom for whose benefit’ (Lenin 1972; Geuss 2008). This is perilous, for citizen passivity allows the more fortuitous, wealthy, voracious and venal quickly to fill the space and dictate our politics. Our politics then becomes not about our collective, if often plural and competing, needs, interests, powers and ideas, but about the lives of those who thus capture the state. This is no mere theoretical threat, as Zuma’s South Africa, Chavez’s Venezuela and Bolsonaro’s Brazil make graphically clear; as do Trump’s America, May’s Brexit and so on. Populism is a dangerous byproduct of our passivity as citizens. By contrast, if our focus is on the quality of our lives and the powers to secure and improve them, democracy remains the only real contender. It is impossible to see this and improve it without political theory.

This is the case because political theory is the means through which we marshal or invent concepts, norms, ideas to comprehend and thus contest our politics. Like most other things that involve language, politics cannot proceed without concepts and ideas to overcome pressing practical problems: how to hold to account our political leaders; which collective goods require public provision; how best to engage with global political power relations; and so on.

In other words, because politics involves judgements within a particular concrete context regarding our agency, power, needs and interests (Hamilton 2009, 2014a), the existing theoretical framework for our judgements heavily affects how we collectively conceive of the associated power relations, benefits, penalties and priorities. The practical, historical context of concept formation is therefore of utmost importance in politics. In South Africa today, for example, the fact that we use human rights as the main means of thinking about or formatting politics is relatively new. It is also a very bad idea. This is only apparent if we look carefully into the history and deployment of human rights and the deleterious effects they have had on our political power, agency and imaginative capabilities (Moyn 2018; Geuss and Hamilton 2013).

‘What is the point of political theory?’ is therefore a practical question. It is about working out how best to proceed at a particular moment in local, national and global contexts. This is about comprehension, orientation and judgement about our lives’ central questions, facts and values. For this we require knowledge of where we are and where we would like to end up; and judgement as to how best to get there. We also need to understand why we are where we are.

This is no easy feat. It requires capacities that constitute the art of good judgement in politics: a view of the world that acknowledges how our individual well-being and freedom is linked to our collective well-being and freedom (Hamilton 2014b); a willingness to deliberate about everyday facts and deeply held values; the timing and courage to find ways of judging collectively under conditions of likely disagreement; the capacity to persuade others of the collective worth of a proposal; and so on. In sum, the skill individually and collectively to decide when and how to act and what to prioritize. This is not easy, nor is it parochial, something the existential threat of our current global climate crisis exemplifies.

Political theory is the framework through which we acquire these skills and practices. Contrary to received theoretical opinion, this is not just a matter of conceptual or normative clarification. It is about learning to acquire and pass on the craft of political judgement. One of the reasons that democracy stands out in the modern world is because it is the one political arrangement that enables this collective process of (sometimes antagonistic) learning. A lot of political theorists, myself included (Hamilton 2014a), have supposed the panacea lies in innovative institutional arrangements, on the assumption that there may exist an institutional fix for democracy’s deficiencies. But this is wrongheaded; we need more, always and everywhere. Democracy must be constantly worked on, by leaders and ordinary citizens, to ensure it prioritizes and enables this collective process of learning for good political judgement (Cabral 1974; Hountoundji 2002; Dunn 2014). In other words, the health and vitality of everyone’s democracy is, ultimately, each individual person’s responsibility.

This, then, this the main point of political theory, especially in precarious democratic contexts: continually to remind fellow citizens of this responsibility and how best to meet it; and to arm them with the conceptual and factual tools to carry it out. If democracy is necessary for the free, collective determination of individual needs, good political judgement at all levels is a requirement for the health of democracy. Political theorists must guide this political judgement. If they shirk this responsibility, the very existence of the globe is imperiled.

Most political theory that emanates from the Global North does just this as it retreats into the life of the ‘ivory tower’ or actively turns away from the messy business of real politics. Political theorists from the Global South are well placed to resist this ‘flight from reality’ (Shapiro 2005) due to the visceral nature of their politics. They are forced to face the actual politics of their time rather than build philosophical castles in the sky. Critical South is a forum for the expression of this practical, postcolonial imperative. It thus aims to empower everyone to judge well in politics.


  • Cabral, A. (1974), ‘Análise de alguns Tipos de Resistência’, in Colecção de Leste a Oeste (Lisbon: Seara Nova).
  • Dunn, J. (2014), Breaking Democracy’s Spell (Yale University Press)
  • Geuss, R. (2008), Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press)
  • Geuss, R. and Hamilton, L. (2013), Human Rights: A Very Bad Idea, Theoria, 60.2.
  • Hamilton, L. (2009), ‘Human Needs and Political Judgement’, in New Waves in Political Philosophy, ed. Zurn and de Bruin (London: Palgrave)
  • Hamilton, L. (2014a), Freedom is Power: Liberty Through Political Representation (Cambridge University Press)
  • Hamilton, L. (2014b), Are South Africans Free? (Bloomsbury)
  • Hountondji, P. (2002), The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa (Ohio University Press)
  • Lenin, V. (1972), Materialism and Empirico-criticism (Beijing: Foreign Language Press)
  • Moyn, S. (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard University Press)
  • Shapiro, I (2005), The Flight From Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press

1 thought on “What is the point of political theory?

  1. Pingback: Folly and fortitude: What sets good and bad leaders apart in the COVID-19 era? – Bhekisisa

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