It’s easy to get sick of politics. So much wasted effort. So many stillborn schemes and plans that go nowhere. So much running to stand still. But if you’re running to stay in place on a treadmill, and you stop running, you go backwards. And the same is true in politics. Seemingly wasted effort is often not really waste, because without it your political opponents would have gained (even more) ground. Of course, some forms of activism are more effective than others, and some may even be counter-productive. But the mere fact you have not achieved anything concrete does not mean you’ve been ineffective: your achievement may instead have been to hinder your opponents.

One of the most celebrated political metaphors comes from Max Weber:

Max Weber

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. 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.

Max weber, ‘Politics as a Vocation’ [1918], translated in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).

Part of the beauty of Weber’s metaphor is its sheer un-romantic-ness. Nothing could be less exciting and dramatic than slowly drilling a hole through a board. That’s the point: the people who truly do well in politics are not those who need drama and excitement.

But there’s a problem with the metaphor. The great thing about drilling a board, writing a novel or doing a puzzle is that you can take a break. You can walk away and come back pretty much where you were (once you remember exactly what you were doing). But politics isn’t like that. If you take a break, you can’t expect to come back where you were, because your opponents will have capitalised on your absence.

A better metaphor is weeding a garden. You can’t just decide to stop halfway through and come back six months later: the garden will be full of weeds. Even more, it isn’t a task than can ever be finished. You must come back every year and work on your garden, otherwise it will inexorably slide back into a weedy wilderness.

The garden metaphor isn’t better because it suggests a more harmonious or natural mode of politics: exactly the opposite. The fundamental difference is that the board is a passive object, whereas plants are alive and active. Plants follow their own drives which are frequently contrary to those of the gardener. As a metaphor for politics, drilling is solipsistic: it forgets that politics is not a solitary activity but something inherently social. The garden, on the other hand, is full of active opponents.

Politics as weeding fits better with the rest of Weber’s quoted passage. The reason politics requires steadfastness of heart is that so often years of political work must be dedicated to defence rather than achieving anything tangibly new. In politics, one can never really take a break. And I find that a sobering thought indeed.

I am a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I have worked on the justification of democracy, the relationship between democracy and the market, and the political theory of business corporations.