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On politics - simple as that
on 5 October 2013
Politics is a dirty word but we cannot do without it, not in modern societies at any rate. How can we live together in spite of not being in one mind about so many important matters? The United States is struggling to find an answer to this question as we speak. But the question is always with us.
Alan Ryan gives a tour from the ancient Greeks to the 20th Century, examining how thinkers from Herodotus to John Rawls have tried to answer how we can live together with our differences. What is the justification for authority? When is it right to force someone to do something that they don't want to do? We all know that humans must live together. But we are fractious, and the incentives for going our own way, even if its against our own interests, are very strong. How can this conundrum be resolved? Thinkers have offered an astonishing range of answers to these questions in the 2500 years since the Ancient Greeks started thinking about them. Some like Marx and Plato deny that these questions will even arise at all in their respective utopian schemes. Some contemporary intellectuals think likewise. As Ryan puts it, in their scheme of things there will be `no economic life to regulate, no crime to suppress, no conflicting interest to balance, no competing policy to reconcile, no conflicts of value to assuage, accommodate or suppress (p. 70). Their optimism seems unfounded. We will always live with these questions. Utopia, the title of Thomas More's eponymous book, means `nowhere'.
But does this mean that if we cannot agree, then only brute force can make us live together? No thinker has really thought this - not even Hobbes or St. Augustine, two pessimists about the human condition, if coming from different premises altogether. People can and do live together, in spite of their differences. They can do this without liking one another all that much. The nightly news gives a different impression of course but riots and pogroms make the news in the way that ordinary hustle and bustle of daily life, lived out in a tolerable degree of peace and order, does not. Where we do manage to achieve such a modus vivendi then we can thank politics - even if most journalists won't. In some parts of the world at least, politics does broadly satisfy Aristotle's objective of ensuring that the needs of conflicting groups in society are met, without one achieving dominance over another.
Those are by no means the range of questions that this book covers. Does human nature change or is it timeless. Thinkers like Machiavelli thought that human nature does not change and a 16th Century ruler of Florence could look back at Roman history for models of how to behave 1500 years later. He was probably wrong. Maybe human nature does not change but the circumstances we find ourselves in do change. I am also struck by how far the idea of original sin has preoccupied many of thinkers in this book. You do not have to belief in the literal truth of Genesis to see that human beings are flawed creatures, to put it mildly. Yet much of what politics must deal with is not sin as understood in the biblical the mutation of individual human virtues in the context of group identity. Loyalty, courage, sacrifice - virtues we admire in individuals can sustain the most barbarous of collective human endeavours (think of Germany and Japan during the Second World War).
It is impossible to do this book the justice it deserves in such a short review. The book itself, weighing in at over a 1,000 pages, though long, manages to summarise so many thinkers, situating them in their historical context, deftly, wrapped in a skilful narrative which seldom fails to hold interest. It is also unashamedly an `old-fashioned book' a term used by one of its reviewers (John Keane In the Financial Times) by way of reproof but which I use as a term of praise. Keane points out that the thinkers are mostly from the Western canon. This is true but so what? Ryan does not have to apologise (indeed he does not offer one) for his failing to bend his knee to contemporary academic fashions. For the plain fact is that a western invention, the state, an entity that claims such rights for itself as `sovereignty' over its territory and its subjects, is now a near-universal form of political organization (save perhaps in a few corners of this world). Many post-colonial states denounce colonialism but ironically owe their existence to colonialism. Post-colonial states have not reverted to pre-colonial forms of rule. Therefore the questions the thinkers address in this book are questions that are pertinent to nearly every inhabitant of this planet. In political practice, there are better and worse answers. But if you want to know what the questions are, then this is an excellent guide.