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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Putting the serious back into history, 2 Dec 2012
This review is from: Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism (Hardcover)
Every generation gets the historians it deserves and our post-ideological world is no exception to this rule. Where once Deutschers, Carrs, and Hobsbawms bestrode the stage with teeming casts of aristocrats, bourgeois and proletarians, we tend now to be bombarded with books that promise to explain the history of the world in terms of objects the author happens to know something about (aka upmarket bog-reading, replete with nice pictures) or by historians making dramatic but ultimately unenforceable claims about whatever they happen to wish to write about at the time, e.g., How nutmeg, the British Empire, cinnamon, Dynamo Kiev, tulips, measles, petrol, potatoes, trust, the British Empire, again, or indoor plumbing changed the world forever or, alternatively, in years ending in odd numbers, created modernity.

Dr. Mulholland's book, by happy contrast, is a bold and stirring attempt to go back to the age of the aforementioned giants and impose some broad order on the past. Eschewing cod, the humble flip-flop, olive oil, or whatever else currently excites cultural historians, but at the same time nobly resisting the over-simplified class schematics that undermined so much Marxist historiography, he sets out to unravel the evolving relationship between the state and society since the 17th century, focusing on the critical relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and, within that, on the idea, familiar to many nineteenth-century observers, that while the bourgeoisie is theoretically committed to freedom it will inevitably side with the reactionary elites, and act against freedom, when it feels threatened by the proletariat.

Dr. Mulholland is resuscitating class history with a kapital C. Unlike some of his predecessors, however, and to his great credit, he never dodges the complications and contradictions inherent in testing a hypothesis against such a lengthy period and wide geography, one that includes Europe, America, and even parts of Asia. Rather, he deals with the exceptions patiently, clearly situating them in the broader picture, which he charts all the way from England's serendipitous discovery of the modern fiscal state to our very own Neocon present in which, with the proletarian either replaced by a machine, secreted away in an Asian sweatshop, or transformed into a faux-technocrat, the bourgeoisie can finally spread its wings and remake the world in its image, untroubled by the spectre of proletarian activism.

Though full of brilliant examples culled from his exhaustive research, not to mention splendid moments of dry humour, as nineteenth century aristocrats, bourgeois, and proletarians attempt to come to terms with one another, or massacre one another, Bourgeois Liberty is not always a light read. It is, however, an invaluable one for anyone interested in understanding the development of the modern state and modern class politics. Students, in particular, who, of late, have been left rather short-changed when it comes to vital issues of class, will find his clear style and patient exposition of difficult issues, combined with the text's excellent organization, worth every penny.
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