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Curb Your Enthusiasm
on 16 July 2010
It is perhaps inevitable, given the essentially contested nature of politics, that any book on the subject is bound to be slanted, opinionated and infused with the author's own biases. But in an introductory text, an author arguably has a special obligation to at least strive for objectivity, to at least present the facts or differing opinions on a subject to a reader, and let them decide among them (or, at the very least, to make an argument that is presented as such, rather than as a statement of fact). In all of this, Kenneth Minogue completely fails. What he has actually produced is a highly ideological treatment of the topic, disguised as an objective statement of fact.
The best aspect of the book is that Minogue understands that politics means different things at different moments and so he takes readers through Ancient Greece, Rome, and the formation of modern states. These summaries are understandably brief but they give a decent overview of the notion of politics held in the past. Where the book completely falls down is in its presentation of the present. For all of Minogue's warnings about people assuming that today's values are natural and eternal, his presentation of contemporary politics unthinkingly and uncritically endorses the current liberal-democratic, capitalist mainstream and dismisses any attempt to change prevailing arrangements as inherently dangerous. He presents the current order as entirely natural, uncritically endorsing individualism (without considering its historical contingency and negative effects), along with dubious concepts like the "national interest" and "public good". He also repeatedly warns against any attempt to disturb the liberal order, saying it will only lead to despotism (as will various other things, including idealistic young people in politics, trying to reduce poverty, or being too enthusiastic about orienting politics towards justice). Minogue's book is really an endorsement of the neoliberal claim that There Is No Alternative.
Ideological arguments are arguably inappropriate for an introductory text since readers may be particularly ill-equipped to identify them as ideological. This makes it especially necessary to announce ideological statements as such, to flag up the potential for disagreement, to deal with counter-arguments adequately. However, Minogue completely neglects to tell readers that he is producing an ideological account; in fact, he distinguishes ideology from politics by explicitly defining politics in liberal terms, therefore ruling out the consideration of liberalism as an ideology. This is, of course, a classically ideological move! He also fails to really grapple with counter-arguments since he deals so dismissively with alternative approaches, producing a particularly derisory and crude account of Marxism.
His brief attempt to deal with international relations is also incredibly simplistic and uncritically endorses realism, in line with his generally pessimistic view of a naturalised "state of nature" prevailing among states. The notion of the "balance of power" has come under enormous challenge from IR scholars over the last several decades, which Minogue seems completely unaware of.
I would not recommend this book to either a general readership or to students of politics. There are far better general introductions to the nature of politics out there (even Bernard Crick's similarly reactionary tome, 'In Defence of Politics', is better than this; better yet, read some of the classics, like Weber on 'Politics as a Vocation' or Marx and Engels in the 'Communist Manifesto'). This book adds very little. It will not provide the broad overview of schools of thought that many students need to guide their understanding of political science, while it remains frustratingly narrow, parochial and status-quoist in its presentation of the nature and scope of politics by sneering at every significant attempt made to change it. For young readers in particular I can only imagine that this text would be a profoundly depressing and demoralising introduction to the subject.