Monday, 9 October 2017

Political Classics

On Sunday, The Observer published a supplement on "100 Political Classics That Shaped the Modern World". I'd normally ignore such marketing fluff, but what caught my eye was this one's subdivision into 11 sections, which is itself a political act. As a product of the classical tradition of philosophy, political theory is fundamentally categorical, so pigeonholing is central to the simplified manner in which it is presented in the media. Even meta-political concepts such as the Overton Window promote the idea of "framing". Likewise, cooperation may be more common than competition in most human affairs, but the latter is the dominant feature within the narrower bounds of political practice, which is ultimately the struggle over scarce social resources. As a result, the epiphenomena of politics tend to reflect the compulsion towards comparison and ranking. Boris Johnson is just an extreme case.

The first section is entitled 'The Founding Works', a phrase that defines politics as an essentially literary and canonical discipline. There is no place here for other media, most strikingly cinema and TV. The Observer's list finds space for Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now but not for Mr Smith Goes to Washington or The Thick of It. The first book is Plato's Republic, which is advocated because of its concern with timeless "forms". This immediately presents the problem of idealism. Do we make our politics, both consciously and unconsciously, or are we subject to natural laws? That history has seen a slow shift to an acceptance that politics is man-made and contingent, rather than based on some cosmic order, might suggest that a re-evaluation of the relevance of Plato is overdue. Of the ancient Greeks, Thucydides is probably more read today outside of academic circles, precisely because he is concerned with realpolitik and human motivation rather than ideal forms.

The Wealth of Nations qualifies as a founding work in the Observer scheme, though on the peculiar grounds that while it is "Not, strictly speaking, a political work, Smith's great treatise continues to shape modern politics". This logic does not extend to the inclusion of Das Kapital, which over-and-above its economic theory was responsible for introducing many of the foundational concepts of modern political science, such as the distinction of base and superstructure and the role of ideology. For its influence on the socialist tradition alone, you would have expected Karl Marx's big book to be included, but apparently its analysis of capitalism as a problematic economic system that gives rise to material contradictions and political manifestations is of questionable value, while Adam Smith's idealised market mechanisms, most famously the metaphysical "invisible hand", are not.

To give Marx and Engels their due, The Communist Manifesto features in the second section, 'Manifestos and Tracts', though this also includes George Orwell's Animal Farm, which is actually a parable on the corruption of power, suggesting a rather loose interpretation of "tract". Orwell's overtly political writings, such as A Homage to Catalonia and his essays, are ignored. According to Will Hutton, who chose this particular section, Animal Farm was "paradigm-changing", but this just seems to be mean that it "snuffed out any realistic chance the British communist party had of becoming a major political force", which makes you wonder why he didn't include the collected interviews of Paul Nuttall, which did much the same for UKIP. No actual electoral manifestos are included, but the Beveridge Report of 1942 is. This continues the attempt to claim the welfare state for liberalism, ignoring that the 1945 Labour Party Manifesto took a very different line to Beveridge in key areas, notably state control of the NHS. What remains of the welfare state is due to 1945, not 1942.

The third section is 'Politics in Fiction', which seems confused both by political importance and literary merit. Beyond "Novelists can hold a mirror to the virtues and vices of an age", there is no attempt to define what constitutes a political novel. If you're going to include dystopias, choosing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale over Orwell's 1984 looks like a reflection of contemporary prominence rather than an assessment of historic influence, while the inclusion of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, presumably on the basis of US sales rather than how many people managed to read the entirety of its turgid, misanthropic nonsense, is the equivalent of putting Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans in your top 10 albums of the 1970s. The inclusion of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and George Eliot's Middlemarch looks like an attempt to leaven the worthy with "teeming narratives" in which politicians figure as walk-on characters. Despite the inclusion of Achebe and Hasek, this is a highly anglocentric selection: no Camus, no Lampedusa, no Grass.

The fourth section, 'First Person', focuses on diaries. The prominent position these occupy in politics is a peculiarity of anglophone culture, which probably dates from the time of Pepys and Evelyn when political allegiances were mutable and truth occult. In the democratic era, political diaries have tended to be gossipy and solipsistic, though the revelations are rarely eyebrow-raising, with the possible exception of Alan Clark's sex-life. The tenor of the list is set by the inclusion of two New Labour apparatchiks, Oona King and Alistair Campbell. One has nothing original to say about politics and the other has been eclipsed by Malcolm Tucker. The inclusion of Chris Mullin and Tony Benn, who both have their merits but were moulded by circumstance into the Mr Pooter and Barbara Cartland of postwar political diarists, doesn't help. I'm only surprised that Jess Philips didn't make the cut. Related to this, the 10th section, 'Public Lives', covers biographies. These are of little interest to anyone concerned with political theory, both because publishers demand anecdotes rather than the history of an intellect's development and because the lived life is often a theoretical (if entertaining) mess.

'Feminism' (section 5) and 'Black Consciousness' (section 9) are set in splendid isolation, suggesting that there is politics and then there is the politics of the other. In the 'Black Consciousness' section, David Olusoga rebelliously says of Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, "Gilroy demonstrates that black culture is both local and global and cannot be constrained within any single national culture". The Observer didn't take the hint. Section 6, 'International Struggle', claims it "offers the difficult aftermath of empire in 10 books", which might lead you to expect works on Palestine and Ireland. There are none. In fact the list has little sense of unity, with reportage on Chinese factories and polemics about human rights mixed in with straight history. The dominant (and famously antagonistic) presences on the list are Edward Said's Orientalism and Bernard Lewis's Islam and the West. One is a work of cultural theory, the other of comparative political practice. The former is the more important in the history of ideas, but the latter is the more explicitly political. Basically, the section is all over the place.

The 7th section, 'British Politics', includes works by Will Hutton (who curated section 2), Andrew Rawnsley (who wrote the overall introduction) and Guardian stalwart Polly Toynbee. Politics involves a lot of self-regard and back-scratching, so this is entirely appropriate. The over-riding sense in this section is of the paucity of original thinking since the early 1980s, Stuart Hall's The Politics of Thatcherism being the last work of real note, which results in the most recently published book being a manifesto by the Britannia Unchained group of Tory MPs (the artists latterly known as Brexit Unhinged). The 11th section, 'The Here and Now', has an obvious overlap with section 7, but this just emphasises the degree to which the liberal commentariat has been spellbound by poorly-argued nonsense on the rise of the right, hence the "classics" here include Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin's Revolt on the Right, J D Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and David Goodhart's The Road to Somewhere

Ta-Nehisi Coates also appears in section 11 but his Between the World and Me is more a work of literature than politics, being about the general position of blacks in US society and the conditions under which a distinct black consciousness arises. By this logic, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which after all includes a substantive argument about Parnell, is a political work. Coates is sometimes an explicitly political writer - witness his fine essay on reparations - but this inclusion looks like a belief that black experience should be limited to identity politics. Though the section includes more systematically political works, such as the political economy of Thomas Piketty (Capital) and the political sociology of Wolfgang Streeck (How Will Capitalism End?), it also displays the persistent British taste for egotistical trivialisation, so Yanis Varoufakis's self-exculpatory tale of his "battle with Europe's deep establishment" also appears.

Section 8, 'Plays', is curated by Robert McCrum. Shakespeare gets an obligatory mention, but it's the aristocratic conflict of Richard III rather than the class-conscious politics of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus. Perhaps a future list of political classics that extends to film and TV will include Game of Thrones rather than I, Daniel Blake. McCrum's justification for his choice is the way that the play was used to legitimise the Tudors, but that suggests we should value outright propaganda, so perhaps that future list of political cinema will include Triumph of the Will. In avoiding a classically-inspired play, McCrum misses the opportunity to note the influence of Plutarch and other ancient writers on English drama and rhetoric in the 16th century, and thus the way that Shakespeare knits together Plato with Hobbes and Locke in the 'Founding Works'. This lack of overall coherence, as much as the inconsistency within sections, does at least reflect the British approach to politics. My first instinct was right: I really shouldn't have bothered.