Edmund Fawcett (2014) Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Princeton University Press
Henry Kissinger (2014) World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Allen Lane
Geoffrey Hosking (2014) Trust – A History, Oxford University Press
Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Paul A.M.van Lange (2014) Power, Politics and Paranoia, Cambridge University Press
For those interested in politics, it is, similar to all pursuits, addictive and all encompassing. This is especially true of career politicians, their acolytes and supporting staff, members of the media who commentate on it, academics that theorise about the field and a small group of interested bystanders who think it matters. But the average citizen is indifferent to politics. This indifference increases with the distance between the voter’s personal interests and the political issue under consideration.
The inherent contradiction creates problems. Politicians and those absorbed in politics have an imperfect understanding of the citizen, whom they purport to represent and in whose interests they are supposed to govern. The population misunderstands the political process and machinery, increasingly distrusting it. Lee Kuan Yew, the recently deceased leader of Singapore, was unconvinced that the democracy, with its principle of one person one vote, was actually the best form of government. His genius was successfully cloaking a benevolent authoritarianism in a democratic guise to implement his preferred agenda. Winston Churchill put it more colourfully stating that: “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Churchill held that democracy was merely the worst form of Government except for all other forms available and tried.
Each of these books poses interesting political questions: on ideology, international relations, and the relationship between the political apparatus and citizens.
Former Economist journalist Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: the Life of an Idea concerns itself with political philosophy. Mr. Fawcett focuses on four ideas that he believes characterizes liberalism: “acknowledgment of inescapable ethical and material conflict within society, distrust of power, faith in human progress, and respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are.” These four ideas, he writes “distinguish the liberal outlook from those of its nineteenth-century rivals, conservatism and socialism, as well as from its twentieth-century competitors, fascism and communism, and from present-day contenders, notably competitive authoritarianism, national populism, and Islamic theocracy”. The book explores the development of these ideals over the last few centuries, using a narrative that consists of portraits of key thinkers and liberal-minded politicians and their work.
Smoothly written reflecting the author’s background, Liberalism is an interesting history of ideas and philosophies. The author’s desire to be inclusive perhaps results in arguably an overly liberal range of people being represented. This makes some of text feel somewhat truncated and will undoubtedly lead some readers to question the emphasis on one or other party as biography and accounts of policies whizz past rapidly. But overall the effort is insightful. John Stuart Mill emerges, unsurprisingly, as the most interesting character. Many of Mr. Fawcett’s readers will agree with his assessment: “Nobody since has offered as many-sided or candid a statement of the conflicting pressures within the liberal creed”.
The problem is that like all ideologies, liberalism proves itself to be flexible and accommodating of historical context. The term itself, as Mr. Fawcett recognises, becomes one which different people use to further naked ambition and their quest for influence rather than maintenance of doctrinal purity. Today, liberal, used as a term of approbation or insult, can define a belief in government intervention to resolve social and economic problems or resistance to government interference on individual freedoms.
Mr. Fawcett’s approach based on his wider definitional scope leads to some problems. It is difficult to reconcile Adam Smith’s liberalism as embodied in the impersonal market of The Wealth of Nations with his arguments in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Friedrich Hayek’s laissez-faire economics with its emphasis on freedom conflicts with his mistrust of progress and lack of focus on social justice. These difficulties are most acute in the last part of the book which covers period after post World War II. The inclusion of everyone –Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand- suggests an overly capacious definition whose only distinguishing feature is that it is not totalitarian or authoritarian. One suspects that these individuals would have liked the label at least insofar as it helped their argument or agenda and made them seem more compassionate than they were in reality.
Henry Kissinger would not have cared to be described as “liberal”, though he did once identify himself in the 1960s to a journalist as a “swinger” (when such things were fashionable). World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History is focused less on ideology than on practical statecraft.
Dr. Kissinger is a deeply divisive and divided figure. He is reviled by many for his association with controversial American foreign policies, such as the Vietnam War and the overthrow of Allende regime in Chile. This view was forcibly argued by the late Christopher Hitchens’ in the 2001 The Trial of Henry Kissinger. There is the diplomat who played an important role in pivotal initiatives such as detent with Russia and the opening of China to the West. There is the intellectual, informed by Central European sensibilities, theorising about contemporary politics, statesmanship and power relationships; for example, in his excellent book Diplomacy. There is also the deeply insecure émigré, concerned about the company he keeps and his status. World Order is informed by all these influences.
Described as “the summation of Henry Kissinger’s thinking about history, strategy and statecraft”, the book attempts to set out a worldview based on the Westphalian system and the balance of power. Dr. Kissinger favours realism to idealism: “Moral prescriptions without concern for equilibrium… tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenge.” His lifelong attachment to realpolitik (at least to justify his position) is most evident in the figures he favours (Richelieu, Talleyrand, Metternich and Teddy Roosevelt) or rejects (Woodrow Wilson). He believes that the balance of power or terror is the only viable system for managing relations between states. Allied to this is the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, even when they are abhorrent. The need to engage with alternative power complexes and cultures to preserve national interest is paramount.
Lacking the authority of Diplomacy or the personal intimacy of his On China, World Order is, in the end, deeply unsatisfying. There is little that is new. The writing does not flow. Attempts to give it a contemporaneous relevance are forced. The sections on ISIL and evolving US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan feel hurried and artificial. The new global order is more questions than a coherent thesis and less than convincing.
Ultimately, World Order founders on its facile and unedifying attempt at self-justification. Dr. Kissinger seeks to justify his work and policies as diplomat, US Secretary of State and advisor over the last half century. At one point, he directly addresses his critics relying on the merits of his realistic view of the world: “idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognise that ideals are also part of reality.” It is interesting to see the contrast between Dr. Kissinger’s and former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s (in the film Unknown Unknowns) denial of errors or true effects of their actions and Robert McNamara’s sorrowful attempt to understand his past (in another Errol Morris film The Fog of War). It is the difference between the political and the human.
Geoffrey Hosking’s Trust – a History concerns itself with the underpinnings of social systems. Adam Smith argued, at least in one context, that self-interest serves as the key foundation. But complexity and lack of perfect information mean it may be difficult to pursue self-interest rationally. Professor Hosking, a scholar of Russian history, would argue that trust is the inevitable if irrational companion to self-interest.
Trust is a vital ingredient, allowing citizens to rely on the state, politicians, police, banks, and media on the basis of slight knowledge and infrequent contact. It acts through symbolic systems like governments, courts, religion and money forming what Professor Hosking refers to as the “deep grammar of society” which provides the framework of modern life. In its coverage, Trust traverses territory covered by scholars such as Adam Seligman (The Problem of Trust) and Paul Seabright (The Company of Strangers).
But trust is an inherently slippery and difficult concept. Professor Hosking does not clearly define the term he is dealing with. He argues that trust has been eroded but offers little convincing evidence in support. For example, the book makes the argument that the recent behaviour of banks and policymakers has reduced trust in them. Yet, since 2008, the same banks which have been found to have breached the trust of their clients and shareholders have prospered and grown even larger and more dominant. Savers continue to trust them with their savings. Similarly, there is little evidence that faith and acceptance of money and the payment system has eroded. Ironically, despite the evidence that central banks are poor at policy and forecasting, investors now place almost unlimited faith in their ability to maintain high asset prices and economic activity.
The book equates trust with economic prosperity and growth. Befitting his specialisation, the author illustrates the destruction of social trust in the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Yet the Soviet economy grew strongly during that period. Similarly in many Asian countries, ranging from China to Singapore, the correlation between trust and economic indicators is weak.
The real question may be different: why do we trust certain instruments and institutions when our experience tells us that our faith in them may not always be justified? For example, most investors do know that the unprecedented experiment being conducted by the central banks currently probably will fail with disastrous consequence. Yet, they choose to suspend disbelief. What is interesting is that they choose to continue to maintain their trust even when experience suggests the contrary. Politicians through the centuries have promised real change but rarely delivered. Religious figures have promised spiritual salvation without proof.
One possible explanation is that the real genius of most social, political and economic control systems is to ensure compliance and engagement, irrespective of trust. In essence, we continue to participate in the current political and economic system because we have no choice. In effect, we trust not because we can and choose to but because we must and cannot avoid it in modern societies, suffering the consequences with increasing frequency.
Editors Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Paul van Lange in Power, Politics and Paranoia: why People are Suspicious of their Leaders examine why societal leaders, such as politicians and Chief Executives, are frequently deeply distrusted by the public. Contributions by a broad group of researchers in social science examine issues of power, trust, political psychology and leadership. The findings confirm that the lack of trust derives from actual or perceived unethical and fraudulent behaviour, the fact that major decisions which affect a lot of people differently is always likely to be treated suspiciously and paranoia and conspiracy theories with little basis. The empirical research presented is generally inconclusive, but confirms there are both known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
The barren academic style employed requires dedication to make sense of the epistemological expansion within existing paradigmatic frameworks which avoid comprehensibility for fear of discovery of the inherent shallowness of the argument. The objective is to facilitate the authors’ academic progression and access to grant funding to add to the collective confusion.
These books merely confirm our worst fears.
Politics is practised today at an industrial level. The amount of money needed to complete (Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign will require more than US$2 billion) alone ensures this. It creates political machines rivalling large corporations with attendant professional politicians and staffers. Today, politics is a career choice involving a steady succession of roles from student leader, staffer, adviser to political office; all without having a real job at any stage. This breed oligopolies and oligarchies. The Bush or Clinton political mafias are matched by the Nehru’s in India and similar cliques in other countries. Association through elite schools, foundations or think tanks and professional networks create a narrow and limited political spectrum. The concept of public service, much mentioned, is evident only by its absence.
Today, acquisition and preservation of power is all. The self-interest of politicians and their associated apparatchiks dominate. Policies are devoid of content. The emphasis is on combat – minimise exposure to attack from opponents and maximise the discomfort of political competitors. Unpopular or divisive issues are avoided. Leadership is reversed with most “leaders” agreeing with French politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader”.
Politicians move in each other company, totally insulated from the real world and real people. This insularity is aggravated by language. Politics has its own linguistic codes and subtle semantics. Most professions are similar. The major difference is that politics, in theory, requires a modicum of understanding of the broader electorate. In practice, most professionals involved in the political process are unable to comprehend the needs and desires of an increasingly cynical and disengaged general public. The limited knowledge they have is gained through marketing techniques such as polls and focus groups as well as increasing social media trending patterns.
The dysfunction manifests itself in several ways. Most politicians now follow Machiavelli in flattering the electorate (usually at election time) or crushing them (at all others). The political formula is the age old one prescribed by Roman satirical poet Juvenal: “bread and circuses”. Bread is some semblance of economic prosperity and the possibility of improvement. Circuses are anything from wars, political scandals and fist fights, celebrity, electronic wiz-bangs and reality TV.
The process is ossified by the lack of voter choice. Keynes saw elections in his time as a choice between two camps, equally if differently incompetent. There was the ‘stupid’ party – the conservatives. They were hereditary, defensive and deeply bigoted. Keynes saw them as incapable of even identifying their own best interest, unable to distinguish between novel measures for safeguarding capitalism from what they called bolshevism. Then there was the ‘silly’ party – the left of centre Labour party, obsessed with social justice, resistant to business and profit motivated activities, and instinctively resentful and anti-elitist. Keynes identified sensible elements of the sillies, who were inevitable outflanked by catastrophists who believed that capitalism was violently unstable and replaceable by something that they were unable to describe.
In a world where crucial decisions about the economy, living standards, equality of opportunity, environment, non-renewable resources and geo-political matters are urgently required, our existing arrangements are no longer sustainable. In March 2007 edition of the magazine Prospect, historian Eric Hobsbawn argued that: “none of the major problems facing humanity can be solved by the principles that still dominate the developed countries of the West: unlimited economic growth and technical progress, the ideal of individual autonomy, freedom of choice, electoral democracy”.
At its core, all political systems may be doomed to failure and are likely to disappoint. In his 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera identified the dream of paradise “where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another.” He also knew the reality: “Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way. And so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect while the adjoining paradise gets even smaller and poorer”. It remains the most acute and accurate analysis of our political aspirations.
© 2015 Satyajit Das