Bartleby by Herman Melville.

“I would prefer not to.”

This text is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Some readers may find it poignant, while others could deconstruct it from a psychological perspective. However, it can be seen as an existential drama about choice and movement.

The main character opts to stay still. This life strategy has disastrous personal consequences. Nevertheless, the individual gains a degree of dignity and freedom via this choice. Under capitalism, movement, circulation and growth are seen as valuable, while reflection is not perceived as important. Refusing to participate in the race is viewed by authority as a crime.

If we say yes too often, we are open to excessive exploitation. By preferring no, we can draw some of the lines we want. Flexibility, agility and contentment can only be maintained if we have the kind of courage embodied by the character depicted by Melville.

 

People Power. A User’s Guide to Democracy by Dan Jellinek

“there is no reason why people who protest cannot also vote or take part in more formal activities. In a sense, ‘formal’ politics is all that we have to run our lives as an organized, collaborative and cooperative group of people.”

This informative text borrows from the theorizing of Professor Colin Hay. It contends that the active citizen should engage in democratic politics for the benefit of society. It has no time for anarchists who view the state as an obstacle to freedom.

The strength of this text is not to be found in the abstract realm. There is little to be found here in relation to the undemocratic power of business interests. However, the book shows how we can get involved in processes that may help others. There are opportunities for political intervention at different levels of governance.

Perhaps the evolution of the UK is hampered by the vagueness of its constitutional arrangements. The flexibility of a largely unwritten constitution may be of use to the powerful. There is little evidence that it is of any assistance to the powerless. As the British state faces serious challenges to its future coherence, there are important debates to be had.

 

 

 

Plays Pleasant by Bernard Shaw

This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell.  Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.

While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:

“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”

Ethics and Welfare: the Case of Hunting by Roger Scruton

Most philosophy cannot be put in the simplistic category of bad. Although some philosophy has been misused by fascists, that same philosophy has sometimes provided inspiration to harmless artists or interesting intellectuals. However, Roger Scruton has proved that philosophy can possess few redeeming features. His odd argument in favour of fox-hunting is an example of wicked thinking.

The essay is not light on research. This is in part because the conservative thinker received assistance from experts with various aspects of the piece. Despite this seriousness, the work does not address the critical questions one might expect. Instead it assumes that fox-hunting can be viewed in terms of the management of wildlife.

It is correct that debating fox-hunting can generate more heat than light in urban settings. And it is true that the issue of social class can shape perceptions of the activity. But it is wrong to suggest that respect for foxes can justify the cruel pursuit of them for pleasure. Nor does the aesthetic of the hunt make the following statement relevant to meaningful modern ethics:

“From Homer to Sassoon the art and literature of hunting exhibits an almost religious respect for the quarry…”

 

 

 

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Mario Cuomo

Jeremy Corbyn has clearly realised the power of the poem. At Glastonbury, he harnessed Shelley to inspire his audience. While the Conservative Party has been slow to form an awkward coalition with the DUP, the Labour leader has been quick to communicate his message of hope with large numbers of people.

It is uncertain if Corbyn will ever ascend to the summit of politics in the UK. However, he has already confounded a great many of his critics. Along the way, he has revealed a love of reading. His passion for Joyce made several people sit up.

If governing is a prosaic activity, does it have to be a fraudulent one? Is it possible for politicians to craft narratives which will take us to a fairer future? Will we continue to be led by Machiavellian monsters like Trump and Putin? The art of political studies is to live in the world of the possible. This does not mean we should be cynical, defeatist or neutral. Nonetheless, it does imply we must avoid making predictions.

Britain Since 1918 by David Marquand

This learned discussion of democracy in the UK received a positive review from moderate Labour’s Roy Hattersley. It is hard not to be impressed  by a text which informs and entertains. The democratic process might not always have delivered the goods for ordinary people in Britain, but appreciating the statecraft and ideologies which have led to negative results can be educative.

For Marquand, politicians should not be seen as cynical hypocrites. They have often been trapped by tradition just when they hoped to be innovative. Old influences like Edmund Burke have seemingly shaped some of their choices in the modern era. While political theorists may have been thinking in terms of Machiavelli, Marx, Althusser or Foucault, the behaviour of those they have been ruled by could have been shaped by less inspirational philosophy.

Nonetheless, Burke should not be viewed as a pure reactionary. His excessive distaste for the French Revolution did not make him into a simple conservative. This kind of complexity means that politicians have sometimes misread the lessons of the past. On other occasions, pressure from the people has obliged politicians to assume more collectivist ways of thinking. Marquand ends his narrative on a note which is not devoid of optimism:

“As petrol blockades, the Countryside Alliance and, most of all, the huge anti-war demonstration in February 2003 all showed, the ancient British tradition of peaceful protest was alive and well.”

Of the People, by the People by Roger Osborne

“Arguably the greatest failure of democratic governments in our time has been the surrender of power to the international financial system in return for short-term prosperity for their electors.”

This compelling narrative about the history of democracy is succinct. Nevertheless, it makes a significant number of telling points. It shows how democracy has been interpreted differently down the ages. It reminds us that the answer to problems in mature democracies is often more democracy.

For example, the author makes the point that democracy suffered major setbacks between the major wars of the last century. This was partly because of economic difficulties. However, it was also due to the rise of extreme nationalism. While vulgar forms of Marxism were also undemocratic, it was toxic fascism which emerged as the biggest danger.

If citizens of the world today want to avoid making the mistakes of the past, refusing to support overtly nationalist politicians is prudent. Socialism and liberalism are ideologies which have not got an innocent history. However, the optimism they share is necessary now.