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Updated: February 24, 2014 22:11 IST

A universal argument for politics

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
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Defending Politics — Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century: Mathew Flinders; Oxford University Press, 198, Madison New York, NY 10016. $ 29.95.
Special Arrangement Defending Politics — Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century: Mathew Flinders; Oxford University Press, 198, Madison New York, NY 10016. $ 29.95.

A book that wants notions of politics to be rescued from the pernicious implications of the market and media

This book is reiteration of some of key arguments of Bernard Crick’s classic, In Defence of Politics, which was written half a century ago, but more persuasively for a new generation of students of politics. Professor Flinders approaches the subject by interrogating key ideas of politics, and offers interpretation about how the notion of politics and democracy could be rescued from the pernicious implications of market and media — more importantly from an indifferent mass of citizenry. In each chapter, he engages with arguments and counter-arguments of many scholars and philosophers on different dimensions of politics and institutions, and situates the logic of politics in the larger arena of reasoned philosophical discourse of our time. As a writer, Flinders is gifted with unique skill, his style is very lucid, narratives are explanatory and without jargon that often characterises academic writings on politics. In chapter after chapter, he uses anecdotal accounts, day to day examples from real life and mixes these up with serious arguments drawn from classics as well as scholarly works of different disciplines. The ambition seemingly is to present a universal argument in defence of politics with clarity, of which he does a very convincing job.

Politics is a dirty word. It is an art that only attracts scoundrels, and the craft of soulless monsters. That is what the dominant perception about politics everywhere, in East as well as West — from the dingy relief camps of Muzzafarnagar in India’s Uttar Pradesh to the violent streets in Syria today. The author seeks to explain why the perception about politics as deplorable activity has become widespread,-and how people have become distrustful and disengaged. The empirical focus is the Western world, and a large part of the reflections are based on how the idea of politics has evolved in the post-World war era.

Elements of democracy

The central argument is that democracy is not broken, but it is vulnerable. It delivers more than many people could make sense of. Flinders recognises deep hatred people generally have for politics. He attributes this to the widespread ignorance people have about democracy. What disturbs him most is how the human cost, pain, and suffering arising out of the failure of democratic politics is generally not grasped by the contemporary generation. That does not imply that the author is an apologist of the misdemeanour of the political class, and functional limits of democratic politics as we know it. He suggests firmly the need for fashioning a new set of relationships that could harness the potential of the citizenry. Flinders seems to be a great believer of people’s rational power, but not of their raw passion, and could be seen more as a Madisonian. In some sense, he appears to be an institutionalist, who considers constitution, rule of law and citizenship rights as invaluable elements of modern democracy. It would have been indeed helpful, had he shared some of his reflections on the challenges in modern times about multi-culturalism, and roles of different religions in shaping the politics and anti-politics of our time, and his thoughts about Lipset’s much-highlighted arguments of social-economic prerequisites – or even Huntington’s cultural explanations for democracy.

In an era of globalisation, there is a great of deal of advocacy of market. According to Flinders, the market-based values could impact at least in five inter-related ways: 1) it fails to grasp the basic collective essence of democratic politics; 2) its narrow understanding of what motivates human behaviour; 3)a thin model of democracy that revolves around consumption and individualism; 4) it weakens our ability to make moral arguments; 5) it sabotages the state’s conduct by setting far higher expectations. The moral of the story is that the idea to treat citizens are consumers is a dreadful one. The recent global crisis indicates there is a limit to free market, and there are ways to address the state role in the economic arena. Having engaged with the rich scholarship of Keynes, Marx, Mill, Marshall and of a lecture of Michael Sandel (2009), the author warns us about the danger of promoting market citizenship, and the unhealthy political consequences of creating a system of governance where the market dictates the agenda. He appears to be closer to Barrington Moore in his understanding of the role of the economic system and its impact on democracy. What I find very insightful is his observation about what he calls governing paradox. What makes the state effective in some parts and fail elsewhere in the world? Some reflections on these questions on which a great many scholars of comparative politics are engaged could have been very helpful.

An important chapter is about the media. Flinders bemoans the fact that the media is primarily engaged in presenting a distorted brand of politics through sensationalisation. They — what we know — are now victims of TRP ratings. In India, there is this dangerous trend of paid news, which has undermined the ethics and integrity of media as institution. Such concerns are echoed in his arguments, though largely focused on the Western media. The nature of the media has changed in the digital age. Its power to penetrate into the political system has grown manifold. According to him, there is a need to change this relationship, but that has to happen on both sides. The final chapter is titled as, In Praise of Politics. The author analyses various dimension of politics here, and uses the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, with nickname of Baobooza., who set himself on fire as a protest against the injustice of state and society in Tunisia, that ultimately caused the Arab Spring.

Flinders shares with readers that — much like Bernard Crick’s work, which was written, “in one deep breath at a particular point of time,” — this book with seven chapters was primarily conceived and written for the most part during a ten-and-half hour journey from Exeter to Sheffield. This is not a book that can be entirely read in one deep breath. It is a serious intervention in political theory, with deep reflections on comparative politics and political economy.

DEFENDING POLITICS — Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century: Mathew Flinders; Oxford University Press, 198, Madison New York, NY 10016. $ 29.95.

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