A battle of self versus state

The Cunning of Unreason
October 20, 2000

Defining politics and its study is a perennial and fundamental question for political theorists and political scientists. It has exercised writers since Aristotle invented the term. In The Cunning of Unreason , John Dunn makes a major and lasting contribution to the scholarly treatment of the core elements of politics. Employing an impressive range of scholarly sources and original argument, Dunn develops a framework with which to explain "how politics has come to be a vaguely degrading and highly specialised occupation", and why it is an "occupation blatantly unfit for gentlemen - let alone gentlewomen".

He argues that understanding politics is the necessary basis for improved political judgement "and hence our political actions". It is this latter aim - a consistent attentiveness to the purposes of political struggle - that Dunn's powerful analysis seeks to kindle (or rekindle).

Dunn, professor of political theory at Cambridge, is the author of influential works of political theory, including books on John Locke, socialism, and the enduring significance of the western political tradition. He has also written widely cited studies of revolutions and aspects of contemporary politics. These two interests constitute a fruitful basis for a general essay about the theory and practice of modern politics, often a lachrymose and lugubrious spectacle to observe.

In The Cunning of Unreason , Dunn successfully combines his knowledge of western political theory with an appreciation of major developments in political practice. He is a master of distilling insights from the classical political tradition that can be used to grasp current trends. The tradition advocated by the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes, which emphasises the unavoidable and insoluble struggle of political debate, is in opposition to the tradition whose champions (such as Rousseau and Marx) believe a better social order is realisable through political planning, and together these two tendencies have dominated debate about political theory. Dunn's analysis is structured around the tension between these tendencies and the problem of their reconciliation.

Dunn argues that politics is about struggles between individuals, or sometimes groups, in complex social orders to resolve competing views about the organisation and ends of society. It is about the "collisions between human purposes" commonplace in complex social organisations such as modern states - "an endless and highly unstable round of struggle and quest for understanding". He investigates the ways in which designers of political institutions have attempted to address the implications of this need to organise.

He does so with reference to influential alternative understandings of human motives - whether we are motivated by self-righteous individualism or by the logic of collective action, for instance. Do we think our individual judgements are the only ones worthy of respect, or do we recognise that making political choices is ineluctably a collective process?

Dunn emphasises the importance of accommodating individualism in designing institutions for political stability. He cites approvingly Aristotle's directive that "we need above all to analyse how human beings are best advised to live together, in order both to judge how their common life could go best and to give it the best chance which they can to go well in practice".

Furthermore, given the subjective and normative basis of political activity and debate, Dunn logically cautions against a pseudo-science of politics - his underlining of the struggles presumed by politics should reinvigorate a rational-choice approach to social order by compelling its theorists to devise richer and more sophisticated measures of individuals' interest and judgement. Politics arises from conflicts about the ends to be institutionalised socially and how we cooperate to pursue those ends. The centrality of individual goals in this process is often lost in formal political analysis. Dunn warns: "Human purposes still play a prominent role within the subject matter of politics."

Much work about how technically to formulate a legitimate system of rules and how to ensure the defence of different interests centres on the state, and some of the best discussions in The Cunning of Unreason concern its development both theoretically and empirically during the 1979-97 Conservative governments. Dunn maintains a clear distinction between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of the state, drawing on Weber, Jean Bodin and Hobbes.

He quite properly adjures that analysts of the state must keep both aspects - the capacity for the state to deliver policy efficaciously and to be hijacked by minority interests - in mind. Without the state, political order is unrealisable but that knowledge has to be tempered by the potential for temporary guardians of the state to employ its instruments illiberally. As Dunn crisply observes, "coercion is the core of states". Furthermore, placing the politics of the nation-state in a context of globalisation does not diminish the struggles that constitute politics:

"Human beings today struggle against one another and cooperate together (however irritably or bemusedly) on a far larger scale than they have ever done before. Politics fans out over and engulfs more and more of human life, along with the lives of ever more humans."

Dunn rightly lays considerable stress on the importance of law and rule, drawing on the arguments developed by S. E. Finer in The History of Government . Systems of rule are important because they involve "compelling large numbers of human beings more or less systematically to act as they would not otherwise be inclined, whether or not to their own advantage".

Correctly identifying the growth of rule, and its legitimation, as a key aspect of the modern state, Dunn could perhaps have given greater attention to the development of regulation and regulatory systems. Regulation, as political scientists such as Christopher Hood have demonstrated, gives meaning to the way in which the modern state functions - few academics are not affected directly by the vast and costly expansion of educational regulation since the 1980s. In the context of Dunn's book - which includes a detailed discussion of the success of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher - the diffusion of regulatory systems, despite the rhetoric of state disengagement and deregulation, is striking. It has proved to be an entrenched change as the Conservatives' successors continue to display a neoliberal enthusiasm for state regulation.

By the end of his study, Dunn has indeed demonstrated "why politics can still sometimes seem uniquely courageous, direct and even potentially effective in its assault on the misery and injustice of the great bulk of collective human life". Politics may at times be degrading and provide a forum for duplicity and small-mindedness, but without it, the chances of improved social wellbeing are limited. Furthermore, the alternatives of centralised control or free-market anarchy - with their accompanying authoritarianism and illiberality - have been exposed in the 20th century for their utter failure.

Dunn's emphasis on politics as the search to balance conflict and cooperation "between human purposes on any scale on which you care to look at it" provides a framework within which to consider political history and to evaluate modern debates. Its focus on individual preferences, purposes and choices is pertinent to new political issues. For example, the pincer pressures created by greater nationalist feeling in many countries and the external forces of globalisation are creating structural constraints on political struggle of a sort not yet fully understood.

The simultaneous propensity towards uniformity - sometimes described as Americanisation - and the celebrations of local identities (as the debate about English identity illustrates) point to new political strains. Most western industrial democracies have yet to face fully the implications of their highly diverse and increasingly multicultural populations, some of whose members hold "human purposes" beyond obvious reconciliation in public policy. Dunn's acknowledgement of the triumph of capitalism - it "has selected, refined and diffused quite widely, a state form reconciled to human limitations (greed, quarrelsomeness, severely limited altruism) but still aimed at mitigating the vulnerability of its subjects and serving their more commonplace and insistent practical concerns" - is instructive in this context. Inequality on grounds of ethnicity as well as income remains a pressing issue in capitalist democracies.

Engagingly written and argued, The Cunning of Unreason makes an excellent introduction to politics for students and general readers alike. Students will encounter a description of politics richly soaked in the western political tradition and will gain an understanding of the enduring issues studied by theorists and institutionalists. The general reader will discover a well-argued and broad-ranging interpretative essay about the sources of the malaise in modern politics as they have come to observe it from daily newspaper and television reports.

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics

Author - John Dunn
ISBN - 0 00 255647 2
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £16.99
Pages - 401

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