Power made weak by pedantry

Powers of Freedom
March 17, 2000

Powers of Freedom is an ambitious book. The sociologist Nikolas Rose sets out to contest orthodox approaches to politics in order that we may, as his subtitle has it, begin "reframing political thought". Not for him concern with government strategies, voting trends or ways in which parties represent their constituents. This would be far too mainstream for Rose, who urges that we look beyond government to the much wider matter of "governmentality": that is, to the more complex ways in which political affairs get conducted. Hence, his book is composed of lengthy accounts of how our sense of "freedom", of "community" and of "control" have developed and changed through time.

The book's intellectual framework derives from Michel Foucault. It is foundational in such an approach that power is not only a discourse, but that it is always a process of negotiation, hence intricate and uncertain. Also true to Foucault, the book announces that it is a genealogy rather than political sociology. As a genealogy the book has much to say about abstract concepts such as "advanced liberalism" and "the social", but there is only the loosest sense of chronology - little more than an undercurrent of argument that we have slipped from welfare states to control of citizens through consumerism, from a state that took responsibility for its citizens to one that emphasises its enabling role.

As someone keenly interested in politics, I have to say that I learned little from this book. For a start, it is much too long, pedantic and verbose. One wants a plain statement of Rose's views, but instead gets repeated self-citation and depressingly unwieldy sentences. Above all, despite its claim to look beyond politics, I finished the book with a feeling of, so what? What is striking is that, despite the smart-aleck assertions that the book looks not at how power is exercised but rather at how power is constructed, it offers very little practical value as regards politics. The paradoxical mixture of modesty (Rose is looking at the things too often excluded from politics with a capital P) and arrogance (it is impossible to escape the message that those mutts in, and out, of government have not much of a clue as to how they are constrained by the limits of their imaginations) left me uncomfortable. And the presentation of political radicalism in an exclusionary scholastic style, which means the book will be read only by the groupuscule immersed in post-structuralism, grated. Failing to offer either succinctness, accessibility or much of substance, Rose can scarcely complain if Powers of Freedom fails to have influence.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought

Author - Nikolas Rose
ISBN - 0 521 65075 5 and 65905 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 321

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