Reinventing Political Culture: The Power of Culture versus the Culture of Power

February 23, 2012

Political culture is a bit of an elephant in the living room for social scientists. It's large and we know it's there, but we're not sure how to deal with it. As a result, it is often ignored at the expense of a clearer understanding of political transition. In his new book, Jeffrey Goldfarb provides clear and compelling ways to incorporate notions of political culture into the broader understanding of political transition. He uses three case studies: the challenge to the Communist regime in Poland; the rhetoric of Barack Obama and his critics in the US; and the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Throughout this engaging book, Goldfarb gives persuasive examples of how the "politics of small things" can challenge hegemonic regimes, spurring new readings of history and cultures that can overturn power relationships. His choice of case studies illuminates his central concept of how "common sense" can be redefined by political culture, while at the same time pointing out the differences in how this is expressed - and how it may succeed - in three very different contexts.

In the case of Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, Goldfarb argues that unofficial groups and dialogue eventually were able to provide an alternative political paradigm, which effectively challenges the idea that truth and power are two sides of one coin. Rather, as public understanding of "truth" shifts, so can power, transforming a "culture of power" into the "power of culture". Goldfarb draws on a broad range of political philosophy, ranging from Michel Foucault to Alexis de Tocqueville, in ways that illuminate the original work, critique it and show how it relates to the idea that the relationship between power and knowledge can reinvent political culture. His ability to discuss political philosophy concisely with incisive critique is particularly good, making one wish it were possible to drop into his lectures.

The truth/power relationship resonates through the two other case studies for the book - the rise of Obama and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Goldfarb is particularly good at showing why Obama challenges a more nostalgic view of the US, while demonstrating how the president suggests an evolution of American common sense: "Obama has been trying to emphasize the need to link individualism to concern for the common good, while his opponents have been countering with a commitment to the notion that the way to achieve the common good is through individualism."

In Goldfarb's analysis of the Middle East, he acknowledges that there is little progress toward shared goals between Israelis and Palestinians. His discussion of two different dialogues or "realities" for each group is particularly interesting - here there is no "common sense", and the "small politics" of interaction hold out little hope for resolution so far.

Goldfarb makes a unique and highly readable contribution to thinking about political culture. At the same time, he raises some questions. In particular, the book leaves relatively unexplored the role of the internet as a way of facilitating small politics through networked communication. While he stresses the role of intellectuals in political culture, perhaps more distinction should be made between elite and popular political culture. Also, as much as he addresses the "elephant" of political culture, he underplays the role of broader political change and context to a degree (such as the shift in Moscow that facilitated Polish independence). Overall, however, Goldfarb has produced an erudite, yet lively and readable, contribution to efforts to bring more creative ways of thinking about political culture to social science.

Reinventing Political Culture: The Power of Culture versus the Culture of Power

By Jeffrey C. Goldfarb. Polity Press. 202pp, £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745646367 and 46374. Published 11 November 2011

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