The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics

 
9780006863588: The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics

Britain’s greatest political historian and scientist shows in this unique book the nuts and bolts of how politics works.

Politics is inevitably disappointing. Why is this so? Politics is important and obscure and difficult. Must it be so? How can anyone even begin to understand politics? In fact, why bother to try to understand it at all?

This, possibly the first genuinely, unblinkingly honest book about politics, endeavours to answer all these questions. ‘The Cunning of Unreason’ shirks nothing, no aspect of political thought or theory. It explains first in the abstract (what is politics? etc.) and then makes this concrete, tying the ideas into a fascinating re interpretation of Thatcher’s Britain. Dunn shows how this lasted and then fell apart, in all its complexity. The focus then becomes more general, spanning ideas of state, judgment, corruption, democracy and its failings, economics, markets, etc, etc. The final part is one of consolidation: what is political science; what are the implications of our and the world’s current political situation and how can we use this knowledge to choose better?

‘As usual John Dunn asks questions about politics and the political process that few other scholars have thought of asking (or dared to ask). “The Cunning of Unreason” is a searching intellectual inquiry into the nature of political action; but it is an even more disturbing and acute essay upon the nature of political thought. It is idiosyncratic, brilliant, and very original.’ Paul Kennedy, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’

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Review:

Why politics? A disingenuous question, perhaps, but John Dunn, Professor of Political Theory at King's College, Cambridge, succeeds in spinning the conceit over more than three hundred pages of closely reasoned, stimulating supposition in The Cunning of Unreason. Matching a stridently jaunty tone to typically Oxbridge dissembling, he disarms potential cynics with his admission that politics can be a "vaguely degrading" profession that constantly disappoints, while being "blatantly unfit for gentlemen--let alone gentlewomen". However, he also allows that it can be noble, while noting that no system of human authority is more noble than the human beings who exercise it.

The initial overview builds on abstract visions of rule and political understanding, and the collision between human purposes, drawing on Aristotle, Locke, Marx, Adam Smith, Max Weber and, most appreciatively, Thomas Hobbes. Dunn applies his broad brush with deft strokes, and it's for the most part fluent, discursive writing. The middle eight, a consideration of the significant political and economic shifts during the Thatcher years, treads on more swampy ground. He proposes that the British populous was more repulsed by Labour than attracted by the Tories; a case of omission rather than commission. Thatcher, a political "dominatrix", personally interpreted her electorate, and sought to communicate what seems with hindsight more a response than a considered ideology. The subsequent Just War to systematically refashion the economy to be internationally competitive saw economism far outstrip political advances, a disparity through selective radicalism also addressed in Larry Siedentop's Democracy in Europe. The later chapters drift around more general issues, centred on the capitalist legacy of recent history, "a low dishonest quarter of a century" according to Dunn. If Harold Wilson's week was a long time in politics, this era of "globalisation" has been an eternity. But politics can still surprise. Demonstrations of public protest can wrest back power from those who may have lost sight of their elective mission. Politics may elude precise definition, but Dunn's skilful analysis provides an illuminating and enjoyable blazed trail through the gloom. --David Vincent

From the Publisher:

reviews for THE CUNNING OF UNREASON
With wit and insight, Dunn strips away the cant to show us what lies beneath. THE CUNNING OF UNREASON fizzes and stimulates… Helping us understand is great fun and so is this blazing book. One you rather think that Tony might keep by his bedside.’ PETER PRESTON, Observer

‘Over a series of writings unrivalled in their range and depth – from seventeenth-century English political thought to the nature of allegiance in Sri Lanka, from classical democratic theory to the political economy of the Gold Coast – Dunn has established himself as perhaps the most original and important political thinker of his generation. THE CUNNING OF UNREASON is a powerful, challenging and consistently illuminating demonstration of why professional understandings – whether from armchair or stump – are so erratic and disappointing. But his argument travels a good deal further forward than that and sets out more positively how we might see and understand politics and why we urgently need to do so. Beginning from first principles – what is politics? Why does it exist at all? – Dunn threads his way towards specific examples chosen to instruct us on how to understand our own political predicaments. Dunn’s outstanding trait is his sensitivity toward the two core dimensions of politics: power and value. He takes the case of Britain under Mrs Thatcher, and asks why there occurred a sharp shift to the political right and what this shift means. To answer the latter he asks us to see the British case as an instance of a larger development in the historical career of the modern representative. Dunn revives, revises and urges upon us an often sombre Hobbesian idiom which affirms the absolute necessity of the modern state. But he wishes too to comprehend its shabby performance – its deep injustice and recklessness, across present generations and towards future ones. At this point Dunn firmly hands the baton over, in a way that underlines that it is for and to each of us that he is writing. Hence the need to make sense of politics for ourselves. By broadening our sense of politics and why it matters, by reminding us of the quality of wisdom, not the least of Dunn’s achievements in this book is to help us away from the current evisceration of political sense by the foreman of the already collapsing third way. Dunn has given us a rare thing: an intellectually aristocratic book written for a profoundly democratic age.’ SUNIL KHILNANI, Financial Times

‘THE CUNNING OF UNREASON blows a gust of fresh air through the cobwebbed byways of political thought. John Dunn writes clearly and freshly about some of its most venerable questions – what politics is, why it occurs, how it works, and why it cannot be abolished. He is sharply critical of moralistic approaches to politics and it is refreshing to find him writing appreciatively about Hobbes. It would be pleasant to think that Dunn’s assessment might lead to a wider rediscovery of the greatest political thinker of modern Europe. Dunn wears his impressive erudition lightly A breviary of scepticism for academic writers on politics. One of its many virtues is that it takes the central subject of political theory to be politics with all its contingencies and ambiguities.’ JOHN GRAY, Independent

‘A charming and refreshingly dogged philosophical analysis…A serious jewel amid the foul slurry of New Labour gossip-mongering.’ STEVEN POOLE, Guardian

‘A major and lasting contribution to the scholarly treatment of the core elements of politics. Employing an impressive range of scholarly sources, 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 insoluable 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. Crisp, 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 theorist s and institutionalist. The general reader will discover a well-argued and broadranging 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, THES

‘An impressively profound and comprehensive survey of the current and future economic and political scene.’ IAN GILMOUR, The Times

‘Stimulating and deft…an impressive and interesting book on politics from Ancient Greece to the 21st century.’ ANDREW ROBERTS, Daily Telegraph

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