From ancient Greece to modern China, our pick of this year's booksby Prospect / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Politics Rachel Sylvester
The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy by Ferdinand Mount (Simon & Schuster, £18.99)
This is supposed to be the age of individual autonomy and mass democracy, an era when the internet has distributed power more widely than ever, with diplomacy conducted via Twitter and celebrities created overnight on TV. But Ferdinand Mount’s theory is that Britain is in fact in the hold of an oligarchy which is concentrating influence and wealth to an unprecedented and dangerous extent in the hands of the few, not the many.
Weaving politics and big business, bankers’ bonuses and media moguls, the European Union and the centralised state, the Occupy movement and last summer’s riots, he argues that the country is seeing the rise of a super-rich and super-powerful elite that is becoming increasingly detached from the rest of society, with devastating consequences. George Osborne’s declaration that “we are all in this together” sounds “grotesquely implausible” in a way it would not have done a generation ago, because not only has inequality grown so rapidly but also “power seems to have been tightly gathered in the hands of a small number of dominant characters.” This is a critique of modern capitalism and social breakdown that is written from the right rather than the left. Coming from the former head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, who is also a cousin of David Cameron, it is a fascinating thesis.
Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist
Psychology John Gray
Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips (Hamish Hamilton, £20)
“For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full.” In this striking image, the psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips presents the central theme of his latest and possibly most subversive book: the idea that modern people cannot help living a double life in which what they experience is shadowed by imagined experiences they feel they are missing. The modern project, Phillips writes, is “to create societies in which people can realise their potential.” We like to think each person is a reservoir of untapped talents and ambitions, practically infinite in their variety and scope. But infinite possibilities cannot be realised in lives that are finite, and the result is that modern lives are defined by loss—the loss of lives that were not lived and never could have been.