A leading thinker recommends five books about their field of interest.by Prospect / May 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
This month, the topic is “power and ideas,” chosen by James Purnell, a former Labour minister, member of parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde from 2001 to May 2010, and currently the head of the Open Left project at Demos The Idea of Justice (2009) By Amartya Sen This book’s central idea is the importance of what Sen, an economist and philosopher, calls “capability,” but I would call power—he argues that this is not just exclusively about money. In the past, the centre left has got lost in the cul-de-sac of equality being about money. Sen’s counter-example is of a disabled person, who needs more money than someone who isn’t disabled. Power is about the ability to make decisions and choices: about capability. Sen is also withering about the idea of democracy as an inherently western value, showing that it has deep and independent roots in Indian and other cultures. He is arguing mainly with the American philosopher John Rawls, who believed that justice was about perfect institutions. But it’s not. It is about how you can achieve a better world. You don’t need to know what is perfect in order to choose between alternatives. [amazonshowcase_858d3aa79b3d445ce7df9bce572ff404]
Unnecessary Suffering (1996) By Maurice Glasman Glasman is a political historian and theorist who argues that almost all of what matters in life is about relationships: family, love, culture, community, place. Written in 1996, this book is proleptic about what the author might have seen as new Labour’s tendency to welcome change at any price. It draws inspiration from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944), which said that the greatest cause of suffering is change that we can’t control. Unnecessary Suffering argues that there is suffering we can’t avoid, like death and love, but there is also suffering we can avoid, like famine and unemployment—and that the responsibility of politics is to protect us from this. The idea is that government should run the state without the state becoming dominant. Markets and states can both bully people, as can society. They all need to be strong to keep each other in check. [amazonshowcase_d1e9dcb0959ddd85d0e6c84b849b2826]
Peacemakers (2002) By Margaret MacMillan This is the best shortcut to the history of the 20th century. MacMillan focuses on the meeting between Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson that decided what the new boundaries would be for the world at Versailles in 1919. On one level, it is a great human drama. Italy pops in and out, depending on the state of its government, while you see the origins of the conflict between Greece and Turkey and the Iraq war. That was all the fault of a woman, Gertrude Bell, who was a bit in love with Lawrence of Arabia and insisted on creating this country, Iraq. Rupert Murdoch’s father makes an appearance, and the situation in Palestine has its roots here too. Everything for right or wrong in the 20th century started here. The book is a soap opera as well as a history book, with three central personalities and mad folkloric characters, and it all took place in such a short space of time. [amazonshowcase_45b1da365810811dc5bbcf21e743368f]
The Attack and Other Papers (1953) By RH Tawney The Attack is worth reading just because Tawney—who was born in 1880, died in 1962, and was a historian, socialist and educationalist—is an amazing writer and used words better than anyone in British politics that I know of. But I also love this book because it makes the case that an important part of the Labour tradition doesn’t start with the state, but with individuals and communities and the way we build our lives together. He is a good complement to Amartya Sen. There is an essay written in 1944 called “We Mean Freedom” in which he tried to persuade Conservative Britain not to worry about a Labour government. He argues that only Labour can provide real freedom, because freedom is meaningless if it just means that nobody will stop you dining at the Ritz when you can’t afford it anyway. Freedom is the ability to dine at the Ritz.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (2002) By Robert A Caro This biography is an unfinished, four-volume life’s work, so perhaps it’s only for the true believers. But it’s compelling partly because Johnson was such a beautifully unattractive character. He was a horrible bully who humiliated his staff and who found a way of endearing himself to the oil barons of Texas by launching a McCarthyite campaign, before McCarthy, against the electricity regulator. Yet he was the first person to get any civil rights legislation through the senate since the civil war. Did the ends justify the means? I don’t think so. I ended up not admiring him even though this book is an attempt to rehabilitate him. He left office completely discredited after his part in the Vietnam War. Caro has him as the Bevan and Attlee of America, but his means were unspeakable and he would never get away with it now. [amazonshowcase_844ea9de8df1b6c2a741eff0eadbfaf6]
Interview by Anna Blundy for the website FiveBooks. More at fivebooks.com