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Review: “Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century”

As part of an ongoing relationship with Oxford University Press, we have asked our associate editors to periodically review newly-released works in the social sciences.

Matthew Flinders. Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century. (Oxford, 2012). 224.

Review by Aiden Slavin

In an era of deep internal stratification, it is easy to delegate blame to governing institutions. Calling democracy, as it currently exists in the West, ‘broken’ is highly fashionable. In “Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century”, Matthew Flinders argues against this breed of modern political pessimism.

Flinders begins with the document that founded his cause: Bernard Crick’s In Defense of Politics. Flinders describes this essay as a “bold and forthright argument that challenged the social climate of the time.” (xi) Flinders identifies Crick’s definition of politics as “not an activity to be continually derided and attacked, but… for the most part an element of human behavior that should be cherished and protected from idealized notions and unrealistic expectations.” (xi) The 1960s, when Crick published his groundbreaking essay, were a time defined by distrust in public figures and big government as a whole. Fifty years later, Flinders sees a similar world. In light of this Flinders envisions his work as a contemporary update, or at least a critique, of the ideas advanced by Crick.

Flinders organizes his book as a series of essay defending politics against its various aggressors. He begins with possibly the most menacing enemy: itself. Flinders then goes through the market, denial, crises, and the media. He closes with the first positive section of his work, entitled ‘In Praise of Politics.’

Within each of these sections, Flinders follows a similar structure. He opens by describing the accepted attitude towards democracy in relation to the given aggressor and proceeds to disarm these reasons by enumerating the problems therein. The best example of this approach lies in his ‘defense of Politics against itself.’ He opens with a quotation from Jacques Ranciere’s work “Hatred of Democracy,” in which Ranciere writes, “We are accustomed to hearing that democracy is the worst of governments with the exception of all others. But the new anti-democratic sentiment gives the general formula a more troubling expression.” (37) Public opinion is elucidated in Ranciere’s work. Flinders proceeds by attacking this opinion from a string of standpoints. In this case, he asserts that the interest of the collective is greater than that of the individual, that limited resources necessitate a certain degree of unhappiness, that duplicity is inherent in all human organizations, and that uncertainty is fundamental to not only politics, but to all man-made organizations.

He follows this series of arguments with a simple disclaimer: “I make no apology for the fact that stating these truths may well disappoint and enrage the reader but my intention is exactly to animate a sense of passion, a feeling of responsibility, and most of all a sense of proportion.” (41) Flinders certainly accomplishes this without exception. However, the extreme nature of his arguments is not the only cause of the passionate reaction that he elicits from his readers. Rather, many of Flinders’s points are characterized by a lack of empirical evidence. He seldom includes original research and instead relies on the published work of other authors, work that, while it may have passed the standards of Flinders, has not necessarily been read by his audience.

Therein lies the greatest weakness of Flinders’s book. However, this too contributes to the greatest strength of “Defending Politics.” The series of assumptions that he makes on the reader’s behalf allows him to cover a shocking amount of material. In no more than 200 pages Flinders makes comprehensive and, if you take much of his evidence on faith, convincing counterarguments to all potential objections to modern democracy.

In this way, Flinders’s “Defending Politics” is uniquely useful for a small demographic of readers, one that has read extensively and critically on modern political theory. This is not, however, a book for someone trying to understand the other side of a growing debate on the evils of democracy. As such, Flinders fails in his goal to dispel the notion that modern government is ‘broken.’ Rather, he provides an updated version of Crick’s essay for a small sociology intelligentsia.

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