Philosophy and the art of governing – and why they matter

16/12/2021

All politicians are the same’ and ‘none of them listens to us’ were two sentences that repeatedly appeared in public opinion surveys during the first decade of the 21st century. ‘We will tell them’ was the response from those political forces who rose up on the back of this disenchantment in the following years. Their emergence meant tectonic shifts across political landscapes in Europe and beyond, bringing fragmentation, polarisation, and several elections brought little results. For some EU member states, the emergence of these political forces even brought an impasse, and prolonged periods without government and/or the need to repeat elections. Observing certain countries that managed to stay afloat even during these difficult times, some analysts and citizens started asking the existential question: ‘does it really matter? Is the government necessary at all?’

The recent monograph by Grant Duncan – How to rule? The Arts of Government from Antiquity to the Present – provides an extended and very convincing answer as to why indeed it does matter.

Grant Duncan is Associate Professor at Massey University in New Zealand. In 2021, his work in political science was recognised with a DASSH Award for Leadership in Excellence and Innovation in the category ‘Engagement and Public Communication’. His primary interests are political theory and philosophy, but also public policy. He remains a top name when it comes to expertise regarding the New Zealand Labour Party, which has brought him into communities such as the FEPS Next Left High-Level Group.

His How to Rule is the first book in a new series of monographs designed to analyse governance and the quality of current representative democracy. 

Duncan sets off with persuasive argumentation as to why delving deep into history could be indispensable for those in power or aspiring to get there today. He underlines that the new context of the pandemic may have shown people rallying around their governments in the early phase, but that this tendency is not here to stay by default.

Government is – at least theoretically – all about stability and predictability, which in times of Covid-19 have been particularly hard to achieve. Additionally, the crisis has exacerbated inequalities, which, even before, had been significant enough to make people distrust the entire system. Duncan warns against seeing the resulting attitudes of disenchantment as signs of the crisis of democracy. He believes that democracy’s ideal has still not been achieved and that there is much left to realise (overcoming the persistent discrimination against women, for example).

What he suggests instead is to see the challenges as a crisis of representative democracy, which will never be fixed if one only resorts to the solutions embedded in the existing systems. He writes that “a broken system cannot be used to fix the broken system”. And that leads him to argue that politics requires innovations, which build on traditions without repeating old mistakes. This involves an entire set of ideas – starting from the role of leaders and the necessity for them to embody a particular kind of ethical integrity; moving on to the mandate and the role of intellectuals that make up part of the political elites, alongside the guiding principles that should shape public administration; and finally examining the ways to pursue the challenge of building a real deliberative process in these times that he labels as “audience democracy”. The solid catalogue of answers that Duncan has accumulated in this volume makes his work an important handbook for academics (for whom it was initially written), as well as predestining it to be a kind of a primer for political elites that are truly willing to make a difference.

Particularly for European readers, the book offers the possibility to broaden the brackets within which one thinks of thinking about the governing traditions. Typically, their respective syllabuses of political science encompass ancient Greece and Rome, possibly Egypt – but leave out other ancient civilisations. Duncan’s picture is much more complete, as he analyses China (starting from Kong Qiu, better known as Confucius), India, Persia, the Mongol Empire, Byzantium, and also so-called native cultures of contemporary Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region. Further cases are also examined – including colonial empires, republics, cities, enlightened absolutist monarchies, the states of the 19th century that were founded on the cusp of romantic, nationalist ideas, 20th-century totalitarian regimes and modern democracies.

The structure of Duncan’s book allows comparisons of diverse models and provides sources of inspiration and practices alongside geographical and time dimensions. One could perhaps wish for more attention on certain interesting cases, such as that of Russia (especially Peter the Great) or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the book still provides very rich material, examined from various angles. For example, Duncan looks at the connections between religion and politics, and how the emergence of monotheism and organised church structures kept influencing the culture of governance. This is a fascinating question indeed, and throughout the book, one can follow the transition from the belief that power is divine, towards the more modern understanding that power comes from citizens’ endowment in the spirit of a social contract. 

Duncan captures well the nature of shifts between monarchies and republics in both revolutionary and reformist ways, as he does the changing nature of states in the contexts of the evolutions of civilisations and revolts by citizens. His views on connections, communities, and communication are very intriguing, claiming that despite many idealistic expectations, social media are not a modern equivalent of the ‘speakers’ corner’, but rather tools of “disempowerment and oppression”. 

What makes Duncan’s book still more captivating is his reflection on very fundamental questions, like: if accepting a language (its grammar and logic) is accepting a certain culture of rules and, by extension, governance, what is the real impact of the current Twitter culture on political imagination? If every time needs its specific answers, is leadership a question defined universally by a moral code, or it is first and foremost about what society may need at a given time? What is the impact of science and administration on the exercise of power, and how does digitalisation influence it? How can one hope to deal with the legacy of neoliberalism, when so many previous attempts have shown failures in the fight between politics and capital(ism) – for which the history of the East India Company can be taken as a prime example?

Days after putting How to Rule? The Arts of Government from Antiquity to the Present away, these and many other questions leave the reader wondering, which, among many possible reasons, is the best one upon which to recommend the book wholeheartedly, and to await the sequel eagerly.

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