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Confusion is power

David Runciman: Our Very Own Oligarchs, 7 June 2012

The New Few, or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now 
by Ferdinand Mount.
Simon and Schuster, 305 pp., £18.99, April 2012, 978 1 84737 800 2
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... You can tell Russia is not a real democracy because there is no great mystery about its politics. Democracies are slightly baffling in how they work: just look at America; just look at Europe; just look at us. In Russia the basics are easy to understand: people use money to get power and power to get money. The country is ruled by a narrow, self-serving elite who go through the motions of holding elections and transferring power ...


David Runciman: Occupy, 25 October 2012

The Occupy Handbook 
edited by Janet Byrne.
Back Bay, 535 pp., $15.99, April 2012, 978 0 316 22021 7
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... left. But Rolling Stone magazine identified the originator of ‘We are the 99 per cent’ as David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist, who first spotted its potential as an organising tool.* You can see why people might want to lay claim to ‘We are the 99 per cent’: it’s a brilliant slogan and an increasingly successful brand, doing its work ...


David Runciman: Blair Hawks His Wares, 31 March 2016

Broken Vows: Tony Blair – The Tragedy of Power 
by Tom Bower.
Faber, 688 pp., £20, March 2016, 978 0 571 31420 1
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... so he could talk to the president alone. He told them he had a personal message to convey from David Cameron. In fact, he used the time to pursue some business on behalf of Tony Blair Associates, his commercial calling card. He wanted to sell the Nigerians Israeli drones and other military equipment for use in their fight against Islamic rebels. If true ...

No Exit

David Runciman, 23 May 1996

The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain 
edited by S.J.D. Green and R.C. Whiting.
Cambridge, 403 pp., £40, February 1996, 0 521 45537 5
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... A Thatcherite history of the state in 20th-century Britain is simple: up until 1979 the state got bigger, clumsier, greedier; after 1979 it started to get smaller, nimbler, leaner. It is the story of a steady, seemingly inexorable advance, followed by a sudden and rapid retreat, as the state was determinedly ‘rolled back’. It is a heroic story, with an obvious heroine, and that alone ensures that it has not gone unchallenged ...

Politicians in a Fix

David Runciman: The uses of referendums, 10 July 2003

... Valéry Giscard d’Estaing begins his generally sensible if utterly hideous preamble to the new draft European Constitution with a line from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. ‘Our Constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.’ It is hard to know what to make of this. In any other context one would have to suppose it was intended ironically ...

The Choice Was Real

David Runciman, 29 June 2017

... One of​ the better arguments for Britain’s leaving the EU was that it might reinvigorate and liberate national politics, stifled for too long by the absence of real choice at election time. The EU is a legalistic and treaty-based political institution designed to take some of the heat out of domestic politics. That left people complaining that the EU was generating all the heat ...

In a Faraway Pond

David Runciman: The NGO, 29 November 2007

Non-Governmental Politics 
edited by Michel Feher.
Zone, 693 pp., £24.95, May 2007, 978 1 890951 74 0
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... On 24 July, in a speech to the Rwandan parliament, David Cameron said that the old ideological divisions concerning aid and trade – aid is ‘wasteful’, trade is ‘unfair’ – needed to be abandoned in favour of a commitment to what works. He talked about the importance of transparency and accountability at both governmental and non-governmental levels to ensure that resources were used efficiently and money reached its targets ...

The Plot to Make Us Stupid

David Runciman, 22 February 1996

... Why is it,’ asks the mathematician John Allen Paulos in his book about the pitfalls of innumeracy, ‘that a lottery ticket with the numbers 2 13 17 20 29 36 is for most people far preferable to one with the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6?’ It is not an easy question to answer. All lotteries, after all, rely on a recognition by those who participate in them that the winning numbers are chosen at random, if only so that the participants can feel that their numbers have as good a chance of coming up as any others ...

Invented Communities

David Runciman: Post-nationalism, 19 July 2001

Democracy in Europe 
by Larry Siedentop.
Penguin, 254 pp., £8.99, June 2001, 0 14 028793 0
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The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays 
by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Max Pensky.
Polity, 216 pp., £45, December 2000, 0 7456 2351 4
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... What is wrong with the idea of a world state? John Rawls, the world’s most celebrated living political philosopher, believes that the answer is relatively straightforward. ‘I follow Kant’s lead in Perpetual Peace,’ he writes, ‘in thinking that a world government – by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central government – would either be a global despotism or else would rule over a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples tried to gain their political freedom and autonomy ...

A Bear Armed with a Gun

David Runciman: The Widening Atlantic, 3 April 2003

Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order 
by Robert Kagan.
Atlantic, 104 pp., £10, March 2003, 1 84354 177 7
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... Thomas Hobbes, in one of the best known and most abused phrases in the English language, described the life of man in a state of nature as ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. Less famous, but almost as notorious, is Hobbes’s contention that the relations between the states that human beings create in order to escape the misery of their natural condition are subject to nothing but the laws that produced that misery in the first place ...


David Runciman: Dylan on the radio, 19 July 2007

... Before he discovered literature in a friend’s apartment in New York, Bob Dylan’s connection to the world beyond the narrow one into which he was born came almost exclusively from the radio. The radio is usually on somewhere in the background of his memoirs, and it’s always broadening his horizons, letting him know what American music could sound like, in all its unexpected variety ...


David Runciman: AI, 25 January 2018

... It’s three weeks​ before Christmas and Los Angeles is in flames, though you wouldn’t know it from inside the bowels of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Centre, where all is cool and grey. I am here with eight thousand other attendees of the Neural Information Processing Systems (Nips) conference – the great annual get-together of people who work in machine learning ...

BJ + Brexit or JC + 2 refs?

David Runciman, 5 December 2019

... The​ last time the country went to the polls in winter it was also a ‘Who governs Britain?’ election. In February 1974 Ted Heath called on the voters to decide if they wanted a strong elected government with the parliamentary authority to take tough decisions or government by a left-wing clique beholden to the extra-parliamentary power of the unions, which lay behind a recent series of strikes ...

Too early or too late?

David Runciman, 2 April 2020

... In​ Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, published in 2016, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels described what happened when sharks started attacking bathers off the New Jersey shore in the summer of 1916. It was a wholly unexpected turn of events: sharks had never been seen that far north before ...

Fergie Time

David Runciman: Sir Alex Speaks (again), 9 January 2014

My Autobiography 
by Alex Ferguson.
Hodder, 402 pp., £25, October 2013, 978 0 340 91939 2
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... worth fifty million pounds.’ This is Kenwright’s mother. Ferguson can’t quite believe it: David Moyes was giving me the eyes. For a minute I thought it was a get-up, a performance. Bill’s background was in theatre, after all. It occurred to me while all this was going on that I ought to check Wayne’s medical records. Was there something physically ...

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