Anglo-American political science is dominated by the image of rational man. Politics is the maximising of something or other: material benefits for the voter, votes for the politician. Politicians competing for the voters’ favour have to think strategically and rationally. They cannot waste effort on lost causes, nor afford to take up positions too far from the centre. Indeed, a famous theorem, which indicates the flavour of much of rational-choice political science, says that parties tend to converge towards the middle of the political spectrum for much the same reason that makes ice-cream vendors converge towards the middle of the beach. Politicians must concentrate their scarce resources to sway the marginal voter, and in doing so they have to anticipate and if possible undercut the competition from other politicians, well knowing that the latter are trying to do the same. The ‘I think that he thinks that I think …’ aspect of politics is formalised by game theory, a branch of rational-choice theory that has become increasingly important in political science. Game theory is uniquely well suited to bring out the complex interdependencies of social life, and to explain many paradoxical phenomena in terms of individual rationality. In The Presidential Election Game,1 Steven Brams has explained the confrontation between Nixon and Justices Burger and Blackmun over the White House tapes in terms of a strategic conflict, where the actual and rationally predictable outcome was worse for both sides than another available outcome. Such paradoxes can occur because the jointly best outcome is not stable against defectors: i.e. rational players will try to go for something even better and thereby jointly bring about something worse.

The rational-choice explanation of politics offers surprising and striking insights into a wide range of phenomena. In parliamentary politics it turns out to be false that honesty pays: it has been shown that all possible voting schemes, barring dictatorship and random choice, lend themselves to strategic manipulation, so that it is possible to achieve an outcome that accords better with one’s preferences by voting against these preferences. Also it has been argued that parliamentarians will not try to maximise support for a given proposal, but rather go for a minimal winning coalition so as not to spread the spoils of victory too thinly. We know by now quite a lot about the log-rolling and wheeling-dealing side of political life, as well as about the many ways in which individual rationality may be collectively self-defeating. But there is more to politics than individuals acting out of calculated self-interest: both calculation and self-interest may be conspicuously lacking.

Consider, for a start, an alternative view of politics that is also an important tradition within the discipline. This is the view that politics supplements rather than imitates economics. The assumption of the rational-choice theorists is that voters and politicians behave like consumers and entrepreneurs respectively. Politics is like the marketplace, trading with different goods. Now it is well-known that the marketplace is not in all respects an efficient mechanism. There are many cases of market failure, notably inefficient provision of public goods and the generation of involuntary unemployment. It is not uncommon to define politics as a device for overcoming market failures: i.e. for creating the efficiency and stability that cannot be achieved by unco-ordinated individual actions. The tradition goes back at least to Hobbes, and is thus considerably older than the rational-choice model, which can be traced back to Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy of 1942. I do not want to imply that the two models are incompatible. One might argue that failures of the economic market are overcome in another market, the political arena where politicians compete for votes by proposing schemes for overcoming market failures. Still, I do not think this captures the spirit of the rational-choice theorists, nor that it is a faithful depiction of reality. If political competition turns upon the marginal voter, then the rational strategy is to offer extra benefits to some small groups rather than institutional changes that benefit all. And so politicians must be more than vote-maximising entrepreneurs if they are seen to engage in large-scale institutional change, as of course they sometimes are.

A more striking breakdown of the rational-choice model is seen in voting behaviour. The question is simple: why bother to vote? Politicians vie for the voters’ favour by appealing to their self-interest: by proposing schemes that will make them materially better-off. The voters may be assumed to have an interest in this, but why should they bother to vote when the chance of influencing the outcome is virtually nil? In an election with 1 or 100 million voters, my chance of being the pivotal voter is, for all practical purposes, zero. And so the expected utility of abstaining is certainly larger than the expected utility of voting, given that voting requires some minimal effort. If politics really were like a market, there would be a near-total abstention from voting and hence a dramatic case of market failure, but since this is not what we observe, there must be more to politics than calculated self-interest. And if voters are moved by civic virtues in deciding whether to vote, why should they suddenly leave these virtues outside the election booth when deciding how to vote?

These questions point to the need for a theory of non-rational politics, by which I mean politics that may be both less than rational and more than rational. ‘More than rational’: this means that the calculated self-interest is replaced by calculated concern for the general welfare. ‘Less than rational’: this means that the element of calculation is absent. Not all political behaviour is dominated by ends-means rationality, and not all ends are narrowly self-interested. I now want to show how the mainstream political science tradition can be enriched by incorporating elements from two outstanding recent studies of non-rational (indeed often irrational) political behaviour. The first is Paul Veyne’s Le Pain et le Cirque,2 an analysis of civic giving in Classical Antiquity; the second Alexander Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights,3 a satirical and penetrating work about politics and everyday life in the Soviet Union. Veyne is, in my view, the greatest French historian now writing. I believe that his work will come to achieve the same status as Tocqueville’s on democracy in America, by which it is clearly inspired. Zinoviev’s work is only secondarily one of political science. It is a hallucinatory, and totally convincing, portrait of a society gone to rot, or perhaps one should say a society in which rot, far from being a sign of illness, has become the normal state of affairs.

In addition to a vast number of philological and historical articles, Veyne has written two books. The first, Comment on écrit l’Histoire, was first published in 1971 and recently reissued with a postscript on Michel Foucault.4 I am unable here to resist the temptation to tell the story of a French friend, an economist, who upon hearing my enthusiasm for Veyne, commented in roughly the following terms: ‘My friend, I used to trust your judgment, but when I see that you admire Veyne, who praises Foucault, who praises Barthes, who praises Attali [the trendy economic adviser to François Mitterrand], I am not so sure that I can have confidence in you any more.’ And so I had to answer: ‘Does this mean that I have to lose my confidence in you as well?’ French intellectual life is indeed characterised by the fact that these associative chains are more rigorous, more like truth-preserving inference, in Ernest Gellner’s phrase, than in most other countries. Foucault in Veyne’s reading is more interesting, I think, than in his own writings, so Veyne can be excused for admiring him. And in any case, the main text of Comment on écrit l’Histoire comes close to being the best work on the epistemology of history ever written. It uniquely blends deep familiarity with the work of Anglo-American philosophers of history and insider’s knowledge of the historian’s craft. It is largely a sceptical work, at least with respect to the usefulness of general laws in history. If someone wanted to explain Louis XIV’s lack of popularity by the law, ‘every king who taxes his subjects too heavily becomes unpopular,’ he would have to add so many qualifications that he would find himself having ‘reconstituted a chapter in the history of the reign of Louis XIV with the amusing feature of being written in the present tense and in the plural’.

In Le Pain et le Cirque Veyne has moved away from this nihilistic stance, though he is still more cautious than most in accepting cross-societal generalisations. He tends to accept as universally valid a small number of generalisations about human behaviour, belonging partly to social psychology and partly to philosophical anthropology, deriving in part from Hegel, in part from Tocqueville and in part from Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. Two ideas stand out. The first is the Hegelian notion that the master cannot rest content with power over the slave’s outward behaviour: he also wants to reach out and dominate his mind. The second is taken from Tocqueville and from Festinger: the subjects tend spontaneously to justify their own submission, because it is psychologically intolerable to live in a state of permanent and impotent frustration. It is the complex interaction of these two tendencies that generates the enormous intellectual excitement of the book.

The topic of the book is ‘evergetism’, a specifically Graeco-Roman institution with elements both of patronage and of charity, but with some special features that distinguish it from these modern institutions. Most important, the recipient of the gift was the city and its citizens, not the poor or the deserving. The donors varied according to the historical case: the local notables in the Hellenistic world, the senators under the Roman Republic and the emperor during the Empire. The nature of the gifts varied accordingly: monuments and feasts in the Hellenistic world, bribes and circus during the Republic, monuments and above all circus during the Empire. (Veyne shows that the bread in panem et circenses never had the importance sometimes attributed to it.) Veyne traces the development of evergetism in these three settings, with an abundance of illustrative material and historical exegesis. I am totally unqualified to judge the work as history, but I would be more than surprised if it was not up to the highest standards. Veyne no doubt owes his chair in the Collège de France to his Classical scholarship, even though it is for his work as a social theorist that he will achieve classic status.

The central problem, to which Veyne offers a suitably complex answer, is that of explaining the institution of evergetism. Veyne demolishes very effectively the functional explanations which at once come to mind. Evergetism was neither a device for redistribution nor a mechanism for keeping the populace from revolting. Apart from the general problems involved in any attempt to explain an institution by its unintended consequences, the functionalist explanations in this case come to grief on the empirical evidence. The populace had no particular need for the useless monuments left by the évergète to posterity: and even when – like certain aqueducts – they did have some practical utility, the excessive grandeur of their conception and execution testifies against the utilitarian interpretation. It is then very tempting for the modern mind to fall back on an explanation in terms of conspicuous consumption, and to impute to the donors a desire to impress their subjects by their gratuitous giving. Veyne is at his very best when disentangling what is valid in this interpretation from what is invalid. It is certainly true that the gifts often had the effect of impressing the people, and of reinforcing their spontaneous tendency to admire their superiors. Veyne insists, however, that for evergetism to have this consequence, it had to be unintended. Nothing is so unimpressive as behaviour calculated to impress. Veyne compares conspicuous consumption to behaviour designed to épater le bourgeois, and observes that nothing is less likely to shock the bourgeoisie than such calculated behaviour. Only the behaviour of someone who has long ago forgotten any idea of shocking the bourgeoisie may be perceived as a real threat to their life-style. And for evergetism to impress the subjects, it had to be the narcissistic expression of the donor’s Selbstgefühl, not the calculated dosage of someone who only gives when and to the extent that it is instrumentally rational.

This idea seems to me extremely important and fertile. It generalises easily to the notion of states that are essentially byproducts: i.e. states which can never be intentionally brought about, which only come about as an unintended byproduct of actions undertaken for other purposes. There are certain states that one cannot command at will in oneself, such as sleep, pleasure, belief or forgetfulness; and others that you cannot command in others, such as love, gratefulness or admiration. True, you may be able to achieve your goal by fluke, but this does not quite count. The other day my son was instructing me to laugh, and of course I had to laugh at this ridiculous instruction, and so he managed to bring about a state that is essentially a byproduct, but only by fluke. Also you may be able to achieve the goal by indirect means, as in Pascal’s wager argument that ends up with a proposal to induce belief by going through the motions. This, however, is quite different from the hubris involved in ‘willing what cannot be willed’, to use the phrase coined by Leslie Farber. And, of course, someone might be sufficiently clever to hide his intentions and act with exactly the right degree of uncalculated insouciance, but he would always run the risk that there might be a spectator so clever as to see through him. Whenever there is an intention, it will leave a pattern that can in principle be detected by another intention, which is one reason mathematicians have difficulties in inventing devices for producing random numbers, or film directors find it hard to create stage sets where the script calls for ‘disorder’.

The emperors, to consider only this case, were indeed able to touch the minds of their subjects, but only on condition of not reaching out towards them. Some of them, however – the bad emperors or tyrants – tried to create in their subjects a state which is essentially a byproduct, the state of adoration and admiration. They wanted to be loved, but not because they were lovable, which would make the power appear powerless. As in Sartre’s analysis of love, the essence of the tyrants’ wish for adoration was that it should be adoration on command: I want you to love me, but not spontaneously. The instruction is just as paradoxical as the injunction ‘Be spontaneous,’ made famous by the Palo Alto school of psychiatry. Or again, we may compare it to the Hegelian master-slave analysis, where the master forms the inherently contradictory project of being recognised by someone whom he does not himself recognise. All of these are cases where rationality fails, on its own terms, because the intended goal can only be realised by non-instrumental action. To say that rationality is self-defeating is not to imply, of course, that irrationality is rational. There simply is no place for ends-means rationality in such cases; there is no means that is adapted to the end, because lack of such adaptation is a condition for the end to be realised.

The other side of the coin is the relation of the subjects to their rulers. Veyne takes it for granted that the subjects in general accepted their submission as legitimate, and then asks how this legitimacy is to be explained. It follows from what has already been said that he cannot accept any theory of ideology or hegemony that invokes deliberate manipulation. Rather he argues from the principle of ‘sour grapes’, which in more solemn language could be called ‘adaptive preference change’ or ‘reduction of cognitive dissonance’. The human mind is such as to justify retroactively the choices that are born of necessity, by subtly changing perceptions and wants so as to make the actual world appear as the best of all possible worlds. The subjects spontaneously tended to justify their submission by turning their rulers into divinities, and the latter needed to do no more than to indulge in their natural tendency to self-admiration. In addition, Veyne stresses the cognitive illusions that made the actual order of things seem inevitable and even desirable. There was, he says, a micro-political illusion that made lack of patronage appear as the worst of ills: in a world of patronage, what fate could be worse than neither to be nor to have a patron? All local alternatives were worse than submission, and global alternatives were inconceivable.

There might appear to be in Veyne’s analysis a tendency to blame the victims, to make the subjects responsible for their state of submission This, however, would be a misapprehension. He does not in any way invoke a masochistic desire in the ruled for a state of submission. The actual submission is prior to, and generates, the belief that submission is justified. Veyne is very good at describing, phenomenologically, what it must have been like to be poor and powerless in the Ancient World. The poor were born into an immutable social environment, where the distribution of wealth and power was given once and for all. Upward social mobility, when it occurred, struck with the unpredictability of lightning; no one could rationally count on it, or rationally strive for it. The adaptation of aspirations to possibilities was not deliberate and intentional, as in the ideology of the Stoics; it was simply unthinking resignation to fate. The difference between the deliberate character planning of the Stoics and the adaptive preference change shows up in the fact that the latter was typically over-adaptive, resulting in excessive rather than in proper meekness. Veyne argues that this was a society with an ‘evacuated moral borderland’, by which he means that wants were either well below what was feasible or well above, leading to unreasonable resignation in the many and unreasonable revolt in the few.

Veyne is also extremely good on ideology in general; indeed, one of the major attractions of his book is that for every given topic in the Ancient World we are treated to a substantial discussion, five to fifteen pages, of the problem in its more general form. Let me point to his striking observations on the relation between interests and beliefs, where he argues convincingly for two propositions. First, a belief may be shaped by interests, and not serve these interests; in fact, we might expect that the heat of passion would typically tend to serve the passion rather badly. A trivial example: wishful thinking may lead me into a belief that I am about to be promoted, and acting on this belief may effectively destroy my chances of promotion. Secondly, a belief may serve an interest and yet not be shaped by it. Veyne’s argument is that we often see intellectuals take a position contrary to that of their class, and why should we not credit them with the same disinterested spirit when they align their views on their class interest? To say that the only disinterested view is a view that is contrary to interest would be to fall victim to an anti-bias bias.

Alexander Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights was first published in Russian, and in Switzerland, in 1976. A French translation followed the following year,5 and an English one last year. I do not read Russian, and so I cannot compare the quality of the two translations. I can say, however, that the French is a much more readable book than the English. Zinoviev’s exuberant colloquialisms are much better rendered by his French translator, who has also, or so I believe from internal evidence, captured the spirit of the work more faithfully. One example will have to suffice. In an important passage the English translation has Zinoviev (or one of his spokesmen) say: ‘What matters above all is not whether a law is bad or good. What matters is whether or not the law exists. A bad law is nevertheless a law. Good illegality is nevertheless illegal.’ This is nonsense, for where there is no law, there can be no illegality either. The French translation has got it right: ‘Un bon arbitraire est tout de même un arbitraire.’

Zinoviev’s fate is a strange one. Trained as a Marxist (he wrote his first dissertation on the method of Capital) and as a logician (his most important works deal with many-valued logic), he achieved some of the greatest honours that the Soviet academic system confers. After the publication in the West of The Yawning Heights, he was stripped of them all, and now lives in exile in Munich. He has written several more books in the same vein as The Yawning Heights, some of them translated into Western languages. He is active in the exiled dissident movement, but in a somewhat detached way. At least his public utterances and interviews give the impression of a serene observer commenting on the human folly in East and West alike.

The Yawning Heights, by contrast, is obviously a work born of passion. Using a variety of literary devices – Rabelaisian exaggeration, Swiftian savagery, dead-pan sociological analysis and doggerel verse – Zinoviev creates a self-contained universe, which manages to be both a wild caricature of Soviet society and an obviously accurate rendering of its underlying spirit. It is a universe where even plastic flowers tend to wither, and even artificial teeth undergo decay; where there is a special queue for the privileged who do not have to queue for their pay; and where the exit from the crematorium has the directive: ‘As you leave, take the urn containing your ashes with you.’ The only literary analogy is the world of Catch 22, which, even if more successful on the artistic level, is far less profound as a source of sociological insight. In fact, Zinoviev (no doubt independently) has also invented Catch 22 – in his remarks about emigration, which in Ibansk (the mythical arena of The Yawning Heights) is both a crime and a punishment. Do you want to emigrate? To express the wish is to commit a crime so serious that it could qualify for expulsion, were it not for the fact that expulsion would then not be a punishment.

One could write a long article on The Yawning Heights simply to let the reader sample the savage wit of such observations. But it is much better that the reader do this for himself. Instead I shall try to bring out the hidden structure of Zinoviev’s work. This I believe is to be found in certain logical distinctions that have been at the centre of Zinoviev’s work as a professional logician. In The Yawning Heights he has rightly erased all traces of this logical machinery, so as not to distract the reader’s attention. Nevertheless, a second reading of the work may be informed and helped by knowledge of the conceptual schemes involved. Zinoviev’s knowledge of Marx must also have been a crucial source of inspiration. In fact, many of the paradoxes of Hegelian and Marxist dialectic can be rendered in logical language, using precisely the kind of distinctions that Zinoviev has explored in his work on many-valued logic.6

Many-valued logic deals with logical systems where there are more than two truth-values. Propositions, that is, can be true, false or something else: e.g. meaningless or indeterminate. In the analysis of such systems it is often convenient to distinguish between several forms of negation. Following Zinoviev, I shall distinguish between general and special negation. I shall not try to give the logical definition of these two varieties, but rather convey by some examples how the distinction (or some analogy of it) may be put to useful work in sociological and psychological analysis. Take the case of religious belief. The general negation of belief is agnosticism: it is not the case that I believe that there exists a God. The special negation is atheism: I believe that there does not exist a God. Or take moral obligation: its general negation is non-obligation, which may be compatible with permission; the special negation is interdiction. Or again take desire, whose general negation is lack of desire (compatible with indifference), while the special negation is aversion. Observe that the special negation does not obey the law of the excluded middle: between, say, belief and denial, there is the third possibility of ignorance. We may exhume the term ‘primitive mentality’ for the tendency to believe that the law of the excluded middle is valid for the special negation.

Zinoviev makes twofold use of the distinction between the two varieties of negation. First, he treats it as a conceptual device for bringing out certain important facts about Soviet life; secondly, he characterises this life by saying that it is permeated by the primitive mentality. Beginning with the latter, nothing stands out so clearly as the confusion between non-obligation and interdiction. Zinoviev believes this to be a characteristically Stalinist confusion, and elegantly shows how Stalin survived even the attempts of de-Stalinisation. For, he observes, it was only for a very brief period that it was non-obligatory to quote from Stalin’s work; very soon it became forbidden to do so. Similarly, and tragically, he shows how even the dissident camp is penetrated by the primitive mentality of the regime. In what is probably an autobiographical remark, he says of someone that he had no desire not to become a member of the Soviet Academy, which by his dissident friends was immediately taken as a desire to become a member.

The relation between the regime and the opposition can also be expressed in these terms. How is the regime to ‘negate’ the opposition: by ignoring it, or by persecuting it? General or special negation? There are drawbacks to each option. Persecution is a form of recognition, and therefore to be avoided. When the regime allows publication of a book highly critical of abstract art, people buy it for the chance of seeing reproductions of the paintings being criticised. But simply ignoring the opposition is also dangerous, for it may be taken as a sign of weakness. Whence the attempt to adopt an attitude of ‘active indifference’, where the regime, instead of directly persecuting the dissidents, simply makes things as difficult for them as it can.

The most important use of the distinction between the two forms of negation is in Zinoviev’s analysis of the Soviet careerist. He observes that the most successful careerist is not one who tries to be a careerist, but one, on the contrary, who unthinkingly does the mediocre thing. Recall here the difficulties that are invariably encountered by talented authors who try to write best-sellers for a living: the result tends to be too good or too bad for a mass audience. The most striking form of Soviet man is the special negation of the rational and moral human being; someone with very strong negative features. But this, Zinoviev tells us, is an illusion. Far more typical is the man who simply is the general negation of goodness: a man with no outstanding features of any kind. It is the theme of the banality of evil that is here taken up by Zinoviev in a new register. He insists that Soviet society is not a sick society, in the sense of being made up of immoral and cruel persons. The terrifying thing about this society is that it is perfectly sane and normal. People go about their inhuman duties as if they were perfectly normal and everyday activities, which indeed they are. As long as the good is present as the object of a special negation, the society contains within it the seeds of change, but not so when the good is diluted in the general negation. Zinoviev’s view of Soviet society is therefore extremely pessimistic. He does not believe that there are any internal motors making for change, except perhaps in the direction of retrogression to a third serfdom.

The last remark must be understood in the light of Zinoviev’s theory that beneath the apparent omnipotence of the Soviet state is a fundamental impotence. If again we impose more structure on the work than is explicitly there, we may state three basic Laws of Ivanian sociology. The First Law says that ‘people who want to make a change never change anything, while changes are only effected by people who had no intention of doing so.’ Or, in the terminology used earlier, all political states in Ibansk are essentially byproducts. Change certainly comes about, but only as the unintended byproduct of attempts to bring about change. In Zinoviev’s memorable phrase, we must distinguish between the solution to a problem and the result of attempts to find a solution. If the two happen to coincide, it can only be by fluke. A large part of The Yawning Heights is devoted to the mechanisms that explain this impotence. Of fundamental importance is the problem of reliable information. To change society effectively, you need information about it, but in Ibansk there is a systematic tendency to distort the truth by telling the leadership what it wants to hear or by letting information degenerate into informing. In addition, there is the tendency to believe that an important problem must also be a difficult problem, which requires a large institutional structure for its solution. Problems are seen as a source of power for the bureaucracy, whose interest is to perpetuate them rather than solve them. Also there is the fact that the direction often tries to bring about change through contradictory injunctions: e.g. ‘Give priority to industry, but not at the expense of agriculture,’ or ‘Enhance the leadership role of the leadership and activate an initiative from below.’

The Second Law says: ‘Successes achieved under any given leadership must be successes achieved by that leadership.’ This means that The First Law is modified, in that unplanned successes are reinterpreted as being the result of a deliberate plan. The Third Law is in a sense a corollary: for every failure, even if it is a natural disaster, there is someone outside the leadership who is responsible. Veyne observes that attitudes similar to these were also found in Classical Antiquity, where the emperor was the origin of all that was good, but the blame for anything bad was laid on his advisers. Si le roi savait! But there is the difference that the belief in the emperor’s divinity was a real belief (even though Veyne shows that it was not as full-blooded as the belief in the traditional gods, who were invoked in real emergencies), whereas the Ivanians are perfectly cynical in the matter. The Second and Third Laws are principles of bureaucratic promotion in an irrational society. They regulate an elaborate make-believe of responsible decision-making, taken seriously by no one and belied by The First Law.

In such a society, change can only come about through drift, including drift towards earlier forms of social organisation. It is an important feature of deliberate political action that it is irreversible, in the sense that past states can never be restored in the same form. The symmetry of revolution and counterrevolution is only an apparent one, for the goal of the counter-revolutionaries is certainly not to bring about a state in which revolution again becomes possible. A reversal to an earlier state can only come about by drift: i.e. as the unintended result of actions undertaken for different purposes. And so Zinoviev is able to give a new and ironic twist to the Diamat shibboleth of the negation of the negation. If communism is the negation of Tsarist serfdom, then Soviet Russia is indeed turning into the negation of the negation – but in the standard logical sense in which the iteration brings you back to the beginning.

There are many themes common to Le Pain et le Cirque and The Yawning Heights. Some have been briefly alluded to, and many more could be mentioned. By a strange coincidence, the idea of the poisoned gift as an instrument of power in international relations turns up in both: not in the sense that the gift is literally poisoned, but in the sense that receiving a gift creates a link of dependence that can be exploited. The Ivanian, echoing Groucho Marx, would argue that ‘I would be stupid to treat as an equal someone stupid enough to accept a gift from me.’ But the most important common theme seems to me to be that of a self-defeating rationality. I have sufficiently explained the sense that Veyne gives to this idea: it is also present in Zinoviev’s observation about the superiority of the mediocre. As one of his characters remarks, ‘the better you do your work, the harder they will crack down on you. And if you do it badly, you will fare even worse, for they are much better at doing bad work than you.’ You may achieve your goals more efficiently by being a certain kind of person than by being good at bringing them about. A special case is captured by Weber’s notion of charisma; another special case is T.S. Schelling’s observation that it is often advantageous to be represented by a negotiator so stupid that he does not understand how weak his position is. And a marvellous illustration of the idea is the film Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a simpleton who soars to the highest positions by the sheer wooden en-soi of his character, exercising an irresistible attraction on the pour-soi surrounding him. We need to question the assumption of most political science – that the successful politician is one who is better at politics than his rivals.

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Vol. 2 No. 20 · 16 October 1980

SIR: What admirable discipline on the part of Jon Elster (LRB, 21 August) to manage 5,000 words on irrational politics without once mentioning the word ‘power’. That was his best joke, for if you once start speculating about ‘The Force’ you’re up the blue ray with the gypsies of Eleusis, Jesus Christ, Nostradamus and the Mad Mullah. I was sorry, however, that only by very remote implication did he exhort humanity to stick to the issues.

Roland Morgan
Uzès, France

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