The Cunning Of Unreason


By John Dunn

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All human action lies under the shadow of prospective regret, but there are few areas of contemporary life over which that shadow falls so darkly as it does over politics. We hear constantly that Americans are less likely than ever to vote and are increasingly cynical about the ability of politicians to effect change. Why is politics so consistently disappointing? Starting from the premise that the professional study of politics can offer us a way to understand why we have so little faith in the political process, The Cunning of Unreason explores competing definitions of politics, probing the hidden assumptions and implications of each. In energetic and engaging prose, Cambridge political theorist John Dunn makes a convincing case for the ongoing relevance of great political thinkers from Aristotle to Marx. Along the way, he bridges the academic world of political theory and the public world of debate about democracy, corruption, globalization, and the recent trend toward conservatism. A must read for every politician, spin doctor, and professional pundit, The Cunning of Unreason offers a greater understanding of the way politics works in contemporary society and what its promise is for the future.








What exactly is politics? Why does it occur? (Has there been politics ever since there were recognizably human beings? Might it just stop, even though there continue to be eminently recognizable human beings?) How has it come to take its present forms?

How is it best understood? What are the best approaches to understanding it? How far can it in fact be understood? What limits do human beings face in their attempts to understand it? What resources for understanding it do we now have? How far, if at all, do these resources derive from the professional study of politics? How successfully are they now incorporated into that study?

In the pages that follow I try to show readers how to answer these questions for themselves, and to make clear how closely their answers depend on one another, I try to show how politics has come to be a vaguely degrading and highly specialized occupation: the trade of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, of William Hague and Michael Howard, and until quite recently at least one of the trades of Jonathan Aitken: also, of course, the trade of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, of Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, of General Suharto all too recently and, alas, still of Saddam Hussein as I now write. And vaguely degrading? Well, on the evidence of this list alone, plainly a career wide open to all but unmentionable talents and an occupation blatantly unfit for gentlemen – let alone gentlewomen. And this last was a complaint pressed from the beginning not merely against the cultural styles of conspicuously brutal and autocratic regines, but also very much against the impact of democratization on the personnel who lead or govern a political society (cf. Plato 1930–5; Wood 1991).

But I try, too, to show why even today politics can still sometimes seem uniquely courageous, direct and even potentially effective in its assault on the misery and injustice of the great bulk of collective human life. Not just a career, but a true and noble vocation (cf. Weber 1948, 77–128). (A noble vocation? How undemocratic can you get?) I try to show why the impact of concentrated coercive power upon individual human life chances should vary so sharply from time to time and place to place. More immediately and pressingly I try to make clear why the politics of such a large proportion of states should have shifted so drastically to the right (in practice, if not necessarily in explicit political preference) over the last quarter of the twentieth century, and what that shift is likely to mean for the politics of the next few decades.

Whom can you trust to tell you the answers to these questions? (People who share your taste in political outcomes? People who plainly do not care what the outcomes are?) Why should you trust them, and not trust others who answer them very differently?

Why is politics so consistently disappointing? Why does it repeatedly nourish such high hopes, and why does it virtually never realize them.? Few factors have more causal force in politics (do more to determine what in fact occurs) than how well we understand what we are doing. Disappointment is a mixture of dismay and surprise. If we understood politics better we would certainly be less surprised by its outcomes, as well as surprised much less often.

This would be partly because we had greater expectations of being dismayed by them (less readily anticipated that they would come out just as we wished). Replacing disappointment with dismay, a perspective of eager anticipation by one of chastened retrospection, would not be gratifying in itself. My claim is just that only this shift in attitude would place us as well as we can be placed to secure the outcomes we want.

All human action lies under the shadow of prospective regret. But there are few, if any, domains of our acting over which that shadow fells so darkly as it does over the huge, and ever more drastically consequential, field of politics. What this book aims to show is why this should be so and what it means. (What it means? Well, let us say: what it meant for our parents and grandparents, what it has meant for you and me, what it is likely to mean for our children and children’s children, and how we should see all three of these together.) You could think of it as a book about the inevitability of disappointment. But I prefer myself to think of it as a book about how (and how not) to hope.

It is not a book for advanced students in particular (though I hope that many of them may get something from it). But it very much is a book for those who read books. It asks to be read as a whole, and is most likely to prove instructive to those who do so read it. It presumes its readers to be intelligent and potentially interested, and trusts that they will prefer to be addressed as such (as a serious newspaper might). But it tries to avoid presuming anything much in the way of prior knowledge about politics. It makes bold claims, and seldom lingers to give adequate reasons for regarding most of them as valid. (It has a long way to go, and travels as fast as it dares. It hopes to blaze a trail, not to lay down a road.) But it does also try throughout to show an incredulous reader where she (or he) can turn to see just why I believe its claims to be valid. Few of the arguments which it advances are particularly original. But the relations which it tries to bring out between them are at times comparatively novel. It is here, if anywhere, that its capacity to illuminate lies: in the whole, not in the dismembered parts.

I have written it very much on my own. So its failures and follies are no one’s but mine. But in writing it I have drawn wholesale and ruthlessly on what I have been taught, both as student and as teacher, in the three and a half decades which I have spent in the still great University to which I have the honour, the privilege and the more intermittent pleasure to belong. Any merits it has are mainly borrowed, not earned.

I am grateful to the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy for the term of research leave in 1998 which made it possible for me to finish this book, to the University of Cambridge for the sabbatical leave which made it possible for me to begin it, and to my colleagues in the Department of Social and Political Sciences for the many burdens which they shouldered while I was doing so. I should like to express my warm thanks to Frank Kermode for inviting me to write it in the first place, to Stuart Proffitt, Philip Gwyn Jones and Toby Mundy at HarperCollins at earlier stages, to Georgina Laycock and Michael Fishwick for all their kindness, encouragement and help in ushering it at long last into the world, and to Peter James for his exemplary patience, skill, tact and taste in handling a very trying manuscript. I must also apologize one last time to Ruth, Charty and Polly for all that it has cost them. I can only hope that in some ways, in the end, it will have been worth it.


King’s College, Cambridge

July 1999


Starting Out

Defining the Task

What would I have to understand to be confident that I really understood politics?


My first need would be to be sure that I knew what politics is: what it is that I was trying to understand. This is considerably harder than you might at first suppose. Beyond a certain degree of assurance, indeed, it is simply impossible. Any of us, if we bother to, can form reasonable beliefs about what politics is or isn’t. But none of us can literally know what politics is. What stops us from knowing is the fact that the beliefs which seem reasonable to human beings about what politics really is, and about why it is as it is, have always differed very widely. As far as we can now tell, they will always continue to differ: perhaps, in the end, less widely than a thousand years ago, but perhaps, also, still more widely as the centuries go by. Some have recently been confident that they are bound to differ less widely in the centuries to come (Fukuyama 1992). Some have been equally confident that they will continue to differ at least as much more or less indefinitely (Huntington 1997; Gray 1998). But each, on the most preliminary inspection, is clearly just guessing.

We can criticize one another’s beliefs about these questions, and learn to do so quite effectively. But none of us can sanely hope to replace most of other people’s beliefs on this score with a plainly superior set of our very own. Political understanding modifies and sometimes amends the understanding of others; but it never simply supplants it. However clear-headed and well-informed we may learn to be, and however confident we may become, none of our understandings of politics will ever be more than one small voice in dialogue with an immense range of other voices. To be sure, we can often hear ourselves exceedingly well, but that is largely because we are so ill placed (and perhaps also in many cases so disinclined) to listen accurately to anyone else.


My second need would be a clear and accurate view of why any such field of activity as politics existed at all. What is it about humans, or about their present situation, which ensures that none of them today can ever fully escape politics? Does politics come from what they always necessarily are? Does it come merely from how they now happen to be, and might soon or eventually cease to be? Or does it come not from inside each of them (from their own minds or bodies), but from outside them (from the ways in which their human predecessors have shaped and reshaped their world over time, or from the cumulative impact of those reshapings on the minds and bodies of the present generation)? If it comes from all three, which parts of it come from which?


Why should we think of politics as an activity? Because human action is the centre of politics – its core, what makes it itself and not some other field of human experience (love, suffering, laughter). Politics can be moving. (It can elicit passion and even deserve devotion.) It is often weighed down with suffering. It is usually more than a little absurd. But passion, ludicrousness, even misery, are never the key to politics.

That key is always how human beings see their world (above all, the role and significance of one another in making it what it is), and how they choose to try to master it, to bend it to their wills. How they judge, and how those judgments impel them to act. Often, perhaps on careful examination always, mastering it1 includes, and perhaps principally requires, subduing, eluding, persuading or enlightening one another.

Politics is an endless and highly unstable round of struggle and quest for understanding. None of us can ever be certain how obstinacy in struggle and effort to understand are balanced, within it or within ourselves, at any particular moment, and how far one is tipping decisively into the other. Because professional politics and routine political awareness are often banal and callow, and because most human beings have their pride and seek out occasions for feeling superior, all of us are permanently tempted to assume that we ourselves (unlike all too many of our acquaintances) understand politics at least as well as we have any good reason to bother to and that, insofar as we don’t, this is essentially because we have chosen not to, and done so for pretty respectable reasons. One of the main things which I hope to show is why this is extremely unlikely to be true for any of us.


Why should we think of politics as a field? It is always the external setting of human action, the constraints this imposes and the opportunities which it opens up, which dominates human action. It is this setting which frames it, gives it much of its meaning, summons up its energies and challenges it to do its best or worst. And as of human action in general, so too of politics, our actions towards one another on the largest possible scale and over the great issues of life and death, prosperity and indigence, even more conspicuously and peremptorily.


My third need would be to see just why politics has come to take the distinctive forms which it has today, and to judge, more tentatively, how these forms are likely to alter, either in shape or in meaning, in the reasonably near future (the modest horizon of comprehension of the prospective outcomes of their own future interaction with one another which is open to human beings). Note, again, the centrality of action, and the key significance of the unintended consequences of past human actions for the prospects for human agents in the present and the future.


In the course of human history, the faltering and patchy memory of our species’ progress through time, an immense range of answers has been given to each of these three questions (cf. Dunn 1996(a)). To be quite certain that we really understood politics, we might need to know all of these answers, and to see how far each was or was not valid. To assume that we do not need to know most of them is to assume at least that none of these contain elements which are distinctive, valid and of any real depth. And how, without even knowing what they are, could we reasonably be confident of this?

For most of the last two or three hundred years many European thinkers have assumed that all they needed to know was which answer was valid and what that answer was, since the rest of human belief on such matters could safely be consigned to the rubbish bin of history. More sporadically, of course, much the same assumption has been made by rather smaller numbers of thinkers over a far longer span of time and in societies scattered throughout the world. Today, for the most part, we have lost this confidence. In the main we are quite right to have done so. Modesty is more prepossessing than arrogance; and overwhelmingly rational modesty is more reasonable than preposterous arrogance. But even though modesty is an epistemic virtue (an aid in knowing), it is emphatically not enough. Extreme modesty in cognitive pretension (in the scope of what we claim to be able to know) is quite compatible both with utter confusion and with the abandonment of the slightest attempt to understand most of what we need to understand. More maliciously, it is equally compatible with abandoning the attempt to understand anything more exacting or useful than how to quarrel deftly and intimidatingly with one another in public (or private). Compare Thomas Hobbes’s savage account of the pleasures of fellow citizenship in his great book De Cive (Hobbes 1983), eminently applicable to the experience of any working academic.

The Academy, the Republic of Letters, even the day-to-day and very ordinary citizenry of the modern republic (or constitutional monarchy) need a more responsible and less self-indulgent approach than this (Fontana (ed.) 1994; Dunn 1990; Dunn (ed.) 1992), That is to say, we – you and I – need a more responsible and less self-indulgent approach than this.

If the key to politics really is how human beings see their world and how they try to bend this to their wills, it is vital to judge how far they see that world accurately and how far the ways in which they wish to alter it are ways in which it can in practice be altered. Insofar as they fail to see it accurately, they can scarcely hope to understand what they are doing; and they are exceedingly unlikely to alter it even broadly as they wish. Today we are pretty confident that the line between true and false beliefs about politics is not a clear and bright one, and that there is no single authoritative site, no privileged human, or supra-human but humanly accessible, vantage point from, which it can be identified decisively or once and for all. (Even those, like the Iranian ulama or perhaps the Supreme Pontiff, who reject the first premiss, appear in practice now to accept the second.) Only utter confusion, however, could possibly lead us to believe that there is no distinction between true and false beliefs about politics (Dworkin 1996), or that false beliefs about politics will not, in most instances and over enough time, do great harm to their human believers or others whom they affect. (But compare Elster 1975, 48–64, with Plato 1930–5.) This is discouraging, since the most casual inspection of politics in action, or the most desultory attention to most people’s political beliefs, shows at once that a very large proportion of political beliefs are predominantly false. Dispiriting or not, however, one thing which this could not reasonably discourage is the attempt to understand politics better.

In this book, I consider in turn the three themes which we most need to understand, if we are to learn to understand modern politics, the politics of our own day and of the epoch which lies just ahead of us, better than we yet do. Of these, the first is deceptively simple. What politics is, you might think, must surely be either obvious or else essentially trivial, a matter for more or less arbitrary definition. It is a term which we can look up in a dictionary, and for which we can, if we wish, trustingly take the dictionary’s direction. Or, if we are less trusting, we can write our own dictionary entry instead, taking care that the latter responds fully to our own impeccable reasons for viewing politics as we do. Neither of these two approaches, however, has the slightest chance of providing us with the sort of dependable control which we need. If we do not know what politics is we cannot even know what we are talking about or trying to understand. If we incorporate the full range of other people’s usage of the term (even within our own natural language community: English, French, Korean, Hindi), we merely reproduce in our own understanding all the confusions and equivocations in their understandings. If, instead, we purge their understandings ruthlessly and rely firmly on our own, we beg the question of whether we ourselves really do understand what we are talking about, and do so at the most disabling of levels: the level at which we decide what we will even bother to consider.


There may be a real dilemma here: a choice between two profoundly unenviable alternatives, which at the same time appears to exclude the possibility of any other option. By the end of the book I hope that you will be better placed to judge for yourselves how far this is indeed a dilemma, and, insofar as it is, how far its two horns are accurately described. My own view, for what it is worth, is that it is not a real dilemma, since the most prudent way to proceed is to adopt both approaches resolutely, alternating the vantage points which they provide, and interrogating ourselves sternly throughout on the imaginative opportunity costs of the strategies of understanding which we find enticing. We can only see through our own eyes; but it is merely stupid to suppose that any of us will not still have almost everything to learn about politics up to the time that we die.

For the moment we must simply register the imaginative discomfort and the sense of external intellectual constraint of this potential dilemma, because each has strong implications for the strategies of understanding which it can make sense for us to pursue. What they preclude, we must notice at once, is the sort of confident allegation about what politics really is and why it occurs at all with which didactic accounts of it, Introductions to Politics, Introductions to Political Science, often begin.

Consider, for example, the initial formulae from a pair of recent British textbooks. ‘The term “Politics” is used to describe the process through which individual and collective decisions are made’ (Selby 1995, I). ‘People are social beings. They choose to live together in groups. Because people live together in groups, there is a need to make decisions . . . The study of Politics is the study of how such decisions are made. It may also be the study of how such decisions should be made’ (Bentley, Dobson, Grant and Roberts 1995, 2). Neither of these, we can be sure, was intended to be controversial. Yet each contains quite surprising judgments.

In Selby’s case, if there is a clear contrast between individual and collective decisions, it is surely that the former are taken by single individuals and not infrequently for single individuals. With many of the decisions which you or I take for ourselves it is most unlikely that we think of the process of deciding (however protracted) as an instance of politics. (Is it to be mangoes or strawberries? Shall I wear my jeans?) Sometimes we may be badly wrong in thinking as we do. But surely not always.

Bentley and his associates introduce their readers to British politics with a more elaborate and ambitious train of thought. But they too make at least one striking assumption: that the group character of human life which occasions the need for collective decisions is a product of choice. No doubt there is some sense in which this is true. Most individual human beings could probably live in a far more solitary manner than they do, if only they wished to with sufficient intensity. But it is certainly not true that they could all (the populations of Greater Tokyo, Mexico City, London, Bangkok, Beijing and so on) still simultaneously live in a far more solitary manner. Geography, the history of technology and the population history of the world, taken together, by now just preclude this. It is not a plausible description for most of us even by late adolescence that the groups in which we in fact live are ones which we have chosen for ourselves. More importantly still it is never true for any modern population for more than a fleeting moment that the sovereign political units in which they live are ones which most of them have chosen (Dunn 1997).

Consider now a series of bolder allegations, in some cases plainly intended to provoke controversy. Politics, Max Weber assures us, ‘comprises any kind of independent leadership’ (Weber 1948, 77). Politics, says Isaac D’Israeli, has been misdefined as ‘the art of governing mankind by deceiving them’ (quoted in Crick 1964, 16). What it should be seen as, Bernard Crick himself insists, is neither:

a set of fixed principles to be realized in the near future, nor yet . . . a set of traditional habits to be preserved, but . . . an activity, a sociological activity which has the anthropological function of preserving a community grown too complicated for either tradition alone or pure arbitrary rule to preserve it without the undue use of coercion. (Crick 1964, 24)

This is less clear or economical than the definition which D’Israeli rejects (what exactly is a sociological activity? What is an unsociological activity?); but it is also considerably more appreciative.

Compare, again, the more astringent viewpoint of the German Carl Schmitt, writing under the Weimar Republic: ‘The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much the more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend–enemy grouping’ (Schmitt 1996, 29). ‘The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy’ (Schmitt 1996, 26). Contrast this, in turn, with the list of eight possible ingredients of the idea of politics set out more ponderously by the American political theorist William Connolly in his widely used study The Terms of Political Discourse. The first six, in brusque summary, are (1) policies backed by the legally binding authority of government, (2) actions involving a choice between viable options, (3) the considerations invoked by participants in selecting options, (4) the impact of the choices on the interests, wishes or values of segments of the population, (5) the extent to which the outcomes of the decisions are intended by or known to those who make them, (6) the numbers affected by the decisions and the duration of their effects (Connolly 1974, 12–13). By politics these writers plainly mean many different things. The more urgent their reasons for selecting their preferred emphases, the less inclined they are likely to prove to defer to one another’s habitual usage. Why should you be any more inclined to do so?

How, then, can I have the gall to assure you that human action is the centre of politics: a far from, self-evident claim, and in the view of many not even a valid one?

I do so simply to encourage you to start thinking for yourselves, certainly not as an intellectual promissory note, a guarantee that you would be well advised to take the claim on trust.



On Sale
Jan 6, 2008
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

John Dunn

About the Author

John Dunn is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Cambridge.

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