John Keane | Keeping Tabs on Power
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Keeping Tabs on Power

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An interview with John Keane, from CSD Bulletin Volume 7 No. 1, Winter 1999-2000

The following interview, originally conducted for the CSD Bulletin Volume 7 No. 1, Winter 1999-2000 , provides an introduction to John Keane’s life and writings.)

By Patrick Burke and Jim Melly

How did you become interested in political theory?

The old maxim that political thinking is best stimulated by crises certainly applies to me. As a teenager, I had had a science background: I wanted to be either a geologist or a meteorologist. But in my first year at university – in Adelaide – I was drafted to fight in Vietnam. I watched all Australia go into a paroxysm of bitter dispute about the war, dragging me into a personal, family, and political crisis, and forcing me for the first time to think politically.

I battled against the draft, was rewarded with a fine for refusing to attend medicals and threatened with prison, and helped the successful campaign to elect the ill-fated Whitlam government. So I became a 1968 radical, with a difference: thanks to having grown up in a household strongly under the influence of a father who drowned his sorrows in protest against the British Empire and a mother who encouraged me to learn the arts of moral reasoning in Dissenting Protestant chapels, I became suspicious of consensus, mistrustful of the powerful, and sympathetic to the recognition of differences – in Australia this is called giving someone a ‘fair go’.

How did you end up as a political theorist working in a university?

After winning a doctoral fellowship to work with C. B. Macpherson in Toronto, my vocation as a political thinker was chosen. Not only was Macpherson a hotline to Harold Laski, G. D. H. Cole, and other English liberal socialists, but it was in Toronto – where I attended lectures by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s student – that I became really interested in writing about the recovery by German thinkers – from Max Weber to Jürgen Habermas – of the ideal of the public sphere. That was the dissertation topic that Macpherson agreed to supervise, and thereafter – with his quiet support and my passion for the subject – I couldn’t give up political theory. Of course, when looking back at this period, I can see that this vocation was possible because the expanding university system in Britain and elsewhere meant there were job vacancies for political theorists. Today, the situation is depressingly different. There are few jobs and I worry a great deal about the future of the bright, young PhD candidates with whom I have contact. Staff are demoralized, there are few jobs, the pay is lousy, money is tight, and teaching loads are heavy. It almost seems pointless to keep alive something that is – despite everything – intellectually indispensable.
Apart from the academic influences, and Vietnam, who or what else has influenced your thinking?

Haunting childhood memories of open-air atomic testing a few hundred kilometres from the farm where I grew up. The assassination of Jack Kennedy. Meeting Don Bradman, who was a family friend. Hearing ‘Route 66′, live. Spending a year in America when I was sixteen. Feeling ashamed when confronted for the first time by militant aboriginals. The Prague Spring. Publishing my first student newspaper article, called (inauspiciously) ‘Strawberries, Cream and Democracy’. Travelling to Jogjakarta to learn Indonesian. Admiring Germaine Greer. Winning a fellowship to go to Cambridge, a place which sometimes made me feel like a wild colonial boy. Arriving at PCL, to teach in the spirit of Quintin Hogg , with pleasure. Relearning to see the world through the eyes of children. . . I could go on.

So what is the point of political theory?

No single definition of political theory should prevail. For my taste, political theory should aim to nurture public discourse about concepts, themes, principles that are more or less controversial, and to do so by means of the book, the internet, radio, television, lectures, and public debates. Political theorists should be exemplary public intellectuals. Political theory, if it has a future, must wriggle out of its academic cocoon. It should face up to its public responsibilities, and to do so with probity. It has to ask difficult questions to which there are few or no available answers. Political theory should also help us develop eyes in the backs of our heads – to cultivate memories that make us more sensitive to the present and the future. And it should cultivate humility – the elixir of democracy – by defending re-worked versions of the old ideals of freedom, equality, solidarity, and difference. I’m a defender of pluralism, and I mean this in its most radical sense, which includes overturning settled conventions and prejudices, large and small. I often get called a leftist for this conviction, but tough: a native dislike of ideology ought to be one of the central concerns of any political thinker.
Naturally, it would be arrogant to suppose that the qualities of nurturing controversy, developing future-oriented memories, cultivating humility, and calling for equality, freedom, solidarity, and difference are somehow the monopoly of political philosophers. They aren’t. These same qualities are shared with other public actors, including journalists, novelists, and civic activists who rightly worry about such matters as biogenetics, violence, and masculine privilege. But, despite all that has happened, there are still facilities and resources within the university which make it a good place within which to keep alive and enrich traditions of political thinking. My visions for CSD match this view. We have a building, some free time, and a stated public commitment to educate, to enrich others intellectually. CSD is like an under-resourced leaky boat, but it hasn’t yet sunk in the waters of market competition and government manipulation. It’s not likely to, and so we should use it for the highest possible ends.

What impact do you think your own interventions in public debates have had? For example, your first two civil society books, Democracy and Civil Society, and Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives?

Others will decide that. For me, these books were foundational. They helped make sense of work I had done earlier, and, like signposts in unfamiliar territory, they set me on a definite trajectory. So those books contain themes that are now familiar to anyone who knows my work: the need to reduce violence in human affairs; the political benefits of smaller, networked associations; a cosmopolitan suspicion of territorial state power, especially in its barbaric and unaccountable forms; the desirability of civility in everyday life; and the fundamental importance of cultivating public spheres as democratic instruments of power-sharing and of keeping power humble. When writing these books I became convinced that the old eighteenth-century distinction between state and civil society deserved a comeback, that it was important as a way of making empirical and normative sense of contemporary politics in all four corners of the earth. My Civil Society: Old Images, New Perspectives repeats this point. It tries to spell out, for instance, how the globalization of investment, the state-enforced flexibilization of economies, and the ravages of market forces can and must be counterbalanced not only by new forms of publicly accountable government, but also by the cultivation of a rich plurality of densely networked civil associations.
Standing behind such arguments is a long-standing concern with the subject of power, power-grabbing and power-sharing. The concept of power is, of course, central in the study of politics and international relations, as I learned from my first-ever essay at university. I defended the old-fashioned principle of a power-monitoring second chamber, and was marked down for that by a tutor who was a card-carrying unicameralist supporter of the Labour Party. I didn’t give up easily. Indeed, the books on civil society could be seen as an extended personal reply to that tutor. The books are foundational in another sense: they focused my thinking, my writing, and my politics on the ancient problem of hubris, the ambitious desire to have more than one’s share of power, a desire that inevitably produces bad effects. As I see it, the global renaissance of interest in civil society has a lot to do with the problem of unaccountable, overextended power which – especially in the twentieth century – has committed unprecedented, terrible crimes. Those crimes should remind us of the lessons about hubris first formulated by classical Greek thinkers and historians like Herodotus and Thucydides. Here’s their problem: given the tendency in the world of politics towards hubris, how, if at all, can its disastrous effects be overcome? In other words, can human beings find ways of organizing power that would release us from the permanent dangers of corruption, bossing, and bullying? Or is there no cure for hubris? Is life, as Hobbes thought, nothing more than an endless struggle for power that comes to rest only at the point of death? Or perhaps, as Heidegger thought, only divine intervention can rescue us from our own hubris?
I’m not absolutely certain how to reply to such questions. The books we’ve mentioned provide one possible answer. They propose better institutions for publicly monitoring and apportioning power so that those who exercize power, whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, learn – as Spinoza put it – that they cannot make a table eat grass.

What response has this line of argument engendered?

Bitter attacks are often the best indicators of a book’s influence. I’ve certainly had my fair share. Since the publication of the first two civil society books I’ve been called everything under the sun. The Yugoslav League of Communists once accused me of being a bourgeois apologist. Old Labour supporters in Britain – in the Thatcher period – called me a left-wing Thatcherite. I’ve been described as a liberal intellectual featherweight, a socialist, a Germanophile, a cosmopolitan, a fellow-travelling Islamist. And I’ve been accused of being an anarcho-Foucauldian, or simply an anarchist.
The name-calling is understandable since what I’ve tried to do in my various books is to contribute to the regridding of the left-right distinction. As I explained in an essay on Norberto Bobbio, the historic division between left and right, which sprang up in the period between the American and French revolutions, ran aground, for a variety of reasons, during the twentieth century. I still think that it’s desirable to perceive the distinction, especially because, normatively speaking, every body politic needs to remind itself that it contains legitimate divisions. But, taking up clues left by Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil – among others – I have come to think that our map of political divisions needs radically to be altered. Certain dramatic events in twentieth-century Europe – total war, the Gulag archipelago, fascism – require it. So in the civil society books I tried to develop a basic political division, identifiable in any context on earth, between those – I call them the Right – who favour the concentration of various forms of power and resources, and those – the Left – who, instead, favour the pluralisation, the rendering publicly unaccountable, the deconcentration, and the public monitoring of power. I admit that this distinction is unorthodox. It is unusual to say that the Left is a synonym for the democratic fight for greater democracy. But I stick to it, which perhaps explains why when I’m in the company of those who think of themselves as right-wing I sometimes get called a left-winger; and why, conversely, when I’m with left-wingers I’m sometimes called a right-winger.

What first aroused your interest in Central-East European thinkers?

Three developments made me aware of life behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ and got me interested in its philosophical and political dynamics. One was the re-birth of the peace movement in Britain at the end of the 1970s. In the view of Edward Thompson, the movement’s best public intellectual – whose work I followed closely – it was the largest social movement since Chartism. Its public criticism of the proposed deployment of cruise, Pershing, and SS-20 missiles, as Thompson spotted, had implications for the other half of Europe. It wasn’t possible to stop the deployments unless the geopolitical division of Europe was questioned. This argument, codified in the famous END Appeal of 1980, led me to become something of an anthropologist of life on the other side of the curtain. For the first time, I read systematically, in whatever languages I could, the works of Adam Michnik, György Konrád, Jan Patocka, Václav Havel, and others. I made many friends there and, naturally, I sympathized with initiatives such as Charter 77. My sympathy for socialism correspondingly waned.
The second development was the rise of Thatcherism, and its pro-market attacks on statism in its Western and Eastern forms. From the mid-1970s, I thought that this extraordinarily successful renewal of some old-fashioned ideas in the European tradition – the protest against statism, the belief in the individual and the culture of possessive individualism, the fetish of market forces – was of historic significance. It spelled doom for both the Brezhnevite, late-socialist regimes of the East and for the Keynesian welfare state in the West. Then, finally, there was my personal involvement in the parallel, or ‘Flying’, university in Czechoslovakia. This involved travelling to places like Brno and Prague, in cops ‘n’ robbers conditions, to give lectures and lead apartment seminars. It was a risky activity, and it changed my thinking considerably. There, somewhere in the triangle stretching from Warsaw to Ljubljana and then to decadent West Berlin – where I spent a happy semester in the early 1980s – I and many others learned to speak the language of civil society. Subsequently, it has become, against considerable odds, a global language that has as much purchase in Djakarta, Tehran and Taipei as it has among intellectuals, journalists, and governmental figures in Prague, Paris and Lisbon.

What were you hoping to achieve with the Havel book?

I set out to write a book that dealt with the subject of power in fresh ways, a book that might someday even be compared favourably with Machiavelli’s The Prince or Hobbes’s Leviathan. Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts won’t be so compared, but I’d like others to think of it as a manual for democrats. It probes the absurdities of dictatorial and totalitarian power, and it ponders the difficulty of creating and consolidating a democratic alternative. The book expresses my philosophical conviction that the lust for power is perennial, that it is therefore always in need of public monitoring and control.
Like my earlier study of Thomas Paine, the Havel book experiments with the art of being a public intellectual by writing differently about politics. Of course, there are other legitimate ways of practising the art of political writing: for instance, book reviews and standard RAE-type academic books and journal articles; and preparing conference lectures. And I’m aware that biography is often criticized as a poor relation of history, literature, philosophy, and political science. I nevertheless chose the biography form for several reasons. Partly, it has the advantage of using the rivetting qualities of the individual who is under the microscope to ‘hook’ a readership outside the university. Individual lives are somehow more publicly attractive than talk of discourses, truth, classes, nations, legislatures, or globalization. Also, the form of biography is undergoing a rather interesting long-term transition. There is, of course, a standard form of biography, with which I don’t feel comfortable. Narrating one damned fact after another, its so-called comprehensiveness is tedious – and philosophically blind to the way its plot structures colour the ‘facts’. Standard biography tends to be conservative. It has comforting role for readers, who plough through someone’s life from pedigree to grave.
I’m trying to redefine biography, which, despite all its weaknesses, has the advantage of protecting the dead, especially the losers, against the condescension of posterity. If democracy among the living requires democracy among the dead then one of the advantages of biography is that it helps to resurrect in words the life and times of individuals who are already dead, or soon will be, thereby granting them some measure of immortality.
Ever since Lytton Strachey’s spirited attack on Victorian biography, biography has also become a medium for questioning the self-perception of famous individuals, and what others foolishly say about these individuals. At its best, biography is wonderfully iconoclastic. It can prick the backsides of the powerful. It can help overcome hubris by refusing nonsense, and by scaling down the pompous – by saying things that, in a small way, help to shake the world and stop it falling asleep.

(This interview, originally conducted for the CSD Bulletin Volume 7 No. 1, Winter 1999-2000 , provides an introduction to John Keane’s life and writings.)