Society

In this accessible contribution to the burgeoning literature on democracy’s travails and what to do about them, Jan-Werner Müller makes a case for hard borders and fundamental principles. These are not the hard borders desired by authoritarian leaders. Instead, Müller asks us to go back to basics (he uses the concept riduzione verso il principo) to establish some hard borders in our understanding – and hence practice – of democracy. Those borders should be drawn around the fundamental democratic principles of uncertainty and equality. At its most basic, this is a call to reimagine and reinvest in the intermediary institutions of representative democracy – particularly parties and autonomous media – to restore the infrastructure of democratic politics in the developed world.

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In 1995, a new online marketplace called Amazon sent out its first press release, with its thirty-one-year-old founder, Jeff Bezos, proclaiming: ‘We are able to offer more items for sale than any retailer in history, thanks entirely to the Internet.’ Nearly three decades later – Amazon having steroidally expanded from a book retailer to a multinational hydra of e-commerce, cloud storage, and digital streaming – this is no longer hyperbole. The company absorbs at least half of America’s online spending, and nearly 150 million US citizens subscribe to Amazon Prime, roughly the same number that voted in the recent presidential election. In 2020, while the pandemic crippled most industries, Amazon’s net profit swelled by eighty-four per cent. Today, Jeff Bezos is valued at US$200 billion – approximately the value of New Zealand’s GDP.

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Censorship is to culture what war is to demography: it creates absence where presence should be. Christopher Hilliard’s fascinating and deeply informed monograph on the politics of censorship in Britain (and by extension its colonies) from the 1850s to the 1980s is concerned with the many books, magazines, and films that fell afoul of the authorities, from translations of Zola in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act 1857 to the skin mags of the 1970s.

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Judith Brett, historian and La Trobe University emeritus professor of politics, is characteristically direct – in her questioning, her analysis, and her engagement with readers. If there is something declarative about ‘Going Public’, the title of Doing Politics’s introductory chapter, that is exactly what Brett intends: to go public, to offer a general reader her considered reflections on Australian political and cultural life. This is not an assemblage of opinion pieces, though her writings have a related journalistic conciseness and impact – they speak to the times. What distinguishes Brett’s collection of essays is their scholarly depth and habit of enquiry. They prompt thought before they invite agreement, or conclusions. Even the bad actors, the political obstructors, the wreckers in Brett’s political analysis, are psychologically intriguing. Why are our politicians like this? What’s going on? Judith Brett studied literature and philosophy as well as politics as an undergraduate. Perhaps Hamlet drills away in her consciousness: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

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After Lockdown: A metamorphosis by Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose

by
December 2021, no. 438

Bruno Latour’s new book, After Lockdown: A metamorphosis, is so engaging from the first that one feels obliged to begin just where he does: with an arresting portrait of a man who wakes from a long sleep to find that everything, save the moon and its indifferent rotations, makes him uneasy. Everywhere he sees reminders of the lost innocence of the Anthropocene. The sun brings to mind global warming; the trees, deforestation; the rain, drought. Nothing in the landscape offers solace. Pollution has left its mark everywhere, and he feels vaguely responsible for it all. And now, to top it off, the very breath that sustains his life carries the risk of premature death. How many of his neighbours might he infect (or be infected by) amid the vapour trails of his evening walk? Nature, it seems, is having its revenge, and the ‘in-out-in’ of lockdown threatens to become interminable.

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In 2016, New York Times correspondent Damien Cave moved his young family to Sydney to establish a foreign bureau for the newspaper. As he writes in his new book, Into the Rip, the experience has been transformational, teaching him among other things that ‘None of us is trapped within the nation we come from or the values we picked up along the way’. Despite political and economic alliances, Australia and the United States are not clones of each other, and in many ways Australia proves ‘the healthier model’ for a society. Cave learned these life lessons, he reports, through ‘the combination of fear, nature and community spirit’.

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Reading Richard Flanagan’s searing allegory The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) and Delia Falconer’s new non-fiction book, Signs and Wonders: Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss, in rapid succession was a surreal, slightly unmooring experience. Both authors lucidly capture the dreamlike state of disbelief and horrified fury with which we’ve watched the world slide terribly into the 2020s. Both are part of an outpouring of new language, new stories, new ways of expressing our reactions to the barely imaginable scale of realities we can no longer ignore: fire columns that remind NASA of dragons; a pandemic that conjures news scenes we had thought the province of cinema. As our poor human cognition struggles to catch up, scientists become poets, novelists become scientists.

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In The Aristocracy of Talent, Adrian Wooldridge cites the Chinese civil service exams as a forerunner of the modern world. Early European visitors observed the examination halls scattered across China, with throngs of men young and old cramming as each three-year cycle of exams approached, the glittering careers in government awaiting the lucky few, the consolation prizes as a local scribe or teacher awaiting the many who failed. Children would start studying at the age of six for the chance to pass a local exam and go to the provincial centre for the national papers. Estimates suggest that two and a half million Chinese men sat each round of exams, in carefully invigilated centres across the empire. For the successful, further exams determined promotion through the ranks to the very highest offices.

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Were you one of those reluctant mathematics students who complained, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ If so, rest assured: Michael Brooks has made a compelling case for the role mathematics has played in making ‘civilisation’ possible. If you still need convincing, he also discusses research suggesting that doing maths is good for your brain.

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The proliferation of trauma writing in the past few years is a double-edged sword. While giving public voice to subjects once relegated to the dark lessens stigma and creates agency, there is almost an expectation for women writers to reveal or perform their trauma, as well as a risk of exploitation and retraumatisation.

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